“I am a woman deeply troubled”
We live in troubling times. In the past few days we have been troubled by the attacks in Paris. We have been troubled by the attacks in Beirut. In Baghdad. In Syria. And more. We have been troubled as we see whose lives are being grieved loudly and publicly, and those who seem to slip into silence. Who are allowed to grieve? Who are allowed to remain troubled?
This wasn’t the sermon I was going to write. But it was the sermon that was written.
There is so much grief these days. And as is often the case, this grief is not without complexity. This grief leaves us wondering who is to blame. Is change possible? Are we grieving what we think we are?
Are we truly grieving the loss of life around the world? Or are we grieving our own sense of safety?
What is it that is troubling us?
“I am a woman deeply troubled”
These are Hannah’s words. She had been kneeling outside of the temple, praying to God to give her a child. Her prayer is a familiar one. Dear God, If you could just give me this one thing, I promise….
She prayed silently, which was uncommon at the time. So Eli, the priest, thought she was drunk and tried to dismiss her. But she says,
No, I am a woman deeply troubled. Do not treat me as if I am worthless. Do not cast me aside.
And what was it exactly that was troubling Hannah? At first glance, it seems fairly obvious. She wanted to have a child, but she couldn’t. But is that all? What about Peninnah? What about her husband?
I mean, compared to some men in the bible Elkanah seems downright progressive. He doesn’t shame her, abandon her, or exile her. Which I think we can all agree is a pretty low bar. But he doesn’t seem to be upset that Hannah can’t have children. In fact, he loves her deeply. He worries that she isn’t eating and that she cries all the time. He asks why her heart is so sad. Aren’t I enough for you, he says?
Hannah doesn’t answer. But I imagine her response might have been:
No. No, you are not enough for me.
See in those days men often married women much younger than them. And so their wives often outlived them. And at that time women who were childless were considered disposable. They were fringe members of the society. Hannah knew that without a child, without a son, she would likely be facing a future of extreme poverty.
And so no, Elkanah’s love was not going to be enough.
I’m sure we can all think of a time in our own lives when somebody we love has tried to cheer us up but only made it so much worse. Maybe they looked at our hurt with confusion. Maybe they said it would all be ok, when we knew it wouldn’t be. Or, maybe, even with best intentions, they made our pain about them.
A few years ago I got laid off from a job that I had poured my all into. I was devastated. When I sought comfort from a friend she said, well you always wanted more time to write! That was true but that didn’t matter much at the moment. Instead what stuck with me was the feeling that my friend didn’t understand the impact of what just happened to me. I’d lost my job, my home, and my closest friend all in the span of two weeks. True, I had lots of time now. But none of it would be spent writing. In fact, it would take a year or more before I would ever write again.
There is nothing quite so lonely as someone you love trying to reassure you and so thoroughly missing the point.
Elkanah did not understand the complexity of Hannah’s life because he did not have to. The same societal forces that would push her into poverty, offered him the power of oblivion.
So Hannah prayed silently, perhaps fearing that if others overheard they wouldn’t understand. Perhaps it was a pain she was not willing to risk at the time. But even in her attempt to protect herself, she was still misunderstood.
Eventually, Hannah gave birth to her son Samuel and then to other children as well.
Now I struggle sometimes with stories like this. It can make it seem like Hannah was special somehow. As if Hannah’s prayers were more favorable to God than others and that’s why they were answered. But I’m just not sure that’s how God works.
I don’t think Hannah’s prayers were granted because she was special or because she promised to commit her son to serve in the temple. No. I think this is simply a story about God’s capacity to understand.
God knew what Hannah was facing. God saw her suffering and fear. The desire for a child was not sentimental or selfish. The desire for a child was a matter of survival. God understood that. God understood what her partner could not. And God wanted Hannah to survive.
Hannah’s trouble was not that she could not have children. Hannah’s trouble was living in a society that told her she was not worth anything without them. It is not enough for God to want us to survive. We must want each other to survive. We must be willing to see that which we are able to turn away from. We must be willing to go deeper.
Part of that might mean having to decode our own prayers. Hannah prayed for a child but meant security. We pray for Paris but I suspect we might mean ourselves. We pray for answers but we mean safety. We pray for peace but we mean comfort. We mean distance. We mean oblivion.
The best prayer I’ve heard in the past few days came to me on the internet. It is a post written by Karuna Ezara Parikh, a blogger from India. She says,
Like Elkanah, our sentiment is not going to be enough. The world needs our deep attention and our action too. What is beneath the surface? What aren’t we seeing? What does God want for us? How can we help each other to survive?
During the attacks in Paris people sent tweets and posts and all sorts of other social media that I don’t yet understand. Many used the hashtag #PorteOuverte. It means Open Door. It was used to communicate the addresses of homes where people could seek safety. Strangers opened their doors to one another and that night they shared couches, meals, stories. It offered them not only protection but connection.
As we continue to walk in faith with one another it is my prayer that we may we continue to grow into the spirit, the intention, and the call of that name. Because the world needs us. And we need each other.
Written For: Open Door United Methodist Church, 11/15/16. In Response To: 1st Samuel 1:4-20