Where I Was
Hannah’s struggle was real. She had a problem and she saw it through the lens of her world. In her day, her value was in producing a child. That’s not how we see the world today, but our problems would seem just as foreign to her as hers does to us. Whether her problem or our problems, her simplistic-sounding solution might just work. She turned to God. We can turn to God with our problems too.
That doesn’t mean God will intervene and work things out the way we hope or manipulate the situation. It means we have a partner in our approach to the complex issues we encounter. When we turn to God, we have the creator of the universe who is capable of overcoming death as a conversation partner. Our partnership with God is not one of equals. We approach the throne of the divine with great humility and expectation. God is powerful and we are weak.
This was where I was going to begin today. I was all set for this morning. I had my plans all made. I knew what I was going to say and the story I planned to tell to convey the meaning in this passage. 1 Samuel 1 is about Hannah and the birth of Samuel. It’s a great story of God working in the midst of people. It’s a story about hope for the future. One aspect of the story is about seeing God at work all around us, especially when it’s hard to see. We can give thanks when we open our eyes and notice God’s work, and we can participate by helping others see it. My plans were tidy and I was ready.
Where I’m Going
So, what changed? Why did I abandon the engaging story I planned to tell? You’re not going to hear the story now, so you will have to take my word for it that it was engaging. On Thursday, I met someone for coffee, and she asked if I was following the trial. If you have driven through Charlottesville during the day recently, specifically since October 25, you noticed unusual activity around the courthouse. The trial is the civil case resulting from the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally. Nine plaintiffs are suing 24 defendants with the expressed goal of demanding accountability and pursuing justice against the neo-Nazis and Klan members who descended on our city four and a quarter years ago. According to Rolling Stone, the Charlottesville lawsuit aims to bleed the “tiki-torch wielding white nationalists dry.”
Our nation is experiencing a crisis of white nationalism. Charlottesville was one panel in the quilt of this decade of discontent. From Michael Brown to George Floyd, there’s been a lot to draw our attention toward struggles for equality. Outside of these headline events, every little subject seems polarized, even public health. If I say, “Listen to the CDC and get a vaccine,” someone somewhere will say, “How can you be so stupid? Now, take this horse-medicine even though doctors don’t recommend it.”
Where We Are
I don’t understand how we have come to where we are. Then again, I imagine that God struggles to understand how creation can never seem to keep something good. In the Old Testament, God created a garden where humanity could live. Humanity couldn’t accept it. God offered a covenant if the people would follow specific rules. Instead, they built a golden calf. This pattern of ruining whatever God offered went on and on. God appointed judges, like Deborah, to lead the Hebrew people. By the beginning of 1 Samuel, they were tired of judges and wanted a king—just like real countries.
This is where we come into 1 Samuel 1 and find Hannah’s saying to God:
I live in a time when a woman’s only value is in having a child, specifically a male child. Even though we’ve had Deborah who was a woman as a judge, I need a son to have value. My husband Elkanah, for reasons (?!), has another wife named Peninnah. She’s got children, so she has value. She gives me all kinds of constant guff about not having any kids. Therefore, if I could have a child, I will commit him to God.
Hannah didn’t really say all of that. I retrojected twenty-first-century sensibilities into her assessment of the situation. I have no idea whether or not she questioned the world in which she lived. She wouldn’t have any reason to question it. This is where her struggle reminds me of the trial. Our passage highlights a shift from the period of judges to the period of kings in ancient Israel. Something was about to happen.
In our case today, we could be standing on the precipice, about to jump into the next era of cooperation and vast human achievement.
Or, we could succumb to fear and false ideologies. We could revert to further divisions and find our way to dark days.
I think it’s the former, not the latter. I think (and I hope) good things are ahead of us.
Since we worship the God of Easter, one who is more powerful than death, I approach the future with great hope. The people who initiated this trial in Charlottesville stand against hatred, and whether they say it out loud or not, some of their actions reflect the hope I find in Christ. Through Jesus we can look ahead at the future and know it’s bright.
When Hannah endured Peninnah’s abuse, she framed her prayer within the constraints of her worldview. She only knew value through having a male child. It didn’t matter that her husband Elkanah favored her over Peninnah.
For the moment, we can set aside the psychological damage his favoritism must have inflicted on Peninnah.
When we focus on Hannah, we see that she was sad. She didn’t eat. She wept and prayed to have a male child.
Here’s what the Bible says she said:
Oh, God-of-the-Angel-Armies, if you’ll take a good, hard look at my pain, if you’ll quit neglecting me and go into action for me by giving me a son, I’ll give him completely, unreservedly to you. I’ll set him apart for a life of holy discipline.
When Eli saw her lips moving while she prayed without making any noise, he didn’t know what she was doing. People just didn’t act like that. He said, “You’re drunk, woman! How long do you plan to keep this up? Sober up!”
Hannah said, “Oh no, sir—please! … I haven’t been drinking. The only thing I’ve been pouring out is my heart, pouring it out to God. Don’t for a minute think I’m a bad person. It’s because I’m so desperately unhappy and in such pain that I’ve stayed here so long.”
Eli saw her struggle. He felt empathy for her, and his answer reflected God hearing her prayer. He said, “Go in peace. And may the God of Israel give you what you have asked.”
“Pray for me!” she said, and went her way.
Hope for the Future
Before the year was over, she gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel and dedicated him to God. We know Samuel. He went on to be a prophet for the Lord. He played a key role in the transition from judges to kings. He anointed Saul as Israel’s first king, and when Saul stopped following God, he anointed David.
Hannah’s story is about engaging with God and bringing our troubles to God in an open and honest way. The story is about God hearing people and responding.
It’s so easy to see the bad things happening all around us. Three men are on trial in Georgia for chasing and murdering Ahmaud Arbery. A white teenaged vigilante who travelled from Illinois to Wisconsin with an assault rifle and killed two black protestors is on trial in Kenosha, WI. The climate conference COP26 has struggled to achieve anything meaningful.
There’s certainly more.
Yet, God knows not just the headlines, but our struggles—yours and mine. This is personal and God hears our prayers.
There is good. There are always Hannah’s. There is always the good and hope for the future. We just have to open our eyes. After having a conversation about the local trial, I went back to my office and read a little bit about it. The hopeful part is the possibility that hate groups will have trouble continuing to exist. Trials like this can make it harder for them to organize and find funding. That’s good news.
I can’t pretend to predict the future. Some trials will go well and others won’t. But we can’t give up.
After Elkanah tried to comfort Hannah, she snuck away and went back to pray again. Like Hannah, we can’t give up hope. We can go back and engage with God. No matter the outcome, we can keep going back. We can keep engaging with God.
Everyone faces trials and tribulations. Having a relationship with God doesn’t take them away, but it can change how we respond. We can talk to God and listen to God’s response. In the voice of the divine, we find wisdom and guidance as we navigate the troubled waters in which we sail.
In the voice of the divine, we find wisdom and guidance as we navigate the troubled waters in which we sail.