Saturday, May 16, 2009

Headlong Into Trouble

As the Philistine moved closer to attack him, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet him.

                        1 Samuel 17.48 

Breaking the Rules

Last week’s New Yorker led with “How David Beats Goliath,” by Malcolm Gladwell. The renowned author of The Tipping Point considers what happens “when underdogs break the rules,” examining the Bible story, Lawrence of Arabia’s WWI campaign, and the recent success of a California girls’ basketball team. Two commonalities link the three examples seamlessly: the incredible odds all three victors overcome by engaging their opponents in unorthodox, courageous fashions and their brave determination. Gladwell quotes 1 Samuel 17.48 and the following verse’s account of how David employs his humble weapon of choice, the slingshot. He then observes:

The second sentence—the slingshot part—is what made David famous. But the first sentence matters just as much. David broke the rhythm of the encounter. He speeded it up… David pressed. That’s what Davids do when they want to beat Goliaths.

The point is so obvious, one wonders why it goes missing in most sermons and lessons drawn from the famous confrontation. When we first hear the story as children, the theme centers on David’s diminutive stature and toy weapon versus Goliath’s intimidating size and equipment, an appropriately juvenile reading we never seem to outgrow. Gladwell’s focus on verse 48 shocks new life into the tale, emphasizing the crucial action preceding the legendary whir of the boy’s slingshot. Here comes Goliath, sure-footed and armed, advancing steadily toward David, expecting him to retreat in terror or, at the very least, cower in submission. Instead, the teenager runs “quickly toward the battle line to meet him.” Inexperience hampers his awareness he’s breaking the rules by dashing headlong into trouble. Yet David’s eagerness and rejection of fear confound Goliath and the giant’s advance ends with a mighty thud.

In the Press

Gladwell presently enjoys first position among business thought leaders, and his article is bound to generate much discussion as the success strategy du jour. As I read it, though, it resounded with wisdom a church mother gave me long, long ago. Paraphrasing Ecclesiastes 9.11 (“The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong”), she said, “Always remember we don’t win with our strength. Our victory is in the press. No matter what tries to stop you, keep pressing.” Despite his youthful lack of savvy, David knows this. He arrives on the scene as an innocent bystander—a caterer, really, dispatched to deliver food to the front lines. When he sees this bully has instigated a 40-day impasse with his overshadowing threats, David volunteers to press ahead.

King Saul outfits the boy in his best armor, but it restricts his freedom. “I’m not used to this,” he tells the king as he sheds the equipment. He exchanges Saul’s sword for his shepherd’s staff, drops the heavy helmet to pick up five smooth stones, and marches onto the battlefield. In the manner of a Wild West showdown, suspense mounts as David and Goliath’s paces steadily narrow within striking range. But Goliath isn’t alone. He keeps his shield bearer out in front while inching toward his challenger, talking trash with every step. The taunts don’t faze David. Seconds before closing in on his foe, he declares: “All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves; for the battle is the LORD’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.” (v47) With that, David presses, charging Goliath at full speed, giving him no time to plant his stance and draw his weapon. It’s all over before Goliath knows what hit him.

Non-Competitive Clauses

While The New Yorker piece superbly lays out the competitive advantages of pressing one’s opponents, its final analysis of David’s triumph holds no relevance for us because we don’t compete. The Word is packed with non-competitive clauses barring us from pursuing conflict. David doesn’t show up looking for trouble; neither do we. On the other hand, when trouble turns our way, we refuse to be intimidated, paralyzed, or passive. We run quickly to meet it with total confidence the battle is the Lord’s. In Philippians 3.14-15, Paul writes, “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.”

Don’t doubt for a minute, He’s very clear about His role as our Defender and Protector. In Zechariah 4.6, He says, “Not by might nor by power, but my Spirit.” In Psalm 110.1, He instructs us He’ll do the fighting: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.” When opposition marches at us, talking trash, swaggering behind its shield, we confront it head-on, unhindered by cumbersome armor and weaponry. Psalm 91.4-5 insists trust in God is all we need: “His faithfulness will be your shield and rampart. You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day.” Running headlong into trouble breaks the rules by addressing it with undaunted faith in God’s supremacy. His victory is in the engagement. Our victory is in the press.

