Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Hannah: a Best Supporting Actress nominee for the Ancient Near East

I used to produce stage dramas and theatre productions and one of my great frustrations in doing so was with characters/actors who thought their part was the main point of the story. So, imagine if you will, a character who only has a couple of lines trying to upstage the main character in a scene; or, worse still, an actor who begins to add lib their part onstage in order to bolster their dialogue with some…personal flair.

These are the kinds of people that just don’t get that the story isn’t about them – they are only supporting roles in the story; and, though we often come to love these support characters, we have to agree that – when they presume to make the story about them instead of allowing the story to unfold naturally – they detract from the whole experience.

Sadly, this is what we often do in the story of God. We begin to think that we’re the main character, we think that our lives are all about the subplot and the supporting characters at the expense of the larger story.

But in the history of the Earth, we are all only subtext and footnotes.

What I love about the books of 1 & 2 Samuel is their incredible ability to trace God’s story – the main storyline – through the subplots of four separate lives [Hannah, Samuel, Saul, and David]. So, when he begins to unpack the character of Hannah in his introduction to these books, Eugene Peterson tells us that being a woman actually has mostly to do with God; and, when we look at this character of Hannah, I think we can begin to see how God enters into our everyday lives and validates the common.

This is a great struggle for many of us: the struggle of understanding the commonplace plotlines and developments of life as sacred in-and-of themselves. For many of us, we want to discover the presence of the divine in only special moments, in magical memories of transcendence; but this is not the biblical depiction of spirituality. Biblical spirituality is about redemption, the redemption of the ordinary from profanity into sanctity – from just life into life as a divine seive.

The danger in isolating spirituality to specialness is that we start to think of God and the Presence of God as being like Christmas tree ornaments or birthday cake icing. We think of our truly spiritual moments as infrequent and peculiar, when – in reality – our most authentic spiritual moments are moments into which we invite God independent of their inherent significance.

Such is the story of Hannah – a story of real human trial and sadness.

She is a barren woman competing for significance in the family heirarchy, loved by her husband but unable to fully love herself because of the failure of her physiology. Her story does not begin as an example of how we should live, but as an example of the way we do live – an ordinary life that plays a role in God’s purposes for redemption.

In fact, Hannah is caught in a kind-of love triangle, not unlike the famous trio of Brad Pitt & Jennifer Aniston & Angelina Jolie. Hannah is in the middle of a romantic mess, and there is certainly no glory in her condition at the beginning of the story.

Nevertheless, the story of Samuel isn’t really the story of Hannah. Hannah’s story is a subplot, a background story, a context. Likewise, the story of Samuel isn’t even really about Samuel [who dies before 2 Samuel takes place] or David or Saul – the story of 1 & 2 Samuel is about God.

Just like your story is really about God, for we are subplots in the divine drama.

Do you know what I mean?

When I was in college I really throught that my life was the life that was going to change the whole face of human history [and maybe everybody should dream this way a little bit when they’re still quite young]. I had been told, repeatedly, by well-meaning dowagers and still-beathing fossils that “I was going to be great”, and that idea polluted my thinking with the idea that I would be the great protagonist on earth for the 21st Century.

But the older I get, the more I realize that – while I certainly still entertain ambitions for a meaningful existence – what I do with my life, my story, isn’t really the thing that matters. I get the idea that in 100 or 1000 years, regardless of how amazing a person I become, hardly anyone is going to remember who I was.

So instead of thinking of colossal greatness – which, by the way, tends to go hand in hand with ignoring those closest to you and sacrificing meaningful relationships in favor of abstractions and accolades – I’ve begun to think of my part in the history of the world.

I’ve begun to think that we all have a part.

Hannah’s part begins in c.1100 AD. Chronologically, the books of 1 & 2 Samuel take place almost directly after the book of Judges [despite the fact that the book of Ruth precedes Samuel in our bibles, she probably more rightly lived around the time of Samson] and the book of Judges ends with a note about “those days.” We’ve talked about those days before…as a matter-of-fact I think we’ve all had one of those days, probably even this past week; but, here we are told that “in those days Israel had no king and everyone did as he saw fit.”

Those days were far from the high water mark of Israel’s spiritual life as a nation. The book of Judges describes chaotic days in which the Israelites were often supressed by the surrounding nations. God would send a judge to deliver them, but their freedom lasted only as long as the judge lived. Even their judges, though, were less than model saints.

So Hannah begins in dark times: isolated, scorned, confused, and in the middle of a national apostasy.

Now, as part of this world, Hannah and Elkanah [her husband] would make an annual pilgrimmage to Shiloh to worship YHWH [along with Peninnah and her children], and it is just after offering their sacrifices that Hannah finds herself crying out to God begging Him to intercede on her behalf.

