Thursday, November 15, 2018

On The Other Side Of Doubt

This Sunday, those of us who read the Track 1 RCL lesson will get a peek inside a complicated marriage. In 1 Samuel 1, we read the story of Hannah's struggle with her sister wife, her agony over remaining childless, her prayers of desperation, and her eventual relief as she conceives and gives birth to a son. So powerful is the story that we respond to the reading by reciting Hannah's song from 1 Samuel 2, which becomes an antecedent for Mary's song in Luke 1. Today, though, as I consider this story of God-given reversal, it is the in-between place where I want to stop and linger--the moment when Hannah's countenance changes even before her womb is opened.

It's easy to hear the big moments of the story--provocation, sobbing, prayers, confrontation, and birth--so clearly that we miss the other parts. Notice, for instance, what Elkanah says to his beloved wife before she goes to the temple to pray: "Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?" Elkanah has two wives, one of whom is fertile and one of whom is beloved. The rival wife and her children get a full share of the family sustenance, but Hannah received a double-portion, a sign of her husband's deep and counter-intuitive affection. To him, Hannah's identity is not bound up in her childlessness, but for Hannah his consolations are ineffective. He asks genuinely, "Why are you sad?" assuring her of his love, but her inability to respond to that love in the way she would choose leaves her bereft.

Notice also how Hannah is transformed after her encounter with Eli in the temple. After pouring out her heart in prayer and defending herself to the priest, Eli offers a hopeful prayer in return: "Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him." It isn't a guarantee. It's a faithful wish. But it's enough. It's a reminder to Hannah that the Lord has heard her prayers. She responds respectfully and goes back to her family. The narrator tells us, "Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer."

When I read the lesson this morning, I was reminded of the many couples I know who, having explored every option available to them and having given up on the possibility of having children, suddenly are granted an unexpected miracle. There's something about letting go, about relinquishing our activity in our own circumstance, that opens up new possibilities. No, I'm not saying that Hannah's change in perspective and attitude are what opened her womb. God did. But I don't think it's a stretch to say that Hannah's change in countenance reflects a faithfulness that made the clear action of God discernible. She let go. She trusted. She had faith that, no matter what happened, God was with her. Being home with her loving husband was enough because God was with her.

How often it feels like the only right answer to our prayers is our own understanding of perfection! Yet we know that God rarely works that way. How often are our prayers answered exactly how and when and where we want? Sometimes the "right" answer comes years later. Often God's response is to grant us our heart's true desire even when our words and minds were asking for something else. Faith isn't believing that God will do the thing you want. Faith is belonging to God so completely that, no matter what happens, we trust that God is with us and will never forsake us. In that place of belonging, we know that God hears our prayers and answers them because we belong to God. The knowledge and experience of that belonging is what transforms us.

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