Sunday, November 15, 2015

Praying When You Are Desperate

1 Samuel 1:1-20
Ordinary 33
November 15, 2015
William G. Carter

Life is not fair. You know that, and I know that.

The neighbor down the street has a perpetual smirk on his face. His kids have gotten into the best schools, scored top grades, and secured wonderful jobs. Whenever he stops to chat, he has to brag about how successful they are. He pauses, waits a few seconds, and asks, “So how are your underachievers doing?”

The lady in the front office has gotten all the good breaks. She is tall and good looking. Her speech sparkles with confidence. They keep moving her up the ladder. One day she sees you in the hallway and blurts out, “It’s been forever since I’ve seen you. Are you still a secretary? After all this time?”

A man holds the telephone in his hand. The caller on the other end has already hung up the line, but he is still stunned from the news. “Cancer,” they said. “It’s malignant.” Time is short. It just isn’t fair.

No, of course it isn’t. There has never been a promise that life dishes out equal servings of grace. So we can understand when Hannah says, “All I want is a child. Lord, is that too much to ask?”

The story we have heard is Hannah’s story. She steps onto the biblical stage and we know two things about her: she is one of the two wives of Elkanah, and she is barren. The other wife is Peninnah, and she has been having babies right and left. Hannah is unable to bear a child, and Peninnah keeps rubbing it in.

Hannah, it’s too bad you can’t bear as many children as me.
Hannah, the Lord has blessed me with plenty of kids; when will God bless you?
Hannah, it feels like another baby is about to come. Could you hold my other three babies?
Hannah, I’m running out of room in my nursery. Do you have some room to spare?

It begins as a comparison. It becomes a contest. In a long-ago land where children were seen as a blessing from God, here is a home with two wives – one is blessed with plenty of children, the other has none. And the blessed one scowls at the barren one and says, “What’s wrong with you?”

Hannah knows what you and I know: life is unfair. For some hidden reason, God doesn’t roll out a lump of cookie dough and then stamp everybody the same. There are differences and discrepancies. Some receive more, and that can be their burden. Others receive less, and it’s a different kind of burden.

What’s interesting about this story is the unfairness is exasperated when everybody goes to worship. Once a year, we’re told, the whole family goes up to the sanctuary at Shiloh. It was an important shrine, a central place of worship long before there was a temple in Jerusalem. Annually they go to Shiloh to thank God for their lives, to make offerings of well-being, to worship the Lord who brought them to the Promised Land and guided them with his Words.

That’s when Peninnah would hammer away at Hannah: “whenever they went up to the house of Lord” (1:7). It was not enough for Peninnah to chastise her housemate for her infertility. It sounds like she was trying to drive a wedge between Hannah and her God. And this went on, “year after year.”

Elkanah could see it. There’s no word that he ever said anything about it, but he could see it. And while we do not know if he ever told Peninnah to shush and be quiet, we know he treated Hannah to an extra portion of food because he loved her. He implored her, “Don’t weep! Have something to eat.” He countered Peninnah by showing kindness to Hannah. After she had something to eat, Hannah went to the sanctuary to pray.

When life has been unfair to you, do you ever bring that unfairness into your prayers? That’s one of the lessons here. Hannah will not wait until the sun is shining before she prays. She does not wait until her tears are dry. She does not pause if she gets a busy signal from heaven. No, she persists, and she lays out her complaint to God: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me . . .”

Can you hear what she is doing? She is complaining to God, because it is God who has been unfair. For her, this is not merely a household competition where the other wife is popping out more babies. No, it is a deep injustice where she feels scorned by her housemate because God is withholding a blessing from her. There is no reason for her to “pretty-up” her prayer. She looks toward heaven and says in her heart, “Don’t you forget me!”

I have a movie in my library called “The Apostle.” Robert Duvall plays a Pentecostal preacher who falls on hard times. His congregation doesn’t like him and his wife has taken up with the youth minister. He is bitterly angry, but one night he puts it into his prayer: “You’re my Lord and I’m your child, and you can’t treat me like this.” He unloads on God at the top of his lungs – it’s so loud, the neighbors call to say, “Can you turn it down?” He ignores them, because he’s not talking to them; he’s talking to God. He is not a polite Presbyterian.

