11.20.2015

Hannah

Hannah Giving Her Son to the Priest (Jan Victors, 1645)

A while back, I became intensely interested in Hannah of Old Testament fame.  I can’t remember what initially sparked my interest… I just started thinking about her and couldn’t stop.  It seemed that everywhere I turned, I would see or hear something about Hannah.  I began specifically studying her, which led to a crazy intense study of first and second Samuel over the course of the next 2 years.  I don’t know how many times I went back and reread Hannah’s story.
Since then, the Lord showed me why He continued to guide me back to Hannah, which maybe I’ll share about sometime.  I think it’s safe to say that she’s my favorite lady in the Bible and she’ll always have a special place in my heart.  I’ve heard people say, “When I get to Heaven, after I see the Lord, I’m gonna go see so-and-so.” If that notion holds any water at all, then I’ll be going to see Hannah.  She’s my sister of long ago.

It’s a familiar story to most, but I’d like to share this piece I wrote about her sometime during the time I was spending so much time “with” her.

I hope you enjoy!

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Is there anybody who hasn’t heard of David?

It’s practically one of the first Bible stories any of us ever hear.  He was the red-faced kid who didn’t like the king’s fancy armor and, sing it with me… he hit the giant in the head and the giant came tumbling down.

But all that stuff? It’s in the middle of 1st Samuel.  It’s in the middle of the FIRST book.  And there’s more stuff in other books, too.  There’s a whole convoluted storyline before we ever meet David.  And there’s a whole, whole lot that happens after.  I’m tired just thinking about it.
Reliable Ruth reliably works in the fields of Boaz and hubba hubba makes herself comfortable sitting at his feet.  They bat their eyelashes at one another, get married, and start working on David’s immediate family tree.  But probably around the time that their grandson Jesse was just getting started good on his adult life, a few miles up the road another story was unfolding that seems totally unrelated.  It’s the story of another beginning point for David.

And it begins with the tears of a woman.

About 50 miles north of Bethlehem, there was a place which the King James Scripture calls Ramathaimzophim.  Fit that on a souvenir t-shirt.  And in this tongue-twister of a place (more commonly called Ramah, thank goodness) lived a man named Elkanah.  Specifically, he was from the “hill country of Ephraim.” Elkanah was a mountain man – we’ll call him a country boy.  He had a big, bushy beard and he wore plaid robes and he loved to eat pancakes and hunt camels probably.  Ok, out of all of that, the only part that’s likely accurate is that he had a big, bushy beard.  But I don’t think that was so unusual back then.

What do we actually know about Elkanah? Well, we know his limited family tree going back a few generations, we know that he had 2 wives, and we know that he was a pretty responsible guy when it came to the requirements of worship back then as well as when it came to loving and taking care of his family.

Once a year, as was the tradition and the requirement of Mosaic Law, Elkanah would load up the ox carts and haul the whole family to the town of Shiloh to worship and make their sacrifice in the tabernacle that was there.  Now, according to the law, making this particular kind of sacrifice includes taking portions of it and making a “solemn feast” out of it for your household for the next week (see Deuteronomy 12:5-7, 16:10-15).

Shiloh was somewhere between 7 and 12 miles from Ramah, which sounds like a fairly negligible distance to us.  If you’re going on vacation, once you’re 7-12 miles from your destination, you’re pretty much there, right? Since Elkanah’s family was likely travelling by foot or, best case scenario, riding some kind of animals or in wagons pulled by animals, it wasn’t what we would consider luxury travel.  A biblical “day’s journey” or approximately 8 hours of travel on a donkey carrying a load is thought to have covered 20-25 miles, so they might have been travelling for 3 or 4 hours, which isn’t too bad but certainly enough to make everybody tired and dirty.

