Thoughts on Hannah and Prayer

[This reflection is excerpted from an earlier sermon.]

1 Samuel 1:4-18

We have before us in the text this morning a very odd scene. There is a woman, probably in her thirties. She comes to the shrine at Shiloh—the most holy of Jewish worship sites in these pre-temple days; the place where the sacred Ark of the Covenant was kept. But she does not approach this holy sanctuary in a reverent, respectable manner. She is out of control with grief. She is wailing and flailing and mumbling to herself. Her lips are moving, but the listening priest can hear no words, only deep groans and ecstatic shrieks.

I imagine that this scene makes us almost as uncomfortable as it made Eli. If someone were to pray like that in our building, we too might think she was drunk. Hannah’s prayer is simply not proper. She is far too bold before God. Far too emotional.

We are much more comfortable with the way Jesus taught us to pray. Head bowed, eyes closed. (O.K., that’s not actually in the Bible, but we know that’s how it works.) “Your will be done; give us our daily bread.” It’s a modest, humble, controlled prayer.

There is much good in the prayer that Jesus taught us. It is our model. That is why we pray it—or a version of it—almost every Sunday.

This morning, though, I want to lift up the virtues of the improper prayer; of Hannah’s gut-wrenching, emotionally charged tirade and bargaining session.

Hannah breaks the rules established by the ancestors of the faith when she approaches Yahweh directly about a child for herself. Hannah comes in a long line of Israelite matriarchs who were barren: Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel. In all of these cases, the women’s husbands interceded for them with Yahweh. But Hannah goes boldly before God herself, not submitting her request to her husband or even the priest.

She also breaks the rules in the way she prays. She is standing before God, tears streaming down her face. She is moving her lips, but no sound is coming out. This is obviously not the way prayer was done in the shrine at Shiloh, because Eli accuses her of being drunk.

Hannah also breaks a theological rule about prayer; she prays: “Give me a son.” No “if it be thy will.” No, “God, the path I would prefer for my life would be for you to give me a son.” Just, “I want a son; give me one.” And God answers and honors her request.

There is danger in asking God for specific things, in putting God to the test. God might not cure the disease or give me the job or fill the offering plate. I think the so-called “name it and claim it” theology is one of the most dangerous forces in our society right now. This teaching that you simply ask God for what you want (and send a little seed money to the preacher) and your prayers will be answered with a “yes.”

But I also think that in my resistance to that theological extreme, I have sometimes missed out on the blessing of approaching God with the longings of my heart and watching in faith as God responds to my prayers.

Prayer is a mysterious thing. I do not understand it. I do not know why God sometimes answers “yes” and sometimes answers “no.” But I do know that it is better to participate fully in the mystery of prayer than to distance ourselves from God because we don’t understand it.

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