Stars of the Faith: Hannah Hurnard

Matthew 10:26-31
March 22, 2009

So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

I want to introduce you this morning to a woman who is, perhaps, one of the greatest Christians you’ve never heard of. As you know, during this season of Lent we have been offering a series on the “stars” of Christian faith. We’ve focused on stars such as Benedict of Nursia, considered the father of the monastic movement, Hannah Whitall Smith, a 19th century Quaker, and John Calvin, whom you should have heard of.

This morning I want to focus on a woman who came out of nowhere in the 1950s to write a book that has transformed millions. Her book, Hinds’ Feet on High Places, was The Shack of her age. If you haven’t heard of The Shack, it is a wonderful book that teaches about faith through the conversations between a broken man and God. The author of that book, William Young, came out of nowhere, as did Hannah Hurnard.

Looking at Hannah’s life, no one would have expected her to write a great book, especially a Christian one. You see, early in her life she struggled with Christianity and Christian faith. She was born in England in the beginning of the 20th century to Quaker parents. She grew up with a lot of phobias, as well as a stammer that embarrassed her throughout her life. Her parents had a strong faith, and were very active in their church, often going to worship services all day Sunday, as well as in mid-week. Hannah went to services with her, but she just didn’t feel the passion that others around her did. She was their fervor, and wished she had it, too, but she struggled with her faith.

Her struggles culminated in a long-lasting experience when she was 19. There was a weeklong revival taking place in the town of Keswick, and Hannah’s father wanted to spend all day, everyday, at the revival. Hannah just couldn’t stand the idea of doing nothing but church, all day, everyday. Church did nothing for her. She didn’t experience God in her life, and so worship had no impact. So she begged her father to not make her join them in the revival. Instead, her father negotiated an agreement: she would join him for worship in the morning and evening, and spend the rest of her day on her own.

Unexpectedly, she encountered God. Sitting in worship on evening, she kept looking at the fervor that others had in worship, and noticed the dullness she felt inside of herself. That bothered her because she felt like she was missing something. So she prayed to God that God would open her up to an experience of God. She went home, and not knowing the Bible at all, or where to start, she opened it at random and started reading. The story she read was of Elijah making a sacrifice to God on Mt. Horeb. Hannah realized that God was calling on her to sacrifice her heart, mind, and soul to God. And so she made a sacrifice, giving her hear to God, even if she didn’t know what that meant.

After doing so, she felt the first real sense of peace in her life. She felt called to reach out to others like her, to reach others who were afraid. So she committed her life to God. In 1932 she moved to what would become Israel, and was a missionary to the Jews for fifty years. Then, in 1955, she published her groundbreaking book about the transformation of faith that can lead us from being “much-afraid” of everything and living in fear, to becoming a person of faith who can do anything God calls us to do. The book was based on her experiences of transformation. What I want to do this morning is to share with you the story she wrote, which is about the transformation of the main character, Much-Afraid.

The story is an allegory. What that means is that it is written much like a fairy tale, with simple characters and a simple plot, but everything in it represents aspects of real life that are very complex—aspects that are so complex that they are hard to talk about in a more straightforward way. The fact that it is an allegory causes many people to miss the whole point of the story when they read it. It takes a willingness to look beyond the apparent to understand the power of allegories. Allegories require that people spend time reflecting deeply about what they’ve read. Unfortunately, we are in far too much of a hurry to read slowly. But if we do read slowly, it’s amazing what we can discover and discern.

The story begins with Much-Afraid, who lives in the Valley of Humiliation. This is a very real valley of life where people interact in ways that leave them feeling hurt by others. Much-Afraid feels very hurt in her life. Physically she is plagued by a crippled walk and speech impediment, both of which represent our own weak-kneed faith and sin. Much-afraid is like us. She lives her life in fear, worrying about the future, about the past, about what others think of her, and about the bad things that are always ready to tear her pitiful life apart. She is a member of the Fearing family, which represents the family of fears that always plagues us. Among those in her family are Craven Fear, Coward, Gloomy, Self-Pity, Pride, and Self-Loathing, all emotions that plague us. She is due to wed Craven Fear, and she knows that once she does she will live in the grips of fear for the rest of her life. How much is she like us? We all live in constant fear, even if it is a fear that we push aside. We are afraid of the future, of the economy, of our co-workers, our bosses, our families, of conflict, failure, and so much more. We are members of the family of Fearings.