The next day, maybe, after arriving, getting settled, and resting for the night, they took their critter they brought for the sacrifice (which had to be something pretty big if they were going to eat on it for a week, so maybe what the Bible calls a “bullock” – a young, male bovine of some sort), and headed to the tabernacle.  There, the priests sacrificed the animal and burned it on the altar while Elkanah and his family worshipped and prayed.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that this time of prayer and worship probably didn’t look like the kind of prayers we say before we eat.  People who knew the law and understood their place under it recognized that through the burning flesh of that animal came their justification.  This yearly sacrifice not only symbolized forgiveness of sin, but was also a sign of loyalty to the one true God of Israel and was meant to call to remembrance that God is the giver of every blessing.  He gives and he takes away and blessed is His name.  This was a serious thing.  Watching their animal be killed, seeing its blood run down the side of the altar, smelling the smoke that rose from its flesh as it burned, and hoping that God was pleased by it all… well, I imagine that would cause anybody to get pretty serious.  And so they worshipped there and this was a tiring process as well, I’m sure.  So, when they finally were ready to sit down to their feast, they were likely very anxious for it.

So, they all sat down around this big slab of meat and Elkanah looks around the table at his family.  He looks to one side and sees his wife Peninnah and the shining little faces of the children she’s borne him and his heart swells with pride and affection.  He cuts off a portion of the meat and sets it aside for them.  But when he looks to his other side, his eyes fall on his wife Hannah, sitting all alone.  Sweet, sad Hannah.  And he cuts a “worthy” portion for her because he loved her, it says.

Let’s look at this multiple-wife problem.  Now, we’ve said that Elkanah was a good man and that he loved the Lord and did like he was supposed to, but we also know that God didn’t set things up to include one man having more than one wife.  God blesses us in spite of our mistakes, fortunately.  God wanted man to have a companionship sufficient to his needs; that’s what “a help meet for him” means.  A one-to-one relationship is supposed to be what fulfils that.  We’re made for monogamy.  In Elkanah’s situation (as well as in other polygamous situations in the Bible), there is a favorite.  Why is there a favorite? Because we’re hardwired to want a one-to-one kind of relationship.  So, Elkanah loves Hannah.  He does right by Peninnah and the children he’s had by her and fulfills his obligation… but he loves Hannah.

Oh dear.

Rewind to the point where Elkanah is cutting a serving for Hannah.  “Worthy portion” might mean a double portion or it might just mean he gave her a very choice cut of meat.  As in, maybe he cut off a chuck roast for Peninnah since she needed more to feed the kids, but when he got ready to cut Hannah’s part, it was a beautiful little filet mignon.  Peninnah is busy cutting up everybody’s food and cleaning up spilled water and picking macaroni and cheese out of somebody’s hair when she glances over and notices that Elkanah and Hannah are having a quiet conversation over their steak dinner.  Ouch.  Peninnah’s chuck roast starts looking a little gristly and her heart seizes up with jealousy.

And so, she does what women sometimes do out of jealousy.  She begins to work at cutting Hannah down.  Peninnah is referred to as Hannah’s adversary in the scriptures and it says that she provoked Hannah.  And Peninnah wasn’t messing around either.  She went straight for Hannah’s most tender spot.  She made Hannah fret because the LORD had shut up her womb.  In fact, Hannah was so upset that all she did was cry.  She wouldn’t even eat.  Elkanah tried to help and I have to say that he does sound like a really sweet husband with his “Don’t cry, sugar… here, eat something, honey… you’ve got me, sweetheart… remember I’m here with you… and surely I’m better than even ten sons, right, darlin’?” But to no avail.

Peninnah wanted what what Hannah had, Hannah wanted what Peninnah had… and poor Elkanah!

Hannah could find no peace, so she gave the only thing she had to the only One who could fix it.  She went to the tabernacle and gave her word to her God.

O LORD of hosts, if thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of thine handmaid,
and remember me, and not forget thine handmaid,
but wilt give unto thine handmaid a man child,
then I will give him unto the LORD all the days of his life,
and there shall no razor come upon his head.

And she prayed.  And she prayed.  And she continued praying.  And I picture her, this lovely woman in all her draping robes and head covering, knelt on a hard stone floor with her upturned face all tear-streaked and shining, so intent in her prayer and so oblivious to anything other reaching God that she was mouthing silently and gently rocking back and forth.  This is the example of prayer that comes to mind when I catch myself wondering if those under the old law really prayed like we pray.  It’s hard for me to imagine all the rituals.  I can’t imagine the smells of the burning sacrifices and the spices they used.  But Hannah’s actions on this day are familiar to me.

