**Originally preached for 4:00 Jazz worship at Fourth Presbyterian Church Chicago on November 15, 2015**
A couple of weeks ago, I was on a flight back to Chicago after a trip to my home state of Georgia. I am a nervous flyer on the best of days, but this was one of the worst flights I have ever experienced. We got off the ground okay, but by the time they were taking drink orders, the plane felt like it was rolling down a dirt road in the country. When the flight attendants quickly abandoned their work to buckle into their own seats for safety, I began to pray.
“Please don’t let us crash, please don’t let us die,” I said over and over, mouthing the words as I gripped my armrests with sweating hands. The turbulence continued for the duration of the 2 hour flight, and the clouds outside surrounded the plane so that any sense of perspective or direction was lost. In my panicking brain, it was as if I could feel our velocity and the sensation made it hard to breathe. I was terrified, and I didn’t let up on my prayer mantra for the rest of the flight. It wasn’t until we were safely on the ground that I unclenched my fingers from the armrests and turned to look at my seatmate. We shared a weak, relieved smile, and I realized that he had been holding on just as tightly – and maybe praying too.
A few days later, I was leading a discussion about the power of God with some of Fourth Church’s young adults. One of them asked, “If we don’t believe that God will actually make things different based on our prayers—then what is the point? Why do we pray?” I thought it was a fair question, and I immediately thought of my harrowing flight earlier in the week. Had I believed, as I said my prayer over and over, that it actually had the power to keep our plane aloft? And if not, why was I doing it?
This question was heavy on my mind too, on Friday, as I frantically followed news reports of the violence in and around Paris, then learned of violent acts in Beirut and Baghdad. On Friday night, “pray” was a trending word on both Twitter and Facebook. But why do we pray? What is the power of prayer?
To be honest, Hannah’s story is basically a theological quagmire when it comes to these questions. But I couldn’t read this scripture this week without bring those questions to the table.
An uncritical reading might lead us to all sorts of conclusions about God and about prayer. We might conclude for instance that faithful prayer always leads to the outcome one hopes for. We might also conclude that God rewards faithful women with children (and thus, a lack of children counts as faithlessness). We might conclude that the value of a woman rests in her ability to reproduce and that her respectability as a person of faith rests in her desire to reproduce. And these possible conclusions are what make this text dangerous.
After all, we know that a person’s ability or desire to procreate has nothing to do with their value, their faithfulness, or how beloved they are by God. We also reject the idea of a God who arbitrarily doles out punishment and reward. We have an entire Bible, the life and grace of Jesus, and our own experiences to tell us that these conclusions about God and about why we pray don’t reflect who God really is or what our faith is really about. These ideas defined the time in which Hannah lived, but the lesson her story has to teach us about prayer speaks far beyond her oppressive context.
Hannah lived in a time when her entire value as a human being centered on her ability to give birth to boys. Even though her husband loved her, the narrative of Hannah’s time told her that her “closed womb” made her literally worth nothing. And she was constantly reminded of that narrative—of her worthlessness—by Elkanah’s very fertile other wife, Peninah. She is even handed this narrative by Eli, the priest.
I think what is most remarkable about Hannah’s story isn’t that God answers her prayer. The incredible part is that Hannah prays in the first place.
She has no reason, in her paradigm, to believe that God cares for her. She has no reason to believe that she is worth a better situation than the one she has, or even that the world can be better. She is surrounded by a narrative of brokenness, and pain, and indignity. But Hannah believes in something else. Hannah believes in the love of God and she believes that the world God desires for her and for everyone is different than the world she lives in. And so she cries out to her God—she cries out in prayer—calling forth that different world—a world defined by the love of a faithful and just God who embraces all people. Her words of anguish and anger—her vocal and physical rejection of the broken paradigm around her—vibrate along the cord of her own faith that ties her back to her Creator like a tin can telephone line between the world that is and the kindom of God that is yet to be.
And though Hannah’s faithfulness in prayer begins in the silence of her heart and in quiet words mouthed in the temple—it moves beyond her. It compels her to stand up against her circumstances and even to stand up to the priest that would deny the truth of her own belovedness. Hannah prays first with her heart, then with her words, and finally with her whole self, body and soul engaged in crying out to God for a different and better reality.
Hannah’s prayer offers a faithful disruption to the unjust world around her; her words of lament and hope offer a counter-narrative to the one her sinful world hands her. Her cries to God remind her that there is a different world that she believes in and belongs to—rather than the world that doesn’t believe in her. And this reminder compels her forward, drawing ever nearer to that better world. This, I believe, is the power of prayer. This is why we pray.
When I picture Hannah crying out in that temple, I imagine her engaging in a holy filibuster. I see her like Jimmy Stewart in the classic movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In that movie, Stewart plays an idealistic junior senator who gets tangled up in a corrupt political system that tries to destroy him. On the verge of being expelled from Congress on false claims of his own worthlessness, Smith engages in a 24-hour filibuster—holding back the tide of corruption and injustice that threatens to drown him with whatever words he can summon about hope, justice, and a better world.
Or perhaps, Hannah in the temple is more like Wendy Davis, a real-life Mr. Smith, who several years ago filibustered for 11 hours in the Texas state senate to prevent the passage of a bill that would severely restrict women’s access to healthcare and reproductive services. She, like Hannah, lifted her voice and her body in protest against the unjust narrative surrounding her.
