I have been thinking a lot about prayer this week. Prayer is one of those parts of my life that is always a struggle. I have learned all sorts of methods of prayer over the years and have leaned on various methods when I needed certain kinds of guidance. But there are times when I can tell that my prayer life has gotten off track. One of the recurring questions that every spiritual director has asked me is, “Have you lifted this up to God in prayer?” I always hate when that question comes up, because inevitably the answer is no. I am the kind of person who will diligently work and struggle to figure something out or will bear pain alone for quite some time before the thought occurs to me to offer up my burden to God.
A video has been circulating on the internet lately called, “Coffee with Jesus.” In the video, a man meets Jesus for coffee, which is his prayer time. The video shows a two-minute montage of prayer requests, attempts to pray the Lord’s Prayer, and requests for superficial things, all the while with Jesus waiting patiently to speak. When the man finally stops talking and takes a breath, Jesus leans forward to speak. But before Jesus can start, the man cuts him off – closing his prayer with an abrupt “amen,” and running out of the coffee shop for his next appointment.[i] The video of this man’s superficial, wandering, disjointed prayer that makes no space for listening to God is both funny and painfully uncomfortable. The truth is that many of us resist deep, abiding prayer that is vulnerable and that cedes control to God. Only when we hit rock bottom do we finally come to God in authentic and meaningful prayer.
As we read Hannah’s story today, I wonder if Hannah did not have the same problem with God. Hannah is barren. Now if you remember, in biblical times, barrenness is a condition that excludes women from community. By not producing a child, not only is the woman seen as less than others, there are often accusations made about her sinfulness: barrenness was believed a form of divine punishment.[ii] So Hannah is cut off from society. Then Hannah has the great misfortune to have Peninnah as a co-wife. Now, co-wives were a given at that time, but this co-wife was the worst. As if Hannah’s shame and sadness were not enough, Peninnah taunts Hannah about her barrenness. Perhaps Peninnah treats Hannah horribly because she is jealous of her husband’s love for Hannah, but nothing excuses Peninnah’s behavior. Peninnah, mother of many children, flaunts her fertility in the cruelest way. Hannah’s husband, Elkanah, is not much better. He certainly tries to care for Hannah – he gives her a double portion for sacrifices, and he deeply desires to personally fill the void created from a lack of children. But Elkanah’s way of supporting Hannah only shows that he does not fully understand the experience of barrenness.[iii] And as if all of this was not enough, even Eli, the priest, is equally unsupportive. Eli sees her silent prayers in the temple, and he accuses her of drunkenness. With everyone in her life against her, we hardly have to imagine how Hannah ends up in the temple, deeply distressed and weeping bitterly.
What I wonder though is why Hannah takes so long to go to God. We do not hear of Hannah going earlier in life to God about her barrenness. We do not hear about Hannah going to God about Peninnah before years of taunting accumulate. We do not hear about Hannah going to God about her marriage. Instead she copes with tears and refusing to eat. I can almost imagine the spiritual director asking, “Have you taken any of this to God?” Hannah has to become completely overwhelmed before she finally cedes her utter devastation to God. Only when the burden is so overwhelming that she can no longer muscle the burden herself does she finally go to God.
We all follow the pattern of Hannah at some point in our lives. We have some strange notion of being so in control of our lives that we should only burden God once things have gotten out of control. We have all spent our prayer time without being truly, nakedly vulnerable with God. We refuse to cede control to God even when only the two of us are in the room. We are so stubborn with God – so guarded, so non-trusting, and so territorial. I am reminded of that ol’ time hymn, “What a friend we have in Jesus.” The hymn is all about our prayer life, but one line in particular says, “O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear, All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.”
Luckily God shows us all what can happen when we finally take everything to God. Hannah finally breaks down and gives her pain to God. She comes to God with the raw reality of pain. She is not afraid of what others will think of her prayers, even if they assume she is drunk. Hannah’s willingness to come before God, to give everything to God out of her utter isolation, results in the birth of Samuel. Samuel not only relieves Hannah’s burden, Samuel is a gift back to God, and a gift for the entire people of Israel. God’s blessing for Hannah is not just the fulfillment of a bargain. God acts through Hannah to offer promise for all God’s people. In fact, through Samuel, Israel’s first king, Saul, will be appointed. Israel will become great, and their great king, David will rise from a lowly shepherd boy to become their leader.[iv]
We understand the enormity of this action when we hear Hannah’s song that we read today in lieu of a psalm. Hannah’s song is only partially about her own personal victory. Hannah’s song is about the victory of God in the face of uncertainty. Hannah’s song illustrates how God acts in a way that totally upends the entire social order. “He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor,” proclaims Hannah. Samuel’s birth is not just for Hannah; Samuel’s birth is a promise for the entire people of God. We see in Hannah’s experience in prayer that when we finally do give everything to God in prayer, God’s response can be more immense than we could ever ask for or imagine.
Hannah’s story gives us several gifts this morning. First, Hannah reminds us of the joys of a rich prayer life with God. Hannah’s prayer life is not perfect, and neither will ours be, but when we dare to be fully vulnerable with God in prayer, Hannah shows us the abundant blessings that await. Second, Hannah reminds us that God responds to us. We may not hear a booming voice from above that tells us the right thing to do or we may not receive an email confirmation that our request has been received, but God does respond to us in tangible ways. The answer may not be what we want to hear, but God will respond to us in a way that offers us comfort. Finally, Hannah reminds us of the dramatic ways that God is acting in the world around us, even when those needs are the furthest from our minds. Hannah did not ask God to subvert the social order, but in God’s action to restore Hannah to fertility, God manages to do so much more by restoring all the people of God through the birth of Samuel.[v] Our invitation today is to follow Hannah’s lead, to let down our guard with God, and to marvel at the wonderful deeds that God has done. Amen.
[ii] Frank M. Yamada, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 291.
[iii] Martin B. Copenhaver, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 292.
[iv] Kate Foster Connors, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 298.