Last week I spent three days with 37 colleagues at a Probationers Retreat. The 38 of us are all somewhere in the process toward acceptance as Elders or Deacons in Full Connection in as pastors in the United Methodist Church. Most of us moving toward Ordination, a couple through transfer of Orders from other denomination. The first evening, as we sat in a large circle, our retreat leader invited us to introduce ourselves with our name, the name of the church we were serving, how long we had
been there and one aspect of our ministry that is exciting or interesting. As the introductions moved around the circle, I got the distinct impression that all of my colleagues serve very large churches, working many, many hours a week, all their churches pay their apportionments in full, have large and fully funded budgets, and all have healthy, robust congregations and ministries. I felt almost as though
I was in danger of deflating a mood as I introduced myself from Sunnyhills, in my second year in a less-than-full-time appointment, and excited about our plans that are germinating in an outreach/extension ministry here in Milpitas. (We do, by the way, fully pay our apportionments.)
By the end of the retreat, I came to realize several things. We are not the smallest worshipping congregation served by a Probationary Elder and we are significantly healthier both financially, and in our attitudes toward many aspects of church life than many other churches represented. And that having the beginnings of a vision is a long way ahead of no vision at all.
Several of my colleagues, when caught in informal conversation, told of congregations with no mission, no vision, and with just enough endowment, grant, or miracle Sunday offering to continue to afford a pastor. In short, a connectional social club, but with no new members of hope of new members. A place where hope had been deeply buried, and long forgotten. Barren.
That is where this morning's story starts: a place of barrenness, a place where it seemed that no one was listening, no hope expressed. Like Ruth, Hannah, was barren: no child, no heir, no future, no hope. As you know, in ancient times children were valued because they extended one's life into the future. Children were a sign of God's continued blessing; children, in a sense, promised immortality: people could live beyond their lifetimes through their children. But the reverse was also painfully obvious. Women who didn't have children carried the stigma of God's curse. Barrenness was like a grave, a place to be stuck in, to never have the joy of passing life on through eternity. Hannah, our scripture tells us, is barren.
Barrenness is almost common in the prominent women of the Hebrew Scriptures
The Matriarchs approach this problem in several ways. Sarah, who at 90 was promised a child who would become the parent of nations, got impatient for God to fulfill God's plan. She took a handmaiden to her husband Abraham's "knee" so that she would have a son, thwarting any attempt for God to back out on those plans. Hagar, the maid, and Abraham became the parents of Ishmael, the progenitor of the Arab peoples. But God had other plans yet for Sarah and Abraham--their son was Isaac.
A generation later, Isaac's son Jacob (having fled for his life after tricking his father out of his brother's birthright) was living with his uncle Laban when he asked for Laban's daughter Rachel in marriage. Laban was something of a crook, and Jacob ended up with both the older Leah, "who had soft eyes", and Rachel "who he loved". (Gen 29: 17ff) Leah bore Jacob sons, Rachel's maid bore Jacob sons, Leah's maid bore Jacob sons, but years passed while Rachel, who Isaac loved, was barren. Finally, scripture tells us God remembered Rachel, opened her womb, she conceived and bore a son--Joseph. (Gen 30:24; 35:18).
And Ruth--who we talked about last week--was barren. Her solution was simply wait through widowhood to another husband.
Barrenness was a common theme. But barrenness is more than childlessness. Barrenness might describe emptiness, chaos, unsettledness, unproductivity.
Metaphorically, Israel, too, was barren. The books of Judges describes the times after the conquest of Canaan. The Philistines reduced Israel to a marginal existence. No leader could pull the tribes together, and there was infighting between the tribes. Bully chieftains clamored to power to rule until the next bully chieftain came and clobbered the last one. Moral chaos and undisciplined religion led to outright slaughter in order for some to gain wives. Cultic religion was eclectic: a syncretism that
blended flavors of all the local gods, and the God of Abraham as well. No prophet spoke for God to the community, and the priests had become slovenly in their practice of religion. There was barrenness in the land and Hannah and her family reflect that in her own life.