When trouble comes toward us, like David, we run to meet it head-on, trusting God’s promise to triumph for us.

(Tomorrow: Crowded Out)

Postscript: Reposts

I’m away on business through next Wednesday. As in the past, I’ve scheduled reposts to tide us over until I can return with fresh material. I trust you’ll continue to come by and comment during my absence. Though I won’t have time to craft new posts, I’ll continue to respond to comments and emails while I’m gone. Please remember me in your prayers as I travel.

Friday, May 15, 2009

In His Presence, In His Place

Glory and honor are in his presence; strength and gladness are in his place.

                        1 Chronicles 16.27 (KJV) 

Practicing God’s Presence

I’m one of those single-track-mind people, a burrower easily buried in his thoughts and work. I can sit at my desk for hours, losing all contact with everything else while I tunnel through the task at hand. It’s a terrible trait that very well could be the death of me. I get so focused the most innocuous interruption startles me just this side of a heart attack. My partner will pass by the study, stick his head in the door, and say, “So-and-So called,” or “Can you drop off the dry-cleaning tomorrow?” Nine times out of 10, I’ll jump an inch or two off my chair. He’ll rush to apologize, when it’s I who should ask forgiveness for losing complete sense of his presence as he moves about the place.

It’s hard to explain why we become preoccupied to the point of obliviousness. But it’s oh so easy to do—not only with the world and people around us, but also with God. As with lifetime companions, we grow so accustomed to having Him there we lose track of Him. When He unexpectedly makes His presence known (as He often does), we’re taken aback. When He interrupts our inner monologue, we’re caught off guard and sometimes—to our shame—need to ask Him to repeat Himself. A vague awareness He’s always with us is insufficient. It keeps us unprepared for moments when He comes to us and it dulls our sensitivity to His movement in our lives. There’s an art to remaining alert to God, which we might think of as practicing His presence. And while each of us does it in his/her own way, I believe it begins by striving to funnel everything we think, see, and do through an ongoing desire to please Him.

Acting Crazy

“I will bless the LORD at all times: his praise shall continually be in my mouth,” David writes in Psalm 34.1. The psalm comes with an enigmatic note attributing it to him when “he pretended to be insane before Abimelech, who drove him away, and he left.” Scholars believe “Abimelech” is a transposition of “Ahimelech,” a corrupt priest who swore vengeance against David for destroying his colleagues. Since no other record of the encounter exists, we assume David composes the poem after he escapes his nemesis by acting crazy. (This strategy works, by the way. Years ago, I stupidly strolled pre-Disneyfied 42nd Street in a bomber jacket like those being stolen off pedestrians’ backs. Five unfriendly sorts started trailing me. Knowing I’d never outrun them, I stopped cold, shaking my fist at the sky and shouting jibberish. As they passed me, one said, “Fool, get back uptown before you get hurt!”)

Then again, perhaps David wasn’t acting at all. He could have been practicing God’s presence—artfully filtering his circumstances through his desire to please his Maker. “To bless” translates as “to flatter, or make happy.” Constantly aware we’re never alone brings constant opportunity to please and praise God, crazy as that may seem to others. Psalm 34 continues: “I sought the LORD, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame.” (v4-5) In 1 Chronicles 16, we hear a similar declaration in David’s psalm celebrating the Ark of the Covenant’s arrival at the temple. “Glory and honor are in His presence,” he says. Those unaware of the power and majesty of God’s continuous presence may regard our constant recognition of it as nutty or—in P.C. parlance—“inappropriate.” So be it. Our adversaries mistake it for lunacy and leave us alone. Even better. God’s pleasure and praise are no cause for shame. They practice His presence, and where He abides, those who bask in Him radiate His glory and honor.

Our House, His House

Limiting our praise to formal worship wastes untold chances to experience His presence in our day-to-day lives. He dwells in the sanctuary, a place specifically built to house His presence—a place we go to find Him. But He’s hardly confined to granite walls and vaulted ceilings. He finds us where we are. To offset the disciples’ anxiety about His nearing departure, Jesus assures them, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” (John 14.18) He comes to us. Our house is His house. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” Paul asks in 1 Corinthians 6.19. Wherever we may be at any given moment is His place. And there, David says in 1 Chronicles 16.27, we have strength and gladness.

