Jesus Christ calls us to be a joyful community that celebrates God's love, transforms lives, and is a force for justice in the world.

Don’t hold back

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church – The Rev. Bart Smith
The 22nd Sunday after Pentecost (October 16, 2016)
1 Samuel 1 and 2 (selected verses) “Don’t hold back”

Elkanah had two wives, one named Hannah and the other named Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah didn’t. Every year this man would leave his town to worship and sacrifice to the Lord of heavenly forces in Shiloh…Whenever he sacrificed, Elkanah would give parts of the sacrifice to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. But he would give only one part of it to Hannah, though he loved her, because the Lord had kept her from conceiving… her rival would make fun of her mercilessly, just to bother her. So that is what took place year after year. Whenever Hannah went to the Lord’s house, Peninnah would make fun of her. Then she would cry and wouldn’t eat anything.

One time, after eating and drinking in Shiloh, Hannah got up and presented herself before the Lord. (Now Eli the priest was sitting in the chair by the doorpost of the Lord’s temple.) Hannah was very upset and couldn’t stop crying as she prayed to the Lord. Then she made this promise: “Lord of heavenly forces, just look at your servant’s pain and remember me! Don’t forget your servant! Give her a boy! Then I’ll give him to the Lord for his entire life. No razor will ever touch his head.”

As she kept praying before the Lord, Eli watched her mouth. Now Hannah was praying in her heart; her lips were moving, but her voice was silent, so Eli thought she was drunk. “How long will you act like a drunk? Sober up!” Eli told her.

“No sir!” Hannah replied. “I’m just a very sad woman. I haven’t had any wine or beer but have been pouring out my heart to the Lord.

Eli responded, “Then go in peace. May the God of Israel give you what you’ve asked of him.”

Then they went back home to Ramah…. So in the course of time, Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel, which means “I asked the Lord for him.”

Then Hannah prayed:

My heart rejoices in the Lord.
My strength rises up in the Lord!
My mouth mocks my enemies
because I rejoice in your deliverance.
No one is holy like the Lord—
no, no one except you!
There is no rock like our God!
The bows of mighty warriors are shattered,
but those who were stumbling now dress themselves in power!
The Lord!
He brings death, gives life,
takes down to the grave, and raises up!
God raises the poor from the dust,
lifts up the needy from the garbage pile.
God sits them with officials,
gives them the seat of honor!
May God give strength to his king
and raise high the strength of his anointed one.

Hannah didn’t hold back.

This is a story that is kind of disjointed from Jazz Sunday; it would probably be a better fit for Blues Sunday, wouldn’t? All the wailing and tears and sorrow. Someone pouring out her soul, laying all her misery out there for God and anyone else within earshot to hear.

So much about this story grates on modern ears. The way the Bible speaks of women who don’t conceive is at the top of the list. Do you notice how it’s never the man’s fault? That’s interesting to me. This is, of course, a few thousand years before the advent of biology and OBGYNs… And how the priest Eli speaks to her… The interpersonal, family politics are tough to hear about: one of the wives can conceive, one cannot, but the one who can makes fun of the other. What a terrible thing to mock someone for– as a woman in that society, not having a child threatened her security and her very life. How cruel!

And if the story wasn’t strange enough, when it all pans out in Hannah’s favor, she sings this song about military conquest, the redistribution of wealth, and other great reversals of God’s judgments. She basically borrows words from Israelite battle hymns to celebrate her own little conquest over her rival; a victory dance, if you will.

As odd as it may be, this story is pivotal in the Hebrew scriptures because Samuel is born. It was common in ancient literature like this for such an important historical figure to have origins in extraordinary circumstances, for God to bring life out of no life. Samuel becomes a prophet, a leader in Israel, a king-maker, literally (Samuel anoints both Saul and David).
But this is Hannah’s story, and I think we can learn from her. I think she has a lot to teach us about prayer, especially with her first prayer, not so much the victory dance one.

