Life is full of “big” things–birth, marriage, death, buying a house, losing a job… But it is also full of small moments– a quiet smile, a child’s laughter, the smell of new rain, a cup of cocoa.
Often, we let the “big” things overwhelm us, and we miss the miniature joys all around us. I was reminded of this over the past weekend, as we were able to spend time with various family members– many of whom we had not seen in months because of the pandemic. Of course, some of the “big” topics came up in conversation– COVID-19, riots in cities around the world, frustrating job situations, ongoing health concerns, and so on. But the miniature joyful moments–sharing silly memories and laughter, noticing how much the teens have grown, sharing a meal, hearing familiar voices–these are the things that stay with us and sustain us through the “big” things.
One of the weekend activities was a birthday party for our granddaughter. It was a smaller gathering, and limited to family members, so there were no young girls for her to play with. All her siblings and cousins are boys, and the grandparents outnumbered the children. We sat outside on the hottest day of the year (so far), and sang “Happy Birthday” and watched her blow out candles on a small cake. And we made a promise to phone our granddaughter on her “actual” birthday two days later.
Two days later, we had a busy day– we were running errands, and spending time with my niece and nephew. We had appointments and important phone calls to make, and e-mails to answer. We almost forgot about our promise..but our granddaughter had not. When we stopped our “big” plans, sat down and made the promised phone call, the joy in her voice was enough to light up a hundred candles and shine brighter than the sun. Such a little thing. We had already wished her a happy birthday, given her gifts, and shared her birthday cake. But in keeping our “small” promise, we shared something priceless. There is a bond of trust and love that makes the small moments vitally important in our relationships, and in our own character development.
And the same can happen in reverse. In the book of Jonah, God sent a gourd vine. Such a little thing, and Jonah had done little to deserve it. But God sent it just the same. A tiny bit of shade to comfort Jonah in his bitterness while he watched his enemies receiving God’s grace. Several thousands of Ninevites saved from destruction v. Jonah being saved from the heat of the mid-day sun–it seems like a ridiculous comparison. But in his selfishness and anger, Jonah missed the obvious. Yet God still provided–extravagant grace to Nineveh; the grace of a gourd for Jonah. When God caused the gourd vine to be destroyed, Jonah’s reaction was fierce and extreme. He could not find joy in Nineveh’s salvation; he couldn’t sustain joy in God’s gracious gift of the gourd vine. All he could feel was the anger and bitterness. After all, isn’t it possible that some of the very Ninevites who had been spared would have been glad to offer shelter to the prophet who had brought them a timely warning? What kind of joy and healing might Jonah have experienced in the company of his former enemies?
Lord, please help me to rejoice in the small moments, and see Your glory in the miniature joys of life. Open my eyes to see past the “big” things in life, because I know that You are bigger than all of them. Thank you for restful moments, and fleeting pleasures; for glimpses of Glory, and poignant snatches of memory; for grins, and sips of cold water on a hot day; for old photographs, and new snapshots; for Your faithfulness, and Your mercies, which are new every morning!
My husband and I had the opportunity recently to go fishing on Lake Michigan. Lake Michigan is huge– the fifth largest lake in the world– and is home to many species of freshwater fish, including bass, catfish, trout, salmon, walleye and whitefish.
Our daughter had chartered a boat for the day. The captain and first mate did most of the “work” involved– they piloted the boat, set up the fishing reels, put on the lures, and dropped them to the desired depths. Then, they trolled; they slowly ran the boat back and forth along a stretch of water where the fish were feeding, hoping for a bite. Once a fish was on the line, they would hand us the reel, and it was our job to “land” the fish. Mostly, this involved a lot of reeling and making sure to “hold the line” so the fish would not escape or drag the line. With lures at depths up to 200 feet and several yards away from the boat, this could take up to 10 minutes, fighting against the fish and the drag of the boat’s motion. But eventually, we could see the fish rise to the surface and soon enough, it was in the net and on the boat.
We had a fantastic day, and reached our “limit” of fish to take home– several lake trout and a few salmon.
Our day of fishing reminds me that Jesus’s first disciples were fishermen https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+4%3A18-22&version=NIV. Jesus told them to leave their nets and follow Him, and He would make them fishers of men. Jesus used a lot of parables and imagery in His teaching. And He never wasted an analogy. So what is it about fishing that can teach me about how Jesus wants me to share the good news and/or help disciple others?
Go where the fish are! This seems kind of obvious for our trip the other day, but how often do I go looking for those who need to hear good news? Am I willing to go out into deep waters, willing to take risks, willing to leave the comfort of the shore?
