Connections: Hannah and the Art of Persistence

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I love underdogs. There is something about pulling for the little guy, the person with no shot, no chance, and then seeing them overcome the odds. I’ve read a lot of biographies over the years, a habit that my father passed on to me, and this one struck me as a great American underdog story,

 [Howie] was raised in a working-class Jewish family in Canarsie, Brooklyn. While his mother Elaine tended to him and his siblings full-time (she later became a receptionist), his father Fred held a series of blue-collar positions, including truck driver, factory worker, and cab driver. In 1961, when Howie was 7 years old, his father broke his ankle while working as a truck driver picking up and delivering diapers. At the time, Fred had no health insurance or worker’s compensation, and the family was left with no income.

Today, Howie writes, he still remembers the way his father looked laying on the couch with his leg in a cast. In a way, his tremendous professional success is a tribute to his father, who died years later and “never attained fulfillment and dignity from work he found meaningful.”

Almost from the outset, Howie’s career path was different from his parents. In high school, he played football and earned an athletic scholarship to Northern Michigan University, becoming the first college graduate in his family. After graduation, Howie landed a job in the sales training program at Xerox, where he got experience cold-calling and pitching word processors. In a few years, he took a job at Hammarplast, a housewares business owned by a Swedish company called Perstorp. There Schultz ascended the ranks to vice president and general manager, leading a team of salespeople.

Despite his seeming success, Howie writes that he was “getting antsy. It may be a weakness in me: I’m always wondering what I’ll do next.” Or perhaps it was because he hadn’t yet found what he would discover in [his future]: “what it means when your work truly captures your heart and your imagination.”

Schultz first encountered his future life’s work when he was working at Hammarplast. [A] coffee shop had four stores in Seattle and caught his attention when it ordered an unusually large number of drip coffeemakers. Intrigued, Howie traveled to Seattle to meet the company’s then owners, Gerald Baldwin and Gordon Bowker. He was struck by the partners’ passion and their courage in selling a product that would appeal only to a small niche of gourmet coffee enthusiasts.

Joining their company would mean moving across the country and taking a significant pay cut, but Howie was certain it would be the right move for him. It took a year to persuade Baldwin to hire him as the director of marketing.

Howie’s career changed forever when the company sent him to an international housewares show in Milan. While walking around the city, he encountered several espresso bars where owners knew their customers by name and served them drinks like cappuccinos and cafe lattes. “It was like an epiphany,” Howie writes of the moment he understood the personal relationship that people could have to coffee. He was convinced that his company should start serving espresso drinks the Italian way — that their shops should be an experience, and not just a store.

Baldwin and Bowker, however, felt differently. In 1985 Howie decided to leave to start his own coffee company: Il Giornale (Italian for “the daily”). He spent two years away, wholly focused on opening Il Giornale stores that replicated the coffee culture he’d seen in Italy. It caught on quickly. In 1987, Il Giornale bought Starbucks, and Howie or Howard Schultz became CEO of Starbucks Corporation.[1]

From a small tenement house in Brooklyn to the largest purveyor of coffee in the world, Howard Schultz is the epitome of underdog.

The Bible seems to love an underdog as well. Many – if not most – of the stories recorded in the record of our faith have a decidedly underdog feel to them: slaves escaping the greatest army in the world, a boy winning a duel with a professional soldier, a refugee child growing up to change the entire religious, social, and political landscape – not to mention how we record time itself.

goblet-of-coffee-1567990
Photo by Carlos Sillero from freeimages.com.

The Persistence of Hannah

The two books of Samuel are the books in which God loses his throne. Through the stories of creation, the rise of the patriarchs, the birth of Israel, and settlement of Canaan, God is the ruler of the Israelites, speaking through a succession of prophets and leaders who hear and for the most part, follow after the leading of God. The book of Samuel – in the beginning First and Second Samuel was one story, but it was divided into two because they wouldn’t all fit on the same scroll in the ancient days, think in terms of running out of room on a flash drive – tells the story of how Israel gave up God for an earthly king. The story begins with the last prophet of God before the kings, Samuel.

The story begins with some familiarity, the story of a woman who is barren. As we talked about with Sarah, barrenness was – and is – a horrible thing for a woman to have to deal with, especially a woman who wants to have children. We of course talked previously of the stigma associated with being unable to bare children in the Old Testament and that difficulty is front and center in this story. The first few verses of chapter one lay out the pain and frustration as Hannah not only has to deal with her barren state and the relationship she has with Elkanah, her husband, but also with the other wife, Peninniah. The texts says quite plainly,

“Peninnah had children, but Hannah didn’t,” and “Whenever he sacrificed, Elkanah would give parts of the sacrifice to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. But he would give only one part of it to Hannah, though he loved her, because the Lord had kept her from conceiving. And because the Lord had kept Hannah from conceiving, her rival would make fun of her mercilessly, just to bother her. So that is what took place year after year. Whenever Hannah went to the Lord’s house, Peninnah would make fun of her. Then she would cry and wouldn’t eat anything.”[2]

Elkanah, because of his love for Hannah, tried to understand but like most men (sorry guys), he just didn’t get it. At one point after the yearly trip he bursts out, “Hannah, why are you crying…Why won’t you eat? Why are you so sad? Aren’t I worth more to you than ten sons?”[3] In this, there is an attempt at comfort, an attempt to help his wife find solace in a difficult place, but as with many problems that are out of our hands, finding a substitute or simply trying to take someone’s mind off the problem is no real solution. Elkanah, was powerless to change things for Hannah and simply stood by dumbfounded.