I don’t know how familiar they were to the old priest, Eli, because he thought Hannah was drunk.  “How long will you be drunk? Get rid of your wine,” he said to her.  “Oh no, my lord, I’m not drunk; I’m pouring out my soul before the LORD,” she replied and, hearing this, he sent her away with his blessing.

And what does the very next verse say?

That Hannah went her way and ate and wasn’t sad anymore.

Wait a minute. 

Did I miss something?

She put her petition before the LORD.  She prayed intensely.  And she got up and left the tabernacle.  It doesn’t say that God answered her.  It doesn’t say that she got up from her prayer with the knowledge that she would indeed have a child.

Herein lies one of the great lessons we can learn from Hannah.  In fact, we can even break it down into three easy (ish) steps:

1. Hannah’s heart was troubled.
2. Hannah placed her troubles in the hands of her Lord.
3. Hannah didn’t think about it anymore.

Easy, right? Well, it would be if it weren’t for that -ish part.  That -ish refers to our human nature and our dogged tendency to try to fix things ourselves, which means that really the only easy step out of those three is the first one.  It’s really easy for our hearts to become troubled.  And it’s really easy for our hearts to stay troubled.  Like Job said, our lives are short and full of trouble.  What a bummer.

Imagine a different set of steps:

1. Hannah’s heart was troubled.
2. Hannah continued to worry and be miserable.

That seems pretty familiar to me.  How about this one:

1. Hannah’s heart was troubled.
2. Hannah said she had placed her troubles in the hands of her Lord.  And she sort of did… a little bit.  Maybe…
3. Hannah continued to worry and be miserable.

Yeah, that one sounds way familiar.  Because I know with my brain that I can’t fix my own troubles and I know with my brain that I’m supposed to hand those things over to God so He can fix them, since He’s the only one who can.  So, I make a feeble attempt to pray and I say with my mouth that I’m just going to let God handle it.  “Here you go, Lord.  Take this thing, please, and make it work right,” as if He’s my assistant or something.  And then, because I haven’t really done a thing besides mouth some words into the rug on my bedroom floor, I haul myself up from kneeling still heavy, still bearing that trouble, and I’m still worried and miserable and trying to fix it myself.  The only thing that’s different is that my feet are asleep.

There’s a big difference in what I usually end up doing with my problems and what Hannah did.  Hannah poured out her soul.  She lost all sense of everything that was going on around her because she was so invested in that prayer.  It was all her and all God.  She lost herself.  She died to herself.  She disappeared.  She decreased so that God could increase.  There was no -ish.  She was all in.

Maybe God did give her an answer that day and it’s just not recorded, but regardless of whether she got a “yes” or a “not just yet” or a “wait a little while longer,” we do know that God increased her faith that day.  Hannah came to the tabernacle that day knowing that God could, but she left believing that He would.  And really… I don’t think it would have mattered what the outcome of her fertility was.  She didn’t have to know that God would raise us a faithful priest from the child of her womb.  She didn’t have to know that her son would one day pour the anointing oil on the head of God’s chosen king of Israel.  I think the peace she took away from that prayer was the fix.

What happened next?

Elkanah’s family’s pilgrimage to Shiloh had reached at end.  They got up early the next morning to worship at the tabernacle a final time and then they returned to Ramah.  And in the very same verse it says, “the LORD remembered her.”

What a blessed thing to be remembered by God! He remembered Hannah and she had a son and named him Samuel because it means “asked of God.” Samuel… the embodiment of an answered prayer.

Can you even imagine how happy Hannah must have been? I mean, she must have invented that pregnant-lady happy glow.  There was a time when I thought that she must have been at least a little sad knowing that she would have to keep her promise and give Samuel up, but now I can see how it must have filled her with even more joy to keep her end of the bargain when she considered what it meant for her son. 

You see, vows go two ways.  When my husband and I were married, we said our vows to each other and, being that we’re just humans, we are fully capable of breaking those vows.  He might keep his promise to me, but I could break mine and vice versa.  When we make a vow or a promise to God, we are fully capable of breaking our end, but when God makes a promise, He keeps it.  Period.

But God didn’t make a vow to Hannah, you say.  Well, here’s the way I see it.  Hannah made a promise to God and was comforted.  When Hannah found herself with child, it was as good as God’s signature on a contract.  He was pleased with her vow and fulfilled her prayer, thereby signifying that He would take her child into His service as she had promised.  Hannah’s child was to be God’s and, thereby she knew, never really lost to her at all.