Listen to your captain! Our captain really knew the waters and the fish who lived there. He knew how the different kinds of fish would respond to being hooked. Some fish needed to be reeled in with a steady, even pull. Others would try to jerk and “run”– they needed to be given some slack, but kept on the line. People react differently to the Gospel. Some respond eagerly; some resist; some seem indifferent. God wants us to listen to Him– and also to each other. My goal should not be to force someone into a relationship with Jesus– to trick them or frighten them into a confession of a faith they don’t really have. I want people to come to KNOW Jesus and experience His grace and immeasurable love. I want them to be drawn to Him—even if that means answering their questions, listening to their doubts and fears, and waiting.
Be patient; but be prepared. Our first couple of fish were caught within just a few minutes of reaching our first “spot.” But then we waited. And waited. Our captain took us to another spot. And we waited…and waited. But then, there was a small frenzy– at one point there were three of us reeling in fish at the same time! And then, we waited… and waited. One last fish– our largest of the day! Sometimes, we think nothing is happening. No one is listening. No one notices our Christian walk– or they mock and steer clear of us because of it. Don’t give up, and don’t give in.
Pray! We prayed for safety, for good weather, and that we would enjoy our day, regardless of the results. And God gave us an abundance. God will not always give us the results we imagine or hope for. And sometimes, He will give us more than what we ask for–more work, more strength, more patience, more obstacles– but He will be there in the rain, or fog, or sun. Whether we have fished all day without success or we bring in our limit before 10 a.m., the most important thing is to have followed Him.
112 Praise the Lord! Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who greatly delights in his commandments! 2 His offspring will be mighty in the land; the generation of the upright will be blessed. 3 Wealth and riches are in his house, and his righteousness endures forever. 4 Light dawns in the darkness for the upright; he is gracious, merciful, and righteous. 5 It is well with the man who deals generously and lends; who conducts his affairs with justice. 6 For the righteous will never be moved; he will be remembered forever. 7 He is not afraid of bad news; his heart is firm, trusting in the Lord. 8 His heart is steady; he will not be afraid, until he looks in triumph on his adversaries. 9 He has distributed freely; he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever; his horn is exalted in honor. 10 The wicked man sees it and is angry; he gnashes his teeth and melts away; the desire of the wicked will perish!
My grandmother would have celebrated her 108th birthday today. I’m confident that she IS celebrating today– but she no longer has to count birthdays, or worry that this one might be her “last.” She passed into eternity more than 25 years ago. But she and my grandfather left a legacy of faith, hope, integrity, and prayer that lives on. It is a quiet legacy– my grandparents were not “important” people–they worked hard, lived a simple lifestyle, and never made a showy practice of their faith. But they lived it in such a way as to leave others with a glimpse of what steadfast faith looks like.
Grandma was born just a few short weeks after the sinking of the Titanic. She lived through two World Wars (one of which kept her separated from her husband, working in a factory, and raising two young girls). She lived through times of war, times of riots and uncertainty, and times of disease and pain. She knew what it was to struggle and lose. She was born before women could vote. She and my grandfather lived through the “Great Depression,” picking up whatever odd jobs they could, and sometimes not having enough for rent or food. But she also knew incredible joy and satisfaction. She knew what it was to be loved and to give love. She knew the joy of seeing a job to completion, and of using her talents and skills to help others. Most of all, she and grandad shared an incredible faith– one that had been tested many times– in God’s goodness, His provision, and His faithful protection. They lived in circumstances that would cause many to fear. But I never remember Gram being frightened–she wasn’t oblivious to bad news and difficult circumstances–but she faced them with confidence and resolve, the kind that gave hope and courage to everyone around.
My grandparents moved a lot. I mean, A LOT! They probably moved 50 times (at least) during their 62 years of marriage. Sometimes, they moved because Grandad had “itchy feet.” He liked change; he liked to have new projects to tackle; he liked to feel “free.” He loved moving into a “fixer-upper,” or renting a place with a run-down yard. But sometimes, they moved because they had to. They moved a lot– but they were never “moved” from each other, from their family, or their faith. They didn’t lose hope; they didn’t shift opinions based on their circumstances; they didn’t break promises or end friendships.
Psalm 112 gives a wonderful description of a “righteous” person. Not a self-righteous person, and not a perfect person (as none of us are perfect). But it is a great picture of the kind of legacy my grandparents left behind. They were generous– not just with money, but with gifts, work, time, hospitality, and words of encouragement and hope. They were rock-solid in their integrity– they went above and beyond not to cheat or lie or complain or shirk duties. In all their struggles (and in their good times) they never lost sight of God’s Goodness and Sovereignty.
