Saturday, October 27, 2018

“I Had Heard, Now I See” - October 28, 2018

Job 42:1-6, 10-17

            C.S. Lewis wrote a book called The Problem of Pain in which he analyzed the theological and philosophical sides of suffering, its place in nature and in human development, and so on.  (There’s a copy in the church library if you want to read the whole thing, which is worth doing.)  For my money, though, the wisest part of the book is found in one part of one sentence in the preface, where he says,

“I was never fool enough to suppose myself qualified, nor have I anything to offer my readers except my conviction that when pain is to be borne, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all.”[1]

In fact, that is what Job really learns at the end of his troubles.  And it is enough.

            There are long, long passages that we have not looked at, where Job’s friends try to help him come to grips with his questions about pain and about injustice and about the fairness or unfairness of life.  At first they know enough simply to keep him company, and as long as they do that, Job experiences some of that human sympathy that Lewis said was more helpful than courage.

“Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.”  [Job 2:11-13]

They should have stopped there.  But after a week, they had had enough.  They begin to offer explanations of what has gone wrong.

His first friend starts out hesitantly:

“If one ventures a word with you, will you be offended?”

(Right there you can hear trouble ahead.)

“But who can keep from speaking?” [Job 4:2]

Once the silence is broken, the friends barely shut up, and much of what they say in their well-meaning way still comes out as a series of accusations.  “Look, Job, you must have done something wrong to deserve this.  You must have brought it on yourself somehow, even if you don’t remember or realize it.”

“Can mortals be righteous before God?
   Can human beings be pure before their Maker? 
Even in his servants he puts no trust,
   and his angels he charges with error; 
how much more those who live in houses of clay,
   whose foundation is in the dust,
   who are crushed like a moth.
  [Job 4:17-19]

And if God is punishing him, he should be happy that God is trying to teach him and correct him instead of wiping him off the face of the earth.

“See, we have searched this out; it is true.
   Hear, and know it for yourself.” [Job 5:27]

I’m not so sure those messages are very helpful: “It’s your own fault, and it’s for your own good.”  Try that out on someone who has emphysema: “You shouldn’t have started smoking, so this is your own fault, but at least it should teach you to stop.”  Realistically, as true as that might be, how often does it happen?

            Then there is another friend who reminds Job that they had all been taught very clearly that God sends suffering upon people either as punishment or correction.  So by disagreeing with the standard beliefs that they repeat to him, Job is only making things worse for himself.  He’s adding to whatever personal sin he has committed and (even worse) Job is publicly undermining general morality and respect for religion.

“Should the wise answer with windy knowledge,
   and fill themselves with the east wind? 
Should they argue in unprofitable talk,
   or in words with which they can do no good? 
But you are doing away with the fear of God,
   and hindering meditation before God.”
 [Job 15:2-4]

So now he’s being told that he’s suffering because he’s an unrepentant sinner, and his declarations of innocence have to stop because they present a danger to the faith of anybody within earshot.

            Job doesn’t give in.  He sticks to what he knows in his heart is true.  It turns out that God approves of this.  At the end of the book, God doesn’t let the three friends off the hook;

“the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: ‘My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.’” [Job 42:7]

Finally, here is the core of Job’s experience and what sets him apart from others.  The difference is that Job, throughout everything, has dealt with the Lord as a living God, one who is not just some sort of theoretical being way out there, acting as referee for the universe, untouched or unmoved by what happens to us here on earth except as a rule-keeper.  There is no place in biblical faith for karma, the impersonal idea that you get what’s coming to you, good or bad.

In the end, for Job, God is real and free and active in a way that the others don’t quite get, and even more real to him than before his troubles all began.  Job’s friends give him standardized answers, and he will not accept them.  God, when he spoke to Job from a whirlwind, said that he wasn’t going to get an answer; Job could and did accept that.

“Then Job answered the Lord:
‘I know that you can do all things,
   and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
“Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?”
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
   things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
“Hear, and I will speak;
   I will question you, and you declare to me.”
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
   but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
   and repent in dust and ashes.’”
[Job 42:1-6] 

His troubles had led to a direct encounter with the Lord himself, and that was enough, and more than enough, to make it worthwhile. 