Over the years, I’ve heard parents speak of God letting them know that their children would be saved.  I liken Hannah’s experience to that.  Having full assurance that you and your child have an eternity of glory awaiting them would make the trials of this life much easier to bear.  Knowing that they had a life of serving God ahead of them wouldn’t hurt either.  It’s not an easy life, but it’s blessed one.

And so, Hannah’s brief but oh-so-important part of this story comes to a close.  Hannah takes a break from going up to Shiloh each year while Samuel is a baby and how precious those times must have been in her heart for many years to come.  All the rest of the family would leave for several days and it was just she and her little answered prayer there together.  After he had been weaned, she took Samuel to Eli, the same priest she had spoken with before.  And then she went home, returning each year to worship and to bring Samuel a little coat that she had made for him.

Here’s one of my favorite things about this whole story.  The very last thing we ever hear about Hannah is this: “The LORD visited Hannah, so that she conceived, and bare three sons and two daughters.”

Samuel answered Hannah’s prayer, but He gave her so much more.  Good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over.

My heart rejoiceth in the LORD…
There is none holy as the LORD: for there is none beside thee:
neither is there any rock like our God.
He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill,
to set them among princes, and to make them inherit the throne of glory:
for the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s,
and he hath set the world upon them.

- from Hannah’s song of thanks, 1 Samuel 2

11.12.2015

Old Union's Time Capsule

gratuitous picture of my stompin grounds taken on the day of our special service

Hi all...

I wanted to share a little with you about the time capsule that we buried at Old Union back in September.  We planned this project over the course of nearly a year and filled it with biographical information of members of the congregation, photographs, historical information, and a lot more.  There are copies of all of those things available for viewing at the church.


The day of the service was special and unusual, having our service outside and everyone who wanted to throwing a scoop of dirt in on top of the capsule.



One of my favorite parts is the marker that was designed to look like a compass rose and cut from a stone brought from the same area of North Carolina where the first pastor and congregation of Old Union came from.  The marker sits on top of the spot where we buried our time capsule and points to true north, which is symbolic of keeping our focus on the truth and never veering from it.


I didn't do a whole lot on the committee for this project, but I jumped at the chance to write a piece describing our altar practice.  One of the reasons we wanted to do this time capsule at all was to send the truth into the future in a very physical, tangible way.  We wanted our people - whoever is there - to read through the things we placed in that box when they open it in 2095 and either be encouraged and strengthened by knowing that they're still seeking and following the same truth we sought and followed before them or to be convicted and brought back to that truth if, God forbid, they have strayed from it.

I'm including my contribution below.  It's one of my favorite things I've ever written because I know the Lord helped me.  The idea of somehow living beyond my natural lifespan and being remembered by people who never met me is nice, I guess, but it's the idea of the same God who helped me write these words stitching them into the heart of someone many years from now that makes my cup bubble over.  I'm equally interested in reaching people who might read it here and come to know something they've never known before or be blessed to hear something they know better than anything else.

Not because of my words, but because of my Savior.  He's alive and He loves us oh so much.  And He wants us for His own.  That knowledge is too wonderful for me!

Enjoy!

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A letter to future generations concerning our altar
Written spring 2015

I sincerely hope that those of you who read this many years from now will find its information unnecessary as it is so similar to your current practice.

When I was asked to write a piece about Old Union’s altar practice, my mind immediately went to Old Testament sacrifice and the beautiful symbols there (which are some of my very favorite things to ponder) and I tried to write about how those symbols have carried over to us down through the years and how they compare to our current methods of worship.  I finished that writing and felt like it was a satisfactory lesson.  But then I thought of the coming generations of my family.  I thought of bright-eyed, round-faced little people – my people – standing around an ancient (from their perspective) box that was dug from the ground.  A box that people will say their great-great grandmother contributed to.  And I didn’t want to send them a lesson.  I wanted to tell them about it like I would if I could somehow fast forward myself there beside them.