Life takes us down some mean streets. Our paths meander across tough, often hostile territory. Left alone, we’d falter and quite possibly be crushed by weakness and sorrow. Practicing God’s presence alters the landscape. Wherever we are at any given juncture is His place. Enfolded in His love and power, we’re immune to forces seeking to wear us down and steal our joy. “Let the weakling say, ‘I am strong!’” Joel 3.10 reads. Psalm 16.11 testifies: “You will make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” Strength is ours, gladness is ours, simply because our place is His place. We may lose sight of this occasionally and stumble. Regaining awareness of His presence as He moves about the place soothes our doubts, calms our fears, and gets us back on our feet. Jude ends his letter with a stunning doxology: “To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy—to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.” Amen—it is so.

Life takes us down some mean streets, but practicing His presence and knowing He's with us keeps us strong and joyful.

(Tomorrow: Headlong Into Trouble)

Postscript: Weekend Gospel

Imagine Me – Kirk Franklin

I had the exquisite pleasure of spending last Wednesday evening with Annette, a long-cherished friend and regular S-F reader. During our visit, she mentioned Kirk Franklin’s “Imagine Me,” an amazing song that describes a variety of cruelties many suffer and bear for years in emotional wounds and scarred memories. “I always cry when it gets to the part where God whispers, ‘It’s gone,’” Annette said, as her eyes clouded up all over again. “And then I think, ‘The pain will be gone one day and if I believe it will eventually happen, I should start trusting it to go away now. It’s hard, but I’m getting better at it.”

After we said goodnight, I looked up the video and cried as I watched its vivid depictions of hardship. Then, just as she described, I wept with joy when the song pivoted into its triumphant “Gone” passage. If you don’t know Kirk Franklin’s work, this gives you a fine taste of how God has used him to bridge contemporary reality with timeless truth. And I especially recommend it to those of us dealing with relentless shadows from the past.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

                        Acts 2.42 

Pitching Tents

Centuries of catering to personal and political influences have splintered the Church into a woefully segmented—some say schizophrenic—entity. We accept this matter-of-factly, as though Christ intended it when He plainly didn’t. In John 10.16, He says, “There shall be one flock and one shepherd.” In Jeremiah 6.3, however, we find a vivid contrast depicting a people in disarray, which the prophet collectively refers to as “the Daughter of Zion:” “Shepherds with their flocks will come against her; they will pitch their tents around her, each tending to his own portion.” Only the most cockeyed optimists observe the Church’s present condition without asking why Jeremiah’s gloomy forecast currently seems more accurate than Jesus’s promise. It goes without saying Christ’s prophecy will bear Him out in the end, the very end. The flock will finally unite on Judgment Day, when He claims the sheep and dismisses the goats. (Matthew 25.31-33) Nonetheless, knowing the Church won’t be rid of its divisive elements before then doesn’t justify pitching tents around her and tending to our own portion or “kind.”

The same mentality that divides us cinched the Early Church together. Our putative reason for pitching tents is protecting the core ideals of our faith. Our differences encircle doctrine and dogma—i.e., varying systems of belief—while the underlying principles remain universal across Christianity. When the first congregation descends from the Upper Room, no doubt a lot of them also have unique ideas and opinions about how things should work. Given the fragility of their newfound faith, however, it’s more vital to stick together than push private agendas. Jesus founded His message on unconditional love and mercy. He died and rose to provide full access to grace. Believing one sacrifice cleanses all sin is revolutionary for Jews rooted in a quid pro quo tradition where the nature of the offense dictates the size of the offering. Its seismic significance emerges in Peter’s Pentecost sermon: “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2.39) Thus, the first Spirit-filled believers leave the Upper Room envisioning Christianity as an open meadow giving pasture to one flock with one Shepherd, not a tent city where millions of campers and refugees compete for slivers of real estate.

