We are in Spokane, Washington this week, Abraham and Micah and I, staying with my daughter. After work each day, we get outside and move. One day we hiked in the snowy mountains. Today we paddle boarded down a river beneath orange elms and yellow oaks. The wind beat us backward, and sent the leaves spinning and wheeling like gulls around us. Abraham caught a leaf on his tongue.
It is too soon for the leaves to leave. But in such wind, the trees have no choice but to let go of their flaming clothes, their brilliant robes. All that is most beautiful is taken, scattered.
Here, in the company of three of my children, I think of parents whose children were taken from them, by fire, by bombs, by war. This week we face headlines about fallen soldiers and presidential phone calls. Boastings and accusations abound, proving that nothing, nothing in this country is now safe from politicization, competition and denunciation. Even grief will be tallied and wound into a political club. Have we lost sight of the reality that sons and daughters have died?
My reading this week takes me to Hannah, to a woman who lost a child, but not quite. She gave up her child entirely, willingly. How can this be?
Remember her story? Hannah was infertile for many years, while her husband's other wife bore him many children. Bereft, she asked God with deep sobs for a son. And she promised that if He gave her a son, she would give him back to God to serve Him in the Temple all his life. When God does indeed give her a son, she does it.
Can you see the child crying there as she gives one final hug, prying his fingers from her shawl as she sets him down? “Samuel, all will be well,” she comforts even as her own eyes well over and her body shakes. Then she turns away, her son’s voice behind her, “Mama! No! Mama!” and she keeps walking, for days, until she arrives home, childless again.
But something truly strange happens in this story. When she leaves Samuel in the Temple, she sings a song of praise. What? Praise---not lament?
Here are some of the words she sings and prays:
“My heart exults in the Lord;
“There is no one holy like the Lord,
“The Lord kills and makes alive;
He brings down to Sheol and raises up.
“He raises the poor from the dust,
To make them sit with nobles,
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth;
And He will give strength to His king,
And will exalt the horn of His anointed.”
Who is this holier-than-moi mother who gave up her only child and then sings joyously to God because of it? I have only had a taste of infertility. My husband and I waited 8 years before trying for a child, and when we finally felt ready to begin-----nothing. When our daughter finally arrived years later, after much fervent prayer, I am pretty sure I wouldn’t have left her at a church. Or anywhere.
But maybe I am beginning to understand. Hannah’s heartbreak was achingly personal and deep, but I believe Hannah had the entire nation of Israel in mind when she prayed for a son and vowed to give him to the Lord. In those days, “there was no king and everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Eli the priest was little better. He had two wastrel sons who violated God’s temple daily and he did nothing about it.
I believe Hannah was so distressed by the rebellion of God’s people she was ready to do everything to counter it. And she did. She gave all she had. That son, Samuel, grew up to be a righteous priest who heard God, who chose and anointed Israel’s greatest King, David. Her words looked forward, even, to the coming of a Messiah “the anointed one.”
Yes, Samuel sobbed as she left. And her own heart cracked and bled. But her pain was swallowed up in praise. How? Hannah so filled her eyes with God, she wanted most to join His redeeming work in the world. And she did. At great cost, but with great joy.
It seems we are living in days like those, when everyone does what is right in their own eyes. What do we do? The story is too rich for simple cliche's but surely this is true:
Give your pain to God--your personal pain and our national pain---as Hannah did that day she emptied her heart before Him.
And whatever you ask for, be ready to receive it and to give it back to God----for the good of the country. For the good of the world. For the good of God's kingdom.
When we join God's redeeming work in the world, our pain can be turned to praise. I believe it. Do you?