posted by Amy on Jun 30
A young man in blue jeans and a baseball cap is playing violin in a subway station. This is a common-enough occurrence: a starving artist trying to make a few bucks. The music is exquisite, but hardly anyone notices. In 45 minutes of playing, he collects $32. They don’t realize they are getting a free recital by one of the world’s most famous violinists, Joshua Bell, playing a priceless Stradivarius. They don’t expect it, so they don’t see.
When we read 1 Samuel 1 we see that the people in Hannah’s life don’t really see her. They think they know all about her. Every year when the family goes to Shiloh to make a sacrifice, Elkanah, the husband, gives Hannah a double share, because he loves her, even though she has no children. And every year, the fertile wife, Peninah, taunts and provokes her. To Elkanah, Hannah is an ingrate. He has children with Peninah, and that’s good enough for him. He just wants to eat his dinner in peace, without having to listen to bickering women. He says to her, “Am I not more to you than ten sons?,” not expecting an answer. To Peninah, she’s a source of irritation and provocation. Even though Peninah is the one who has children, Elkanah loves Hannah. Peninah punishes Hannah for this.
After Peninah’s taunting and Elkanah’s dismissiveness, Hannah gets up from the table and goes to the temple to pray. When Eli confronts her, supposing her to be some kind of drunken bag lady, she sticks up for herself, saying, “Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman.”
She asks God to give her a son, and promises to dedicate him to the Lord’s service. She becomes the mother of Samuel, who was the last of the Judges, and who anointed the first two kings of Israel.
This could be a story about making a deal with God, but I think there’s much more to it than that. It’s about someone who does not allow others’ opinions of her, or her circumstances, to define her or limit her. Hannah takes a step towards God on her own behalf. She doesn’t rely on her husband’s piety, or on the powers of the priest, Eli, to intercede for her. She doesn’t let her present circumstances prevent her from imagining a different future for herself. She offers to serve the Lord in what was essentially the only way a woman of that time could serve—by bearing a son who will be devoted to God. And, apparently, this is just what God was waiting for. Hannah trusts in God’s justice, love and compassion, and in return God uses her to alter the course of history. She knows her own worth in the eyes of God, and asserts her own right to seek God in the temple, and plead her own case.
Do you allow your current circumstances or your role in life to limit you? Do you acquiesce in other people’s perceptions of you? Or are you open to the possibility that the God who made you, and knows your heart’s desire, and knows your true worth, will not only affirm you as God’s precious child, but might actually need you to change history?
The movie “Simon Birch” is about a strange little boy, a dwarf, who is convinced that God has a purpose for his life. In the face of his parents’ indifference, his priest’s impatience, the Sunday school teacher’s arrogance, and a tragic accident that results in the death of someone extremely important to him, Simon keeps telling everyone that he has been called by God. It is his faith, and his insistence that God knows him and has a purpose for him, that opens up new possibilities for the other people in the story. He does not allow his physical disabilities or his circumstances to get in the way of his relationship with God.
Hannah lived in a dark and desperate time. There was no king in Israel, and the great judges were a distant memory. The women had been marginalized and silenced. But Hannah knew her own worth, even if no one else did. She put her relationship with God first, and she was willing to serve God. As so often happens in the Bible, God chose an undistinguished, unlikely person to bring something new to the story of God’s people. In following her heart’s desire, she also set an entire nation on a new course.
Do you know anyone like Hannah? Anyone whose faith becomes a force for transformation? I did. Her name was Kathy Burrows. Born with cerebral palsy, she had been a quadriplegic all her life, but she never let that stop her. She decided she wanted to join our church choir. She gave it all she had—she came to all the rehearsals, she got to know everyone in the choir, she took an interest in everybody’s story. She even went with us to perform in Carnegie Hall.
As if cerebral palsy wasn’t enough misfortune for one person, life dealt Kathy two more severe blows. First she got breast cancer, but with treatment—surgery, hair loss, weight loss, and all that—it went into remission. Then one day when she was tooling around on her motorized wheelchair, she ran into a dumpster and broke her leg. Now you might think a broken leg wouldn’t really be that big a deal to a quadriplegic, but it was. It made it so she couldn’t stay in her assisted living apartment, or go out in her wheelchair, and she had to go to a nursing home. Losing what little mobility she had was a huge blow to her, and she became depressed. While she was in the nursing home my husband left me. It broke my heart. It stopped me in my tracks, and drove me to my knees. But Kathy did something that broke my heart open. She sent me a sympathy card. Kathy, who had never had a husband or children or a career, who had spent her entire life in a wheelchair, felt my pain and offered me comfort. I had never done that for her.
Kathy’s breast cancer came back, and she died at the age of 46. But her life transformed me. In contrast to my own self-centeredness, Kathy was grateful for every breath she took, and she lived a life of faith and love. She challenged my preconceptions about what “the good life” really is, and set me on a path that eventually led me to seminary. Like Hannah, Kathy didn’t allow her life circumstances, or other people’s perceptions of her, to limit her. I’m not the only one whose life was changed by knowing Kathy. At her memorial service, many others shared similar stories.
Before she died, Kathy wrote a song about her choir membership. I don’t remember all of it, but the last few words of the refrain stuck with me. Kathy wrote, “I’m not an outcast in the choir.” I experienced her as a messenger from God about my call. She experienced me, and the other people in the choir, as a loving, inclusive community. You know it’s true love when you both think you’re getting more out of it than you put in. Kathy challenged and changed me. She inspired me to rethink my values and my life, and my effect on other people. She was a living example of loving God and loving neighbor, and she was a signpost on my path to ministry.
God calls each of us into a relationship of love and trust with him. Out of this relationship, God will transform our personal stories, and can use us for God’s purposes. Whenever you are feeling powerless or marginalized, remember Hannah, and take it up directly with God. Put your trust in God, and value your relationship with God above everything else. Offer to serve God, and be willing to do God’s will. And whenever you are feeling sorry for yourself, or thinking that what you do doesn’t matter or make a difference, remember Kathy, and realize that you are part of a much bigger story.