The Attitude of Gratitude
November 07, 2004
There was a certain man from Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. He had two wives; one was called Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none.
Year after year this man went up from his town to worship and sacrifice to the Lord Almighty at Shiloh, where Hophni and Phinehas, the two sons of Eli, were priests of the Lord. Whenever the day came for Elkanah to sacrifice, he would give portions of the meat to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. But to Hannah he gave a double portion because he loved her, and the Lord had closed her womb. And because the Lord had closed her womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat. Elkanah her husband would say to her, "Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don't you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don't I mean more to you than ten sons?"
Once when they had finished eating and drinking in Shiloh, Hannah stood up. Now Eli the priest was sitting on a chair by the door post of the Lord's temple. In bitterness of soul Hannah wept much and prayed to the Lord. And she made a vow, saying, "O Lord Almighty, if you will only look upon your servant's misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head."
As she kept on praying to the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk and said to her, "How long will you keep on getting drunk? Get rid of your wine."
"Not so, my lord," Hannah replied, "I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the Lord. Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief."
Eli answered, "Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him."
She said, "May your servant find favor in your eyes." Then she went her way and ate something, and her face was no longer downcast.
Early the next morning they arose and worshipped before the Lord and then went back to their home at Ramah. Elkanah lay with Hannah his wife, and the Lord remembered her. So in the course of time Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel, saying, "Because I asked the Lord for him."
When the man Elkanah went up with all his family to offer the annual sacrifice to the Lord and to fulfill his vow, Hannah did not go. She said to her husband, "After the boy is weaned, I will take him and present him before the Lord, and he will live there always."
"Do what seems best to you," Elkanah her husband told her. "Stay here until you have weaned him; only may the Lord make good your word." So the woman stayed at home and nursed her son until she had weaned him.
After he was weaned, she took the boy with her, young as he was, along with three bulls, an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine, and brought him to the house of the Lord at Shiloh. When they had slaughtered the bull, they brought the boy to Eli, and she said to him, "As surely as you live, my lord, I am the woman who stood here beside you praying to the Lord. I prayed for this child, and the Lord has granted me what I asked of him. So now I give him to the Lord. For his whole life he shall be given over to the Lord." And he worshipped the Lord there.
(1 Samuel 1)
We go through this life pretty well convinced that we are in control of things; that we are responsible for what happens; that we shape our destiny. When things go well we take the credit, and when things go sour, we take responsibility.
The truth is, we're fooling ourselves.
And the irony is that the Lord created us to fool ourselves. He created us to act as if from ourselves, but then slipped into us just enough awareness, gave us access to just enough information, and allowed us just enough of a peek into the workings of the Spirit, to understand that in reality we do nothing completely of ourselves. All we are is of God.
When life is just flowing along and we are flowing with it, engaged in our routines and our work, our awareness of reality is such that we really believe and operate as if we are in control.
And then the Lord steps in and lifts up the curtain a bit. Maybe we run into illness or calamity; possibly our fortunes change--for better or for worse--and deep in our hearts we recognize, even if only for a brief moment, how little we can really control . . . how little we are able to determine . . . how great a role chance, fate, or providence plays in our lives.
Hannah would understand what I am talking about--as would any woman, or couple for that matter, who has struggled with the pain of infertility. Even in this day and age, with all the advances we have made, with all the options we have available, we still cannot exercise complete control over whether or not a woman is able to conceive life. We can prevent it; we can increase the possibility; but ultimately we cannot make it happen. It is beyond us.
As a congregation, we have lived in the face of circumstances beyond our control for years now. We have existed in a state of great need without the resources simply to purchase our building. We have been barren in a sense, just like Hannah, unable to bring forth from our own personal resources the outcome we so desperately desire. We have a lot in common with Hannah--and by the end of today, we hope, our stories will converge even more.
According to the first book of Samuel, Hannah longed for a child more than anything else in the world. She suffered the taunts of her husband's second wife, and watched in vain as her rival bore child after child. All in all, Hannah's life wasn't bad. Her husband was a godly man who loved her, and he did not abandon her when it looked as if she would not bear children. In fact, he doted on her more than any other in his household in an effort to make up for her immense longing. But Hannah wanted a baby, and only a baby would satisfy the emptiness she felt in her life.