What Much-Afraid wants more than anything else in life is to strike up enough courage to follow the Great Shepherd, who is Jesus, to the High Places where she can be transformed. The High Places stand for God’s kingdom, and inherent in it is the idea that when we truly begin living in God’s kingdom, it has the power to transform us, to reshape us so that we become people of love and grace. The High Places are the place of transformation, yet as much as she wants to go there, she is afraid. What if she follows and the Shepherd lets her down? What if she follows and good things don’t happen? How often have we asked similar questions? What if we commit our lives to God and God doesn’t come through?

She goes into a deep personal struggle with herself and her family. What should she do? Finally she does decide to set out to the High Places, trusting that the Good Shepherd will take care of her. But to do so she must undergo a mighty struggle between the pull of fear and faith. This is the spiritual struggle each and every one of us has in life. Will we give our lives to God in faith, or will we let our fear of the future, of God, of being disappointed, and of being considered weird pull us away from God? Much-Afraid decides to go in faith, but her faith is weak. She could pull way and go back to her Fearing family at a moment’s notice. Again, we are like that. Even when we act in faith, fear stalks us.

After a struggle with her family, who threaten to tie her up and force her to marry Craven Fear, she escapes and meets the Good Shepherd (Jesus). She has lots of expectations of the journey. Like many of us with an immature faith, we expect that the path the Shepherd leads us on will be easy. Many of us believe that the path of Christ should be a pleasurable one. Why not? We’ve given God our life? We believe in God, so shouldn’t God reward us by making life easier? That’s the way Much-Afraid thinks. She expects her life to get easier immediately. She imagines that now that she has committed herself to the Great Shepherd, all her problems will go away. The truth is that the path of spiritual transformation is difficult, and it never goes as we expect it to go. She expects an easy path from that moment on, but she is in for a surprise.

If we had written the book, I’m sure many of us would have a definite idea of where the path should lead. Perhaps she would be led to a pleasant path through meadows. Perhaps we would give her a nice, easy path with a gradual climb. Best of all, we might give her a path that leads to a tram, which would whisk her quickly to the top. That’s what we would script for ourselves. That’s not the path the Shepherd has for her or us.

While she can see clearly the straight path to the top, the Good Shepherd tells her that she must take the path to the left, which leads straight into a desert. Much-Afraid is crushed. That’s not right! How could God lead her into a desert? There must be some mistake. The Good Shepherd assures her that it is no mistake. The desert isn’t just a place in this book. The Bible constantly talks about the desert. In fact, most of the great figures of the Bible are led into the desert: Abraham, Isaac, Moses, the Israelites, David, Elijah, John the Baptist, Jesus, Paul. The desert is a mystical place in the Bible where we learn lessons we cannot learn anywhere else. The desert is also highly symbolic of life, of those times where we feel dry and lifeless, where we struggle to find joy, where life is difficult. But the desert also is full of transforming lessons. What do we learn in our deserts, in the experiences of life where we struggle and God seems absent?

First we learn that faith blooms in the desert and dies in a garden. This is almost always true. The people with the weakest faith are often the people with the easiest lives. The people with the deepest faith are often the ones who have gone through severe difficulties in life and have learned to trust in God despite these difficulties. Also, in the desert we learn to let go of stuff that doesn’t matter. We learn to trust God. We learn what’s important and what isn’t. When we live our lives in gardens, we learn to take everything for granted. Take time to reflect right now: what have your deserts been, and what did you learn in them?

Next, the Shepherd leads her out of the desert and onto Lonely Shores by the sea. This is a gloomy, rocky place where she is left alone to struggle with her feelings of loneliness and self-pity. Much-Afraid discovers that there is much to learn as we grapple with loneliness. First, we learn that we have to overcome self-pity if we are to grow spiritually. So many of us, when we struggle, pity ourselves. But when we are immersed in self-pity we also lose sight of God. Spiritually deep people learn that it is okay to be alone, because in solitude we learn who we area. We learn how not to be defined by other people. We learn that we become stronger in solitude, both in faith and in the ability to handle life’s turmoil. Again, take time to reflect: what have you learned in your struggles with loneliness?

Soon she is led out of the desert and away from the shores, and she is led to stand beneath sheer cliffs, which she is told she must climb. Looking at the cliff, and at her infirmities, she breaks down crying. How could she possibly overcome that obstacle? How could she, as crippled and disfigured as she was, possibly overcome that? Again, fear grips her. She has to struggle with her fear of what might be, and decide between faith and fear. When she finally decides to trust in the Shepherd. When she does, she is shown a path up the cliffs that she never saw on her own. Also, she is tied by a rope to companions who help her, pulling her forward and upward whenever she feels week. The climb is difficult, but not anything like what she anticipated. Soon she overcomes the cliff because of her trust in the Shepherd. Again, she learns lessons from her experiences.

