Sunday, December 1, 2019

Sharing with God

Hannah, a window designed by Watkins Stained Glass  


Ask anyone who has ever wanted a child and struggled to conceive, whose gone through the agony of multiple miscarriages, the terrible roller coaster of invitro, or the long and scary process of adoption, ask them what it is like to finally, after everything, hold their child in their arms.  There is nothing like it. It is miraculous.

My friend adopted her daughter from Haiti, from an orphanage where she volunteered.  In this place, where there were too few sets of arms, and too many babies needing holding, once or twice a year, my friend would go  down and hold babies.  After fostering locally, and praying and longing for a long time, and after many arduous legal steps, she flew to Haiti, back to that orphanage, to meet the baby girl that was to be hers.

She texted me a photo that day, the tiny soft face of a two month old, pressed against her own tear-streaked and joy-filled one.  She held her in her arms and whispered that she loved her and that she couldn’t wait to be her mom. And then she had to return home. She had to leave her baby alone in the crib where she would not likely be held much, for the next few weeks, to await the final legal hurdles.  

But in the meantime, a bureaucratic move in Haiti closed adoptions, and for the next fourteen months her daughter remained in the orphanage while her case stalled on hold.  She visited twice in that time, for a few desperate days and nights she sat in a rocker in a concrete room surrounded by metal cribs, holding her baby in her arms, talking to her and singing to her, and then laying her down and leaving, getting on a plane and flying home without her. 

Finally, the paperwork cleared, and she flew back and was able to take her home, when she was a year and a half old.  Finally my friend became Stefanie’s mother.  And Stefanie is hers to raise, forever.  For months afterwards, she wore Stefanie in a pack, to give her human contact and help her bond.  She watched her sleep and prayed for her in the dark, an astonished thank you to God as she listened to her peacefully breathing. 

Imagine if, after all that, one day my friend packed a suitcase, and buckled Stefanie into a car seat, drove across the state to a church, took her out of the car and held her hand up to the door, pulled it open and walked inside, placed the suitcase beside her and knelt down, brushed Stefanie’s braids from her face, kissed her forehead, handed over paperwork terminating her parental rights to whomever was standing there, and turned and walked away?  

How could she do it? 
How can Hannah give back her child? And how can God allow it? 
How can we accept this story? How can this be in our bible? 

I remember this story from Sunday school. It didn’t go like that. It was about how badly Hannah wanted a child, and how she was made fun of for not having one, and how she prayed really hard and didn’t care how she looked doing it, and how God heard her prayer and gave her a child, and how she was so thankful she gave him back, and how cool it was that Samuel got to live in the temple, lucky him!, and how awesome God is for answering prayer, and how selfless and obedient Hannah is for saying Thank you so big.  

We never questioned the darkness in this story.  Surely we glossed over the terribleness of letting go of your child, the child you’ve wanted so badly.  And we didn’t talk about what it means to be barren, which is to say, in Sunday school we may have had this unfortunate term explained awkwardly as being unable to conceive, but really, we didn’t discuss the barrenness of the human condition, the wilderness of a desolate soul, empty, isolated, defined by longing, every moment unfulfilled, utterly despairing.  And we surely didn’t talk about sacrifice.  Deep, terrible sacrifice.  Or question who God was who could let such a thing happen.

Hannah’s song, that we chanted earlier, her prayer, is famous.  It harkens back to the song of Miriam when the people are delivered out of slavery in Egypt, and it foreshadows the song of Mary when the fetus John leaps in Aunt Elizabeth’s womb at the sound of the voice of the mother of the God.  Hannah is known for this song.  
And who wouldn’t sing a song of victory and vindication, a song of awe at God’s amazing, table-turning ways that lift up the poor and bring down the mighty – when you go from being desperate and hopeless to being given the very thing your heart most desires! That is something to sing about!

But her song doesn’t come when her prayers are answered; they are not about finally getting the child she has always wanted and being his mother for the rest of his life. Hannah sings when she leaves her son at the temple, when she gives the child back to God.  
When she turns and walks away from the one thing she most desired in the whole world, she does it with a song of praise.

There is something going on here that feels nearly impossible to grasp.  As we begin to ask our questions, “Who is God and what is God up to?” And “What is a good life and how do we live it?” specifically in the lives of people we are journeying with, right out of the gate we come up against a problem with Hannah.  Because our view, my view, of a good life, would be for her prayer to be answered and for her finally to be Samuel’s mother, and for Samuel to be hers to raise, forever. And God would be the one who answers that prayer, lets that fulfillment happen, doesn’t take back the gift God has given. 

But that’s not how Hannah sees it.  She names her son Samuel, a play on the verb sa-el- to ask- because she had asked him of the Lord. But this verb means both movements, both to ask fervently, and to lend back. The movements of giving and receiving, receiving and giving back. The gift of it all. So that Samuel’s very identity is one who is received and given back, the gift, in whom is experienced the movement of God toward us, and us in return to God.

For us, the good life is wanting something really badly and then getting it. The world’s stories are happily ever after endings. Rags to riches, humiliated to vindicated, worthless to important. Hannah’s identity changes in the world, she becomes Samuel’s mother. She is no longer the barren one, her own persistence means God heard her and answered her prayers. The story should stop there. The moral could be, don’t give up on your dreams. We’d love that kind of story. They make movies about those stories.  They write Sunday school books about those stories.  

