When Nothing Else Could Help…

Earlier this week, my mother celebrated her 88th birthday. Mom has survived more than most people can imagine. She was born in 1933, during the worst years of the Great Depression. She survived hunger and poverty, near-homelessness, and insecurity in her earliest years, despite my grandparents’ best efforts to provide for their family. She survived the upheaval of World War 2, when her father left to serve in the Navy and her mother worked long hours in a factory. She and her sister had to take on most of the housework.

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As a teenager, mom fell madly in love with a young man who convinced her to drop out of high school and become his wife. Her romantic dream quickly turned into a nightmare of abuse, heartbreak, fear, and starvation. Though he loved her, her husband could not control his own inner torments. He drank heavily and was very controlling. He insulted her, isolated her from family and friends, forbad her from going to church, and he sometimes punched her. By the age of 19, she was anemic, weighed less than 100 pounds, and had just miscarried twins– partly because she had been denied access to pre-natal care; partly because she had been beaten and malnourished. But she survived, and went on to have a healthy pregnancy, mostly because her husband was drafted and sent to Korea.

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Mom survived divorce, something to which she had always been opposed, for the sake of her son. She survived the threats against herself and her young boy. She survived all the court dates and new responsibilities. She survived working 10-hours days, six days a week, at a butcher shop, cutting, grinding, and packing up meat, so she could provide for her young son.

Mom remarried at age 30. Shortly before her marriage, she had found a better job; one with better pay and shorter hours. Shortly after her marriage, on her way home from work, she was involved in a horrible accident. She had a head injury, broken ribs, and a broken collarbone. She began suffering from headaches. She suffered another miscarriage. But she survived, and went on to have me and my sister, both healthy deliveries. She had stopped working to be home with us, but she was involved in multiply volunteer opportunities through church and in the community. But her headaches were debilitating, and with them came depression.

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Mom survived many dark days of pain and doubt. Though she was socially active, it took a great deal of energy and will to force herself to get out and keep going. Her doctor gave her medication for depression, and, thankfully, he carefully monitored what she took and whether it was effective. The headaches did not diminish, and mom treated them with massive doses of Anacin and other pain relievers.

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In her 50s, mom developed more health problems. She developed arthritis. She had a hysterectomy, and had to have her gall bladder removed. In her 60s, mom had cataract surgery. Then she had to watch as her husband’s health deteriorated, and she lost him just after their 35th anniversary. She survived, and had to adjust to widowhood. In her 70s, she had more surgeries– she lost part of her thyroid, and nearly died. She had surgery to “undo” some of the damage from her earlier hysterectomy. She was diagnosed with bone density issues, which caused a curvature in her spine. In her 80s, she developed a heart condition. She had to undergo heart surgery and have a pacemaker. She could have died, but she didn’t. She developed a series of infections from one of her earlier surgeries, and had to use a cane to walk because of the bone density and spine curvature. She was diagnosed with macular degeneration, meaning that she is slowly going blind.

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Last fall, during the height of the COVID crisis, Mom fell and broke her hip. She was in a hospital where there were COVID cases, and she was transported to a rehab facility that had 4 COVID cases. By the time she left to come home, she was one of only 4 who had NOT developed COVID at that facility! She continues to go to outpatient rehab twice a week, and now has to use a walker, instead of just a cane, to provide balance and stability when she walks. She no longer drives, and has trouble reading, due to the macular degeneration. But she survives.

I say all of this, not because my mom is tougher, or luckier than other folks; not because she is more worthy of life than those who have not survived such struggles, and not because her life is more tragic than anyone else’s. I say this because my mother is a woman of prayer.

Last week, for Mother’s Day, we took my mom to her local church. She no longer drives, and she rarely gets out because of her health issues. But she wanted to be in church that Sunday. The very first hymn they sang that day was “Love Lifted Me.” And I cried. That was the song she had used, fifty years ago, to rock me to sleep as a child. Sometimes, she would sing it out. Sometimes she would just hum the tune as she rocked me. She was often crying as she sang– exhausted, depressed, worried, or haunted–but those words imprinted themselves in my young mind:
Love lifted me.
Love lifted me.
When nothing else could help–
Love lifted me.

My mother wasn’t just singing those words, she was praying.

Mom has lived out those words. Crying out to “the Master of the Sea,” Mom has been lifted up time and again. She has been a prayer warrior, knowing that her prayers rise to the One who loves her best of all; the One who holds her destiny and her redemption in His hands. No matter her circumstances, she can sing, knowing that love will continue to lift her, and carry her through.