After my first reading, I thought it would be important to put this story in its historical context in order to understand just how important it was for Hannah to bear children. Then I realized that some things just don't change: that even if Hannah could have pursued a college education and enjoyed a high-powered career, even if she could have found love and respect and a place in society as something other than a mother, if she lived here and now and really wanted a baby and was unable to have one, it would still hurt just as much.
We don't need to know anything about ancient Palestine to know that Hannah suffered. We don't need to know anything about her culture or her time period to understand just how frustrating life can be when what we desire is completely outside of our control.
In today's reading Hannah goes to the Temple and humbles herself before the Lord. She prays so hard and with so much passion that the priest Eli thinks she is drunk. "O Lord Almighty," she prays, "if you will only look upon your servant's misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life."
Eli, when he understands her plea and comes face to face with her sincerity, feels a certainty come over him. "Go in peace," he says, "and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him." And Eli's peace is contagious. For the first time in years, Hannah returns home full of hope and promise. She begins eating again, loving her husband with joy, not desperation, and in time a baby boy is born.
Now, I want to pause here, because we have already heard the end of the story. We know that Hannah calls this boy Samuel. We know that she brings him back to Eli when he is just a little boy and leaves him there alone that he might serve the Lord all his days at the temple. And if we read further, we find that Hannah's love for Samuel is so great that every year when the family returns to the temple to make their sacrifice, she brings him, for the year to come, a brand new coat that she has made with her own hands. This is the story.
What we don't know is what took place in Hannah's heart at the moment when her prayer was fulfilled. What we may not realize is that even after her years of infertility and fervent prayer, when the baby was finally born, Hannah could have denied that Samuel was really a miracle and an answer to her prayers. She could have rationalized that her baby boy, for whom she had pined for so long, was hers and hers alone; that somehow she had made him, and in bearing him could claim him and break her promise to the Lord.
But Hannah upheld her oath, and she deserves to be recognized for living up to her word. She brought her little boy back to the temple while he was still young, and said to Eli, "As surely as you live, my lord, I am the woman who stood here beside you praying to the Lord. I prayed for this child, and the Lord has granted me what I asked of him. So now I give him to the Lord. For his whole life he shall be given over to the Lord."
Hannah received Samuel into her life as a gift from God rather than as a personal accomplishment.
Think about that for a moment.
She acknowledged the baby as a gift. She recognized that only through the grace of God could he have come into her life as he did. And then she gave him right back to the Lord, just as she had promised. Her willingness to receive Samuel as a gift from God and then give him back to the Lord is not just a story for all the couples out there who are struggling to have children of their own; it is also a larger metaphor for the way we are to receive all the gifts and blessings of this life. Hannah's story is one of gratitude.
True gratitude is such that it gives the glory back to God with an immediacy we can best understand by observing angels. Swedenborg tells us that this spirit of gratitude is what defines the highest and purest heavens. He writes:
Everyone in the heavens knows, believes, and even perceives that nothing good is intended and done by the self, and that nothing true is thought and believed by the self.
Everything comes from the Divine, which means from the Lord. . . . Angels in the central heaven perceive and feel the inflow distinctly. The more they accept it, the more they seem to be in heaven. . . . Because angels believe this, they decline any thanks offered them for the good they do. In fact they feel hurt and withdraw if anyone gives them credit for anything good. It bewilders them to discover that people can believe they are wise on their own or do good on their own. (Heaven and Hell #8-9)
When we are in a state of gratitude, we become spiritually aware. We then understand the true nature and workings of the universe. We find our place in the midst of all that is, and we are satisfied. We dwell in peace because we understand that the Lord is the source of all that is good and true in us and around us.
There is one person I know who very clearly articulates this truth in her speech and her way of being. If you share a piece of good news with her, or she shares a piece of good news with you, she always follows up the good news with three simple words: "Praise the Lord." She knows what she is talking about--and of whom.
When we give the glory back to God we are coming into touch with the core of reality. If you hold the door open for someone, or I get up here and preach, or someone else sings, or someone else cooks, and so on, we do so only because the Lord has enabled us to do so.