But that’s not a way of God story.  Right in the middle between the creation and the eschaton, between the exodus and the promised land, between palm Sunday and Easter, is the part we skip over or race through or whitewash when we tell God’s story because it gets too messy, because we don’t know how to explain it.  We make it all cheery and shallow instead of painful and disconcerting, cute jewelry crosses instead of gut-wrenching “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” because the Christian life is supposed to be all victory and joy, and so we don’t talk very much about either the barrenness or the sacrifice, we don’t talk about the unanswered prayers or the terror of answered prayers and what they demand of us. 

Hannah has been drawn into something so miraculous that she envisions something so far beyond what we modern people are satisfied with.  She has changed. She’s no longer barren, written off, hopeless, but neither is she just Samuel’s mother.  She has been drawn into a bigger reality, and she wants nothing less than that for her own child.  What has happened can only be from the act of God, and so she will only let this baby participate in the act of God. Nothing less will satisfy.

So, as she leaves her child there, Hannah sings.  She sings a song of victory, and hope, and joy. She praises a God of strength and might, and thanks a God of power. 
She pronounces God’s preference for the weak, God’s deliverance of the poor, God’s partiality for the barren, the lost, in the story of salvation.
She speaks against the proud and the arrogant, those who think they have it all.  She declares God’s lordship over all the earth.  She sings this with all her heart.

The story doesn’t stop there, because God’s story never does.  
In a very turbulent time for Israel, the people kept on asking God for a King, a human leader other than God, that they could turn to, so they could be like the other nations. And finally God relents. But God needs someone to guide them in this time, to lead them to this king, and to advise the king too. God needs someone to be the one who goes between God and the people. And it will take a special person, one who will see the bigger picture, who will not seek to simply be king himself.  It will require one who looks beyond personal fulfillment to the greater cosmic story, and chooses to participate, chooses to trust God with his very life.  This is Hannah’s son.

Hannah’s story begins another story, Samuel’s story, and Israel’s story, actually, because the whole book of Samuel is really the story of Israel, Israel who was lost, and written off, hopeless and futureless.  This barren woman becomes God’s bearer of a lost nation’s future, a symbol of hope. 

His whole life long Samuel is to the people the embodiment of justice and compassion, he represents the ear of God and the voice of God.  He belongs to God and he belongs to Israel. He is the embodiment of the relationship of receiving and giving, God to the people, the people to God, the giving and receiving that it the gift of life when you live as those belonging to God.

We see Hannah again later in Samuel’s story.  It says in chapter two that every year when they return for the sacrifice at Shiloh Hannah brings Samuel a little robe that she has made for him.  And every year the priest acknowledges and honors her for her sacrifice.  And she and her husband go on to have five more children.  And the boy Samuel grows up before the Lord, claimed and cared for by God.  And years later Hannah’s song is taken up by King David and woven into his own poetry, into our Psalms, our scripture, after her son Samuel grows up and becomes a prophet of God who anoints a shepherd boy to be King, the ancestor of the Messiah.

Life is for sharing with God.  Even when what we most want is deeply good, the good life is not getting what we most want. 
And to live a good life is not to be passive recipients of God’s blessings. 

The good life is being a full participant with God in blessing the whole world.  
Hannah does not sing because she finally gets what she most wants.  She sings because she gives the gift back to God.  Because she is in the position of being able to give to God.  But her sharing began in the darkness, not just in the light. Not just when she has something to share but before that, when she was empty.  Hannah made her grief God’s business. She invites God into her barrenness. 
And when she does that, God takes her at her word and holds her to her promise, what dignity there is in that!  God receives Hannah’s impossible gift, but not as a passive recipient either.  God participates in Hannah’s gift by making Samuel a blessing to the nation, a linchpin in salvation history. Hannah trusted God and shared her anguish, and God trusted Hannah and used her help redeem God’s people.

Hannah becomes a prophet, singing out with joy about the end of the story that awaits us all, because she herselfhas tasted the hope, the fullness and freedom, the blessing of a God who doesn’t play by the rules of the world. She’s released from competition and inadequacy, of an identity defined by what she can or can’t produce, and even of a good life horizon that ends with our own personal fulfillment and joy. Instead she has found her life taken up into the life and purpose of God.   The movements of giving and receiving, receiving and giving back. The gift of it all. Hannah sings because she has tasted the real reality.

Life is a gift.  All of it.  The light and the darkness of it.  We are neither in this desolate, alone and against, nor are we called to be passive recipients.  We are invited to be full participants, collaborators with the Divine. 
But to do so, we must go to our own barren places of longing and despair and refuse to sit in them alone. We must invite God into our suffering, tell God what we are experiencing, and demand God’s response. 
When we do, we will find that the places of death, and darkness, and discomfort that we’d rather skip past, that we’d rather make into shallow moral lessons, those are where the story really happens, where the end is glimpsed, and the beginnings are created, and the redemption is worked out, and people are made real, and life is deep and significant, and we touch the eternal.  

And the beloved ones we are given, and given to, on loan from God, in this short and miraculous life, are also participants in the real.  Our identity is as those who are received and given back; we are gift to one another, in whom we experience the movement of God toward us, and us in return to God.  And we can give one another to God.  We can pray nothing less than the life and purposes of God for one another, and accept nothing short of full participation in the cosmic blessing of the world for ourselves.  And God will receive and honor that gift.  Because God comes and give us God’s very self.  
This is how we enter Advent. Come, Lord Jesus.


This is part of a series, journeying with some of our Biblical ancestors: HannahMaryAnna & SimeonJohnSamuelDavid*, The Samaritan Woman

(*This is an older message about David, in this series, we had a wonderful performance of 'David" by Theater for the Thirsty)

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