Everything in Common

Verses 44 and 45 report: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.” After centuries of perpetual exploitation of believers’ generosity by heretics and con artists, we tend to view the Early Church’s pooling of resources as unnecessarily extreme. Because we can’t wrap our minds around selling what we own and handing the proceeds to the church treasurer, we slide right past the intentions behind this practice. The Early Church didn’t collect funds to support organizational initiatives or construct cathedrals. Its only goal was liberating believers from temporal worries to maximize their time together. Christianity started as a radical cult of Judaism. Many early converts were kicked out of their homes, shunned by their families, and lost all they owned. Sharing everything in common provided for everyone’s needs regardless of what he/she possessed. It tore down fiscal and social barriers that might discourage potential followers of Christ with fears of rejection and ruin.

Fortunately, as the Church grew in size and prominence, these consequences became less dire. Yet even today, we all know people who can’t overcome worries with how following Jesus might affect their social and family standing. This is especially true for gay people, many of whom have already been rejected by loved ones and communities they grew up in. They’ve found new families and settled in new homes that welcome them. Trepidation about being cast aside again is enormous—particularly since the Church’s record and reputation for acceptance is (to put it mildly) unreliable. Our job as authentic believers requires us to pool our time, energy, and resources for the common purpose of removing obstacles that might prevent anyone from following Christ. We are the Church—the flock—and we must become a safe place. We must inspire new believers’ confidence they have equal access to God’s pasture, enabling them to ignore all of the nonsense flapping in the tents.

Constant Commitment

The first believers devoted themselves to four pursuits: teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayer. They spent every possible moment listening and learning, paying close attention to their leaders and one another. They invested invaluable hours in greater understanding of their faith and better knowledge of their brothers and sisters’ lives. As their belief gained strength and wisdom, their capacity to help each other increased. The epistles repeatedly admonish us to grow in the knowledge and grace of Christ in order to encourage our fellow believers. Jude’s letter, for instance, cautions that scoffers will try to pull us apart, saying, “These are the men who divide you, who follow mere natural instincts and do not have the Spirit. But you, dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit. Keep yourselves in God’s love.” (v19-21) So the Early Church spent much of its time listening with an equal portion devoted to talking—breaking bread and praying together. Without constant commitment to the Word, prayer, and one another, we’ll never become a healthy, vibrant community of faith like the Early Church. We’ll never get out of our camps. We’ll never tear down the tents obscuring God’s green pasture. We’ll just be refugees and squatters, no good to Him, others, or us.

The first Christians envisioned the Church as an open pasture for one flock, not the tent city it's become. 

(Tomorrow: In His Presence, In His Place)

Postscript: Breaking Bread--A Poll

Cuboid Master, a longtime reader here, recently suggested the possibility of an online Bible study to break bread together in “real time.” The idea certainly appeals to me, as well as several others whom I’ve mentioned this to offline. I’ve looked into various “virtual meeting” sites typically used by businesses. They appear to suit this purpose perfectly, providing graphic support to view Scripture and outlines, coupled with text and conference call capabilities. My first inclination is to schedule one a month. Getting a feel for who’s interested will help tremendously in figuring out the best time to host it. Today, I’m posting a survey—which I’ll leave up for a couple weeks—to assess your interest, etc. (Email subscribers, you can either weigh in by clicking over to the blog or sending me a quick note.) I have no quota in mind; if it’s just CM and me, that’s fine. But the more of us who participate, the richer it will be. So take a minute, please, to let me know if you’re interested, etc. Thanks.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Foolish and Weak Things

God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.

                        1 Corinthians 1.27

Ordinary People

Nearly every Bible hero is under-qualified for the job he/she is given. Noah is commissioned to build an ark but can’t persuade any of his neighbors to help with this daunting task. Abraham is called to be the father of God’s people, yet his wife is sterile. God sends Moses to challenge Pharaoh and lead Israel out of bondage; he’s tongue-tied and saddled with a murderous past. Rahab, the prostitute, seems least likely for the pivotal role she plays in Israel’s victory over Jericho; still, God favors her. Though David’s courage as a youth evolves into impetuosity as an adult, he rises to become Israel’s greatest king and poet. Mary—a provincial teenager without family distinction, wealth, and social connections—is deemed most worthy to mother the Christ Child. Peter’s a hot-tempered, uneducated fisherman; Jesus names him the first prelate of the Church. After a life devoted to wiping out Christianity, Paul emerges as its most influential champion of spiritual freedom and inclusion. “Ordinary People,” a 70’s gospel tune, ends with this line: “Little becomes much when you place it in the Master’s hand.” The Bible consistently confirms ordinary people are God’s candidates of choice. Why, then, do so many of us discount our usefulness to Him based on personal insecurities and presumed deficiencies?