For example, she learns that we cannot overcome steep obstacles by ourselves. But to discover this we have to overcome our fear of failure and of pain. When we accept God’s help, we can overcome anything. The question for you to reflect on is, are you willing to rely on God to overcome insurmountable obstacles?

Getting to the top of the cliff, she finds herself in a thick forest shrouded in fog. The path before her is obscured. In addition, there are storms along the way that scare her. Much of her time is spent sitting in a small cabin in the woods, dealing with boredom, but in the midst of it she finds comfort. Walking along the path, a path like the path of our own lives, which is unknowable, she learns trust. She learns the same lessons we have to learn if we are truly to follow Christ in our life path.

She learns what we learn in our shrouded forests, when we have to walk forward, not knowing what path lays ahead. She learns that we can’t always see that path ahead of us, no matter how much we might pray for clarity. She learns that we have to struggle with uncertainty and ambiguity in the spiritual life. Spiritually immature people think that growing spiritually means becoming more certain about God, life, and our place in it. Actually, growing spiritually often means we simply become more accustomed and comfortable with the ambiguities of life. She learns that we have to struggle with resentment and learn patience. Often we resent God for not making our paths clearer, for not giving us signs. The problem isn’t with God. It’s with us. We are so impatient. The question I’d like you to reflect on is, when your path in life is uncertain, are you willing to be patient and trust God?

Finally, Much-Afraid comes closer to the High Places. She can see them clearly now. She feels like she is finally out of the mists and deserts and shores. But then the Good Shepherd does something unexpected. Instead of sending her straight up, he points to a valley and tells her that the path leads through the valley. Much-Afraid is furious. How can he do this when she is so close? Is he just tormenting her on purpose? Is this all just a cruel joke? Once again she is forced to make a decision of faith—will she trust in the Shepherd, even though it seems like she is being led once again away from the High Places. He decides to trust and follow, and in the Valley she learns again.

She learns that even when we are following God, we may face troubles and difficulties. We may end up in depths of valleys of grief and pain. Just because we follow God doesn’t mean that life will be easy. People close to us will still die. We will still get ill. We may lose a job or get divorced. We may struggle with depression. Following God doesn’t take this stuff away, but it can transform it if we trust in God even though we walk through the darkest valleys. When you face loss in your life, are you willing to trust God to lead and heal you?

Her journey is nearer to the end than she believes. After coming out of the Valley, she is led to an altar, where the Shepherd tells her she is to sacrifice her false self, her fear, her Much-Afraid-ness, to him. She is afraid of the pain the altar entails, but she does it anyway, and the result is that she becomes transformed. She learns the paradox of Christ, which is that if we are willing to lose our lives, we save our lives. The question for you is, are you willing to sacrifice what you hold dear so that you can become someone much better, someone much greater, in God’s way?

She is transformed, and finally makes it to the High Places. And it is a wonderful place. She can see life from God’s perspective. She understands everything now. And she is given a new name: Grace and Glory. She is no longer crippled, but now has the feet of a deer that can jump from place to place with grace. She speaks clearly, especially about God and God’s love (this is a reference to Hannah Hurnard’s experience, who found that when she read from the Bible aloud, or spoke to people about God, she no longer had a stammer). She is transformed in ways that we would never expect, in ways that are even more wonderful than she imagined.

She also learns something important about making it to the High Places, about living in God’s kingdom. She learns that to live in the High Places means to leave them and to return to the Valley of Humiliation to serve the Shepherd. What this means for us is that the more we are willing to grow spiritually, the more we are called by God to share God’s love with a world stuck in pain. We become humble and learn that it’s what God wants that matters. And we learn God’s song, which is sung by water in the book. To be more precise, Grace and Glory notices that as the water flows from the springs on the mountaintops, and flows over massive waterfalls, rushing to the valleys below, it sings a song. Here’s what the water sings:

From the heights we leap and flow,
to the valleys down below.
Always answering to the call,
to the lowest place of all.

The lesson of the water is that the higher we go, the lower we are called to serve. She is sent back to serve those who are as she was: Much-Afraid. The question I want you to reflect on is this: are you willing to strive for a high spiritual life that leads you to live a life of serving others?