My prayer today is that I would pass along such a legacy; such a witness. God is faithful, He is good, loving, and kind. He is never far from those who call on His Name, and He is able to deliver us from all our struggles. I am so grateful that, in addition to all the other blessings I take for granted, God gave me amazing grandparents. I hope He brings such people into your life today, and equips you to be such a legacy-builder, as well!
Sunday will be Mother’s Day. People are already talking about how this year will be “different” because of COVID-19. They say it will be more difficult because of the social distancing measures in place. And it will be for many families. There will be few family gatherings, few long and happy discussions around a dinner table, fewer flowers, fewer hugs…Many will still have the opportunity to see their mothers/children via skype or zoom or through a window. Many can still hear a familiar and much-loved voice over the phone, and send messages via text, email or even a letter or card. But it’s not the same. There is something about a mother’s presence– her touch, her voice, her smile, the subtle scent that belongs to no one else– that we cherish and celebrate.
But for many people, this Mother’s Day will be no different. Sadly, there are many who will spend Mother’s Day alone. There is a visceral, painful place– a gaping wound– where there is no “Mother” on Mother’s Day. Maybe it’s caused by death–either the death of our mother, or the death of our child/children. Maybe it’s some other wrenching separation– Alzheimer’s, a ruptured relationship, addiction, mental illness, abandonment, deployment, rejection… We miss what once was, or we miss what we never had. COVID-19 may bring this horror to some this year, and it may leave some with that horror for years to come, but the pain and loss is no different for being caused by a virus. The pain of losing (or not having) a Mother runs deep. It may be felt more keenly on this day, but it aches and gnaws every day. Mothers give life. They nurture. They are the safe arms in which babies find peaceful rest (..eventually). They are the kissers of boo-boos; the proud recipients of our first attempts at writing, and drawing; our first audience for concerts and dances; our first teachers and nurses, police officers, drill sergeants, and life coaches; often our first playmates, too.
For many years, I have lived on “the other side” of motherhood. I am a daughter– blessed with an amazing, kind, strong, wise and Godly mother. I cherish the relationship we have, and look forward to the time when I can visit with her in person, instead of over the phone. She spent long nights rocking me to sleep; hours praying and crying by my hospital bed when I almost died as a toddler; listened patiently while I ranted and railed in teenage rebellion; encouraged me when I was exhausted from work and frustrated about living alone; and taught me the joy of spending time with God and loving others. And I want to honor her every day for the Godly example she has been to me and to others.
But I have spent most of my adult life outside the experience of motherhood, watching others with tiny arms wrapped around their necks, others kissing boo-boos and receiving artwork, others taking pictures of their graduating seniors and swapping stories with other moms. And, I have been reminded– sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes with contempt–that I do not “belong.” “You don’t know what I go through.” “You don’t understand.” “Who do you think you are to tell me about my daughter? You’re just her teacher. I’m her MOTHER!” “You can’t tell my children what to do.” None of these statements are wrong– but they hurt. And most of them come from someone else’s pain– their fear of failure, their frustration, their guilt, even a lack of sleep or a migraine…
Because of my experience, however, I have learned two things– a greater appreciation for my own excellent mother; and a new appreciation for the role I have been allowed to play as an “Other.”
Mothers are vital, but they are not perfect, and, especially where they are missing or rejected or removed, the world needs Others. Women (and men) who will stand as surrogates, substitutes, and valued helpers. Sometimes it is a thankless job; often it is temporary, even momentary, and unexpected. Throughout our lives, there are Others who inspire us, who have our backs, who cheer for us through track meets, or at dance recitals, or spelling bees. Others who may not kiss boo-boos, but patch them up in the moment. There are Others who are the first to spot our hidden potential, or warn us of dangers that no one else has spotted. Others who pray for us, cry with us, and share our smiles. Others who buy Girl Scout cookies, or magazine subscriptions, lemonade, or raffle tickets.
It was not God’s will for me to be a Mother. I have been blessed in recent years to be a step-mother and -grandmother, and I adore my kids and grandkids. I am so grateful for the mothers and others who shaped their lives, and the honor of being part of their families. But God has also given me a lifetime of being an Other. I may not have the “normal” experience of Motherhood, but I’ve had my share of doubts, failures, “bad” days, and sleepless nights. And I’ve been blessed to get to know hundreds of children– through school, Bible School, Sunday School, mission trips, Story Hours, school visits, Summer Reading, camps, baby sitting, extended family, and more.
If you are a mother– celebrate Mother’s Day this year. There are millions who have been denied the honor. And many who have lost the privilege.
