We must acknowledge our brokenness to prepare our hearts for new life.
Heated election cycles. Societal upheaval. Expansion of technology. Overly busy schedules. Shrinking churches. Shallow disciples. Divided families. Addiction. Economic greediness. Oppression.
Naming the barrenness around us would produce an exhausting, endless list. In my more cynical moments, I struggle to see how life is possible when everything appears gripped by discord, destruction, and death.
I am thankful for stories that remind us of God’s capacity to pave new roads through dead-end streets.
The Book of Judges concludes with these words: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 17:6, 21:25, NRSV). Thus 1 Samuel begins. It requires little imagination to see how these words can describe our own day. Society lacks a unifying voice to bring factions together; there is “no king in Israel.” Churches, communities, families, and people are deeply fragmented, each pursuing their own agenda. We are perplexed, confused, and on edge, as was Israel.
Of course, this verse from Judges is a bit ironic. God is and has always been King—not only over Israel but all of creation. The Israelites failed to recognize God’s sovereignty over their lives. They attended worship, tithed, observed holy days, and prayed. But the pressure surrounding Israel increasingly led them to desire to become like other nations, which they saw as economically superior, politically cunning, militarily dominant, and decidedly independent. The crisis bubbling under the surface of Israel’s life was one of identity. Whose image would Israel reflect?
Hannah and Eli
The opening chapters of 1 Samuel zoom from the wide-angle lens of Israel’s society to the deeply personal story of two characters: Hannah and Eli. These characters appear to be nothing alike.
Eli was a powerful man with two sons. He served as high priest and sat in the gate as a revered elder in the community. He was vested with political and spiritual authority. His life appeared to be a picture of “success” marked by God’s favor.
Hannah was unable to have children. She was ridiculed by others. She lacked political power. Her future was in jeopardy, and, by all appearances, she lived under God’s curse. Hannah was the picture of God-forsakenness.
But, even with all their differences, Eli and Hannah held something in common: They both were barren.
Blinded to Barrenness
Barrenness is impotence in the face of death’s power in our lives. It is our inability to escape death’s destructive grip. This singular dilemma, enveloping us all, was thrust center-stage in Eli and Hannah’s encounter. Both Hannah and Eli were situated in the place of worship. Hannah was on bent knees, tears streaming, wordlessly praying for God’s creative power to be loosed. Eli sat towering in his “seat,” keeping a hawk’s eye on the sanctuary. The contrast between these two worshipers was stark: one elevated, the other prostrate.
Eli’s “seat,” the same on which David would be enthroned as king, was no ordinary chair. This symbol of power was the perch from which Eli traded in pastoral service to build his own kingdom. With an elevated opinion of himself and blinded to the barrenness surrounding him, his eyes were firmly affixed on his own religiously sanctioned dynasty with his sons.
Hannah, in contrast, embraced barrenness as the intersection of her life with God, Giver of life.
John Chrysostom writes: “Instead of saying anything at first, she began with wailing and shed warm floods of tears. And just as, when rain storms fall, even the harder ground is moistened . . . and easily bestirs itself to produce crops, so too did this happen in the case of this woman: as though softened by the flood of tears and warmed with the pangs, the womb began to stir in that wonderful fertility” (Francesca Aran Murphy, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: 1 Samuel 14).
Deep need and dependence
Hannah lamented her brokenness and powerlessness. Such confession elicits newness to unexpectedly burst from her. Hannah confesses her deep need and her dramatic dependence upon God and is filled with life.
Eli was blind to his need for confession and missed the opportunity to mourn the brokenness in himself, his household, and his community. The hardening crust of self-sufficiency finally could not be penetrated. Eli’s religious posturing was exposed for self-interested deathliness parading as faithfulness.
The ravenous power of Eli’s house was like depleted soil carried off as dust in the wind. Hannah embodied, through her own barrenness and deliverance, Israel’s barrenness, which had to be purged and engulfed by God’s life-giving, life-blessing, life-sustaining word. In a surprising twist, Hannah was elevated as an image of one blessed by God; Eli and his house were brought low in the settling plume of ash and rubble.
Tearing down walls of denial
Living in a culture that denies its own deathliness, pain, anxiety, loss, and fear tempts us to insulate and isolate ourselves, to not break open our wounds before each other. Lament and confession till the hardened soil of our hearts and prepare us for God to sow a life-evoking word in our midst. Lament tears down our walls of denial and helps us to concretely name our barrenness. (For example, sometimes we are responsible for our barrenness, as with Eli, and sometimes we are victims of circumstance, as with Hannah.)
Lament mourns a closed-off future that lies beyond our power to implement. Worship empty of lament and confession before God is ultimately vacant of life-giving power. Lament leads to confession, whereby we acknowledge our impotence to create newness and alter our brokenness, and directs our gaze toward the God capable of revoking our cursed barrenness.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate” (The Cost of Discipleship, 47).
It is vital that our worship recovers the sacraments, particularly those spaces in which we can both lament and confess our barrenness before God and each other.
Eli’s life of cheap grace unveils the destructive patterns void of lament and confession. Hannah’s life of costly grace emerges from prayerful surrender to the only One capable of deliverance from death.
So we pray: “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name; through Christ our Lord. Amen” (The Book of Common Prayer, 355).
Levi Jones is co-lead pastor with his wife, Rebecca, at Cornerstone Community Church of the Nazarene in Wagoner, Oklahoma.