In the days before there was a king in Israel—in the days before there was a temple to the Lord in Jerusalem—there was a woman named Hannah.
Hannah was married to a man named Elkanah; and Elkanah loved her deeply. But this was a time and a place and a culture that was immersed in patriarchy: where a man could have more than one wife… and where a woman’s crowning glory was in her children.
And Elkanah was also married to Penninah. And Penninah had children. And Hannah had none. And Penninah mocked Hannah relentlessly.
So even though Elkanah loved Hannah deeply, Hannah was distraught.
Every year, Elkanah and Hannah and Penninah and Penninah’s children would go to the temple of the Lord at Shiloh. And this year, Hannah went to the temple, and presented herself before the Lord, and made a deal with God.
She prayed, “If you will give me a son, I will set him before you as a nazirite. In fact, I will do more than that! He will keep the vows of a nazirite: he will not drink wine, or eat grapes, or cut his hair, or go near graves. But more than that, he will not drink anything with alcohol! And he will not be a nazirite for a set period of time. He will not be a nazirite for a month or a year. He will be a nazirite—he will keep this vow—until he day that he dies… for all time… for forever. And I will give him to this temple. And he will serve you.”
What she prayed—what she really prayed—was, “If you give me a son, O Lord, I will make him a living sacrifice to you.”
And she prayed that so hard that the priest thought she was drunk.
You know this, but Mariah and I don’t have kids. We like kids. We enjoy kids. We think kids are some of the best people in the world. It’s just that we don’t have kids.
And there are reasons for that. And one of those reasons is that it seems like a kid… a child… a whole human being… should be something that you really want. I mean really want. I mean really really want. Enough to rearrange your whole life to make room for that person. Enough to take on the whole world for the sake of that person.
And I know that’s complicated. I know that some people get into that headspace long before they even meet the person who they will have a child with… and I know that other people get into that headspace when they see their child for the first time… and I know that other people get into that headspace at all sorts of other times.
It’s just that we’ve never been in that headspace. It’s just that other things have always been more important than bringing a kid… a child… a whole human being… into the world. So we have chosen to keep our family as it is. And that’s okay.
That’s okay just because it’s okay to make that choice. And that’s okay because it takes a village to raise a child… and there are a lot of kids who need bigger villages… and we are good villagers.
But that means that I have no idea what it must have been like for Hannah to make that deal. I have no idea what it must have been like for Hannah to pray that prayer. And I have no idea what it must have been like for Hannah to pray so hard that the priest thought she was drunk.
I have never prayed so hard that anyone thought I was drunk. I have never poured out my soul in a way that has made people look at me and thought, “What’s wrong with that guy? Is he okay? Should we call someone? Should somebody do something?”
And that’s a little bit because Jesus tells us not to stand and pray in public places so that we can be seen. So a lot of my prayers are private prayers.
And it’s a little bit because my public prayers are professional prayers. So I stay professional. And I stay composed. And I keep the wailing and screaming and weeping and swearing inside.
But I wonder…
You see, I want things. I mean, I really want things. I mean, I really really want things.
I want a world where our children—where everyone—can go to school, or church, or the supermarket, or a parade, or a state park, or anywhere else, and know without a doubt that they are safe.
I want a world where our children—where everyone—can live their lives and know without a doubt that there will always be a roof over their heads and food in their bellies and clothes on their backs.
I want a world where our children—where everyone—can look to a future where there will be predictable and seasonably appropriate weather… and breathable air… and clean water… and all sorts of creatures, bright and beautiful, great and small, wise and wonderful, slimy and scaly.
I want a reign of love… where everyone knows that they are loved and worthy of love… where we treat each other with love… like we are loved and worthy of love… like we are made in the image of God.
And I wonder what it would be like to pray for that so hard, and so openly, and so honestly, and so utterly unprofessionally, that people might see me and think, “What’s wrong with that guy? Is he okay? Should we call someone? Should somebody do something?”
There is the other side of prayer, of course. If we say the prayer, we have to do the thing.
If we bless the wine, we have to drink the wine. If we bless the wine and drop the glass, and the glass doesn’t break, we have to drink the few drops that are left in the glass. If we bless the wine and drop the glass, and the glass breaks, we have to act like we were blessing the bottle and pour a little more.
If we say the prayer, we have to do the thing.
And the Lord accepted Hannah’s terms. So after Hannah gets pregnant… and goes through labor… and nurses a son… and cleans up all the stuff…she takes a child named Samuel to the temple of the Lord at Shiloh.
And she hands him over to be a nazirite… to be more than a nazirite… until he day that he dies… for all time… for forever.
And it’s not like she’ll never see him again. Every year, Elkanah and Hannah and Penninah and Penninah’s children—and the other children who Hannah will have—will go to the temple of the Lord at Shiloh. And she will see her first son; she will see the son who she prayed for so hard that the priest thought she was drunk.
And maybe she will tell him what’s happening at home. And maybe he will play with the other children. And maybe she will see him grow up… year by year… in moments… in snapshots.
And I can’t imagine what that must be like. I can’t imagine the courage that it must take and I can’t imagine the sorrow that it must bring. I can’t imagine the way that her heart must swell every time she approaches the temple; I can’t imagine the way that her heart must break every time that she leaves.
But she said the prayer… she made the deal… so she has to do the thing.
Maybe the reason that I pray small is so that I can act small. Maybe my prayers are the size of a social media post… or one protest that is mostly listening to speakers and walking in a loop… or signing onto one of those automatic letters to my representatives… or making a generous-but-reasonable donation.
If I keep my prayers private, I can keep acting in private. If I keep my prayers professional, I can keep acting professional. If I keep my prayers composed, I can keep being composed. And I can keep on keeping the wailing and screaming and weeping and swearing inside.
And if I keep praying like this is how the world is… then this is how the world will be.
And that world might be terrible for a lot of people… but it works for me… more or less… even if I know that people are not safe at schools, or churches, or supermarkets, or parades, or anywhere else… and that there are folks who do not have a roof over their heads or food in their bellies and clothes on their backs… and that the future doesn’t look like it will be bright and beautiful… and that it often seems like love is in short supply…
…wait a minute… this is not a world that works for anyone… not for you… not for me… not for anyone…
…and something so much better is possible. Something so much better is coming. Something so much better is somewhere over the horizon: a reign of love, where everyone knows that they are loved and worthy of love.
And I know that it is already among us. And I know that only God knows the day and the hour when it will blossom. But I also know that we are called to nurture that reign of love; I know that we are called to be ambassadors of that reign of love.
And maybe that starts with praying bigger prayers… with praying wilder prayers… with praying more dangerous prayers…
Maybe that starts with praying the kinds of prayers that make people say, “What’s wrong with those people? Are they okay? Should we call someone? Should somebody do something?”
And maybe that will lead us to being the somebodies who do something… even though doing something can take courage and bring sorrow… even though it can cause our hearts to swell and our hearts to break.
Because what that will lead to… will be amazing.
That child that Hannah handed over to be a nazirite… to be more than a nazirite… will be more than a nazirite. He will be a prophet. He will lead armies. He will crown kings. He will call kings out on their stuff. He will change one corner of the world.
And that change all started with a woman named Hannah, who prayed so hard that the priest thought she was drunk.