Elkanah was, perhaps baffled with Hannah's sorrow. She was the love of his life. He cared for her in the best way he knew how. "Am I not more devoted to you than ten sons?" She was his favorite, and he wasn't shy about saying so. But of course Elkanah was the center of his own viewpoint. He had the best of several worlds: sons to care for him in his old age, a wife to care for the children, and a different wife to love and care for. He didn't have to understand why Hannah was unhappy--she should have been happy just because he was.
Peninnah, like Leah before her, was the fertile wife who was less loved. Peninnah had children but for all intents and purposes, no husband. She was used for what her body could produce: children. It is no wonder that her spiritual barrenness manifests in jealousy for Hannah : "I've got children.. nah, nah, nah" and the unspoken "and you have the love of our husband" I've got children and you don'tů" and the unspoken "and you get the best treatment from our husband."
And Hannah. Physically barren and incomplete--raised in a society that knew women were not complete without husband AND children. Even though Hannah was valued by her husband, it was a hard thing to hear, even harder to believe. The annual trip to Shiloh, to bring a sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise, was an even harder time of year--traveling closely with Peninnah and her children, each woman seeing what the other had that they didn't, the holes in their being - from childlessness or lack of husband-love gnawing heavily on their actions.
For most of us--men and women, young and more mature, there are things in our lives that we have been socially conditioned to accept as the norm, or "the right way". If we conform to that norm, we're "ok". If we don't--that lack gnaws at us at some level--conscious or unconscious. For some, attempting to emulate that norm takes over our entire being.
It might be the newest clothing style, the newest body-proportion, hair style, or use of language. For our youth, pressure from parents make the norms the attainment of a grade point average, acceptance into the right college or university. From their friends, our teens have pressures to drive the right kind of car, or dating the right kind of girl or boy friend, hang out with the right crowd. It is remarkably easy to pick on the teenage population for the "norms" that shape their lives. They are fairly visible in their fads and pursuits.
Adults have that gnaw as well: Salary expectations, home ownership, job status, body size and strength, marriage, wardrobe, wealth. And we share with teens a sense of emptiness when the drive to resolve these holes becomes primary in our beings.
Like our biblical predecessors, we look for alternatives. Like Elkanah, we put ourselves at the center of our being. Like Peninnah, we snipe at others. Like Rachel and Sarah, we try substitutes--only our substitutes aren't maids to send to our spouse--more often or substitutes are drinking, eating, retreating, living with stress, taking short-cuts, becoming risk takers..
Of course, if and when we can get honest with ourselves, we may realize that if we successfully resolve one of these issues, the emptiness, the barrenness is still there. These are the symptoms, not the real issues of barrenness.
Hannah made choice not made by the matriarchs of her faith. She chose no substitutes. She went to the tabernacle and poured her heart out to God. In her barrenness and seemingly hopeless life she worshiped."To clasp the hands in prayer," Karl Barth once said, "is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world." Right there in worship, Hannah began an uprising against the barrenness that had shriveled her country and her life. Martin Luther described such bold praying as "a continuous violent action of the spirit lifted up to God."
She pleaded for God to remember her. Remembrance is a powerful theme in Hebrew scriptures. God remembered Noah, and the waters subsided. God remembered Israel in Egypt, and deliverance came. Hannah took her distress to God. Not only her distress, but her willingness to give her most cherished offering to God.
Hannah's prayer is urgent and raw. As she beats on the doors of heaven to be heard, the door swings open to a new possibility for God to act in life-giving, life-saving ways.
The hole in Hannah's heart wasn't filled by the birth of a child--her change began face to face with God in prayer, in relationship with a powerful, transformative God who can harness barrenness and turn it into fruitful possibilities.
What about us? Where is God working in our barrenness?
I don't know where our own story will end. But, like Hannah, we will continue going to God in prayer. We have the beginnings of a vision, reaching out in our community in extension ministries, welcoming the multiethnic neighborhood. Knowing already that we don't know enough--except that we have enough love to share, and a God who can harness our barrenness and turn it into fruitful possibilities. Those will be exciting possibilities!
 John Cobb, Grace and Responsibility, p 15.