If your Mother is still alive, but you can’t be with her– celebrate Mother’s Day this year. If you can’t be together in person, make an effort to be together in word and spirit. Flowers are nice; a fancy meal is fine, too, but your time– listening, sharing laughter and memories–it priceless. There will come another year when you won’t be able to be with her– and no phone line or video chat will be able to bring her closer. If your mother is alive, but your relationship is strained, you can still celebrate Mother’s Day. Use this day as a starting point to move forward– some relationships can be repaired if you are willing to take a first step. Others need closure. All relationships need forgiveness– for YOUR sake.
If you are missing your mother or have no mother–celebrate Other’s Day this year. Look for the people who have encouraged or uplifted you– aunts, neighbors, teachers, college roommates–let them know they’ve made a difference.
If you are not a mother– and even if you are– you are someone’s Other. Celebrate the opportunity to be the best Other you can be. Someone needs an Other today!
Prayer is a conversation with God. But sometimes it can seem like a one-sided conversation. We have pressing needs for healing, or strength to bear up under stress or oppression. Sometimes, we pray for our loved ones’ struggles against addiction or wrong choices. And God seems silent.
Sometimes, it’s better to get an answer we don’t like than no answer at all. When I was younger, I prayed for a family– a dream family with a handsome husband (preferably wealthy), three adorable and well-behaved children (I already had names picked out..), and maybe a beloved family pet, all living in a beautiful house with a big back yard, and maybe a small woods. I waited and prayed; prayed and waited. When I was in my thirties, still waiting and praying, I found out that I have several health problems– none of them life-threatening, but they mean that the chances that I would ever have had children are slim to none. I would never have the pleasure of watching my own children grow up; never know the joy of having a little voice calling me “mommy.”
But God had not abandoned me. In my careers as a teacher and a children’s librarian (careers I had begun before I knew I couldn’t have children of my own), I had the joy of working with hundreds of children across a spectrum of ages, from nearly newborn through college! My memories are filled with a choir of voices calling me Miss Toney or Miss Lila (as I was known then). God had not closed the door on my dream– he had opened a window.
It wasn’t the answer I had hoped for, but it was an answer. However, I was still single. I didn’t want to be single. I didn’t feel it was what God wanted for my life, yet He didn’t seem to be listening or giving me any sign that He heard or understood. There was only silence. No promising relationships– only a few scattered dates over the long years–a few budding friendships, and many lonely days and nights.
There were many helpful friends and family with suggestions, ideas, advice, comforting thoughts, or “explanations.” “God is waiting for you to become more mature in your walk with Him.” “God is saving the best for last.” “You’re too picky (I was never quite sure what that meant in light of the scarcity of dates, but…)” “You need to ‘get out there’ more–have you tried on-line dating? (I did. It was ‘meh’..).” “You should change jobs– single men are not hanging out at the library.” “You should change churches– find one with more single men.” But God stayed silent through my thirties and into my forties.
I did take some of the very good advice I received. I signed up to do short term missions trips. I traveled when I could, with family and friends, and even on my own. I read and went back to college. I spent time in the woods and at the beach, meditating, singing, or just enjoying God’s nature. I got “involved” in various volunteer opportunities. I joined the church choir. And I continued to pray.
By the time I was squarely in my forties, I had decided to stop praying for a husband, to stop hoping, and praying, and seeking, and dreaming. And God said nothing. But I began getting phone calls from an old friend– someone I had known in childhood–in fact, the very first boy I had ever dated, nearly 30 years before! At first, I listened to his voice-mail messages, but didn’t return his calls. I was annoyed, and even a bit angry. After all this time, was God laughing at me? Did He really expect me to go all the way back to the very beginning and start over?
Finally, I let go of my pride, and my ancient dream– I decided to give David a chance. Maybe it would lead to another (renewed) friendship. Maybe it would be another disappointment. But it led to a new dream. It led to marriage, and a huge extended family, including David’s wonderful children, and three adorable (and mostly well-behaved) grandchildren. My husband is kind, and honorable, and Godly. He is a treasure. And God’s timing is perfect, even as it is mysterious. God didn’t withhold marriage as a bargaining chip to get me to “grow up,” or grant it as a “reward” for going on a couple of mission trips. God was silent–but He wasn’t absent. He saw every teardrop, rejoiced in every busy child-filled day at work, smiled at every snapshot of every natural wonder, every Teddy Bear picnic, every Bible School. He want along on every date, kept track of all the hundreds of books I read over the years, and hovered over the dinner table set for one every night. I committed my life to serving Him– whether I was single or married, alone, or surrounded by children. His ways are higher, and better, and wiser than mine.