Neither is Hannah in our story. She is sobbing, she is deeply distressed – and for some reason, she is offering her prayer silently. She directs her heart to God, not to anybody else. Her complaint is against God. Her argument is with God. She is not going to turn sideways and make a casualty out of innocent bystanders. She is going to take on the Lord directly - - and she knows that God can hear her.

Meanwhile, as this is going on, over here is the local priest, a man named Eli. In a chapter or two, the storyteller says Eli and his sons are corrupt and inept. They are bad news. And we get a glimpse of it here: Eli the priest can’t tell the difference between drunkenness and prayer – chew on that one for a few minutes, if you will. And he tries to shut her down – to him, it seems all wrong: there’s no incense, no ritual, and no need for a priest like him. She skips all the protocols, ignores the written prayers and set liturgy, all because she wants to address God directly.

As somebody notes,

Eli has never seen anything like it. In charge of keeping order in the sanctuary, authorized to guard and guide the religions life of the people, he sees her only as a bag lady, a drunk, and reprimands her, accusing her of violating the decorum of the sacred place of worship. But Hannah is not intimidated by religious authority. She will not be confined by precedent. She is more attentive to her heart than to the hierarchy. She dismisses his charges and asserts her right to pray in her own way by laying out the pain of her life before the Lord.[1]

It’s a daring prayer by a daring woman. Without a script, she prays her deepest longing. And all the old priest can say is, “Go in peace, may God grant your request.” He may not be very engaged with the spiritual life of this unusual woman, but at least he has the good sense to hand over the prayer to the God who can answer it. Life has been unfair to her, and she wants God to address it. Eli has to get out of the way.

One summer night, I was sitting on a porch swing at a family’s home. The crickets were chirping and we were making our own small talk, enjoying a balmy evening. There were three of us, a husband, wife, and me. Suddenly she blurted it out: “We want you to pray for us to have a child.” I gulped on my iced tea, her husband laughed nervously. I was going to make a joke about that being above my pay grade, but she was serious. Dead serious.

“The fact is,” she explained, “we’ve worked hard in our careers, and have everything else we could ever want, but I’ve been learning there are some things that only God can give you. No matter how hard we have tried, we haven’t yet been granted a child.”

Well, what’s a preacher to do? It was an awkward moment, but an honest one. So I stopped rocking on the swing, sat up straight, and said, “Why don’t we pray?” About ten months later, their first daughter was born. I can assure you that I had nothing to do with it. Was it a miracle? It was a miracle, the same way every child’s birth is a miracle. Was it an answer to prayer? Of course; some prayers are answered with a “yes,” some prayers are answered with a “no.” Beyond that, it is a mystery, and I’m OK with that.

What I will affirm, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that God heard the prayer, just as God hears every prayer. And in all the unbalances and unfairness in our lives, there is nothing more essential than telling God what is on our hearts and waiting for a response. In prayer, there is no assurance that we will get what we want – but there is the promise that we get something even better: we gain the presence of God. Prayer is entering the mystery of God, even when we haven’t received what we wanted.

Maybe that explains the most curious piece of today’s Bible story: that, after Hannah receives a child, then she offers him to God. The child she desires will not be hers – it will be God’s. Even before she receives an answer, she dedicates the answer to God’s purposes. So Hannah’s prayer is to bring a child into the world who will love God and serve God. With this, she sets an example for Mary, the mother of Jesus, who bursts into song just as Hannah does in the very next chapter. In a minute or so, we will sing the song that Hannah and Mary share.

Let me conclude this way. I don’t know what you have been praying for. I trust it’s something important, and I hope you keep at it. Whatever the challenges we face in this life, we bring them with us to the sanctuary. For it is here that we learn again and again that God takes us seriously. God invites us into the mystery of his holy presence, where we are welcomed and transformed. God grants us the gifts that will further his work in the world. You can count on it.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Eugene Peterson, 1 Samuel: Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press) p. 19.

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