Hannah and the Priests

The story of Hannah in 1 Samuel is filled with priests. Her husband, Elkanah, is of the priestly class, and regularly goes to Shiloh to offer sacrifices. Chapter one quickly mentions Hophni and Phinehas who were the resident priests there. And of course, there is Eli, their father, the High Priest at that time. Hannah has access to counselors, spiritual guidance, and men whose ancestral calling is to bring people closer to God. Yet none of them can bring Hannah out of her anguish and offer comfort.

Hophni and Phinehas are noticeably absent in this story. The mention of their names calls attention to this absence. They were supposed to be the acting priests, but they don’t interact in any way with the grieving Hannah, or her husband, Elkanah. Further reading reveals that they were very wicked and due to be judged for abusing their priestly role. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Samuel+2%3A12-36&version=NIV

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Eli himself is an indifferent priest. The first mention of him is as the father of the wicked Hophni and Phinehas. Next, we find him sitting in a chair at the doorstep of the tabernacle. He is not serving; he is not overseeing; he is not doing anything. When he first observes Hannah, he jumps to a wrong and judgmental conclusion– that she is drunk and raving. He doesn’t go over to see if he’s right in his assumption. In fact, there is no mention in the passage that he ever rises from his chair.
We might gloss over this passage, without grasping the importance of this detail. Nowhere in the long lists of a priest’s duties was there an option of sitting at the door and just watching people go in and out. The priests all had duties– some were in charge of the sacrifice (as Elkanah sometimes was). Others were in charge of the lamps, the incense, the care of the utensils and tools, offering prayers, singing, playing instruments, reading from the books of the law, and keeping the tabernacle clean and in good repair. None of them required sitting. Eli isn’t busy doing the work of the Lord; he is literally sitting down on the job.
In short, Eli is not a spiritual giant– he offers a standard blessing after Hannah pleads her case for not being a drunken disturber of the peace, but he doesn’t offer much in the way of true comfort or counseling. His first words to her are to “Go in peace.” The blessing seems to be almost an afterthought. Still, Hannah goes away encouraged, and comes back the next day to worship before returning home.

What can we learn from this encounter and these details in Hannah’s story?

One possible reaction is to become critical and dismissive of the clergy. I think this is the wrong reaction, but I want to address it in this context, because it can keep us from finding help and blessing if we let it. I know countless people who have walked away from the church because of one disappointing encounter with a minister, pastor’s wife, deacon, or fellow parishioner. Eli was not a stellar example of Israel’s priesthood; he was a flawed human. He had rebellious sons, and was likely depressed or anguished over his own troubles. Yet, he was still faithful to turn Hannah’s attention to the One who is always able to bring comfort and strength. Hannah could have chosen to focus on his rude and judgmental assumption about her, but she chose to focus on the hope he was able to offer.
I have gotten dismissive, even bad, advice from people in the church. I have been hurt, judged, and ignored by those who are supposed to be serving God. But just as God provides grace to cover our own failures and mis-steps, He asks us to extend forgiveness and grace to those–even those who serve Him.*

Having said that, I think there is a warning here for those who serve the Lord. Eli ends his days in tragic fashion, his family legacy in ruins, because of some of the details we glimpse even in this short passage about Hannah. Eventually, her son, Samuel, will be tasked with the job of delivering the fullness of God’s judgment against Eli and his sons. Eli’s priesthood was not a cushy position of sitting at the door of God’s tabernacle enjoying an afternoon breeze. He was in charge of setting the tone of reverence and worship for the nation. His sons were corrupt; everyone knew it, including Eli, but nothing was done about it. He sat there, and let evil happen around him.
Church workers, pastors, and priests who do evil and abuse their positions may get away with it for awhile, but God will not hold them guiltless. Nor will he hold those guiltless who cover up or deny the guilt of those around them. No matter how high the position, no matter how much “good” they have done, unless they repent of their actions, they will face God’s wrath over their evil acts.

Finally, we need to see Hannah’s response. Regardless of how evil the sons of Eli were, or how spineless Eli was as a parent and a High Priest, Hannah found faith– not in the priests– but in the God they served. She had seen the dedication of her husband, Elkanah. He served God with reverence, and he served his family with love and honor. She saw that Eli, even sitting down on the job, was still aware that hope and healing come from the Almighty.

Hannah’s response to Eli, and the God he served so imperfectly, deserves another look– one we will take in the next post.

I pray that today, we will be grateful to God for the faithful servants he sends into our lives, and for his grace when we or others “sit down” on the job of serving others and showing Him the reverence He deserves.