We have all of this beautiful terminology that we use in reference to spiritual things.  Over time, those phrases have become so common to us that they don’t even seem beautiful anymore, but that’s the thing about words.  We can only use them up to a certain point to describe the things of God.  Everything here, even our words, has boundaries and God is boundless.  We can say that God is wonderful, which is true, but it’s like that word, wonderful, reaches its hands up in praise but fizzles out somewhere between here and Heaven.  It doesn’t adequately do the job we intend it to do when it leaves our mouths or even when we think it.  So, keep in mind while reading this that if you hear wording that sounds archaic or overworked that it could have just as easily been another word slipped into its place and made popular amongst our people at some point in history.  They’re only words.  Some are just used more than others in our vernacular.

Old Union and other churches like it preach and teach what we sometimes call a know-so salvation.  In an effort to drive that point home, we sometimes say that we know that we know that we know that we’re saved: that we have peace with God, that things have been made right between Him and us.  This is an example of what I mentioned before – a great effort to use our trembly little words to emphasize something that, simply put, is beyond words.  In most basic terms, I know that I’m saved.  I’ve struggled with doubt along the way, but with God’s help I know it more than I know anything else.  I don’t need anybody else to tell me it happened and if I lost all of my physical senses, I would still know it.  It’s woven into me.  Because of Jesus, it’s who I am.  For all time and eternity.  You could sooner remove my freckles than remove my salvation. 

That kind of salvation – the only kind of salvation – is what our beliefs are built on.

How does one come by that kind of salvation? Through prayer.  Real prayer.  Not just a repetition or a recitation, but truly calling out to God from your heart.  That’s not something we can just make happen on our own.  The faith we need to be saved comes from God.  He extends mercy and grace to us… because He is so enormously and endlessly merciful, you know… and through that and by that, we’re made one of His.

More words that don’t do it justice at all.

Since our beliefs rest so heavily upon prayer, it makes sense that we would offer a place for people to pray within the four walls of our church’s building.  At Old Union that set-aside, special prayer place is the front bench of the middle section of pews, which was at one time widely called the “mourner’s bench” or “moaner’s bench.” At the time of this writing, all of the front benches, along with the entire front-ish area of the auditorium, are sometimes included when we talk about “the altar” or “the altar area.”

In some services, normally at the end of the sermon, the preacher will give what we call “the invitation” for lost people – those who can’t say that they know that they know that they know – to come pray at the altar.  Or to pray at their seat or wherever they feel they need to pray.  You see, our altar is an excellent place to pray, but there’s nothing special about that front bench or any other bench.  And it’s good to have God’s people praying all around you on your behalf, too, but you don’t have to be there in that setting to be saved. 

I was saved in my bed late one night.  There was no one there but me and God.  I prayed at the altar many times before that night, though.  The first time I prayed at the altar was during a fall revival service.  There had been preaching, although I don’t remember who preached, and at the end of the sermon there was an invitation for unsaved people to pray.  Then there was a song and a good friend of mine at the time went to pray at the altar.  She bowed there at the front bench and it wasn’t long before I went to pray there, too, sitting on the floor with my head over on the seat of the bench.  I didn’t go to pray because my friend went and I didn’t go because I’d been invited or because someone told me to go.  I went to pray because I felt all wrong and tangled up inside.  I was afraid and ashamed to go up in front of all those people.  But because I’d been taught all my life to run after God when I felt Him drawing me, or when I felt afraid for any reason, and because I’d witnessed this altar-prayer scenario time after time all my life, I did the only thing I knew to do to fix how I felt.

That’s the real reason why a simple church bench gets any importance at all.  Not because it has any redeeming qualities and certainly not because it has any power to help.  It’s just a piece of wood.  It’s important because it’s a place to pray.  If we have in our church buildings a designated place for prayer, then it’s obvious that we hold prayer in a place of priority.  So, our teaching and preaching and practices may seem to urge people to come pray at that altar bench, but the real urge is to just pray! Whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, if you feel like you need to pray, DO IT! And don’t wait.

