[This message was delivered on November 14, 2021, at Community of the Savior, Rochester NY. The video of it can be seen on the CoS facebook page.]
Is it a day when she believes? Hannah is often held up as a model for her persevering prayer in a difficult situation. What kind of day is this for Hannah, this day she prays at the Temple with such pain and perseverance? I am currently reading the new book “Wholehearted Faith” by Rachel Held Evans, published two and a half years after her death at age 37 (co-written by Jeff Chu). In the first chapter, Evans uses a phrase I don’t think I had ever read or heard before: “On the days when I believe….” Hmm. Are there days when belief is not so easy? I find it so.
Perhaps Evans’s honesty resonates with you as it does me. I have always believed. I was reared in this faith by loving, believing parents. And my life has been more than pretty good all my 75 years. To borrow from the language of faith, my life has been blessed. Richly blessed. And yet, there are days in which belief is not so easy. Days when I am confronted by the injustices in our world and in our nation; indeed, in Rochester, which in the last week surpassed any previous year for homicides. Because I follow the news, which I see as part of my discipleship as a follower of Jesus, I am regularly jarred by the troubles in this world. Like those hurricanes that devastated Puerto Rico, Haiti, and Houston. Like the number of political refugees in our world and not just from Afghanistan. Like corruption in high places, both in other countries and in my country.
Perhaps Hannah’s honesty resonates with you as it does with me. Hannah’s problem is not a global tragedy, but it is so personal and so painful that it is described with these piercing words: “She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly.She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant….” Like Ruth, Hannah too is a daughter of Naomi, filled with distress, bitterness, and misery. Naomi and Hannah share a bond of bitterness at life’s unfairness.
I am not here to explain how Hannah felt; I am not a barren woman living in a time when women were excepted to have babies. I am not here to put a glow of spirituality on her situation, to feature Hannah in a stain-glassed window flooded by holy light. The best I can do is to hear her and invite you to do the same with me. She also has a “me too” story.
We live in a time when a woman’s worth is not determined by her fertility or the number of arrows she provides for her husband’s quiver. I should say, at least in some parts of the world. The Good News of Jesus is particularly good news for women, as has been noted in this pulpit many times by many voices. We, at least in some parts of the world, see women as full human beings without regard to marital status or stretch marks. We in the Church see women as full participants in the work of God and gifted to serve at every level of the Church. But not all of the Church universal agrees on this, I admit with sadness.
Hannah lived in another time. She was the second wife of Elkanah. The first wife, Penninah, checks the right boxes: faithful wife giving birth to sons and daughters. We live in a time and place where women are not subjected to plural marriage: one husband and several wives. By the way, I find nowhere in the Bible where plural marriage or polygamy is taught as the right way or commended to us. But it existed in the Old Testament world. It existed among God’s chosen people. And it was never good. And it still exists in some countries today. Penninah is fruitful and Hannah is barren and Penninah reminds Hannah of her circumstance. And Elkanah, like too many men, isn’t listening at a deep level to Hannah and appreciating her plight.
Kate Bowler has written a book with this arresting title, “Everything Happens for a Reason, and Other Lies That I’ve Loved.” While I was raised in the Christian faith and am grateful for my heritage, I was often confronted by an understanding of the faith that said if I just believe hard enough, if I just muster enough faith, if I just say the magic words without doubting, God will be that genie that pops out of the lantern and does whatever I command. And when something isn’t just right, there must be a reason that God has. No, it’s not that simple. Some things happen because of our sinfulness, and some happen because of our stupidity. And some just happen and God is not to be blamed, but God is present and at work in them, in all our days and circumstances.
I wouldn’t want to go to a church that majored on distress, bitterness, and misery every Sunday. But neither would I want to go to a church that refuses to acknowledge this part of our journey, our spirituality. I would not want to go to a church that demands happiness and smiles at all times. That will not admit to the reality of suffering in our world. And that insists Jesus is there to respond to my every whim and desire, that Jesus is my heavenly good luck charm. I am grateful for Community of the Savior. Though I am here now only on occasion, I know CoS to be a church where honest faith is valued. That brings me great hope. And even joy. Preachers here are honest and this congregation responds to honest faith.
Hannah’s desperate prayer is not the only one we have. There are a good number sprinkled throughout the Bible, especially in the Psalms, but none surpasses the one we hear from Jesus in his hour of desperate need: “’Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’ Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.” (Luke 22:42-44) Eli the priest thought that Hannah must be drunk on wine. Maybe he is half right. She is drunk on the cup of barrenness, followed by the cup of bitterness.
Hannah’s desperate prayer is heard, not to prove that God had a reason, but that God hears our honest cries. Sometimes we get the answer we hoped for and sometimes we do not. There are some days when I believe and then there are other days. If we turn the page into the next chapter of 1 Samuel, we find another Hannah prayer, this time a song of praise to God who is beyond any human comprehension and who does these great and amazing things. Sometimes. And do you know who borrows from Hannah’s second prayer centuries later? A frightened teenaged girl, not yet married, but, like Hannah, surprisingly pregnant. Keep coming here next month. You’ll hear some her story, that one we call Mary, the mother of our Lord.
Honest faith unfolds in surprising ways in difficult circumstances. In 1873, after a difficult season which included the death of her four-year-old son, Horatio Spafford booked passage on a ship to Great Britain for his wife, four daughters, and himself. An urgent business matter detained him in New York, so he saw off his wife and daughters, assuring them that he would follow them in a few days. Early in the morning of November 22, 1873, that ship collided with another vessel. Within two hours the ship sunk into the cold depths of the Atlantic, taking 266 lives. Anna Spafford was one of the 47 survivors, found by another ship’s crew clinging to a piece of the wreckage. The four daughters, aged 12 years to 18 months, were gone. When Anna Spafford reached Wales, she cabled her husband, “Saved alone.” Horatio booked passage to meet his wife. The captain of that ship knew of Spafford’s loss and when the ship reached that place in the north Atlantic, the captain notified Spafford, so he could honor the loss of his daughters in that icy ocean, their unmarked resting place. When Spafford returned to his room, he began writing words that we will sing in a few minutes: “When peace like a river attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll, Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my soul…” I know the words of the four verses of that hymn as well as any hymn I know. There is no superficial happiness in them, no smiley face stickers. That hymn honesty intertwines his palpable grief with his unshakeable faith. With Hannah-like faith.
In “Wholehearted Faith” Rachel Held Evans writes: “On the days when I believe, I feel enfolded in a story so much greater than my own. It’s a story that knits together a thousand generations of saints—folks like you and me who wrestle with their questions and their doubts…. It’s a story that makes audacious claims about … Jesus and calls us into his outstretched arms. On the days when I believe, a prayer feels as if it’s just another beautiful beat in a long-running conversation. Nothing is withheld. Everything finds its place, whether lament or hallelujah. I’m convinced it is all heard, because it’s a whisper in the ear of an attentive God who loves me and whom I love. And then there are other days.” Hannah would understand that.
On the days when I believe I will pray. And on the days when I find it difficult to believe, I will pray. With Hannah. With Mary. With Jesus. With you.