In many ways, we’ve been here haven’t we? Faced with problems that seem to be out of our hands. Handed a stack of cards to play that are far from aces and no hope of anything good for you in the deck. We’ve heard the terrifying diagnoses, we’ve watched helplessly as loved ones made one bad decision after another, we’ve cried, screamed, swore, and generally poured out our souls in an attempt to say, “For the love of God, somebody do something!”

The story moves to the second part as the family of Elkanah takes the yearly pilgrimage to Shiloh to offer sacrifices for the family. I imagine the conversation along the way as Hannah endures one slight after another from Peninnah, one comment after another what strong, healthy men her boys are growing into and what beautiful young women her daughters will be. I imagine the speculating that Peninnah does about their futures, will her boys be wealthy, prosperous farmers like their father? Or merchants? Will her daughters be betrothed to traders or landowners or perhaps even priests? I imagine Hannah vacillating between tears of sorrow, self-pity, and rage as she hears the endless sniping and backhanded commentary.

Hannah survives the barbs of her rival, the sacrificing, and the feasting when all is said and done and finally she comes to what has become her yearly act of desperation. She falls on her face before God and starts crying uncontrollably and inconsolably. She is desperate and desperation is dangerous.

Desperation drives us to do what we would not think of or dream of to survive whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. It is the thing that pushes us over the edge to a place beyond bargaining, beyond reason, beyond accepting anything but relief and release from the pain and the circumstances that drive it. Hannah prays, fervently, passionately, and with no regard for anyone around her. The story says,

Hannah was very upset and couldn’t stop crying as she prayed to the Lord. Then she made this promise: “Lord of heavenly forces, just look at your servant’s pain and remember me! Don’t forget your servant! Give her a boy! Then I’ll give him to the Lord for his entire life. No razor will ever touch his head.” As she kept praying before the Lord, Eli watched her mouth. Now Hannah was praying in her heart; her lips were moving, but her voice was silent, so Eli thought she was drunk. “How long will you act like a drunk? Sober up!” Eli told her.[4]

Desperation looks to other people like madness. To Eli, the priest serving in Shiloh, it looked like she was drunk and out of her mind. When we are desperate, people around may or may not understand, they may or may not be able to identify with our pain or our suffering. When we see desperate people, we might not be able see them past their desperation. Yet, if we can be patient, be attentive, the Holy Spirit can show us the suffering and pain behind the apparent madness, opening up an opportunity for us to show the grace and mercy of God to someone in need. Eli, with a little help gets this glimpse as Hannah replies to his accusation,

“No sir!” Hannah replied. “I’m just a very sad woman. I haven’t had any wine or beer but have been pouring out my heart to the Lord. Don’t think your servant is some good-for-nothing woman. This whole time I’ve been praying out of my great worry and trouble!”[5]

Hear her recognition of what her desperation looks like to others. She knows it seems like insanity or drunkenness to Eli but she is not praying to Eli is she? She is not desperate for Eli to fix this massive ball of heartache that fills her chest. She is crying out to God, crying out to the only one who can open a door, a path to healing from her circumstance.

When we take the time to come along side of people who are hurting and in need, we have the opportunity to speak peace and comfort into their lives, as Eli does for Hannah when he says,

Eli responded, “Then go in peace. And may the God of Israel give you what you’ve asked from him.”[6]

Hear Eli speaking to Hannah, go in peace, may God give you what you’ve asked for. These words must have been the greatest thing that Hannah had ever heard in her adult life. The man who speaks on behalf God saying her prayers would be heard, her suffering alleviated, her shame, embarrassment, gone.

Speaking this truth into the lives of others

We know the story from here. Hannah goes in peace as it were, soon after conceives a son and makes good on her vow. Samuel comes to live in the sanctuary of God and spend his days acting as prophet and priest for the people of Israel. The story of Hannah ends her but the way it ends, I think speaks a truth we should hear.

Hannah was a woman of persistence before God. She never gave up on God even when it seemed unreasonable and unlikely that God would hear her. She acted in desperation near to the point seeming like a mad woman in the sanctuary of God. In the end, God hears and her prayer, grants her the desire of her heart, and how does she respond? The story says,

When he had been weaned and was still very young, Hannah took him, along with a three-year-old bull, an ephah of flour, and a jar of wine, and brought him to the Lord’s house at Shiloh. They slaughtered the bull, then brought the boy to Eli.

“Excuse me, sir!” Hannah said. “As surely as you live, sir, I am the woman who stood here next to you, praying to the Lord. I prayed for this boy, and the Lord gave me what I asked from him. So now I give this boy back to the Lord. As long as he lives, he is given to the Lord.”

Then they worshipped there before the Lord.[7]

When all was said and done, Hannah worshiped God. The response to God when God is faithful, is faithfulness. God heard Hannah and responded with an affirmative answer to her prayer. Hannah honored her vow and worshiped.

I wonder where we are today. Are we desperate for God to hear our prayers? Are we desperate enough to act on those prayers? Are we willing to do, give, walk through whatever and be persistent in our lives and prayers to seek an answer? Are we patient enough with others to walk with them as they endure a season of desperation? Are we able to worship in response to the answer, whatever the answer is? May we be, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.


 

[1] http://www.businessinsider.com/rags-to-riches-story-of-howard-schultz-2015-5, (brackets and the use of the name Howie instead of Howard show edits to the original article for ease of reading and presentation.)

[2] 1 Samuel 1:2,4-7

[3] 1 Samuel 1:8

[4] 1 Samuel 1:10-14

[5] 1 Samuel 1:15-16

[6] 1 Samuel 1:17

[7] 1 Samuel 1:24-28

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