Sunday, July 23, 2017
1 Samuel 1: 1-28
The story of Hannah is a familiar one. A devout woman and a faithful wife, Hannah yearns and yearns for a child and at the very moment that she gives up hope entirely, God intervenes and blesses her with a pregnancy. It’s such a familiar story that we can easily lose sight of the particulars of Hannah’s experience.
Hannah is one of two wives married to a man named Elkanah. The “other” wife – and that’s exactly how this wife is introduced in the story, as “other” – is named Penninah and she has given Elkanah children, making Hannah subservient to her in the household. This conflict is the very first thing that we learn about Hannah’s life and is meant to recall earlier stories of infertility and domestic conflict.
The story of Hannah echoes the stories of the three Jewish matriarchs that preceded her: Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel. We’ve told the stories of their sons these past few weeks – Sarah is the mother of Isaac, Rebecca is the mother to the rival twins Jacob and Esau, and Rachel is wife of Jacob and mother to Joseph and Benjamin. We tell the story of the founding of Israel through the perspectives and experiences of the Patriarchs and their stories have common themes: honor, betrayal, division, reconciliation, and restoration. But, we can also tell this story – our story – through the experience of childlessness and the ways in which the narrative of the Matriarchs, in the words of Lillian Klein “takes a woman’s pain and places it in her personal failure and draws it out in a communal context.”
At the start of Hannah’s story, the one it most closely resembles is that of Sarah, who becomes pregnant with Isaac at the age of ninety (Abraham is 100). Sarah also has a woman rival in her household – Hagar, her Egyptian maidservant, who has a son Ishmael with Abraham. Hagar is banished by Sarah after the birth of Isaac. The relationship between Hannah and Penninah is meant to recall that of Sarah and Hagar. In both stories, it’s the birth of a son that raises the status of one woman over another. When Sarah gives birth to Isaac she acquires power over Hagar and wields it with brutality. Entire fields of study within Christian ethics are dedicated to telling the story of Israel from the perspective of Hagar and women like her, the “other” women populating the margins of the Matriarch’s stories.
Often, women’s very bodies become a site of conflict between the expectations of culture and the most intimate desires of the heart. No matriarch better exemplifies this than Sarah’s daughter-in-law Rebecca, who spends twenty years praying for a child with Isaac. Unlike Sarah and Hannah, Rebecca is not locked in conflict with another wife. Rather, as soon as she becomes pregnant, her very body becomes the site of conflict between her twin sons: Jacob and Esau. According to Midrash, during this difficult pregnancy, whenever Rebecca would walk past a house of Torah, Jacob would struggle to come out. When she walked past a house of idolatry, Esau would struggle to come out. This makes for a terrifying experience for Rebecca who initially believes herself to be pregnant with one very disturbed child, as opposed to two sons so alive they’re practically killing her. Sick with worry and exhausted from the grueling experience of her pregnancy Rebecca goes into temple and asks the Lord, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?”
And the Lord says to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.”
The twins are born and their struggle continues well into adulthood. When Isaac decides that it is time to give the blessing of the first born to Esau. Rebecca helps to disguise Jacob so that he can steal the blessing meant for his brother. Later, Rebecca sends Jacob to her brother Laban where he falls in love with his daughter Rachel and eventually marries both Rachel and her sister Leah. And the familiar story begins again, this time taking to even greater extremes the hostilities that erupt between women in households where worthiness is determined by how many sons they bear.
Rachel finally becomes pregnant and gives birth to Joseph, Jacob’s favorite child. A fact that will wreak great havoc and calamity in a family already deeply fractured by the grief of women. Rachel’s story isn’t a happy one. She becomes pregnant a second time, again after a long period of prayerful devotion, and dies giving birth to Benjamin.
According to many Biblical scholars, the infertility of the Matriarchs – Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel – is meant to heighten the drama surrounding the eventual birth of their sons, setting Isaac, Jacob and Joseph apart as special in the history of Israel. It also teaches that pregnancy is an act of God. The story of Hannah is important because it simultaneously echoes the stories of the Jewish Matriarchs while also pointing toward the stories of Mary and Elizabeth in the New Testament, for whom motherhood is an act of devastating sacrifice. Like the Matriarchs, Hannah years for a child. And like Elizabeth, Hannah’s experience of motherhood is inseparable from the sacrifice of the much yearned for child.
The story of Hannah occupies a meeting place between Judaism and early Protestantism. In both traditions, Hannah exemplifies the importance of private, personal prayer with God. In Judaism, the Song of Hannah, the prayer she sings when she gives her son Samuel over to God, is the haftarah reading on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. And in Christianity, if you google “Hannah children’s sermon” you’ll gain some painful insight into how Hannah’s story has been distilled over time in our teaching. There are hundreds of results with titles like God Gives Hannah a Baby. It starts early, even in children’s sermon titles, our Christian teaching that if a woman just prays hard enough, God will give her a baby. The church has been hurting women for millennia with teachings like that, adding shame to the feelings of personal failure that accompany many people’s experience of childlessness. I want to say that that is not the God I know, nor is it the church that I know we can be.
Each of the women in the stories I’ve told today lived in deep, dissonant conflict with a culture that tied their status and worthiness to motherhood. Hannah exemplifies this tension, she wants motherhood so terribly that she decides the path to motherhood for her will mean giving away the very child her heart desires. Hannah’s story resonates across millennia because women continue to live in the tension between cultural expectations and personal desires. Nowhere has this become more apparent to me than in my work at Planned Parenthood where I volunteer as an abortion doula.
