Job’s God: The Gallows and the Whirlwind – 10/18/09 – Job 38-42

Elie Wiesel is a Jew who survived the Holocaust and has since written numerous books, the first of which is called Night.  He writes about how in 1944, at the age of 14, he and fellow Jews of his community were taken to the death camps – three days travel, 80 people in each cattle truck.  When they arrived men and women were separated and it was the last time he ever saw his mother and sister.  He writes this: “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in the camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed.  Never shall I forget that smoke….Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever…..Never shall I forget those flames which murdered my God and my soul, and turned my dreams into dust (p. 45). 

One time, Wiesel was one of thousands in the camp to witness a young boy who was first tortured and then hanged by the Nazi guards.  As it was happening he heard someone behind him whisper.  “Where is God?  Where is He?”  It took the boy a half hour to die and then everyone was forced to march past him and look directly into the face of the corpse and Elie heard the same voice ask again “Where is God now?” Wiesel records his response this way: ‘And I heard a voice within me answer him: ‘Where is he? Here he is – he is hanging here on this gallows.’” (pp. 75-77)

I hesitate in some ways to introduce an image like this.  It comes from one of the darkest chapters of human history and evokes some of the deepest questions of the human soul regarding the power, or goodness, or existence of God.  We were not there in the death camps, but a writing like this makes us a witness to these events in a way that forces us to deal with the realities that it presents.

This is the third week now that we have been reflecting on the book of Job.  The first week I mentioned that the story of Job is high stakes.  At stake is not only the question of why the innocent suffer, or why bad things happen to good people, but also the survival of faith in God.  Because the innocent do suffer, as Job affirms, as our life experience tells us, and as Night makes brutally clear, we are left with particular questions about God that are unsettling.  Two of the most classical assertions about God are that God is powerful and that God is loving, and we are left wondering if we must choose between these.  If God is both powerful, able to deliver, and loving, desiring what is best for creation, then surely Holocaust does not happen.  So perhaps God is powerful, but not loving in the sense that we have made God out to be.  Or perhaps God is loving, but not powerful in the sense that we have made God out to be.  Or perhaps, there’s another way of framing this question that is not yet clear to us.       

Socrates said that “The unexamined life is not worth living,” and so it can also be true that “The unexamined god is not worth believing in.” 

From studying Job so far we know that Job is a text that is speaking to a time of transition for the Jews’ journey with God.  When the trials of exile were posing questions such that the dominant meaning structure could no longer hold.  That punishment for sin was the primary reason for their hardship.  Job, and much of the Bible, is what Rene Girard has called a “text in travail.”  A text where the grit of experience and the unknowing of the spirit are on full display and the emergence of a new understanding is coming into being.  And the book of Job lets us be a witness to that process.  And that’s what is visualized so beautifully in the wall hanging.  A text of travail, from top to bottom.  We looked first at the experience of Job, then the perspective of the friends, who are trying like mad to represent the rigid formulation that is crumbling in front of them, and now we come to God’s response. 

So what I would like to do is this:  I would like to make two observations about the way God responds to Job – two different, fairly broad things that are worth noticing in how this story draws toward its conclusion.  Then I would like to make a few tentative personal responses about what I see when we hold up the Job story next to Elie Wiesel’s Night story.  Then I would like to allow time for some silence.  And then give a chance if there are any responses or reflections or further questions that any one of you would like to offer.  And that will go for anything that has come up during the study of Job in the last three weeks. 

So, remember the one picture of God on the gallows in Night, and now let’s look at two observations for how God responds to Job.

1)  After the initial encounter with God and the heavenly beings, with The Satan, the Adversary, the Accuser, which is what The Satan means…after this initial conversation regarding the righteous person of Job and allowing him to suffer for a while, God is silent.  Until chapter 38.  And when God does finally speak, it says, “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind.”  That’s the first observation.  That when God speaks, it is out of the whirlwind.  The JPS, the Jewish Publication Society translates this as tempest, and the NIV translates this as storm, but I like the way the NRSV and the King James have it as whirlwind.  It’s this wild, untamed, energy of wind and storm and whirling that contains the voice of God.

