Out of the vast throngs of the people of faith in our Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, Hannah, the mother of Samuel, stands out as a model for spiritual wishfulness. The ancient rabbis described her as the composer of the first prayer. The rabbis of the Talmud cited her prayer as a prime example of sincere worship.
As such, the Bible presents Hannah as a model worthy of emulation for living the life of faith. Like Ruth and Naomi, she is a strong and vibrant woman for whom faith is the organizing principle that gives her power and a sacred sense of knowing who she was as a woman in a world of men.
No spirituality is of much value without the struggle of soul that is demanded to make it real. In our honest moments, we must confess that faith, like life, is difficult. An old Okinawan proverb says simply: Pain makes you think. Thinking makes you wise. Wisdom makes the pain bearable. Most of us who seriously attempt to live our lives in relation to God and in partnership with God can testify that faith calls for the deepest commitment we can muster.
The story of Hannah is dear for many reasons. It’s a tender love story of the quiet and loyal affection between Elkanah and Hannah that ignored the social order of the day, as Hannah was unable to bear Elkanah a male child. In the Bible, barrenness is a common theme and perhaps it’s the metaphor that speaks to us of our many failures and shortcomings before God as we come to learn we have failed to birth God’s goodness in our own habits of being. We, like the childless mothers of the Bible, are failures in bringing life to the world born out of our love for God, who must intervene if that goodness is to emerge.
But the romance and dedication between Hannah and Elkanah created a contentious issue between Peninnah and Hannah. Peninnah had birthed a male heir but did not receive Elkanah’s tender affection, as did Hannah. Love is strange and resists an easy explanation. Why is it we love one but not the other? Why is it our heart tells us we have come home in the presence of one but feel strangely unmoved by another with whom we might have many things in common but lack that certain spark that brings us together? Bonnie Raitt sang soulfully of this:
Turn down the lights, turn down the bed,
Turn down these voices inside my head.
Lay down with me, tell me no lies.
Just hold me close, don’t patronize; don’t patronize
Cause I can’t make you love me if you don’t.
You can’t make your heart feel something it won’t.
Here in the dark, in these final hours,
I will lay down my heart and I’ll feel the power.
But you won’t, no, you won’t,
Cause I can’t make you love me if you don’t.
(© 1991 Lyrics, “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” M. Reid/A. Shamblin, Almo Music Corp/Brio Blues Music/Hayes Street Music, ASCAP)
But there’s more to this than just the love story Hannah shares with Elkanah because Hannah feels desperately in her bones there’s a role she must play if that something more is to occur. She prays as though prayer is her last resort. Sometimes prayer is simply tossing heavenward to God our deepest wishes, hoping to God that someone will hear and answer. Piety aside, sometimes we pray so fervently that Paul’s notion of “groans too deep for words” describes the desperate kinds of prayer we utter.
Hannah took her plans to God, asking God to intervene and do something new with her. What do we pray in those moments? What do we ask of God when certainty is elusive and we dangle wondering whether to be so bold as to ask God for what is in our hearts?
Marcus McFaul has been my good friend for these last few years. Here’s a metaphor he suggested that might help us with these questions as he did this past year in helping his church understand how the winds of God were changing direction in his life.
Marcus acknowledged God often speaks to us as in the Hebrew language: A language made up only of consonants but no vowels as in the name of God, Y-H-W-H, a name the Hebrews considered too holy to even be uttered. In this construct of language, God supplies the consonants and we the vowels. With all the faith, imagination and hope we can muster, we must choose the vowels appropriately.
So in life, here come the consonants God provides: S-T-P. Having only the consonants, by faith we ask, do we place an O between the T and P, interpreting God as saying “stop”? Or do we insert an E, so we interpret God as saying “step”?
McFaul adds, “So we pray, think, listen, discuss, discern – seeking to figure out where God is leading and calling. We fill in the vowel and trust in God wherever that path leads. Earlier doors have opened and I sensed God’s word to me to be “stop.” On other occasions, to the best that I can know, what I believe is that God (was) saying “step.”
Hannah took hold of faith and made her request earnestly to God. It was all she had and she put herself into the fragile faith position where faith and faith alone could make the difference. The inspiration of Hannah is ours to savor and love. It’s also ours to emulate as we seek to follow God, filling in the gaps of what we know with the substance of faith – and so we do.
Keith Herron is senior pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo. He holds degrees from Baylor University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctor of ministry degree from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. He and his wife, Wanda, have a son and daughter, Ben and Alex.
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).