I may never understand why God allowed me to travel the roads that have been set before me. And my roads could have looked much different. I could have married young, unaware of my barrenness, and ended up bitter and feeling guilty about my body for years before I was diagnosed. I might have had a child (or children), and become proud and controlling and fearful. I might have made idols of my “dream” husband and family.
I know many dozens of people who are praying into the “silence” and waiting for God’s answer. Some are praying for healing. They may pray for hours in the hospital, only to lose their loved one. They may pray for weeks or months, as their child battles chronic illness. They may pray for years as they battle depression and loneliness. God may seem silent. But He is never absent. His ways sometimes lead to a happy ending in this life. Sometimes, they lead to a legacy that we cannot see this side of death. He does not promise us the answer we want, when or how we want it. He doesn’t promise us an easy or “happy” answer. What He does promise is that He will never forsake us. Long after we have been tempted to give up, to doubt, to turn away, God will still be waiting– sometimes in the silence– for the perfect moment, the perfect justice, the perfect word, the perfect solution.
The Bible is filled with images of family–long lists of “begats” and genealogies, parables about sons and fathers, brothers, weddings, brides and grooms…God is even described as our Father, with Christ as “the son.”
One of my hobbies is genealogy– tracing my family’s roots back through several generations and several different places. While the Bible warns that we should not get caught up in “endless” and vain genealogies that lead to false pride and foolish divisions (1 Tim. 1:4/Titus 3:9), there are many good reasons to pay attention to families, family histories, and family dynamics.
First, the family is God’s design– God instituted marriage, parenthood, and family units. It is God’s will and purpose that we should not live in isolation and self-absorption, but learn to depend on and be responsible to others. Families honor, protect, love, provide, comfort, teach, encourage, build and work together. Even in a broken world, filled with dysfunctional and chaotic family relationships, the purpose and design of “family” is still part of God’s good and perfect plan for living. Broken families and toxic relationships are not a failure of God’s plan– they are the result of Sin’s power to distort and corrupt the Good that only God can create. The great news is that God also has the power to restore and redeem individuals and families; offering “rebirth”, adoption, and an eternal “inheritance” within His family!
Second, families can teach us about the astounding and limitless love of God. There is something about the bonds of familial love that stretch us beyond our regular capacity to hope, to sacrifice, to share, to grieve, to endure, and to forgive. Who has seen a mother or father go hungry so their child can eat; or a sister or daughter donate her kidney or bone marrow to help heal a family member? Or a father carry his son who could not walk, or a wife who visits her aging husband when he no longer knows her face? How can we see such devotion and not be struck by how much greater, wider, deeper, and more eternal the Father’s love is for each of us?
Third, family (particularly the idea of genealogies and long family histories) teaches us the eternal nature of God. We live our lives as part of three or four generations– a span of 70 or 80 years for many of us–and we concentrate our efforts on “making our mark” for less than that entire span. But even the longest of our lives are so short in the span of God’s plan for His people. We have one lifespan to play an important role in the story of centuries. When we fail to understand that role, we can miss our sense of purpose in life. Sometimes, we overestimate our own importance or miss the significance of our own legacy. Even “important” people are forgotten, or have their legacies tarnished or rewritten in the pages of history. And those people who never made the history books are often the inspiration for actions and movements that span generations and change nations. When I study the history of my own family, I find lives that were cut short by war or disease– yet these lives shaped the lives (or were the lives) of my ancestors, and without them, I would not be who or how or where I am today. Maiden aunt, baby brother, empty seat at the table– every life touches others in ways that God alone truly comprehends. “Coincidental” meetings, “unplanned” children, migration patterns, epidemics– all loom large in a single generation, but they all become part of the fabric of each person’s “history.”
Lastly, genealogy reminds us that we are all one enormous family! There is so much talk on the news and online about all our differences– language, culture, skin tone, beliefs, skills, abilities, interests, even diets!– and it is important to note that God loves variety and created us each with unique and precious differences to reflect His infinite character. But sin twists our differences into conflicts; sin spreads lies about God’s character, and thus, about how we (or others) reflect, honor, understand, acknowledge, or obey our amazing creator. Differences may cause division in our broken world, but they do not cancel God’s mercy or limit the reach of His love for us all.