Overshadowed by Superiority

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians addresses a small, somewhat shaky band of believers eking out lives of faith in the most cosmopolitan, admired city of the day. While Rome holds status as the Empire’s seat of political and financial power—its New York, perhaps—we might compare Corinth to Paris, a highly admired hub of cultural excellence. Per capita, Corinth’s populace outranks every city as the best educated, most sophisticated, wealthiest people in the Western world. While the complexity of Paul’s letter indicates the Corinthians’ advantages over other burgeoning churches, his opening comments also imply they feel overshadowed by superiority, having few of their city's best and brightest in their number. “Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many of you were of noble birth,” Paul observes in 1 Corinthians 1.26. But he immediately arrives at a conclusion that directly subverts the logical point of such an admission. God uses foolish and weak things to shame wise and strong people, Paul says. Deficits are assets in His hands. Our lack of ability, status, and means appeals to Him as much as any talent, position, or resources we possess.

Bizarro Logic

Fans of DC Comics, “Seinfeld,” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” are familiar with “Bizarro World”—a parallel plane where everything and everyone are complete opposites of their counterparts in this plane. The concept exaggerates mirror imaging: left is right, front is back, and so forth. At the risk of sounding facetious, God’s ways and reasons function precisely in the same way. In 1 Corinthians 13.12 we read, “Now we see but a poor reflection in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” In other words, we’re currently stranded in a Bizarro World where everything we perceive as “real” is the opposite of God’s true reality and what we consider naturally logical flows against the current of His mind and methods. Since we can’t ascertain His classic reversals on sight, it’s ours to recognize His intentions and reorient our faith to flow in His direction. God doesn’t prefer foolish and weak things to indulge His whimsy or humiliate wise and strong people, Paul explains. “He chose the lowly things of the world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” (1 Corinthians 1.28) He calls and enables us for tasks we’re unqualified to handle for three reasons: to retain exclusive glory for our accomplishments, secure our confidence that what we do is only achievable through faith, and eliminate possibilities of anyone better equipped for the job usurping His credit once it’s done.

“It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus,” verse 30 reads. God charges us with responsibilities beyond our wisdom and strength to reinforce reliance on Him. Our pride comes not from what we can do. What we can’t do makes us proud to be chosen. Ephesians 2.8-9 says: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” Thinking God needs us because we’re the most capable people He can find is Bizarro logic. God He needs us because we need Him. The instant we resist His Spirit’s call because we’re not wise or strong enough is the moment we understand why we’re chosen. Regarding Ann and Sue, John and Henry as brighter, better candidates confirms why we’re ineffably right for the job. Our inadequacies shame wiser, stronger people because they miss what we grasp. Not having what it takes is what gets the job done.

In our Bizarro World of inverted logic and reversed expectations, God uses foolish and weak things to shame wise, strong people. 

(Tomorrow: Devoted)

Monday, May 11, 2009

Net Casting

He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat…” When they did, they were unable to haul the net because of the large number of fish.

                        John 21.6

On Our Own

We can assign the wonders Jesus performed to one of two categories: healing and miracles. Healing is manifestation, observed proof of His life-changing authority over physical reality. The Gospels include accounts of healing to seed our faith, to encourage us to look beyond what we see and trust God’s sovereign power over all of creation. We get that from miracles, too. But miracles also function as metaphors we can apply to many circumstances. In other words, healing teaches us to believe; miracles teach us how and why belief is essential. The miracle of the fish, as told in John 21, demonstrates this. If the point were just proving nature waits at God’s command, the story’s moral might be reduced to “Jesus had Sonar. He could detect the highest concentration of fish in the sea.” But the fish miracle tells as much, maybe more, about us as it reveals about Christ.

