Hannah and the Problem of Pain

November 18th, 2012

Preacher: The Reverend Doyt Conn

Samuel 1:4-20
On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. Her 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?”

After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. She made this vow: “O Lord 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.”

As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.” But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.”

Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your sight.” Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.

They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.”

The sermon today is about the problem of pain and suffering.  Don’t worry, it’s not another stewardship sermon.

The topic came to mind as I was contemplating Hannah from the book of Samuel the other day, as I lay in the dentist’s chair.  It is the perfect place to consider pain.  Actually, the dentist, being a dentist, seemed acutely aware of this propensity, and repeatedly asked me to let him know if anything hurt at all.  I was so numbed that I could barely respond, which was the response he was looking for.

When I go to the dentist I can’t help thinking of Dad.  It was probably six years ago that I found out my Dad never uses Novocain at the dentist.  I was impressed.  The thought never occurred to me.  His reasoning is pretty clear, he wants to know what is happening, and pain is biofeedback that helps him do this.   But more than that he explains, he wants to experience the pain when it is happening not later, after the Novocain wears off.  He wanted to locate it where it was meant to be in time and space, not have it sneak up on him at some future point.

Pain is a strange and mysterious thing.  It moves and migrates. It can sneak up on us from the past or surprise us in the moment. Pain can be put upon us by other people, or it can pierce our flesh by some accidental event.  And pain almost always travels with his twin brother, suffering.

We find them together today in the Old Testament reading from Samuel.

There is the pain of Elkanah provoked by his inability to ease the suffering of his beloved wife Hannah.

There is the pain Peninnah has put upon her by Elkanah as he shows greater favor to her rival, Hannah. So Peninnah responds by inflicting suffering on Hannah, mocking her and taunting her.

And there is the pain of Hannah bound up in her barren womb, and the hurtful words of Peninnah.

That is the problem with pain; it is unavoidable, which makes it universal, and it always seems to spill over from one person to another.

So what is its purpose?

What is the point?

Why is there suffering?

Why is there pain?

I am not sure I can stand here and give you any kind of decent answer. But maybe we can begin with a trite example from my own life to draw us into deeper reflection.

So unlike my Dad, when I was at the dentist the other day, I chose Novocain. It left me drooling for hours, but it also had an unintended consequence- hives. This Novocain, I have been told, is new on the market, and not designed, it seems, for me.  I broke out all over.

So here is the question: have any of you ever had hives?

Let me expand the question.  Do you know someone who has come down with hives?

Now consider these questions.  What do you feel?  Compassion?  Empathy?  Solidarity?  Connection?

Imagine how much greater the connection if the question was: Who has been touched by cancer? Or who has struggled with addiction or a chronic disease? Or has seen their child suffer?  Consider these questions.  What do you feel?  Compassion?  Empathy?  Solidarity?  Connection?  A specific suffering provokes an instant bond.  Suffering connects; suffering unites.

Rob Bell in his book Drops Like Stars says:
“It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, Democrat or Republican, young or old, black or white, if you have the same disease as someone else, or if you both have a daughter with an eating disorder, or a brother in jail, or a spouse who walked out on you, you have a bond that transcends whatever difference exists between you.”

That’s what suffering does.  I don’t know why it is, but that is what it does – suffering culls solidarity.  It connects; it unites.

Maybe it’s that we recognize the chains, the chains that bind our particular suffering to a particular situation, knowing that when someone else is in the same situation they are suffering like us.  Suffering culls solidarity.

Hannah is our model to consider today.  We see her trail of tears as she crawls to the altar at Shiloh.  And we see how she falls back on her spiritual formation, how she returned to the habits her Hebrew ancestors.

We see Hannah employ their wisdom as she fasts and prays, as she tithes a double portion and confesses the circumstances of her suffering.  She asks God to take it away, and in this case it seems her efforts are rewarded.  But the reward is not the birth of a son; the reward is God’s presence with her through the suffering.  Hannah clearly sees this and in gratitude gladly gives her son away.  How else could she do that if the gift wasn’t something greater than the birth itself?

At Epiphany we talk a lot about the disciplines Hannah employs.  We talk about worship as the experience of our souls dancing with the divine just below the water line-the waterline that makes us appear to be islands when we are not.

We are a community joined by the land below the water.

We are a community, committed to one another, through thick and thin, dedicated to each other in the good times and the bad times in order to bring out our better selves.

But let me say this, while the practices and the disciplines, the worship and community are critical for locating us in time and space, where God lives in the moment, they do not and cannot remove the truth of tears or the problem of pain.

The Bible doesn’t say if Jesus wept on the cross or not, but I can’t imagine that he could have endured what he endured without the truth of tears.

“The first Christians,” Rob Bell writes, “insisted that when Jesus died on the cross, this wasn’t just another execution by the Roman Empire.  They believed this was the divine, in flesh and blood, hanging on the cross, thirsty, suffering, with tears.  That Jesus was not a god who was somewhere else, remote, detached, unknowable, but rather among us, feeling what we feel, aching as we ache.  Suffering like us; in solidarity; the cross is God’s way of saying, ‘I know how you feel.’”

The cross is the universal particular symbol that says, “You are not alone: I am the God of compassion, empathy, solidarity, and connection.”

Everyone here wears the same cross. The particular provocation of tears may be different. They may be hidden.  They may be historical, or genetic, but we all wear the same cross, the cross that claims “God is here in the moment, weeping with us.”

Harriet March, a sculptor in Susan Howatch’s book, Absolute Truths, explains suffering this way as she is spinning clay on her potter’s wheel.  “No matter how much the mess and distortion makes you want to despair, you can’t abandon the work because you’re chained to the bloody thing; it’s absolutely woven into your soul and you know you can never rest until you’ve brought truth out of all the distortion, and beauty out of all the mess – but it’s agony, agony, agony- while simultaneously being the most wonderful and rewarding experience in the world – and that’s the creative process which so few people understand.”

Harriet continues: “It involves an indestructible sort of fidelity, an instance sort of hope, an indescribable sort of… well, it’s love, isn’t it.  There’s no other word for it… And don’t throw Mozart at me,” Harriet exclaims. “I know he claimed his creative process was no more than a form of automatic writing, but the truth was he sweated and slaved and died young giving birth to all of that music.  You can’t create without waste and mess and sheer undiluted slog.  You can’t create without pain.  It’s all part of the process.  It’s in the nature of things.”

And then Harriet finishes with, “so in the end every major disaster, every tiny error, every wrong turn, every fragment of discarded clay, all the blood, sweat and tears – everything has meaning.  I give it meaning.  I reuse, reshape, recast all that goes wrong so that in the end nothing is wasted nothing is without significance and nothing ceases to be precious to me.”

Harriet is a potter chained to her wheel.

Hannah a woman bound to a barren womb.

And you and I and my dad sit in the dentist’s chair, because it is the only place we can go.  We all have some chains that bind us.  That is life.

Pain is real.  It causes tears that flow into a single ocean, and surrounds us all, even Jesus.  Our God knows how we feel.

Pain is real.  It causes tears.  It is a momentary affliction.  That is the promise of the resurrection.  In some cases it is a long, long, momentary affliction, but “there will be a new heaven and a new earth; and we will see with great clarity that the home of God is with mortals, in the moment.  God dwells with us, and will wipe every tear from our eyes.”

Until then, we clutch the cross in solidarity, seeing with great clarity the truth of tears in each other’s eyes, and gently wipe them away.

We are all precious to God.  Nothing is wasted.  Nothing is without significance.