"The Power of Prayer"
Sermon preached by Anne R. Ledbetter
November 18, 2012
Scripture - 1 Samuel 1:4-20
Most of us have known someone who is infertile - that is, a woman who cannot conceive, or a man who is sterile. For many people, infertility feels like a terrible defect, a raw deal, a living nightmare, an impossible weight of disappointment and dashed hopes. For Hannah, it was even more devastating - being barren brought not only sorrow, but also shame, humiliation, and condemnation. Remember, ancient people believed that illness, birth defects, or infertility indicated that a person was being punished by God. Thus, our passage today informs us not once, but twice, how God had punished Hannah: "The Lord had closed her womb." It is both an unscientific view, and a harmful theological claim. Or, as Marcus Borg would say, here is a place where the Bible is simply wrong. God does not cause women, or men, to be infertile. Neither does God punish individuals with cancer or ALS, or strike countries with earthquakes or tsunamis.
In today's story from scripture, Hannah suffered from childlessness, and her barrenness made her feel useless and ostracized. Evidently, her husband Elkanah did not hold her condition against her, but Hannah yearned for a child and for inclusion in society.
Her pain and desperation brought Hannah to her knees in prayer. After Elkanah had made his annual sacrifice at the temple in Shiloh, and the family was feasting, Hannah crept to the tabernacle and poured out her soul to the Lord, unleashing her anger, frustration, and grief, and vowing to the Lord that if God would remember her, and give her a male child (for male children were the most coveted) then she would present her son to the temple as a Nazirite, dedicated to the Lord's service. Hannah would present him not just for a year or two, but for his whole life.
Even though we know that God does not strike bargains, we have probably prayed such prayers as:
However, God perpetually ignores our bargain hunting, and reaches out in covenant relationship, beckoning: I will be your God, and you will be my people. Even when we falter as God's people, and fail to live as if we know God, much less love the Lord, God continues to hang around, ready and waiting for if and when our hearts break open in need.
So if this passage does not teach us to bargain with God, what might its message be? At its simplest level, the story of Hannah shows us the power of prayer. Not the art of negotiating a winning deal with the Almighty, but the act of faithfully pouring out one's soul to God, expressing one's deepest anguish and affirming one's dependence on God. Hannah's prayer of groaning comes from a place of utter vulnerability. She does not just come to God with a formal petition. She does not come with traditional sacrifice. She comes in loneliness, isolation, and despair. She lays bare all the emotion and all the pain. Her desperate and plaintive prayer is a remarkable image of piety.1
When has life brought you to your knees? Maybe you were up half the night worried sick about a missing teenage son or daughter, AWOL hours past curfew, and no text message or phone call. O God, keep Alex from harm. Or perhaps you were in the shower and felt a suspicious lump in your neck. Please Lord, don't let this be cancer. Possibly you heard your company was announcing major layoffs. Just let me keep this job, God! Or, maybe you were trying to stay sober, and cried out, Help me, God, I need your strength right here and now!
Prayers are bizarre really. Think about it: we do not pray to inform God of something new - or God would not be God. We don't pray to change God's mind - or again, God would not be God, the fountain of Wisdom. We pray to change ourselves - to put ourselves in a different frame of mind and more importantly, to open or make pliable our own heart.
When poet and memoirist Mary Karr was trying to get sober, a friend kept urging her to pray every day. Karr tried half-heartedly, and later asked her friend, "What kind of god wants me to grovel?"
Her friend responded, "You don't do it for God."
Mary asked, "Well, who DO you do it for?"
"You do it to put yourself in a position of humility so you understand how little control you have over things."
"Oh, you mean it's for ME?"
"Oh, well okay. I'll do that. I know I don't have any control..."2
Karr kept praying, and gradually she began to experience these moments of quiet, when as she described it, her head would shut up. This was truly nothing short of profound relief, to have the critical voice shushed. She began to get this sense of Presence, and began doing things out of this quietness. In trying to explain the feeling Karr says, "It was south of my neck" - in other words, more out of her heart than her head. Basically she was learning to be compassionate towards herself and others.
An unlikely convert to Catholicism, Karr suggests that people usually come to church as they do to prayer - through suffering and terror, need and fear. She writes, "No one I know has ever turned to God any other way. Maybe saints turn to God from innate righteousness. The rest of us tend to show up holding out a tin cup."3 A friend with 20 years sobriety told Karr, "You can't take away your own fear. God does that." She explained, "When I pray, I just put it all out there." This is what Hannah did at Shiloh, and praying delivered her from her deep distress.
You see, prayer has the power to transform us - from addiction to recovery, from insidious shame to healthy self-esteem, from intolerance to acceptance, from fearful anxiety to inexplicable trust. In Hannah's case, her transformation from oppressed outcast to worthy daughter of God came before the pregnancy. Eli the priest confronted her at the temple, accusing her of drunkenness, but Hannah explained that she had not consumed wine, but was simply pouring out her soul before the Lord. She pled for the priest not to view her as a worthless (barren) woman, for she had been spilling her heart to God. Eli realized his mistake and simply said, "Go in peace, and may God grant your petition." Hannah returned to the banquet going on at Shiloh Hilton where Elkanah's clan was staying, and the scriptures read, "her countenance was no longer sad." Her experience in prayer left Hannah feeling loved and remembered. Perhaps it was her change of heart which enabled her body to conceive. All we know is that they rose early the next day, worshipped, then went back to their home in Ramah. There Elkanah knew his wife (the Biblical way of saying they had sexual intercourse), and in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, which means, "I have asked him of the Lord."
But what about when one prays and there is no pregancy? When the test results are malignant? What about when your job position is eliminated? Frederick Buechner writes, "What about when the boy is not healed? When, listened to or not listened to, the prayer goes unanswered? Who knows? Just keep praying, Jesus says. Even if the boy dies, keep on beating the path to God's door, because the one thing you can be sure of is that down the path you beat with even your most half-cocked and halting prayer the God you call upon will finally come, and even if [he] does not bring you the answer you want, he will bring you himself. And maybe at the secret heart of all prayers that is what we are really praying for."4
A new book by Anne Lamott hit the stores this week - it's entitled Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. I recall a previous Anne Lamott adage that all prayer can be distilled into three words: help, thanks, sorry. I find it interesting that Annie has changed that the third prayer from sorry to Wow, a prayer of awe before God. Next week Greg will be speaking about her second prayer: Thanks. But it's that first prayer which often prompts people to pray in earnest: Help. Lamott asserts "Help is a prayer that's always answered. It doesn't matter how you pray - with your head bowed in silence, or crying out in grief... Churches are good for prayer, but so are garages, and cars, and mountains and showers..." Sometimes it spews forth as more than one word: helpmehelpmehelpmehelpme. Or in another form: "helpJoshhelpJoshhelpJosh," or "HelpMandyhelpMandyHelpMandy," or "helpHaitihelpHaitihelpHaiti."
The practice of prayer can radically change the world, because it changes us. Christian writer C. S. Lewis put it succinctly: "I pray because I cannot help myself. I pray because I'm helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn't change God. It changes me."5
Do you pray? Today's story reminds us that it's a potent practice. Has your prayer life changed over the years? How have your prayers changed you? May prayer forever be a powerful, recreative force in our lives - as it was in Hannah's - opening our hearts to the One in whom we live and move and have our being.
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