Have you ever had that experience where a person, an object or perhaps a Bible verse pops in to your mind out of the blue? And then suddenly, within a few days or weeks, that person, object or verse seems to appear again and again?
Last week, I read a short reflection on the story of Hagar in Common Prayer, A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (www.commonprayer.net/). And since then Hagar’s name has cropped up in a few different places. The story of Hagar may not be a traditional Lent reading, but I wanted to share some thoughts I’ve had over the last week.
Abram’s wife Sarai had not been able to have any children. But she owned a young Egyptian slave woman named Hagar, and Sarai said to Abram, “The Lord has not given me any children. Sleep with my slave, and if she has a child, it will be mine.” Abram agreed, and Sarai gave him Hagar to be his wife. … Later, when Hagar knew she was going to have a baby, she became proud and was hateful to Sarai…
Abram said, “All right! She’s your slave, and you can do whatever you want with her.” But Sarai began treating Hagar so harshly that she finally ran away.
Hagar stopped to rest at a spring in the desert on the road to Shur. While she was there, the angel of the Lord came to her and asked, “Hagar, where have you come from, and where are you going?”
She answered, “I’m running away from Sarai, my owner.”
The angel said, “Go back to Sarai and be her slave. I will give you a son, who will be called Ishmael [God hears], because I have heard your cry for help. And later I will give you so many descendants that no one will be able to count them all.” …
Hagar thought, “Have I really seen God and lived to tell about it?” So from then on she called him, “The God Who Sees Me [El-roi].”
(Excerpts from Genesis 16, taken from the CEV Bible)
There’s a lot in stories like this that can make us feel uncomfortable. Casual references to slavery, bullying and abuse for starters. But this story in particular reminds me of conversations I had with Lebna, who stayed in Boaz accommodation when I was working as a support worker.
Lebna had fled her home country after facing severe persecution because of her Christian faith. Her claim for asylum was sadly refused and she had been made homeless here in Manchester. Like the majority of the people we have worked alongside over the last 16 years, she was unable to work and live freely like she desperately wanted to. Lebna first stayed with a local host family and then moved to one of our shared houses. She took part in our different activities and we supported her to work with a solicitor, so that she was able to submit a fresh claim.
Lebna held on to her faith, despite the risks she faced back home because of it and yet the UK Home Office still refused to accept the evidence that she shared with them. One of the things I remember about Lebna is that she would often end our conversations by saying something along the lines of “God sees me” or “God knows me”, or “God hears my prayers”. It was so clear to see that Lebna had a strong and quiet certainty that this was absolutely true. Our government might not believe her, she might face imprisonment, abuse, deportation and more. But she knew that God saw her, and that she wasn't alone.
Hagar had fled her home and was in the desert when she met with El-roi, the God who Sees. Many of us we may have felt as though we’re in a desert as we’ve journeyed through the last 12 months of repeated lockdowns and restrictions. It has been challenging to hear from some of our Boaz clients who have told us that in some ways they don’t feel life has changed for them under lockdown. Living in relative isolation and under changing restrictions is all too familiar for them.
Wherever we are and however we are feeling in this second week of Lent, my hope is that like Hagar and Lebna we will know that we are seen, that we are loved, and that we matter. And my prayer is that this will spur us on this Lent as individuals, as an organisation like Boaz and as a community to truly see others, to love others and to make sure they know that they matter too.
I wonder if there is one practical thing we can do to let someone know this today?