            Really, what we have to offer when others are suffering cannot be platitudes or simplistic explanations that ultimately don’t hold up.  We do not know the mind of God about every situation in our own lives, let alone the lives of others.  What we do know, however, is what we have experienced directly for ourselves, which is the love God didn’t just tell us about, but showed us when he sent Jesus to suffer and die with us and for us.  That is not something theoretical, but something historical.  It happened.  And one of its consequences is that any time of trouble we face has its limit – none of it is eternal and none of it is inevitable– and all patience would have its reward.  We, too, have been given an answer which is so deep that we cannot entirely summarize it right now, but it is an answer that is enough.

            As for later, it will take care of itself, if for now we have Christ.

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.  And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”  [I Corinthians 13:12-13]

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1962), 10.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

“Where Were You?” - October 14, 2018

Job 28:1-7, 34-41

            Like Job, we want reasons for things.  We want to know why things happen as they do.  If something is going to play out in a way that we would call unfair or unjust, we want an explanation.  Occasionally, we are given a reason, and we might or might not like it.  But beyond being given a reason, God gives something far more precious, which is wisdom, and wisdom helps us to know our place in the world.

            I’m about to tell you a long story, most of which will be background, but it does have a point, so settle in.

            In the summer of 1988, I was one of five student chaplains at what was then the Delaware State Hospital, just south of Wilmington.  Two of us were from Pennsylvania, two were from New Jersey, and one lived just down the road from the hospital itself.  The way that our work was divided, there was one person who covered the intake unit on weekends and took the overnight shift, while the rest of us had separate units where we visited and provided pastoral care.  The hospital had a chapel with Sunday morning services, which we shared, and on Monday mornings when we met, whoever was working on their sermon for the coming week would present their text and an outline for discussion.

            The week in question, the preacher was going to be a guy named George, whose denominational background was Reformed Episcopal.  That meant that he was about as serious a Calvinist as anyone has ever been.  He believed very sincerely and wholeheartedly in predestination and that God exercises his absolute sovereignty and control in all things at all times.

            The sermon review session was due to start at 8:30, but by 8:15 everyone except George was there, and we got talking.  Somebody asked Jim, the weekend intake chaplain, how things had gone.  He said that on Friday afternoon around five or six o’clock the police had had to talk someone down from jumping off the Delaware Memorial Bridge, which they did successfully, but it was a complicated situation and there was a lot of follow-up.  Other than that, nothing particularly unusual had happened.  Then there was some more small talk until George came in, right at 8:30, and handed us each a copy of his outline to look over.  Our supervisor got the conversation going when he asked George to talk about the sermon, which was on having patience.

            George launched into his opening example, which was about how he had needed to get home on Friday and got stuck in traffic approaching the Delaware Memorial Bridge.  He described how he became more and more frustrated as he sat there, going nowhere.  The only part of his car moving was the needle on the gas gauge, which crept closer and closer to “Empty”, and he eventually was able to move toward an exit and get to a gas station, but it took forever and he was afraid the whole time that he was going to stall out.  When he did fill the tank, he had almost reached his boiling point, and was trying to get back into the traffic jam somehow when someone cut him off and he lost it and started screaming and leaning on his horn and doing the whole road-rage bit.

            At that moment, he said, the Lord spoke to his heart, and he was convicted in his spirit for having so little patience and so much anger.  He went on to say that, on reflection, however, he had become grateful that the Lord had chosen to teach him a lesson that he needed to learn, placing him there in that situation.

            So the remaining four of us pushed him on that.  We got him to say that God, in his rule over all things, and his particular care for his chosen elect (specifically, George), had seen to it that he would be delayed and frustrated and that the other drivers’ hearts would be hardened to him, so that, like Job, he would learn patience.

            After this went on for longer than it should have, the supervisor looked at the overnight guy and said, “Jim, why don’t you just tell him?”

            Jim said simply, “There was a jumper on the bridge.”

            George just said, “What?”

            “Yeah, they brought him in on Friday.  The police had to block off traffic to get to him.”

            I don’t remember how or if George changed his sermon after that but what I take away from the episode that I still remember thirty years later is that I may have problems or challenges, and things happen all the time that make life harder or more complicated and confusing and (guess what?) they have absolutely nothing to do with me.  Just because something affects me doesn’t mean that I am necessarily a part of some chain of cause and effect in the wider scope.  The world is bigger than me, and God is bigger than the world.