This was brought home to me in a small way this past week, as I was preparing for two important reunions. My high school class celebrated the 35th anniversary of our graduation in 1984. I saw friends and classmates I hadn’t seen in weeks, months, or, in some cases, 35 years! But it struck me that our class is very much like a family– we grew up together; we learned to get along (most of the time), to share, to work together, to understand and appreciate our differences and our unique gifts–we send birthday greetings and share pictures, we laugh together, grieve together, share fond memories and special connections with one another. We pray for one another, argue with one another, encourage one another, and challenge one another. There are some who have distanced themselves–whether through physical distance or emotionally– from the rest of us. Some have even ended their earthly journeys. But that doesn’t make them any less a part of our class/our family. We are short and tall, thin and stout, hairy and bald, dark and light complected; we are single, married, divorced, and widowed– some with children still at home; some with no children at all. We are rich and poor, healthy and ill, walking around with scars and wounds and unresolved questions, arrogant assumptions, or chips on our shoulders. And we are optimists and mentors, healers and teachers, helpers and protectors. We are loud and quiet, social and task-oriented, driven and laid-back, dreamers and doers. And in my genealogy research, I have made genetic and marriage connections to about 1/3 of them! We really ARE family, and I can show how we are related! How small would this world seem if we looked at our brothers and sisters across the world, and realize that those connections are so much greater than the differences that divide us?
The second reunion I attended this weekend was “family.” All of us descended (or married to descendants, or adopted by descendants) from my great-grandparents. Not all of us were there– in fact, this was mostly just one “branch” of the family, and a few “twigs”. We estimate that there are nearly 500 people who can claim the same ancestral “roots” from the same two people, and this “branch” contains over 250 of them! Once again, we don’t all look , or act, or think alike– some are tall, some are tattooed, some are old, some are newborns, some argue about college football teams, or politics. But we love each other, encourage each other, and many of us share our prayers and concerns and joys and pains. My great-grandparents (and all their children) left a legacy of love and faith that continues to influence and inspire the fourth, fifth and sixth generation to follow!
When we pray for others, we are always praying for our family! Praying for our neighbors and classmates and co-workers– we are praying for family! Praying for our enemies, for strangers, for those who look and speak differently than us–We are praying for family! May God give us eyes to see and hearts to love our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, cousins and even the “long lost family members” and lift them up in prayer to the One who loves us and wants to bring us all into His family!
Hannah is a Bible heroine. Her story is an inspiration to many women who suffer, whether from infertility, depression, or being misunderstood. Hannah is a popular girl’s name. Peninnah, on the other hand, is a name you rarely hear today. No one wants to name their child after a bully, and a rival to a Biblical matriarch.
As we read through the story in 1 Samuel, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Samuel+1&version=NIV it seems hard enough that Hannah is barren. Especially as it is revealed that God is responsible for her condition. It seems unfair and harsh. But her trouble doesn’t end there. She has a rival–Elkanah’s other wife– who provokes, irritates, and taunts her, making her cry and keeping her in a state of anguish and stress. Peninnah has many children. She has reason to be joyful and proud. Yet she spends her time harassing and hurting Hannah, a woman who is already “beneath” her in society.
Rivalries tend to bring out the worst in us. Catfights, gossip, taunting, undermining others–books, movies, and even TV series have been built on such pettiness. Whether rivals at school, rivals in romantic relationships, rivals in business, or rivals in our own inflated egos, we allow our world to be narrowed to focus on two people who don’t even exist! We magnify our rival’s faults, twist her motives, and hold grudges over what she “probably” meant when she said “that.” And we justify our overreactions, our grievances, and our tendency to see ourselves as innocent victims.
In the case of Hannah and Peninnah, their world was already small. They were sharing a husband and a household, and likely somewhat isolated from the kind of society with which we are familiar. We live in societies where polygamy is illegal and wives do not (generally) live together. Our families tend to live in single units of husband, wife, and children. However, we also live in a society where fidelity is becoming more rare. Marriages break down, couple break up, and “sharing” a husband, if not a household, is more common than we might admit. Even in divorce and remarriage, we may find a rival in our husband’s ex-wife, or our ex-husband’s new partner, or our partner’s ex-mother-in-law (or our current mother-in-law) or among our step-children.
Elkanah is not an innocent bystander in all this. We don’t know why he has two wives, and the Bible doesn’t say that Elkanah did NOT love Peninnah, but it makes a point of saying that Elkanah DID love Hannah (suggesting that he might have been indifferent to his other wife). Also, the Bible is silent about whether or not Elkanah was aware of the rivalry going on under his roof. He seems totally oblivious and largely absent. Even though he loves Hannah, he doesn’t take care to protect her from Peninnah’s spite. Once again, we find parallels in our own situations– husbands who feel overwhelmed or blind-sided by the rivalries going on around them; husbands who ignore the firestorms; even men who revel in being the focus of so much attention.
