Monday, March 28, 2011

Storyline: Hannah

Hannah was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly...  Eli, the priest observed her mouth moving, but her voice was not heard. Therefore, he thought her to be drunk.  And Eli said to her, “How long will you go on being drunk?  Put your wine away from you.”  But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman troubled in spirit.  I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord.  Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for all along I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation.”  1 Samuel 1:10-16
Q & A with Hannah:

Q:  Hannah, your story starts right out informing us that you were one of two wives.  Your husband’s other wife had children, but you had none.  Talk to us about how difficult that was, if you would?

A:  Let me respond by asking you some questions.  How do you feel when you are provoked day after day, month after month, year after year; needled, hassled, and purposely irritated by someone who despises you, yet lives in your home?  Add to that, the fact that the very thing your rival mocks you about is so personal, and something that you can’t change, in spite of anything you might try to do?  Even worse, the topic of derision isn’t just thrown in your face at home.  Imagine what it’s like when the culture you live in sees barrenness as a curse from God?  Even your neighbors whisper behind your back wondering what disobedient act brought about your infertility?  Can you even begin to picture what it’s like, when every month your own body mocks you?  Can you conjure up the depth of emotional grief that each cycle brings with it, for every bloody show represents the life of a child that will not be born?  My life was way beyond difficult.  Words like “deeply distressed,” “bitter,” “troubled in spirit,” “great anxiety,” and “vexation” hardly do justice to the emptiness of my soul.

Q:  I'm so sorry!  My question does seem trivial.  However, the words your son recorded about your story, also tell us that you were greatly loved by your husband, Elkanah.  In fact, it would appear, reading between the lines, that he loved you twice as much as Peninnah.  Certainly, it brought consolation knowing how beloved you were?

A:  Of course, every woman desires to be greatly loved; and yes, that knowledge brought consolation.  Yet, his love didn’t change the fact that I constantly felt competition from Peninnah.  It didn’t change the fact that everyone else looked at me as greatly debilitated, as sub-female, and unable to fulfill my divine purpose on earth.  After years and years of seeing myself through those eyes, even the love of a man could not erase away the knowledge of that identity.  Only God could transform who I was in the eyes of the world. 

Q:  So that’s what led you to the temple?

A:  Well, that, obviously; but there was more.  You see, with each passing month, with every sideways glance, with every irritating word from Peninnah, my empty heart closed tightly.  I started growing bitter: bitter at my husband for having a second wife; bitter at Peninnah for her provocation; bitter at each of my husband’s children, for they represented what I could never have; but, mostly, bitter at God, for He seemed to have abandoned me.  God could have stepped in, but He didn’t...He had closed my womb.  The entrapment of my bitterness was far worse than my emptiness.  I knew I would explode from the inside out, if I didn’t pour out my heart before God.  So, I went to the temple to remove the lid of bitterness that had sealed shut my empty heart.  After all, how can God pour any blessing into a heart that is not open to Him?

Q:  And, so?

H:  And, so...that’s exactly what I did.  I prayed.  I wept all the bitterness out of my heart, right through my eyes.  I gave God everything – my distress, my barrenness, the emptiness of my soul, and, especially my anger.  I left it all on the altar.  When I got up, the peace of God had filled my heart.  I walked away a free and happy woman.  When we hand over everything in our hearts, even the emptiness, to the Lord, we are in a position for him to fill us up (Ps. 16:11).  Not only did God fill me, He blessed me with a son. Yet, Samuel was destined to be God’s man – not mine.  He was destined to have God’s fingerprints all over his life, not mine.  I wouldn’t have been able to give Samuel back to God had it not been for my initial infertility; and, what a man of God, my son grew to be!

Bottom Line:  Bitterness only seals our hearts shut; releasing all anger to God, puts God in a position to bless and fill to overflowing. Keep in mind, that blessing may look nothing like we expect...

Monday, March 21, 2011

Storyline: Naaman's Servant Girl

It only takes four verses in 2 Kings, chapter 5, to tell a delightful little short story.  The narrative doesn’t begin well, but it certainly has a fairy tale ending!  Here’s how it begins in verse 2:
Now bands from Aram had gone out and taken captive a young girl from Israel and she served Naaman’s wife.

These “bands” were marauding military raiders, probably sent out by Naaman himself, to put the final exclamation point on a decisive defeat of the Israelites. The raids were meant to humiliate the Israelites even further.  I really don’t want to begin to imagine the plundering spree of these fearsome, wild-hearted men, drunk on high emotions of a tremendous victory.  The only possibility that brought any measure of control weighed on the high greed of their hearts.  The thought of money caused them to stop momentarily in their ruthlessness to place a value on their spoils. So, this band cautiously spared a few “things.”  One of these was a young girl, who will forever remain nameless, while we are on earth.

Naaman, who was the commander of the king’s army, purchased her to serve his wife.  He handpicked her.  While this isn’t a devotional about Naaman, his life is so intricately involved in this young girl’s storyline, that we must mention him.  Naaman was valiant, brave, and highly regarded by the king (vs.1).  However, there’s a “big but” in the middle of his world that caused him no small measure of pain and heartache.  This “but” contrasts and off-sets in a big way his prowess as a man and as a soldier:  he had leprosy.  Naaman’s life was being eaten away before his eyes from the outside inward.  Yet, in spite of having been ripped away from home, culture, family, and all she knew and loved, this young girl cared deeply.
She said to her mistress, “If only my master would go see the prophet who is in Samaria.  He would cure him of his leprosy (vs. 3).