            Job demanded an explanation from God of what had happened to him.  He wasn’t going to get one.  But God did Job the courtesy of telling him so, and giving him a glimpse of where he fit into the scheme of the universe.  It seems appropriate that God spoke to him out of a whirlwind, an unseen force that picks up the dust that we are made of and to which we return, and spins it around and around, tossing it up into the air until it lands who-knows-where again, because God shakes up our self-obsessed beings and spins us around to look beyond ourselves at the whole breadth of creation and the huge range of things we not only do not but cannot understand, saying, “Look at all of this.  Take in all that is happening, all at once, all across time and space.  Consider the drama, the joy, and the sorrow of all things.”

            Hear how the Bible tells it:
“Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
   I will question you, and you shall declare to me. 

‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
   Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
   Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
   or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
   and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? 

‘Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
   so that a flood of waters may cover you?
Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go
   and say to you, “Here we are”?
Who has put wisdom in the inward parts,
   or given understanding to the mind?
Who has the wisdom to number the clouds?
   Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens,
when the dust runs into a mass
   and the clods cling together? 

‘Can you hunt the prey for the lion,
   or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, 
when they crouch in their dens,
   or lie in wait in their covert? 
Who provides for the raven its prey,
   when its young ones cry to God,
   and wander about for lack of food?’”  [
Job 28:1-7, 34-41]

This is only a small part of the speech where God shows Job the wonders of nature, putting before him the whole of the universe, and asking Job again and again to see himself more clearly.

            We are creatures, beloved by God, part of his immense project.  We see only what is before us or around us.  But God beholds it all at once.  We cannot number the clouds, but God numbers the hairs on our heads, said Jesus, and cares for what happens to a sparrow.  Our purpose is not to understand, although to try to understand is part of who we are.  Our purpose is to be loved by God and to return that love, with heart and soul and mind and strength.  In the end (and I’ll talk about that next week) Job gets that. 

            Last week I read a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, a poet who could, like Job, cried out to God from the dark and even tormented places of his soul.  Yet when he was able to lift his eyes to the world around him, he was able to write this:[1]

“Glory be to God for dappled things –
            For skies of couple-colour as a brindled cow;
                        For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
            Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow and plough;
                        And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things, counter, original, spare, strange;
            Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
                        With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                        Praise him.”

[1] Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Pied Beauty”.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

“I Would Lay My Case before Him” - October 14, 2015

Job 23:1-9, 16-17

When there is a drought the fields and woods become liable to wildfire.  One careless match or one lightning strike, one overheated car or one stupid camper and the grass starts to smoulder and then the brush goes up and then that’s it.  Then there are only two ways to stop it.  One is to pour water on it, but lack of water is what set up the disaster to begin with.  The other way is to contain the area and let the fire burn itself out.

The grief that Job feels sets off a crisis of faith just at the time that it’s faith which is asked of him.  In other words, he has only a little water to throw on the flames, and it will not be enough.  So what we see happen is how his suffering burns over until it burns out.

David’s favorite son, Absalom, rebelled against his father and tried to overthrow him, leading to his death in battle.  The Bible tells how when the news reached him,

“The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, ‘O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom!  Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!’”  [II Samuel 18:33]

David’s grief was real, and stayed with him for his remaining years, but his sense of what had gone wrong was clear and Absalom’s death had a definite “why” to it. 

Job’s suffering was different from that.  The precipitating events of his deepest trouble recede into the background and we don’t hear him repeat his children’s names, nor mourn the loss of his wealth.  He does express his physical pain, but even that is easy for the reader to lose sight of, because those things set off his struggle with God’s role in all of that.  Somehow things would be bearable if they had a clear cause-and-effect.  Without that, Job questioned God.

One gift this gives us is permission to own up to those troubles if and when they arise.  Not everybody goes through that introspective torture that John of the Cross named “the dark night of the soul”.  I cannot imagine somebody like David had the temperament for that.  When he was mourning his son, one of his soldiers came to him and said, basically, “Whatever you do, don’t let the army see you doing this, because they just fought a war to defeat the son you’re crying over.”  He told David to his face,

“You have made it clear today that commanders and officers are nothing to you; for I perceive that if Absalom were alive and all of us were dead today, then you would be pleased.” [II Samuel 19:6b]

So David put a mask on his feelings and went out and thanked the troops.  That’s how some people are, and that is okay.  For those who are more like Job, however, there is no shame in feeling their own emotions deeply and genuinely. 