But, before we label Peninnah the great villain of this story (or turn our anger on Elkanah for letting their rivalry continue), let’s be careful not to rush to judgment. The Bible doesn’t call Peninnah a villain, merely a rival. It says that she provoked Hannah, and taunted her, and even made her cry. However, the story is focused on Hannah. Her reaction to this taunting was to do what so many of us do– to let it heap up on her and push her down into anguish. Hannah doesn’t fight back. But neither does she stand up to her rival. If Peninnah is trying to make Hannah feel worthless and depressed, she succeeds because Hannah allows herself to believe it.
I think there are several key lessons here, and I think God tells us the whole story because there He wants us to see these lessons.
Rivalries and conflicts WILL arise in our lives. We shouldn’t pretend otherwise or refuse to deal with them. If you have a rival in your life at this moment, stop and think of ways you can seek peace. Pray, reach out, seek help. This is especially important where children are involved. If you have a rivalry with in-laws, ex-spouses, your children’s step-parents, it WILL impact all your relationships. It will be the way your children learn to relate to others. Whether you are the “bully” or the “middle man” or the “doormat”, you have a responsibility to make an effort to restore harmony. You cannot change the other person, but you can (with God’s help) change the way you build your legacy. And God can change everyone involved.
While Hannah did well not to react to Peninnah with her own spite and malice, she let her rival “win” by saying and doing nothing. Jesus teaches us that we are not to ignore those who hate or despise us, but to love them and pray for them. Hannah could have offered to reach out to Peninnah and her children, but she remained isolated. Maybe that was because of Peninnah’s actions or bitterness, but the Bible doesn’t say that Hannah made any effort to end this rivalry, either. She didn’t seek help from her loving husband, and she didn’t seek help from her loving God until she was at the end of her rope.
Spite, malice, bitterness, or even self-righteousness (or whatever else may have prompted Peninnah’s nastiness) not only hurts others, it hurts us and blinds us to the opportunity to do good. Peninnah had many children and lived in the same household with Hannah. Instead of taunting her and causing her grief, she could have opened up her heart to allow for a happy, unified family. Peninnah’s hurtful actions are her legacy to every generation that reads this story. She may have been a wonderful mom, a talented women, a real beauty– but she will always be known as the rival who made Hannah miserable. Our actions, even in our own household, have eternal consequences. Small acts of pettiness and spite can follow us for the rest of our lives, destroying our reputations, and blotting out all our “good works”.
Our abilities, skills, talents, status, or fertility DO NOT define our worth. God closed Hannah’s womb– he never closed His heart toward her. He gave her a husband who loved her and provided for her. He kept his eyes on her until the time was right to bless her in a supernatural way. God had opened Peninnah’s womb, but she kept her heart closed, and bragged about her children as though she alone were responsible for them. God had provided Peninnah with a husband who provided for her and created a family with her. She had children and a secure home, and reason to sacrifice to God with thanksgiving, yet her focus, even during her visit to the tabernacle, stayed on destroying her rival.
What makes Hannah a heroine in this story is NOT the way she bears up under bullying. Even though she didn’t get sucked into anger and malice, she fell victim to despair and depression. Hannah’s victory comes ONLY after she turns everything over to God in prayer. Peninnah’s pettiness is crushed by God’s miraculous provision.
May this be true in our lives, too– That we would turn to God, and replace bitterness, pettiness, pain and rivalry with His joy, fulfillment, and grace.
For the Beauty of the Earth The United Methodist Hymnal Number 092 Text: Folliot S. Pierpoint Music: Conrad Kocher; Arr. by W.H. Monk Tune: DIX, Meter: 77.77.77 1. For the beauty of the earth, for the glory of the skies, for the love which from our birth over and around us lies; Lord of all, to thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise.
2. For the beauty of each hour of the day and of the night, hill and vale, and tree and flower, sun and moon, and stars of light; Lord of all, to thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise.
3. For the joy of ear and eye, for the heart and mind’s delight, for the mystic harmony, linking sense to sound and sight; Lord of all, to thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise.
4. For the joy of human love, brother, sister, parent, child, friends on earth and friends above, for all gentle thoughts and mild; Lord of all, to thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise.
5. For thy church, that evermore lifteth holy hands above, offering up on every shore her pure sacrifice of love; Lord of all, to thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise.
6. For thyself, best Gift Divine, to the world so freely given, for that great, great love of thine, peace on earth, and joy in heaven: Lord of all, to thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise.
This week, may we raise hymns of grateful praise to the creator of all the beauty of the earth.
For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all tings were created by him and for him.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
Yesterday was my Grandmother’s birthday. She passed away over 20 years ago, but I still cherish the memories I have of my time with her. She was a woman of quiet dignity, gentle wisdom, and deep love for her family and neighbors.