First, it shows what often results when we’re on our own. Jesus has risen from the dead, transitioning His ministry to the disciples, who’ve returned to their various homes and pursuits. Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, and four other disciples hang together. One afternoon, Peter invites them on a fishing expedition. They trawl the Sea of Galilee all night and come home at sunrise with nothing. We infer their empty nets frustrate them, but John doesn’t report this. It’s arguable that, being experienced fishermen, they’re disappointed yet not despondent. Surely this isn’t the first time they’ve seen this. Sometimes fish bite, sometimes they don’t. And that’s one of our biggest liabilities when we sail off on our own. We stick with what we know and “realistically” settle for less, when following Jesus’s example and instructions changes our usual M.O. and produces unexpected success.

Any Luck?

About 100 yards from shore, the disciples spot someone on the beach without recognizing He’s Jesus. John begins the story by saying Jesus appears, explaining why the disciples don’t realize it’s He—even though they’re close enough to hear when He calls to them. “Any luck?” Jesus asks. They tell Him they’ve not caught anything. “You’re fishing on the wrong side of the boat. Throw your nets to the right and you’ll find some,” He yells back.

Let’s think about this for a minute. Seven seasoned fishermen haven’t already thought to do that? It seems unlikely they spent the night pulling up one empty net after another and not once did one of them say, “Maybe we should try casting our nets off the starboard side of the boat.” By the time Jesus appears, they’ve given up. They’re dragging their net rather than fishing with it. And since they’re close enough to call back and forth to Him, they’ve reached the shallows, far from the depths where big and plenty fish normally swim. They don’t know that Jesus is Who’s telling them how to fish, which cancels the possibility they decide to try again because it’s He. More reasonably, they decide to give it a shot because they’ve nothing to lose. If their nets come up empty again, they’re no worse off. They recast their nets and the boat tilts, listing under the weight of large fish—153 of them—leaping into the net. In the middle of the chaos, one of the disciples puts everything together and nudges Peter: “It’s the Lord!” With what’s happening, really, who else could it be?

Back to Shore

Sailing off on our own from time to time is necessary because it’s instructive. The disciples weren’t at fault, nor were their methods faulty. Their approach yielded consistent success in the past, much like doing the same things the same ways often works for us. But mistaking consistent success for failsafe predictability will sooner or later find us coming up short. We have two options. We can continue casting nets as we always have, hoping the currents will turn in our favor and send what we’re after our way. Or, we can admit this is one of those times when our best isn’t good enough and head for shore. Dropping anchor in deep seas and trying the same things over and over won’t assure our success. First of all, out alone in the depths, we can’t see Jesus or hear Him. Second, we don’t control our environment. Our failure may not be caused by ineptitude; it simply may not be as effective as it was due to environmental shifts below the surface. When the tried-and-true becomes truly trying, we start for home, knowing we’re losing time going through the motions on our own.

Asking why we fail sets us searching for answers that may not emerge. When we turn back to shore, however, Jesus appears. We may not recognize Him; in fact, from a distance, He quite often resembles a stranger. Still, He’s there, waiting for us to come close enough to hear Him—and watching our position very closely to ensure we’re exactly where He wants us when He speaks. What He instructs us to do may be what we’ve always done or already thought to do. Yet it’s more than the doing. Success also depends on time and place. Christ never directs us to recast our nets before we arrive at the best moment and spot. It may not make sense. Our experience may encourage us to doubt anything will come of it. But we obey when He tells us to move, always aware He sees what’s happening below the surface. It’s then, marveling at how we’ve never done this well before, that we can question why. Everything we know on our own suggests we shouldn’t succeed. Why we do can’t be found in us, on the boat, or in the water. The Answer stands on the shore.

When our nets keep coming up empty, we should head back to shore, where we're close enough to see and hear Jesus when He appears. 

(Tomorrow: Foolish and Weak Things)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Hannah and Her Sisters

So in the course of time Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel, saying, “Because I asked the LORD for him.”