The poet Gerard Manly Hopkins expressed this often.  One of his poems says,

“I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night!  what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.

With witness I speak this.  But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life.  And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.

I am gall, I am heartburn.  God’s most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.

Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours.  I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.”

He speaks out the same dread that Job looked at: that God is far away.  He proposes the same wish that Job speaks, just to be able to lay out his lament, his complaint before God.

            Job says, in fact, that even if he wonders if it makes any difference, he still just wants his chance to lay things out in front of God.  He just wants to be heard.

“O that I knew where I might find him,
   that I might come even to his dwelling!
I would lay my case before him,
   and fill my mouth with arguments.
I would learn what he would answer me,
   and understand what he would say to me.
Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
   No; but he would give heed to me.
There an upright person could reason with him,
   and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.” 
[Job 23:3-7] 

He is like a woman pleading in an elevator with a Senator, “Look at me!  Don’t turn your eyes away; look at me!”

            So do that.  Do exactly that.  Speak out your case.  Leave aside, for now, what kind of answer or results come of it, or what your expectations might be.  Shout, grumble, or sing the blues.  If nothing else, it brings your troubles into focus.  This example will be dumb, but bear with me.  One time a friend of mine who was going through a break-up wrote what he called “The Black Coffee Blues”:

“I got the blues in my coffee.
I got the blues ’most everywhere.
I got the blues in my coffee.
I got the blues ’most everywhere.
I got the blues in my coffee
’Cause, sugar, you just ain’t there.”

Or maybe – and I actually think this is better – open up the Bible and pray the Psalms.  Pray the psalms of lament.  Pray a psalm like 130:

“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
            Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!”

Or even consider the words that Job spoke:

“If only I could vanish in darkness,
   and thick darkness would cover my face!”
[Job 23:17]

because there is more than one form of thick darkness, and more than one reason you may not be able, in sorrow, to see God.  It could be that at that very moment you are like a scared and troubled toddler whose Father has scooped you up to let you cry everything out with your face buried against his shoulder until it all passes.  He may not be too far away for you to see.  He may be too close.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

“Trying to Make Sense of It All” - October 7, 2018

Job 1:1, 2:1-10

For the next four weeks, the lectionary assigns readings from the book of Job.  I am going to take my sermon texts from that, and I wanted to find a phrase from the book to give the series a good title.  What I kept coming up with was from chapter 38: “Words without Knowledge”.  I didn’t think that would inspire much confidence, so I let it go.

Consider this a spoiler alert.  Job is about trying to understand why things go wrong, why there is tragedy, why the innocent suffer, and whether there is any justice in the world.  In the end, it doesn’t give us a simple, clear answer.  There are a lot of popular sayings that may comfort a lot of people: “Everything happens for a reason”; “The Lord doesn’t give you more than you can bear”; “What goes around, comes around”.  Job doesn’t go for any of those.  In the sections of the book that we skip over, Job’s friends show up and try to convince him of each of those explanations, and they all get knocked down.  Go ahead and read the whole book.  If there is a section that spells out its central theme, it comes from chapter 28:20-24.

“Where does wisdom come from?
And where is the place of understanding?
It is hidden from the eyes of all living,
and concealed from the birds of the air.
Abaddon and Death say,
‘We have heard rumor of it with our ears.’

God understands the way to it,
and he knows its place.
For he looks to the ends of the earth,
and sees everything under the heavens.”

So, if there is no easy, speakable answer, then what is the point?  Is it all really just “words without knowledge”?

            No, it isn’t.  There is a great deal to be gained by struggling with these matters.  Merely engaging with them is a little bit like going to the gym.  You may not ever be able to lift the heaviest weight, but even trying lesser weights will change you.  I’m stealing this idea from a couple of lectures I heard around 2005 by the Rev. Darrell Woomer.  He pointed out that in the opening chapter, Job’s children are all together at a family reunion when a tornado blows down the house, killing every last one.  Job survived because he was off on his own, praying that they would not sin while at the party.  In the last chapter, after his time of suffering, we see him opening his house to his brothers and sisters, and starting a new family.  His suffering led him to engage with people and to embrace life in a deeper way.

