I Samuel 1:4-18
July 20, 2008
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 is not, like the disciples, asking for guidance in prayer from her spiritual superiors. The deep longing and sorrow of her heart compel her to approach God, to make God listen. In her quest for God’s ear, she is breaking the rules.
My point this morning is not to set before you this biblical scene as an example of how to pray. But to challenge you to break some of the prayer rules that you have set up for yourself.
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. In these earlier stories, God goes through the men to get to the women. But Hannah does not wait for Elkanah to get his act together. She goes straight to Yahweh herself.
In the Mennonite church, we believe in the priesthood of all believers. That means that we can go directly to God. Jesus is our intermediary and we do not need to go through another person to access God. And I certainly can’t imagine that any of you women think that God can only be properly accessed through your husbands. But I get the feeling sometimes that you think maybe the pastor is a little closer to God’s ear. Maybe some of the older saints of the church are better suited to pray.
Believe it or not, the one committee that we were not able to place as many people on as we would have liked this year is the Ministry Team. The group that is dedicated to caring and praying for the people of the church. I think one reason many people hesitate to serve with this group is that they are intimidated by the thought of interceding for others in prayer. Surely someone else in the church is better qualified to pray.
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.
What would we think if someone here wept their way through a prayer. How would we react to someone speaking in tongues? Not many people know this, but I did speak in tongues once during a prayer session with a small group in this church. It was so uncomfortable, so improper, that I whispered as quietly as I possibly could, hoping no one would hear.
During sharing time a few weeks ago, Elise said that when she was younger and struggling with her prayer life, Steve counseled her to pray on her knees. That was a helpful suggestion for her.
I am not arguing that we should all be weeping through our prayers or speaking in tongues or getting on our knees. But I would suggest that if you always pray sitting down, you might try getting on your knees—or on your feet. If you are stoic in your prayers, you might give yourself permission to cry or yell or sing. If you always pray in silence, try to find some words every once in awhile. If you always talk through all of your prayers, be quite. And if the Holy Spirit moves in your heart or even in your body during a time of prayer, let her move.
The rules we follow about how to pray are rules we have established for ourselves. We should feel free to break them on a regular basis.
I commend Hannah for being willing to break the rules about how she should pray. But she breaks a theological rule about prayer that is more difficult for me to come to terms with.
Hannah 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.
I feel the need to qualify this story by counseling people that it doesn’t always work that way. I know of people who have been devastated because they believed that God would give them what they asked for and then God didn’t come through. Those people then faced the options of giving up on God, or beating up on themselves. If you read interviews with Christian snake handlers who have been bitten, they inevitably say that it was their fault. Their faith was not strong enough.
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.
And yet Hannah prayed with boldness and her request was granted. Jesus says, “ask and it will be given unto you.” It is true that some snake handlers die from bites; but it is also true that not nearly as many handlers are bitten as—statistically speaking—should be.
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 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.
I struggle with this balance, and no magic answers came to me this past week. As many of you have figured out by now, when I can’t come up with answers, I tell stories. (Have you noticed I tell a lot of stories?)
First, a simple story that reminds me that it rarely hurts to ask. Awhile back, Rod brought some fossils to church to show James. He looked at the first one. “That’s cool, can I have it?” “No,” said Rod. Then Rod showed James the next one. “Wow. Can I have that one?” “No,” said Rod, smiling.
A mystical story that Roger alluded to last week. The writer Reynolds Price was cured of cancer. Here is the healing vision described in Price’s own words:
“I was sitting propped up in bed, waiting for someone who was sleeping in another part of the house to come and help me get up, and just suddenly — and I affirmed that it wasn’t a dream, it was another kind of alternate reality that was far realer than any dream that I’d ever had. And just suddenly, I was in a slightly strange place, lying down on a bed of stones by a lake, and around me were . . . various men . . . . And then one of the men stood up and came toward me and then sort of brushed me and beckoned me to follow him to the lake. . . . I realized that this was the Sea of Galilee and that this man was Jesus.
And we got into the water, and he was simply — he was pouring handfuls of water down my very long, ugly cancer scar down my spine, my 12-inch scar. And he said, “Your sins are forgiven.” And I thought “That’s the last thing I want to hear.” And I said to him, “Am I also cured?” And he said, “That, too,” and he turned and walked away, so I forced [the cure] out of him. But I did get it.”
A story about this church and about me breaking my own prayer rules. A year ago, when we moved into this building, I felt a real need for more children in the church. I think this need came from being pastor and from being a parent. I had no outreach strategy—and no time to implement one even if I had it. Finally, I decided to pray for specifics. I remember telling the Ministry Team: I don’t usually do things like this, but I am just praying, every day, that God will bring at least two new families with young children to this church. I figured that surely having more children in the church was part of God’s will, and if it wasn’t, God was free to tell me “no.” Now we have three new families with young children as part of our church family.
Finally, a story about a young man who was prayed for. “By his own admission, he was a teenager from hell. He started drinking in ninth grade, moving on to drugs a year or two later. He barely made it through high school and flunked out of college the first year. He was living with his girlfriend, and for some reason they started attending a small Presbyterian church. The pastor told him, “I think that you would be good working with youth.” She kept after him until he gave it a try. Eventually he went back to school and finished his degree while still working at the church. One day he said to his girlfriend, “I think God is calling me to ministry.” And much to his surprise, she said, “I think that’s right.” So they went to his parents to tell them about the call. Upon hearing the news, his mother started to cry and said, “You don’t know this, but we had a hard time conceiving a child. I had several miscarriages. One day I was a church and heard the story about Hannah and how she had trouble conceiving a child., and about how she promised if she had a son he would be a minister, so, Sam, I did that.” I promised God that if I could have a child, my child would become a minister. And I have been praying for you since before you were even conceived.1
These stories are not answers. I don’t know how many fossils James will have to ask for before Rod stops bringing them to church to show him. I don’t know how to respond to the cancer patient who hears the story of Reynolds Price and says, “I pray for healing. What about me?” I certainly do not presume to think that the three new families would not be here if I had not been praying for families to come to the church. I don’t know what to say to a parent whose child dies of a drug overdose before he gets a chance to turn his life around.
Prayer is a mysterious thing. I do not understand it. All I can do is to echo the words of Sam, the seminary student whose mother prayed a daring prayer: “I’ve learned never to underestimate God.”
1(Cloud of Witnesses: An Audio Journal on Youth, Church, and Culture, volume nine, Princeton Theological Seminary Institute for Youth Ministry)—in Christian Century, Feb. 21, 2006, p. 6.