Monday, June 13, 2011

Selfless Desperation

There’s a danger in this morning’s Old Testament lesson (1Samuel 1:1-20). The story of Hannah’s desperate search for a child is immersed in an ancient culture wherein a woman’s identity was inextricably tied to her ability to have children. In the story, we read that Hannah, tortured by her husband’s other wife, wanted to conceive so badly that she wouldn’t eat or drink, that she spent time in fervent prayer, and that she was willing to barter with God. It’s easy to recast this story in the light of “Hannah’s life was fulfilled when she got pregnant,” but that doesn’t do it justice. There’s a lot more to Hannah than that.

Have you ever wanted something so badly that you’d do anything for it? There’s a show on television right now that casts this sentiment in an unholy light—Nurse Jackie on Showtime. The main character, played by Edie Falco, is addicted to pills, and, in the current season, there’s another character whose self-appointed job it is to take her to such a low point in her addiction that she’ll beg for sobriety. Although I don’t keep in close touch with the show and may have missed some important developments, I have seen that desperate side of Nurse Jackie—that will lead her to do just about anything to get high. There’s something both inhuman and basic to our species about that sort of desperation.

Hannah’s example, though, is a holy one. Sure, there’s an element of self and ego in her quest. She wants to make her husband happy. She wants to flout her motherly success in front of her rival, the other wife. She wants the personal, individual fulfillment of being a mother—of having her dream accomplished. But that’s not the end of her desire. She wants a child so badly that she’s willing to give it up: “O LORD of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.” Part of her bargaining with God is an admission that she doesn’t have any control over the answer she’s waiting for. She must totally depend on God and, in recognition of that, is willing to let God remain in control of her son’s life.

I wonder whether that’s a useful test for my own personal desires. When I really want something do I want it only for my own sake—according to my own wants and needs and desires—or do I want it for a bigger purpose—according to God’s will and plan? As the story continues beyond today’s reading, Hannah gets her son, and, sure enough, faithful to her vow, she gives him to the Lord. When I am desperate for God to give me something, am I also willing to give it up? Perhaps that’s the moment at which prayers are answered. When we submit so completely to God’s will that we accept that the answer to our prayers will always be identical to God’s will, that’s when prayers are answered. Whether we see it or not, that’s always the case. God’s will is God’s will. The only question is whether I can accept that.

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