Unlike Hannah, neither Smith nor Davis found immediate success in their calls for a different reality. Smith faints just after vowing to continue his filibuster, and the bill Davis protested eventually passed in a second session. The remarkable power of their actions, however, echoes Hannah’s own faithfulness. In the face of a broken world, a destructive, unjust narrative—they claimed a different story, a better and more just narrative, and refused to relinquish hold on the world they really believed in. Their voices, their embodied calls for justice—compelled faith and justice in others and, even if only in small ways, moved the world.
Hannah refuses to accept the story she is told by everyone around her. She drowns it out in prayer—and her prayer tells a different story, a holy story, of the kindom of God where she is beloved and all people are sacred and justice rolls down like waters.
We don’t pray so that God will manipulate our circumstances according to our direction. We pray because we believe that things can be different and better than they are. We pray to remind ourselves and one another that this broken narrative is not the end of the story, that this broken world is not the one we belong to. We pray to disrupt our destructive paradigm and filibuster against the tide of pain and injustice that threatens to overwhelm us. And we pray not just with silent words, but also with our whole selves—standing firmly in the truth of a God who loves us and calls us to justice and mercy and faith.
If this is the power of prayer—to draw us ever closer to our God and God’s kindom—then I think Hannah’s story offers us much hope. Though I spent much time this past week thinking about the value of Hannah’s prayer, it is not the first time her story and her prayer has been inspiring to me in the face of life’s turbulence and hard questions.
Four years ago, I attended a retreat in the mountains of North Georgia for emerging LGBTQ pastors in the Presbyterian Church. I was newly out to myself, and not yet fully out to my family or the wider world. The narrative I had been taught told me that my identity made me unworthy to be a minister, unworthy of God’s love and call on my life. At the retreat, I was surrounded by others struggling against the same painful paradigm. On one of the nights of the retreat, a recently ordained, openly gay pastor preached a sermon on this same scripture. He spoke about Hannah’s courage to stand in her full truth and call for a better world. And at his sermon’s conclusion, he instructed us all to stand up together too—crying out to God with our hearts and our words and our bodies—calling the better world we were made for into being.
On the strength of that experience, I spoke my truth to my family just a few weeks later, and faithfully continued my path to ministry. The struggles didn’t end there—they haven’t even ended now—but that moment of embodied prayer and every moment of prayer since has reminded me of my call to tell a different story—a more holy story—than the broken one of this world. All those years ago, on the day I summoned the courage to tell my truth—I got a small tattoo of the word Hannah in Hebrew to remind me why we cry out to God, why we pray with our hearts and our bodies and our lives—and to remember what the power of that prayer is. Whenever anyone in that community of LGBTQ pastors needs encouragement, we simply say to each other “STAND” and we remember Hannah.
The power of our prayer is the vibration along the telephone wire of our faith back to the God who made us and forward to the world God made us for. The power of our prayer is to tell a different story—a better story—and to disrupt the brokenness around us.
We don’t pray so that God will change our circumstances to make us more worthy, more valuable, more loved. We pray to remember that—regardless of our circumstances—we are already worthwhile, and valued, and loved by God—all of us—and to reject, with all that we believe and all that we are, any world and any story who says otherwise. We pray with our words, and our hands and our feet. And yes, our prayers have power.
Recently, Jonathan Butler, a young graduate student at the University of Missouri, began a hunger strike to call for the resignation of the university’s president. This particular strike and call were part of a larger protest movement organized by a group of students called “Concerned Student 1950” who were reacting to an inhospitable institutional atmosphere for black community members and other minorities. Ultimately, the protest gained national attention when Mizzou faculty members, the football team, and then its coaches, joined in the fight. Last Monday, the school’s president complied with the call for his resignation and stepped down. In the upheaval since, students across the country have joined the students of Mizzou in protest and solidarity.
I do not know the faith of Jonathan Butler or the other members of Concerned Student 1950, but I do know that the actions taken by them in protest were first founded in a profound belief in justice and in the worth of every human being—in a faithful refusal to let that belief be drowned out by the narrative of racism and discrimination around them.
I think, too, of the countless Parisian citizens who—as their city still shuddered from unimaginable violence—opened their homes to strangers seeking shelter—using the hashtag “porte ouverte” or “open door” to connect online. I confess that over and over as I read those stories Friday night, I was amazed by their trust. I would have been afraid that letting someone in might have meant letting in danger. But those faithful human beings stood in defiant opposition to such a narrative of fear and drowned out the cacophonous screams of violence with hearts singing kindness.
We pray when we look at the injustice and pain and mess around us and cry out in our temples, and our schools, and our cities for something better. We pray when we choose to believe in the possibility of hope and grace in the face of pain and despair. We pray when we cry out to our priests and our leaders and, above all, to our God saying: women have equal value and worth. LGBTQ people deserve justice, and black lives matter. We pray when we give our hearts and our hands to Paris, Beirut, Baghdad, and all the many places in this world where violence goes without notice. When we stand in firm commitment to the story of God’s love, we draw our world ever closer to “God’s kindom come, God’s will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven.”
So this day and every day, with our hearts, and our words, and our bodies – let us pray. Amen.