These instructions are true for those who have been saved, too.  A lot of time and importance is given to inviting unsaved people to pray at the altar or wherever, but saved people need to pray, too.  The altar is for everyone.  In the Old Testament, it was God’s people who burned their sacrifices on altars.  And they didn’t do it because they were in trouble or because they were particularly distressed about something.  They came to their altars in worship and obedience.  Smoke rose from their burnt offerings and smelled sweet to God.  We don’t burn things on our altars and we don’t offer animals to God anymore; we have only our prayers to offer Him.  You see, our words are just flimsy shells to God.  He made words and language for us, not for Him.  But when God teaches us to pray and helps us to truly communicate with Him, then we’re able to lay our hearts open and the praise and the pleadings that rise from our hearts are oh so sweet to God, sweeter even than the smoke from those burnt offerings so long ago.

And so, dear children, dear loved ones and friends… I hope that when you read this you can say AMEN! and find it all familiar and encouraging to you.  But if not, I hope that something you’ve read here will draw you back to the only way you can be reconciled and made fit for Heaven. 

That’s where I’ll be when you open this time capsule and I long to meet you there someday soon.

11.06.2015

my day

Hi all, I'm coming out of blog-land obscurity because a day like yesterday had to be documented.

Feel free to laugh.  I did.

You'll understand the picture later...

Here's my adventurous day for your amusement:

After our usual school-day proceedings on Thursdays, we scurry into town for MK's speech therapy. We got away later than I meant to (no shock there) and went to Wendy's where, upon attempting to pay, the cashier who had at first failed to notice me because he was chatting with his buddy from across the restaurant swiped my card, looked at it, and asked if I had another card. This, of course, struck panic in my heart until he informed me that my card had just expired. Which I knew, but never activated my new one as I had intended to through the entire month of October. Fortunately, I had cash, so no further angst there. By the time we sat down to eat, we had... oh... 10 minutes to scarf down our food and sprint out the door so as not to be (terribly) late.

David came to pick the man-child up from speech therapy as he usually does and asked me if I had put gas in the Jeep yet because I wouldn't make it home if I didn't. No problem. I'll do it when we finish ST before I go to the bank. Or, oh wait, I'll go to the bank first to activate my new card. Right. So, I send David and man-child on their way and go to dig out my new bank card. Which was in my other purse. At home. Because of course it was.

So David told me to meet him after and I could take his card, which I did. No problem. I should mention here that I'm not accustomed to driving the Jeep and even if I was, I pay zero attention to gas levels or which side the gas latch is on or anything other than whether or not the vehicle is moving when I press the accelerator and stopping when I press the brake. I'm responsible like that. So I took a chance and pulled up to the gas pump and was actually correct! Go, me! Except I pulled up too far and the pump barely reached. And even though it did reach, I couldn't see the display because of glare or something, so I had to cross the hose and nearly fell because my flip flop got tangled up. Because it's November 5 and I'm wearing flip flops because it's nearly 80 degrees. So there's all that.

Also, it was particularly fume-y, I noticed, and I watched a man walking from the gas pumps to the store flick his still-smoking cigarette behind him, toward me, at the precisely same moment some turd head in a brand new Mustang pulled in the parking lot and revved for his buddy on the sidewalk. It was enormously loud and I was sure that I had just blown up. It scared the living day lights out of me. So I shakily finished pumping my gas and left the premises.

I make a couple more stops, finish up my shopping, get in the Jeep, and guess what. It won't start. So I call David and tell him the Jeep won't start and he responds with the ever popular, “WHAT DO YOU MEAN IT WON’T START???” But then he calmly explained that if I put it in neutral it should start just fine. And it did. Because of course it did.

The rest of my night went off without any further drama until around midnight when I was laying here watching something on YouTube and the electricity went off. And that's why I am now, at nearly 2 AM, laying in a slightly stuffy, candlelit bedroom with the window open listening to my beagle howl at the WRECC linemen who are in my backyard whilst typing all of this on my phone. Which is at approximately 6% battery life. Because apparently I can't sleep in a house this dark and quiet.

And the moral of this story is probably something to do with all the times in the last 8 years that I've wished for quiet time and how I'm apparently getting all of it RIGHT NOW.

And also I'm a spoiled brat.

The end.

(PS What a service those linemen guys provide, by the way! Thankful for them… not just when it's MY backyard they're working in.)

*The lights came on pretty much immediately when I finished typing all of this, so I went to bed.  And about the time I got comfortable, I received a text message which was sent two days ago but waited until two days later at 2 AM to actually come through.

Because of course it did.