“The Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning.” [Job 42:12]

That isn’t meant to say that if you just stick to it, everything turns out right in the end.  It certainly didn’t do that for his first children when the roof dropped onto their heads.  It does say, though, that for Job (and by extension for others who endure), the experience of pain and suffering can change you, often for the worse, but sometimes for the better.  But it will change you.

            Loss and sorrow and suffering are inevitable.  That is the unspoken assumption of this book, and it’s an unassailable truth.  It has been said that nobody gets out of this world alive.  We take suffering so much for granted that we are able to ignore it as long as it does not touch us directly.  There’s a poem by W.H. Auden [“Musée des Beaux Arts”] where the writer is looking at paintings in a museum.  Part of it says,

“About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

Last week, an earthquake and tsunami killed more people in Indonesia than died in the 9/11 attacks.  We paid more attention to the antics of people in Washington. 

            Everything is very different when you’re the one involved.  The medical definition of “minor surgery” is “surgery performed on or by someone else”.  When you are the one who is troubled, your own experience can be overwhelming and all-consuming.  There you sit in the emergency room with a spouse moaning in pain, and even though you know that there are a dozen other patients in the rooms around you, you want to know what is keeping the nurse away so long.  Why has no one come in to ask questions?  How long until a bed opens up and they’re admitted?

            So much, though, so very much depends on how you meet the inevitable.

Job’s wife suffers with him, and she wants to get it all over with. 

“Do you still persist in your integrity?” she asks him.  “Curse God and die.” [Job 2:9]

When you care about someone you don’t want to see them suffer.  When a family has been keeping vigil with someone who is dying, and especially if they have been taking care of them for months or years and watching the quality of their loved one’s life decrease and their distress increase, then when the end comes there may be a collective sigh of relief.  There is no shame in that.  Yet at the same time, there is the unanswerable question – generally an unasked question – how much of the desire to see someone’s trouble end is wrapped up with a desire to see your own struggle end?  (That’s one of several reasons that I cannot get behind the idea of “assisted suicide”.  It’s one thing when nature takes its course, but another to unduly hasten things.  Who really can assess anybody’s motivations, especially under that kind of strain, even your own?)

            Job does not take the easy way out.  The Accuser (which is the meaning of the word “Satan”) insists that suffering and pain will undo his faith.  His accusation, laid out before God, is that all human beings have their breaking point and that Job can be used as a test case. 

“All that people have they will give to save their lives.  But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” [Job 2:5]

When Job’s wife speaks, she echoes the Accuser’s view.  Job, on the other hand, meets the situation with faith that God knows what he is doing.

“Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” [Job 2:10]

Mind you, Job’s troubles are not coming from God.  Not everything that happens is God’s direct intervention.  That’s the problem with the saying, “God has a plan for your life.”  God has a purpose for us all, but that doesn’t mean every detail is written out and that we have no choice in any of it. 

One commentator, Roland Murphy, points out that this story tests God as surely as it tests Job.

“I think that we may say that the author has deliberately place God in a no-win situation.  If he goes along with the satan’s designs, he comes across as a heartless tyrant.  If he refuses the challenge, then there is the lingering doubt: Is God afraid to trust creatures to remain faithful to him?  Maybe the satan has a point.  What is the quality of the love that humans are supposed to have?  Is the ‘fear of God’ [1:1] a servile fear after all?  By accepting the challenge, the Lord shows a trust in his creatures.”[1]

It turns out that what holds Job together here and throughout the story is the firm conviction that it is not all for nothing.  He has faith in God, and part of that is believing that God has trust in him.

            That faith, rather than any kind of rational understanding or reasonable explanation, is what holds anybody together through the dark days.  It’s more than just saying, “Come on!  You can do it!”  It’s the conviction that God is going through it, too.

            It had not yet happened when Job was written, but we can see God going through it when we look at Jesus on the cross.  There are those two separate aspects, side-by-side.  On the one hand is the terrible sense that God is uncaring, perhaps even cruel, to allow anyone to suffer unjustly.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” [Mark 15:34]

At the same time, there is the solid determination to rely on him.

“Into your hands I commend my spirit.” [Luke 23:46]
It’s by exercising that reliance that we discover, as sure as the sun rises, and as sure as the Son rose, that God has been there every step of the way, and is always one step ahead of us.

[1] Roland Murphy, The Book of Job: a Short Reading (Mahwah, NJ: The Paulist Press, 1999), 14.