While I was still in my late teens and early twenties, my Gram started getting me interested in genealogy. She had amazing stories that had been passed down through several generations, but she was unsure how many of them were “true” and how many had devolved into legend and half-truth. Her stories became the first framework I used to research our family’s roots. Over thirty years later, I have books and charts and databases filled with names, dates, stories, photos, mysteries, dead ends, twists and turns, surprises and more. I have traced my own family, my husband’s family, related families, possible connections to famous people in history, and mapped out many of the locations where our families lived over the centuries.
God created and instituted families, and I’m so grateful for mine. In spite of the many tragedies and skeletons I’ve found along the way, one thing is clear. God’s design for families is good and leads to hope, security, and fruitfulness.
All families are unique, but the design for families– the traditional family model–has been pretty consistent throughout the centuries and even across cultures. It may not always be the “nuclear” family of a mother and father and two or three children in a single household. Sometimes it is made up of multiple generations or nuclear groups sharing a house or living communally, and there have always been blended families, or single-parent households, but there is a consistent expectation of being able to trace one’s mother’s family line and father’s family line through at least two or three generations– knowing their names, where they were born, and when they lived and died.
As technology is advancing to make this kind of genealogical research even easier, society is pulling away from the traditional family model and making it harder and harder to find one’s “roots.” Children live with a series of adults– “aunties” and “dads” who bear no biological relationship and no lifelong commitment to them. Children whose fathers are nameless, faceless DNA donors, or whose parents left them to chase a career, or be with a new lover or a consuming addiction. Grown children rebel and leave their families behind to mix and mingle with other free-floating adults, never desiring to continue a legacy of family ties. Many people look upon this as “progress”– changing the definition of family…ironically, they use the term “relative” when talking about values and definitions, even as they redefine what it means to be a “relative.”
God doesn’t love us less if we don’t come from a traditional family– certainly, He is the God of the orphan, the fatherless, and the widow.
Psalm 68: 4-6: (NIV, courtesy of biblegateway.com)
Sing to God, sing in praise of his name, extol him who rides on the clouds rejoice before him—his name is the Lord. A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families, he leads out the prisoners with singing; but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land.
God wants us in families– He wants us to grow and be fruitful. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” is a phrase often used about family members being alike in their thinking or actions or habits. And so it is with families who grow and live together. We may “fall” away from our birth families, and move miles away, but we will produce a new tree with the same fruit– fruit that nourishes communities and societies and new families.
However, when we lose the pattern of families as God set them up, we lose a lot of other good things:
A sense of belonging–sure we all belong to the entire human race, and we shouldn’t become exclusive and tribal at the expense of our neighbors and others, but there is a point at which we want to know where we “fit” in the scheme of things.
Support and encouragement–I love my family; and I even like most of them! But I recognize a bond that cannot be broken lightly, and it keeps pulling us together in good times and bad. We are there for baby showers, funerals, weddings, house-warmings, graduations, and reunions. As our family has grown, we can’t always be at every event, but I will never be without anyone. There is a horrible epidemic of people who ARE living and dying alone– no family to visit or be visited; no family to talk to, or argue with, or share memories. This breaks my heart, and it breaks the heart of the God who made us to be “relational.”
History and legacy–My life has a purpose and fits into a plan. I am uniquely “ME”, yet I am also a daughter, sister, wife, step-mom, grandma, aunt, and cousin (and second-cousin once-removed, etc.). I didn’t just appear out of thin air, and I won’t disappear without leaving a trace. The choices I make don’t just impact my life. This is important regardless of my history–I am the one who can change a bad legacy into a great heritage, or ruin a heritage and leave a legacy of pain for those I leave behind.
Role models–Having roles within a family prepares us for having roles at work and in our communities– we learn to speak out, and to listen; we learn to ask for and offer help; we learn to respect others and earn the respect of those around us. We don’t learn these lessons perfectly, because there are no perfect families. But families provide a structure and pattern for teaching life lessons that is time-tested and approved. Busy parents are aided by grandparents, uncles, and older siblings and cousins in modeling good behavior, correcting bad behavior, and answering questions ranging from “the birds and the bees” to how to braid hair or tie a necktie. When that structure is missing, young people fall through the cracks in ways both small and crucial.
Seeing how God’s love works through the ages. God doesn’t just love in spurts and impulses. God’s love is eternal, and meant to be shared from generation to generation and spread from family to family.
I pray today that, just as my grandmother encouraged my love of family, that I will leave a legacy of love and faith for others in my life– those who are family by blood, and those who have become the family of my heart. And I hope that others will pray for our families to stay true and strong and fruitful, too.