Hannah didn’t hold back.

It’s an honest prayer, isn’t it? Hannah’s not shy about what she wants. She doesn’t try to hide her grief or conceal her hurt. There’s no formula here, no prescribed form for what a prayer should look like—it’s all out there in the raw. No prayer book. No “I beseech thee, O Lord,” piousness None of that! “Lord of heavenly forces, just look at your servant’s pain and remember me! Don’t forget your servant! Give her a boy!” Vulnerable. Intimate. Bold, even. Pouring her heart out in the temple at Shiloh. Weeping, wailing, and my guess is, probably adding some screaming, stomping, and cursing between the lines.

Hannah didn’t hold back.

Which makes me think of a scene from one of my favorite TV shows, The West Wing. The episode is called “Two Cathedrals.” President Bartlet is just going through the ringer: his lifelong mentor and secretary died in a car wreck, one of his aids got shot, there’s a crisis in Haiti, and Congress is giving him a hard time (sound familiar?). Mrs. Landingham, the president’s friend and secretary, had her funeral in the National Cathedral in DC and the president had been stoic throughout the service. But finally, after everyone else had left, he asks the Secret Service to leave him alone in the Cathedral. President Bartlet, a very devout Catholic, loses it.

I can’t repeat some of the words he says in this brilliant monologue:

She bought her first new car and You hit her with a drunk driver. What? Was that supposed to be funny? ‘You can’t conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God,’ says Graham Greene. I don’t know [who he’s sucking up to there] ’cause I think You’re just vindictive…There’s a tropical storm that’s gaining speed and power. They say we haven’t had a storm this bad since You took out that tender ship of mine in the North Atlantic last year… Have I displeased You… 3.8 million new jobs, that wasn’t good? Bailed out Mexico. Increased foreign trade. Thirty million new acres of land for conservation… We’re not fighting a war. I’ve raised three children. That’s not enough to buy me out of the doghouse?

Then he more or less cusses God out. In Latin. And then lights a cigarette and grinds it out with his foot in the center aisle of the National Cathedral.

I remember religious types were all up in arms. “How could they broadcast that? How could he talk that way to the Lord? That’s blasphemous!” Maybe. But I remember what Jesus said, “When you pray, don’t pour out a flood of empty words, as the Gentiles do. They think that by saying many words they’ll be heard. Don’t be like them, because your [Mother] knows what you need before you ask.” Reverence has its place but something in my gut tells me that God is big enough for our rants. May God appreciates the intimacy and honest of them.

President Bartlet didn’t hold back.
Hannah didn’t hold back.

The writer Anne Lamott wrote one of the best books on prayer I’ve ever read, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. I cannot recommend it strongly enough; it changed my prayer life by teaching me how important the short, spontaneous prayers are. Lamott is pretty authentic and raw herself. As a recovering alcoholic, she spares nothing in bearing the honesty of her life and calling others to do the same. In it she writes:

My belief is that when you’re telling the truth, you’re close to God. If you say to God, ‘I am exhausted and depressed beyond words, and I don’t like You at all right now, and I recoil from most people who believe in You,’ that might be the most honest thing you’ve ever said. If you told me you had said to God, ‘It is all hopeless, and I don’t have a clue if You exist, but I could use a hand,’ it would almost bring tears to my eyes, tears of pride in you, for the courage it takes to get real-really real. It would make me want to sit next to you at the dinner table.

Prepared prayers have their place too, she says. Prayers by ancient mystics. Prayers out of books. Prayers like the Serenity Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer. Lamott says, “beautiful, pre-assembled prayers… have saved me more times than I can remember. But they are for special occasions. They are dressier prayers, the good china of prayers.”

I’m not sure what you’d call Hannah’s type of prayer. Maybe a “paper plate,” everyday type of prayer. The kind when we don’t have it all together, or are even a little desperate. The time when we’re at our wits end. The times when we need the presence of the Holy One the most.

Hannah didn’t hold back.

Nor should we.