                        1 Samuel 1.20

Miracle Moms

One of the odder aspects of the Old Testament is its ongoing fascination with miracle moms—devout women incapable of conceiving children without divine help. Sarah remains barren past menopause, while her maid, Hagar, delivers Abraham his first son, Ishmael. When God announces Sarah will bear a son, she laughs. Nine months later, Isaac comes along. Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, also struggles with infertility until God gives her twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Jacob’s wife, Rachel, remains childless while his other wife, Leah, brings a string of kids into the world.

Hannah, mother of Samuel, Israel’s first great prophet, also qualifies as a miracle mom. But her story stands out for its poignant portrayal of her character. She too watches helplessly as her husband, Elkanah, sires children by his second wife, Peninnah. Each year, after offering his temple sacrifices, he brings the meat back to feed his family. Though Peninnah has more mouths to feed, he gives twice as much to Hannah, tenderly hoping to strengthen her. This goes on for years, with Peninnah forever taunting Hannah as a failed wife. The longer it drags on the more determined Hannah is to touch God’s heart. She stays before Him, fasting and weeping—to the point Elkanah worries about her health. In desperation, she solemnly vows if God will give her a son, she will give him back to God to live always in service at the temple. She prays this inwardly, over and over, unaware her lips move as she prays. The temple priest, Eli, mistakes her grief for drunkenness. Hannah confesses her problem to him. He sends her home, promising God will answer her prayers. Soon after, she gets pregnant. She calls her boy “Samuel,” a homonym of the phrase “heard by God.”

Return to Sender

Now Hannah’s tale gets really interesting. A year passes and it’s time for Elkanah to pack up the family and head for the temple. After making such a spectacle of her anguish, one might think Hannah would be impatient to show off her son. One imagines her outfitting him in darling clothes to the envy of markedly younger mothers. Not so. She tells her husband to go without her. “After the boy is weaned, I will take him and present him before the LORD, and he will live there always,” she says in 1 Samuel 1.22. And so she does. She takes the toddler to Eli, reminding him, “I prayed for this child, and the LORD has granted me what I asked of him. So now I give him to the LORD. For his whole life he will be given over to the LORD.” (v27-28)

As a man without children, I can’t begin to contemplate Hannah’s emotional conflict as the day hastens to honor her vow to God. I have no idea how she nursed and cared for her baby, given the “Return to Sender” tag attached to this precious, long-awaited gift. Yet as a son, I’m touched by the integrity of Hannah’s faith, her ferocity of spirit, and sacrificial obedience. Though all her sisters—the other miracle moms—merit unreserved admiration for yielding to God, she carries a distinction unlike any other. While God calls on the others to do His will, Hannah calls on Him to work in her. He chose the others; she chooses Him.

Maternal Influence

After returning Samuel to God as promised, Hannah stays in touch with the boy, seeing he’s properly cared and provided for, introducing him to new brothers and sisters as they arrive. Samuel retains her imprinted integrity of faith the rest of his life. But her maternal influence reaches beyond him to those he later influences, most notably David. The Bible gives no background on David’s mother, but knowing Hannah like we do, it’s fair to read his poetry and wonder how much of it originated with her. Psalm 24, for example, sounds like pure Hannah: “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it… Who may ascend the hill of the LORD? Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart... He will receive blessing from the LORD and vindication from God his Savior.” If anyone realizes everything belongs to God, it’s Hannah. If anyone knows what it costs to earn His favor and appreciates the bittersweet pleasure of being vindicated by His blessings, it’s she.

Mother’s Day is glorious for some, unbearable for others. Those of us privileged to grow up beneath the wings of “Hannahs” delight to lavish them with praise and gifts or remember them with unalloyed love and joy. Others are less fortunate. We all, however, can learn and prosper from Hannah. Her stature as a great mother of faith hasn’t diminished. Her influence hasn’t waned. She calls, teaches, and inspires us even now, making this Mother’s Day happy for us all. (Of course, with extra hugs, kisses, and love to my own mom and every other mother who graces Straight-Friendly’s readership. Happy Mother’s Day!)

Hannah's integrity of faith is thrilling, her sacrificial obedience heart-rending. Her testament lives on in her maternal influences felt to this day. 

(Tomorrow: Net Casting)