There’s a lot left unsaid between verse two and verse three.  We don’t read of the extreme alarm and high anxiety that resided in the hearts of Naaman or his wife.  We aren’t told how, as his conditioned worsened, so did the feelings of hopelessness.  We don’t hear the cries of discouragement interrupting sleep in the middle of the long, anxious nights.  We can’t begin to feel the heaviness of despair as more spots were discovered.  We aren’t privy to the conversations.  We don’t sense the frustration over the inability to touch, hug, console, or bandage your spouse for fear the disease could spread.  We don’t see words which tell us that Naaman and his wife related to their slave girl, because they, too, were enslaved.  Their master, Leprosy, was uncaring, cruel, and harsh.  So, they chose not to be.  We’re not told this; we can only assume it, because we do know this young girl found herself deeply affected by the story of this couple who governed her very existence.  As a result, she could not keep silent.  She believed deeply that she held the only key to Naaman’s freedom, and she offered it.  Would I?  Or, would bitterness keep my mouth closed.

These four verses speak volumes about this girl’s love, compassion, submission, humility, and uncomplaining spirit.  They also reveal the credibility she had earned with Naaman and his wife.  Naaman listened...and, end of story, discovered restored health and freedom.

Now, what do I learn from this young girl?  Life doesn’t always go according to my plan.  It can make me bitter or better.  In her case...better!  Though, it may not go according to my plan; it always goes according to God’s plan (“through Naaman the Lord had given victory to Aram”).  Life’s circumstances may be scary, brutal, harsh, strenuous, frustrating, discouraging, unhappy, hopeless, or (you can add your word) ________________________.  Now add one of those “big buts;” I’ve been given a mission in the middle of it all:
To speak God’s good news; to help bind up the broken hearted; proclaim freedom for the captives and release prisoners from darkness; to comfort those who mourn; to provide those who grieve a crown of beauty instead of ashes  (Isaiah 61:3)

Today, I am vividly aware that none of my mission will happen, unless I learn to live in the fullness of the Spirit, and let my Lord develop the same character as that of a young captive girl in Aram.  Lord, hold me captive in your love, and let me live as your servant...

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Storyline: The Samaritan Woman

The woman said, “I know that Messiah is coming.  When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” 

Then Jesus declared, “I who speak to you am He.”

Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, “Come see a man who told me everything I ever did.”
John 4:25-26, 28

Ever played dodge ball?  This story is a classic case of verbal dodge ball.  The woman from Samaria had come to the well, during the heat of the day, at a time when she was absolutely certain she’d not have to communicate with anyone. Imagine her annoyance to see someone waiting...a man, no less, and a Jew. He started the conversation.  From that moment on, she tried dodging every attempt of Jesus to bring her to a place where she would admit her need, open her heart, and receive the gift of God that was standing right in front of her.  Poor gal had put up every defensive wall she could muster, and Jesus patiently chipped away at each brick.  It was understandable, though.  She’d been tossed around (just like that dodge ball) from husband to husband until every ounce of confidence was depleted.  She’d finally given up, and simply moved in with a man, hoping against some great odds, that he might be the answer to her need for satisfaction.  At the same time, she was sick of the sideways stares, the mocking glances, and the cruel whispers of the other women.  Her discontent had led her on a downward spiral to discouragement, to depression, to desolation, and ultimately would lead her to desperation, if not death.  She was rapidly approaching that place, when Jesus HAD TO GO THROUGH SAMARIA.

I love this about Jesus.  No matter how despicable others might think we are, he’s willing to go out of his way to find us when we’re needy.  Face it; most people go out of their way to avoid neediness.  Not Jesus.  He created a divine appointment with a thirsty woman at a well in a place no righteous Jew of his day would dare set his sandaled shoe.  No matter how troubled we are, he has an answer.  No matter how much shame we carry on our shoulders, he wants to remove it.  So, Jesus went to Samaria. 

Finally, she broke.  “Go call your husband,” Jesus requested.  “I have no husband,” she replied.  Atta girl, honesty, at last!  Jesus applauded her vulnerability, and spit out the rest of the facts, “You are right when you say you have no husband.  The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband.”  With that much admission the walls came up again, and in a desperate attempt to dodge the subject of her thirsty heart, yet again, she digressed to a topic of religious controversy.  Ha!  The master turned it right in her face, and brought her to a place where he could look her in the eye, and grant her amazing heart healing, that would fill her right up:  “You are right, the Messiah is coming, and in fact, I, who speak to you, am he.”  Yep – here I am, God’s gift.  Look to me, I am the only man who can satisfy your discontented soul.  Need a boost upwards out of the sinking mire of your own sinful state?  I’m about to go to that place of death, the same place you’re headed towards, so you don’t have me take all this for you! 

I find great delight in knowing that the first time Jesus opened his mouth to declare his true identity, it was to a woman: a shame-filled, sinful, desperate, unsatisfied woman!  Now, then, do you see yourself in this story?  Let me ask you a couple questions, I’ve asked myself.  Are you satisfied?  Are you content with your life’s circumstances?  Have you found that place where you are soul-full?  Are you looking to anything else to bring you joy?  Anything else to give you peace?  Anything else to bring you contentment? Only the living water can fill every crevice, every nook and cranny of your heart!  Only the GIFT OF GOD, Jesus, can be for you what you might be looking to others to be, or do.  So, how do we apply this truth?  The Apostle Paul said it well in Philippians 4, “In every circumstance, I have learned the secret of being content.”  1)  Contentment is a learned behavior.  Contrary to what we believe, it is not just an emotion I can’t do anything about.  2) It is found in a secret:  I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!  It boils down to seeking, knowing, trusting, and submitting to Jesus.  Sound too simplistic?  Certainly!  But appropriating it is another whole deal...