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The Complicated Faith of Hannah

There is a small detail hidden in this week’s readings that can make a huge difference to the way we understand the text. Elkanah the Zuphite from Ephraim had two wives, Peninnah (whose name is probably derived from the Hebrew word for pearl) and Hannah, חַנָּה, whose name means favored or blessed. The story makes it clear that Elkanah had a special tenderness for Hannah and definitely did favor her, but she did not see things that way. Even though she knew that Elkanah loved her, she did not have any children, and in her eyes, that made her an inferior wife to Peninnah.

I’ve been thinking a lot about insecurities this week and the way that we sometimes fail to see the inherent value embedded in our identity. We look around us and compare ourselves to those we think are like us, and it can become easy for us to list all the ways that we don’t measure up. I’m not as successful. I’m not as smart. I’m not as attractive. The nots we all carry with us can become debilitating if we allow them. The text seems to imply that Hannah was there when she slipped into a state that sounds like depression.

I think we can all identify with Hannah on some level, and that’s both good and bad. One of the things that happens to us when we are in this state is that we become numb to the ways in which our lives are already rich and full. Hannah had her husband’s favor and lived a good life, but her own sense of value was so tightly connected to the thing that she was not, she probably struggled to count her blessings. As we continue with our stewardship season and approach the Season of Giving, I wonder how often we frame our generosity in terms of what we lack. It’s true you might not be able to pledge as much to the church as some, and it’s probably also true that your holiday gifts won’t be as elaborate as some people in your family, but the truth is that we all have something we can give when we learn to hold things with an open hand.

Hannah got to this turning point herself one year. She pledged that she would return the child she had desired for years to the Lord’s service, essentially allowing herself to be an instrument of God’s work in the world. She held the thing that was both her biggest hope and her biggest anxiety with an open hand, giving it back to God and allowing God to transform her pain into fulfillment.

Several commentaries mention that this is a tricky text to preach because of the many women who struggle with infertility and may never experience pregnancy and childbirth. I acknowledge that as well, and I would also like to point out that sometimes our “nots” don’t just go away if we get a big promotion, finish a degree, or get in better shape. I think the true lesson from Hannah’s story is not that God will “fix” all our problems for us; instead, we should learn to hold our anxieties and our hopes with an open hand, allowing God to use us in ways we could not have imagined.

The Rev. Dr. Perry M. Pauley

Assistant Rector

Christ Church of the Ascension