This doesn't mean that when someone thanks you for holding the door open or preparing an especially nice meal, the only proper response is, "Praise the Lord!" It's perfectly okay just to say, "You're welcome," or "Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed it." But in our hearts we have the opportunity to thank God that we are physically able to do the good that we do--that he has given us arms and legs and strength to be of use. We can also thank the Lord for giving us the desire to be of use. And we can thank the Lord that he has created us in such a way that we might experience the joy of being useful.
When we begin to think about just how much we have to be thankful for, it is really overwhelming in the best sense of the word. It is a miracle as surely as Samuel's birth was. And it can inspire in our hearts a desire to give just as Hannah did: to give back without reservation, sharing all of our God-given gifts with one another in the name of the Lord.
Kahlil Gibran wrote:
There are those who have little and give it all. These are the believers in life and the bounty of life, and their coffer is never empty. There are those who give with joy, and their joy is their reward. And there are those who give with pain, and that pain is their baptism. And there are those who give and know not pain in the giving, nor do they seek joy, nor give with mindfulness of virtue. They give as in yonder valley the myrtle breathes its fragrance into space. Through the hands of such as these God speaks, and from behind their eyes he smiles upon the earth.
Hannah, and the angels in heaven, are like Gibran's myrtle, so open to the inflow of the Spirit and so free in the giving of its good gifts that there is no need to think about where the goodness originates, and certainly no need to hold tight to what is given. There is an immense peace of mind that comes with this way of being, this type of consciousness, because it is not only simple but true. It increases in us a lack of self-awareness.
When we think that all of the good we accomplish is because of us, we are placing an immense amount of pressure on ourselves--and we will find a hunger growing inside that cannot be satisfied. People may applaud us and give us the credit they say we deserve. We will receive accolades and praise; but we will always hunger for more, and drive ourselves ever onward in a quest to prove ourselves.
The angels understand that we don't need the credit or the accolades to be truly happy. In fact, when we dwell in a state that needs them, we are as far from happiness as we can be. Angels, in all their wisdom, understand that we simply need to be present in the reality that we are so intimately connected to the Divine that the Divine is flowing through us to accomplish what is good, and dwelling within us so that we might comprehend what is true.
When we are in a state of true gratitude, we are in a state of peace. There is nothing to prove, there is nothing to sacrifice or to lose, there is nothing to worry about, because we are simply resting in the Lord--by whom and in him and through whom everything is--and delighting in his providence. I think this is how Hannah approached her relationship to Samuel; and in her ability to let go, she gave to Israel its last and greatest Judge.
We are all blessed in innumerable ways; and to truly experience our blessings to the fullest we need only search our hearts to find how best to give of what we have been given. If, later this afternoon, our brothers and sisters in the church seek to bless us with this chapel, their generosity will be not only a gift from God, but a gift rendered back to God in praise.
If the chapel is saved it will not be because of what we have done, but because of what the Lord has enabled us to do together--and this not for our own sake, but for the sake of all those whom we might yet have an opportunity to serve. So let us remember Hannah; for Hannah understood gratitude, and Hannah lived in gratitude. And let us, like Hannah and the angels above, marvel at the gifts we have been given, even as we look for ways to give them back to God for the sake of his people.
Dear Lord, how painful it is to pine away for that which we do not or cannot have. How empty the feeling of void and darkness where we look for fulfillment and love. We know, O Lord--as you do also--the sorrows and the struggles of life.
Yet you come to us with a message of hope, and a promise of greater fulfillment. You assure us that you have created us for good and not for evil; that you have wonders in store for us. And you answer our prayers in ways that go beyond what we have prayed for. O Lord, you know our needs better than we do ourselves, and you give us the deeper gifts of the spirit--the gifts that raise us to a higher level of insight and of love.
We thank you today, O Lord our God, for all of the gifts you have given us, and for the gifts that we are enjoying right now. Though we are often unconscious of our daily gifts, both material and spiritual, we know that you are continually giving us all that we need not merely for our life here on earth, but most especially for our inner and spiritual life in eternity. Amen.
Rev. Sarah Buteux