Forgiveness is Free: It Isn’t a Free Pass

Yesterday, I posted about praying for our enemies– those who have hurt us.  We are commanded to forgive those who have wronged us, to do good to them, and to pray for them.  But I want to make sure I don’t give the wrong impression about offering forgiveness.

Forgiveness doesn’t ask us to excuse the inexcusable, or trust the untrustworthy.  Forgiveness is trusting that God, in His wisdom, His Holiness, and His timing, will bring justice, healing, and peace, when nothing else can.  This is important to remember, both as someone who asks for forgiveness, and as someone who gives it.

Jesus offers forgiveness–full, and free, and perfect– he died to make that offer.  He gave it to whoever believes on His Name.  But here’s the catch…he didn’t make that offer so you can temporarily wipe the slate clean and go on sinning without consequence.

Oscar Wilde wrote a chilling novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, Dorian Gray/Wikipedia    in which the title character finds a way to trap his soul, with all its ugliness, hatred, anger, and sin, inside a portrait.  No matter what Dorian does, no matter how twisted or evil, he continues to look fresh, young, innocent, and handsome.  The effects of his dissipated lifestyle–drug addiction, sleepless nights, years of hard living, even murder–are all trapped in the portrait.  Over the years, the portrait haunts Dorian with its monstrous transformation from young man to gnarled wraith.  In desperation, he “kills” the portrait– and himself– in disgust and anguish.

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We live in an age of appearances– if all appears well on the surface, we ignore the deeper, long-term consequences of our sin.  If we “get away with” small sins, we run the risk of sinking deeper into a sham lifestyle.  We go through the motions of asking forgiveness, when what we really seek is escape from the consequences of our own actions.  We begin to see sin as a valid alternative to obedience–I can obey God if it is convenient, but when it’s not, I can just ask forgiveness.  This is a road strewn with lies, excuses, evasions, and it ends in death.  It is a lifestyle that makes a mockery of God, of his Holiness, His Sacrifice on the cross, and His loving offer of restoration.

God doesn’t just want to transfer your ugliness and rebellion into a painting to hide it away.  He wants to remove it “as far as the east is from the west.”  We don’t become perfect in an instant, but our past is expunged so that we can be free to choose obedience and live more abundantly in fellowship with a Holy God.  When we are truly sorry for our sins and seek true forgiveness, we want to make better decisions, we want to right wrongs– we want to redeem the past rather than merely escape from it.

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When we, as imperfect people, offer forgiveness to someone else, we are not able to do what God does.  Our forgiveness is imperfect; like love, or discipline, or a new habit, it needs to develop and grow.  Forgiveness is not about freeing the offender, or wiping the slate clean for the other person.  It’s about freeing yourself to heal, to move away from slavery to the pain of the past, and to learn to trust God to bring justice.

Forgiveness isn’t natural or easy.  No one deserves forgiveness– that’s what makes it a miracle that God offers it to anyone who asks.  But God doesn’t undo our sin.  He doesn’t erase our actions, or clean up the messes we have made.  If I commit murder, God can forgive me, wash away the guilt of what I’ve done, and give me the power to live a life that seeks to do good, rather than evil.  But he’s not going to bring my victim back to life, or cause a judge and jury and the family of my victim to say, “Aw, that’s alright– you’ve probably learned your lesson.  No hard feelings.”  He can (and has) caused amazing healing to happen in such situations, but that’s the exception, not the expectation.

Similarly, if you have been hurt and you offer forgiveness, it doesn’t mean that the other person is no longer responsible for his/her actions.  It doesn’t mean that you were never hurt or betrayed, and it doesn’t mean that you trust them immediately and without reservation. It is not hateful, intolerant, or unforgiving to allow justice to catch up with someone who has hurt you– it IS unforgiving to seek beyond justice to vengeance and self-defined retribution.

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This is particularly important in cases of abuse.  If someone has abused you, physically, emotionally, or mentally, they are likely to make you feel the guilt they don’t want to deal with.  “You drove me to it.”  “You are the only one who understands my anger.”  Forgiving this person does not mean– it NEVER means– that you agree with their tactics and false accusations, or that you are giving them a pass.  But it DOES mean that you are giving them, and the damage they caused, over to the God of all justice.  Your case is closed; your final judgment is in his hands, and you are free to begin again– begin to heal, begin to see how God can bring something important and good and eternal out of something broken.  Forgiveness is impossible, but God will give you the power to do it– it may take several attempts, and several years, but when it comes, it will be the miracle of God working through you to glory!

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