Wax On, Wax Off

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When I taught freshman composition, I called one lesson, "Wax on, Wax off."

I reminded my students of the famous movie from the 1980s, The Karate Kid. Mr. Miyagi introduces Daniel to the mysteries of karate through apparently unrelated chores. He has him sand his wooden house, moving his right hand clockwise and his left counter-clockwise, in endless small circles. Then he asks him to wax his car, applying the wax with his right hand using the same clockwise circling motion, buffing the wax with his left hand in the opposite direction. "Wax on" with the right hand, "wax off" with the left.

Daniel, thinking he's only being used for meaningless chores, is storming off when Mr. Miyagi stands in his path and throws a punch at him from the right. The teenager instinctively blocks it with a counter-clockwise motion of his left hand. Miyagi throws a left. Daniel blocks it by circling his right hand, deflecting the blow to the side. "Wax on, wax off," has taught him the fundamentals of karate defense.

I promised my writing students that if they employed the "keyhole" form of the essay in the same mechanical, even mindless way that Daniel attended to waxing Mr. Miyagi's car, they would one day achieve such mastery of the form that they could improvise upon it endlessly.

Music is taught in the same way, with scales and finger-exercises. So are foreign languages and the most complicated techniques of sports: every Olympic gymnast's high-flying dismount contains a child's earthbound somersault.

The important lessons of the spiritual life are the same, with a mysterious kicker.

One of my favorite Bible stories has always been that of the young prophet Samuel receiving the word of the Lord for the first time (See 1 Samuel 3). Samuel is a young boy resting at night in the Temple where the lamp of God has not yet gone out. He hears the voice of God calling him, "Samuel!" Thinking that his master, the priest Eli, is calling, he runs to his bed.

Three times Samuel does this, until Eli, his head sufficiently cleared, understands that the word of the Lord is coming to young Samuel.

"So Eli told Samuel, ‘Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, 'Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.' So Samuel went and lay down in his place. The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, ‘Samuel! Samuel!' Then Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening'" (1 Samuel 3:9-10).

Why does the word of the Lord come to young Samuel? He runs to Eli three times, despite being nearly asleep, without hesitation. Obedience has become an ingrained habit.

Conversely, Eli has been warned that his own sons are being disobedient; they abuse their privilege of being fed from the temple sacrifices and have even been prostituting the women at the temple gate.

On this mysterious night, Samuel is not only called but entrusted with a mournful prophecy. Eli's line will be cut off from its priestly heritage and two of his sons—to underline that their misfortunes are the result of God's judgment—will die on the same day.

The simple habits of obedience that Samuel learns as a boy become the foundation of his prophetic vocation. They lead him as a man to confront King Saul time and again for his misdeeds and to anoint David as Israel's future king. That he would run as a child to do his master's bidding leads to a prophetic ministry in which he becomes the Lord's arbiter of power. That's the mysterious kicker. The Lord makes us fit for his future use in the seemingly small spiritual lessons that we learn as children or whenever we become willing. Habits of simple obedience become our prophetic destiny. We are prepared by present lessons, however small, for an unimaginable future.