As she’s praying, the Priest, Eli, overhears her and thinks she drunk and begins to yell at her and shame her.

Hannah responds, “Oh no, sir – please! I’m only a woman hard used. I haven’t been drinking. Not a drop of wine or beer. The only thing I’ve been pouring out is my heart, pouring it out to God. Don’t for a minute think that I’m a bad woman. It’s because I’m so desperately unhappy and in such pain that I’ve stayed here so long.

Eli answers her, saying “Go in peace. And may the God of Israel give you what you have asked of Him.”

And then the Message translation says this: “…they worshipped God and returned home to Ramah. Elkanah slept with Hannah, his wife, and God began making the necessary arrangements in response to what she had asked.”

Ah…”necessary arrangements”

Carmel and I have had some necessary arrangements recently and I can tell you honestly that nothing reforms you like parenthood. Nothing redeems you like love for a child, like the inexhaustible depth of affection you feel for someone other than yourself; and I can tell you honestly that I would do anything – anytime to the point of death and beyond – to ensure my children’s happiness and wellbeing.

Childrearing may be the first time for many of us that we come to understand our role as supporting cast in someone else’s story. In fact, Carmel said to me today that she understands our primary calling in life – beyong church ministry or social justice or financial stewardship – to be protecting and loving our children.

What an incredible calling: to live life as a kind of perpetual midwife, thereby consistently sacrificing your preferences for someone else.

This is the life God calls us into. Through characters like Hannah, he directs us to understand ourselves as the supporting cast of history and redemption.

So after Samuel is born, Hannah does what every best supporting actress does and she moves Samuel to the front of the stage and has him dedicated at Shiloh and given into the service of God full time. It is at this point that Hannah sings a song of dedication, a prayer that is so revered throughout Jewish history that Yiddish women still practice this tradition in song and even Mary emulates in the Magnificat.

Hannah’s prayer, recorded in 1 Samuel 2.1-10, is a worship psalm that she probably had prepared in advance for the event of Samuel’s dedication, and the beauty of that psalm comes from the words being an outgrowth of her own spiritual experiences.

This is where so many of us fail in prayer – we try and make our prayers about something else than our lives and the lives to which we are connected. New believers typically make the error of trying to “pray” right, or sound pious; when, what God really wants, is an honest expression of our human encounters and a humble heart that begs His intervention.

But not only does Hannah pray about and through her own experiences, her prayer reaches beyond what she herself has undergone and into the realms of possibility, imagination, and the future of our world.

1 Samuel 2

1Hannah prayed: I'm bursting with God-news! I'm walking on air.
I'm laughing at my rivals. I'm dancing my salvation. 2-5 Nothing and no one is holy like God,
no rock mountain like our God.
Don't dare talk pretentiously—
not a word of boasting, ever!
For God knows what's going on.
He takes the measure of everything that happens.
The weapons of the strong are smashed to pieces,
while the weak are infused with fresh strength.
The well-fed are out begging in the streets for crusts,
while the hungry are getting second helpings.
The barren woman has a houseful of children,
while the mother of many is bereft.
6-10 God brings death and God brings life,
brings down to the grave and raises up.
God brings poverty and God brings wealth;
he lowers, he also lifts up.
He puts poor people on their feet again;
he rekindles burned-out lives with fresh hope,
Restoring dignity and respect to their lives—
a place in the sun!
For the very structures of earth are God's;
he has laid out his operations on a firm foundation.
He protectively cares for his faithful friends, step by step,
but leaves the wicked to stumble in the dark.
No one makes it in this life by sheer muscle!
God's enemies will be blasted out of the sky,
crashed in a heap and burned.
God will set things right all over the earth,
he'll give strength to his king,
he'll set his anointed on top of the world!

What I love most about this prayer is where Hannah places all of the credit [you can tell a lot about a person by where they give credit]. Notice that all of her credit goes to God, whom she understands to be the source of her fortune and provision. I think this has significant implications for us as we scrutinize our own lives and realize that God is ultimately the one who deserves credit for our blessings and accomplishments and successes. This is not to detract from personal effort and application, but simply to acknowledge that He who sets the sun on fire is also He to whom we owe our thanks for our good health, fine country, friendships and workplaces, and the range and variety of things for which we have to be thankful.

So, in closing, let me leave you with some questions for you to filter your soul through:

  1. who gets the credit in your life?

  1. is God an ornament on your soul? Or is your soul permeated by God in the midst of every circumstance?

  1. besides God, and besides even your children, in whose life are you playing the role of supporting actor/actress? In whose life are you playing the role of Best supporting actor/actress?

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