An abortion doula provides emotional support to patients immediately before, during, and after an abortion procedure. On a typical two and a half hour shift, this means that I walk into the procedure room a few minutes before the doctor and introduce myself and let the patient know that I’m there to support them during the procedure. Whether they’d like a hand to hold, distracting chit chat, or simply quiet, I am there to hold space for them.
That’s what we call what we try to do for patients at Planned Parenthood, and what we can all strive to do in our relationships. We hold space for a person whenever we are willing to be present with them without judgment, without trying to “fix” something (or someone), but by opening our hearts and offering support in a way that allows people space to trust themselves and their own intuition. Holding space is a type of compassionate care that recognizes that people know their own truth best.
That’s a radical notion for those of us who live in the tension between our culture’s expectations of us and the most intimate desires of our hearts. Sometimes, not always, but sometimes in the moments after a procedure, when I’m alone again with a patient, words will start tumbling out of her mouth. We’ve held hands. I’ve looked into her eyes and wiped her tears. And now, as I’m helping her to put herself back together, she starts to tell a story. Sometimes telling me their story is an intimate act of catharsis, of letting go of the hoped-for and being present in the messiness of the everyday. In those moments, the procedure room at Planned Parenthood becomes the holiest of holy ground. But, often, the stories I hear, I’m only privy to because even in the midst of their grief and sadness, a patient thinks that they have to explain their decision to me. No amount of absolutely amazing space holding can un-teach a woman a lifetime of being told that they must justify their most personal decisions to strangers.
Over the past half-century, American Christianity has become more and more obsessed with the individual over and against the communal. Our theology has come to emphasize personal and private decisions rather than the cultural contexts in which those decisions are made. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the way we treat people seeking abortion care in the United States. Every time I walk into the clinic at Planned Parenthood I walk past posters that the state require be posted in the waiting room: It is against the law in Tennessee to coerce a woman against her will into an abortion, they declare in bold type.
Yet, everyday women in Tennessee and across the United States end dearly wanted pregnancies out of fears for their family’s financial security. Capitalism, the ultimate religion of the individual, often forces people into decisions that otherwise go against their most intimate hopes and dreams. That is a sin of social structure and institutional oppression. I said earlier that the most important part of being an abortion doula is being a non-judgmental presence. I work hard to be that for the people I’m privileged to care for at Planned Parenthood. But, being called to be unjudging in a personal relationship, to be a supportive and affirming presence in the midst of pain and grief, bears responsibility outside of the clinic walls and behind pulpits like this one. This work is two-fold for me. I believe that we must trust and support people as they make hard decisions in a world that makes those decisions even harder. And we must work to change the society that limits a person’s ability to live out their most intimate dreams.
I feel called to this work as an abortion doula not in spite of the fact that I’m a Christian woman, but precisely because I am a Christian woman. My faith affirms the power of women to make their own decisions and it strengthens me in the necessary work of holding space for women to trust themselves. I know that what I’ve talked about likely seems life-draining work. It isn’t, it’s life-affirming. Life affirming in the most ordinary and extraordinary ways. Every person I meet on one of my doula shifts is the bravest person I’ve ever met. It’s a miracle that happens on every shift, every person I meet is doing the very best they can in what are often the very scariest of circumstances.
I haven’t talked to many people about the work that I’ve been doing over the past year. Outside of the prayers that I’ve often woken in the middle of the night to write for women I dearly wish I could see again, but know I won’t, this sermon is the most theological reflection that I’ve been able to do. I’ve been hesitant to try to bring theological language to the experiences I’ve had precisely because it’s theological language – the stories we tell, the expectations we place – that has wrecked so much havoc in the lives of many of the patients that I see. But, becoming an abortion doula has made me a more compassionate person. The intimate moments of bravery that I see in my work at Planned Parenthood have helped me to see resilience and beauty everywhere, and that has brought me extraordinary comfort in these scary times we find ourselves living in.
My hope in sharing this work that I’m doing with you, my faith community, is that you might join me in holding space and help me in finding new theological language in the midst of all this messiness. Some of you have already engaged in this work. As part of our spring dinner church season, we made bags for patients at Planned Parenthood. We filled them with granola bars, tissues, and cards with messages like “You deserve to take care of yourself. The world needs you, remember that you are strong and brave.”
I believe that simple words of kindness can heal, especially when those words come from the heart. In the coming weeks, I’m going to be working to discern how we can continue this work, how we can improve it, and how we can build better relationships in the messiness. So, let us begin this work by being in prayer together.
The prayer that I’d like to share with you is one that I adapted from a poem by Julia Cameron. Take a deep breath, relax your body, close your eyes and join me:
Heavenly, space holder,
Creator God, Mother of Matriachs,
I pray I could take language
And fold it like cool, moist rags.
I would lay words on your forehead.
I would wrap words on your wrists.
“There, there,” my words would say —
Or something better.
I would ask them to murmur,
“Hush” and “Shh, shhh, it’s all right.”
I would ask them to hold you all night.
I pray I could take language
And daub and soothe and cool
Where fever blisters and burns,
Where fever turns yourself against you.
I pray I could take language
And heal the words that were the wounds
You have no names for.