Hannah's Situation and Story

Not So Churchy
August 15, 2016
1 Samuel 1:8-20

8Her husband Elkanah said to her, ‘Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?’

9 After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Beloved. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. 10She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Beloved, and wept bitterly. 11She made this vow: ‘O One of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.’

12 As she continued praying before the Beloved, Eli observed her mouth.13Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. 14So Eli said to her, ‘How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.’15But Hannah answered, ‘No, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Beloved. 16Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.’ 17Then Eli answered, ‘Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made.’  

Jake, has been after me to read this book called The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick. Finally on vacation last week, I read it. It was a really helpful book for me to think through a bit of structure, and even theory, on how we write our stories, tell our stories, and create in general. The author writes: “every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.”  

Here is the situation at hand: Hannah, cannot manage to get pregnant. She has a husband who makes relatively insensitive comments regarding the implications of her inability to conceive. Rather than Hannah doing what women who have come before her have done to have a baby (compete, lie, throw her maidservant into the wilderness), she prayed to God. Crazy, right? Praying rather than trying to manipulate your way into what you want? Unfortunately, rather than encouraging her, Eli, a priest representing the institution that chastised her, thought her praying looked ridiculous and chastised her. “What is wrong with you, are you drunk?” he asked.

The situation: infertility in ancient Israel. Barenness in a social situation where children equal a future, where the inability to give birth is met with judgment, shame, disgrace, and isolation. Hannah was living the result of an unjust system: isolation, shame, loneliness.

The story: the story is one that we only can surmise, that we can pick through what little we are given to uncover. We don’t have Hannah among us today to question, all we have are a few lines of a book, but they are lines that bridge her situation and her story, they are lines of human loneliness, shame and suffering that comes from this that is a universal spiritual experience. As I have sat with Hannah over the past weeks this is where I believe her story begins, and the more that Hannah lives this story she reaches the insight of opening her mouth and speaking her truth to God, and to Eli, the symbol of religious and social injustice. Her situation leads to the liberation that comes from the process of living through infertility in ancient Israel that leads to the thing that she has to say: listen to me, I am not drunk, instead I am fed up with the injustice of this, and because of that I am pouring out my heart to my God, maybe you should refocus your energy on the problem at hand and then when you realize what bullshit the very religious institution that you are representing has put me through, then you should try praying yourself. I am not a worthless woman.

 Imagine how hard it was for a woman like Hannah in ancient times to claim: “I am not worthless. I have my own relationship with the Sacred. I can speak.” Imagine how hard it was for a woman in these times to talk back to a priest, to tell him who is boss and where to shove it. Imagine how hard it was to claim what had happened to her: her own suffering.

We don’t know much more. We don’t know the scenes of the situation that got her here. We can imagine them: women avoiding her at the well, the arrival of her menstruation with grief that comes with blood each month, nights of tears and worry, knowing looks at the market with other women unable to bear children, bargaining with her God who seemed to pass over her in favor, but in the end, just prayer. Hours upon hours of prayer. Many visits to the temple. 

Hannah has a voice and somewhere in the situation that we read, the straw broke the camel’s back and we hear a glimpse into the story, the story of overcoming the pain that a broken system creates.

We all have situations and stories. Jake has been encouraging me to find glimpses of my story. I am pretty scared of that story, the story that I don’t quite yet know what it is, but contains something to do with the ability to find peace with God and myself in the midst of deep discomfort with anger. I have so many little scenes that I have hoarded up inside, squirreled away, to be shared with precious few, to protect myself and the façade that I have created to distance myself from others. I am full of good excuses for my refusal to share wider: I have worked hard to create my façade, to not let others in to the uncomfortable and destructive feelings and desires that I have. Why let that up? In addition to which, I know that my story, whenever I figure out what that is exactly, is going to piss people off. Not only will the story piss people off, but who wants to read my story—I have read too many memoirs and spiritual reflection books that are whiny and self-absorbed and God help me if this is another one of those.

I must grapple with this story, though, write and write so that I can articulate that story, clearly for myself but more for others. The reality is that God gave me that story. God accompanied me in my situation and gave me the story, and it isn’t just my story but it is a story that will illuminate the story of others.

You see, God accompanied you in your situation and gave you your story. God accompanied Hannah through her situation and gave her her story. She articulated in such a clear and brilliant way the isolation that comes from unjust systems, the shame that weighs on our shoulders that doesn’t belong to us, the loneliness that is the result and she said “Enough.”

I am assuming that Hannah had a lot of time to wade through her story, to turn it over in her head like a smooth pearl held between her thumb and pointer finger in her pocket. I doubt she wrote, but she walked alone, she had no children to distract her, she had to share her husband with another woman who not only was able to bare children but chastised Hannah for not being able to. She spent time in the temple praying to her God. She probably took more time than she wanted to sit still, pray, be with all of the emotions that her barenness presented.  

I could be wrong, of course. Maybe I am just projecting. Maybe Hannah was the least self-reflective person out there, for self-reflection wasn’t exactly a prized concept like it is today. But something happened that finally gave her the strength to use her voice as powerfully as she did, to name the desperation that we all feel in our lives at some point, the emotion that none of us particularly want to admit to, and that we are quite sure we feel in isolation. The desperate crying out of Hannah is a universal experience. Unjust systems produce inside of us painful feelings and they must, one way or another, come out. They are the makings of good activists and artists, authors and songwriters. They tell us that something in the world is indeed not right.

One of the things about being a pastor is that you are entrusted with all sorts of uncomfortable feelings, feelings that people are quite sure might take over their very own being. One of the things that I have realized is that so many feel so alone, and while the situation, and the texture, and even the story varies, we all feel them, and they have much more in common than not. The inability to admit to how hard this stuff is just keeps us further and further isolated.  

Perhaps the voice that Hannah finds through the time she has lived isolated and lonely is a gift of insight for us. We also must wade through God-given intolerable feelings in the face of unjust systemic structures.

Perhaps the voice that Hannah finds is to provide comfort to those of us to know that we are not alone in our isolation, our loneliness, our shame.

Perhaps the voice that Hannah finds is to encourage us to dwell through our own situations until we find our story glowing and vibrant as a witness to the world.

Perhaps Hannah’s story is the realization that she is not worthless, that she is full of worth, that the injustice she has experienced for so many years does not and cannot define her. Her story is one of revolution: through finding her story she breaks through the hard surface of injustice that got her here in the first place.

What is your story that you have hoarded for yourself, that haunts the way you think and interact with others, that keeps you in pain and isolated? What is your story that is a gift for others? Is it really as scary as you think it is?

A theologian named Michael Casey writes this: “A rubber ball held under water submits. Once released, it springs to the surface; and the deeper it is held, the more it strains to rise. The human spirit possesses natural buoyancy. It can be held down by enslavement to the senses, by acquisitiveness and ambition, by anger and violence…it can be held down, but its natural tendency remains dramatically oriented toward God. It can never be satisfied until this upward impulse is allowed freedom.”

What is your story, being held down, needing release?

Over the next months, we will live with our stories. We will be taking biblical stories and, starting at our retreat, be living with them too. We will ask the stories these questions: “who is speaking, what is being said, and what is the relation between the two?”[1] We will drill down in the interaction between our situations and our stories, and that of biblical stories. This interactive process will lead to artistic exploration and expression, and we will then share those with us here in worship.

In the meantime, this is Hannah’s: “I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Beloved. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman.”

[1] Loc 1687 of 1828 in The Situation and the Story