This is a new word in Job.  We haven’t encountered a whirlwind yet in the story, even though Job’s whole experience appears to be rather whirlwind like.  It is the same word that show up when the prophet Elijah is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11).  This was also the way that the prophet Ezekiel had a heavenly vision when he was in exile in Babylon.  Ezekiel says he was sitting by the river Chebar among the exiles and had a vision, “As I looked, a stormy wind (that’s the whirlwind) came out of the north: a great cloud with brightness around it and fire flashing forth continually, and in the middle of the fire, something like gleaming amber. “  A powerful, overwhelming kind of encounter with something like a stormy, mighty wind.  It even brings to mind some allusions to Pentecost in the upper room of Acts 2.

God coming in a storm reminds me of a scene from the movie Forest Gump.  It’s been a while since I’ve seen the film so I’m a little sketchy on the details, but there is a scene where he and Lt. Dan are in their shrimp boat, and Lt. Dan is still working through a lot of rage and anger and disgust with his war experience and losing both of his legs and so he screaming out to God to listen to him.  And then pretty quickly there’s a storm that blows up in the gulf there where they’re boating and Lt. Dan climbs on top of the mast and it’s pouring down rain and lightning and thunder and he’s kind of duking it out with God.

This is just pure guess on my part, having some fun with the text, but I wonder if God appearing in the whirlwind can also have some connections to the way Job and his friends have been going about their conversation.  Because they keep telling each other how full of wind the other is.  Like they’re blowing smoke, or full of hot air, or whatever the modern equivalent phrase would be.  Bildad tells Job, “How long will you say these things, and the words of your mouth be a great wind?” (8:2)  And Eliphaz tells Job, “Should the wise answer with windy knowledge, and fill themselves with the east wind? (15:2)  And so of course Job comes back with “I have heard many such things; miserable comforters are you all.  Have windy words no limit?” (16:2,3).  So here are these guys, all full of hot air in each other’s minds, and then out of this futile windiness that they are creating, somehow the voice of God emerges from the great wind.  Not sure if there’s intended to be a connection there, but there could be one to be made.

So this first observation is that the chaos and unpredictability of Job’s circumstances are met with this powerful and even more unpredictable whirlwind that contains the voice of God.

2) The second observation comes from the words that come out of the whirlwind.  All along Job has been questioning God.  Been bombarding God with questions, his friends have been trying to answer those questions in traditional kinds of ways that Job finds completely unsatisfactory.  Ultimately God finds Job’s prayers filled with questions more righteous than the friends responses full of answers.  But when God does speak, there are no alternative answers given to Job’s questions.  Instead, God, the one who has been questioned, turns around and addresses Job in the form of questions.  The questioned One becomes the questioner.  I went through chapters 38-41 which contain God’s speech and I counted 61 question marks.  I very well could have missed a few and there are a lot more questions than that actually being asked because most of them are double barreled questions.  So God asks, “Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?  One question mark, two questions.  Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind?  Two questions.  It’s the Hebrew poetry format of saying something one way and then another way.

God does not even address Job’s questions.  God’s questions to Job aren’t even about the human situation of suffering.  In one sense, one has to wonder how much God was paying attention to the previous conversation that just happened because these questions God is putting out there don’t exactly follow…  It’s been observed that the first set of questions (38:4-21) have to do with cosmology, the ways of the heavens and cosmos, and the next group of questions (38:22-38) has to do with meteorology, rain, and snow and lightning and all that good stuff, and the next set of questions (3:39-39:30 has to do with zoology, lions and deer, wild ox, and horses and other animals.  And the basic question being asked to Job through all these questions is do you have control over any of this stuff around you?  Do you have any idea how this whole economy of creation works?  Do you recognize that there is a massive world teeming with life and energy beyond your ability to fathom? 

There’s nothing about human beings.  There’s nothing about our predicament.  About our sense of what is right and just and fair.  God talks for 34 verses about the Leviathan creature, which we don’t even know what it is for sure, but there’s no mention of us.  People. 

The implied answer to the questions God asks Job is “No.”  Either “No” or “I don’t know.”  “Can you lift up your voice to the clouds so that a flood of waters may cover you?” No.  Do you give the horse its might? No.  Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? I don’t know.

First observation from Job: When God speaks, it is in a voice from the whirlwind.  Second observation: When God speaks, it is in the form of questions.

Holding Job alongside Elie Wiesel’s Night, gives us two texts that give different pictures of God in a world where suffering is very real and persistent.  For Wiesel, God has become as weak and powerless as a youth whose life has ended and thus, perhaps, has ceased to be god, murdered in the death camps.  For Job, God has become beyond human knowing, an eruptive, creative force in a universe in which the human creature is but a speck. 

A tentative response:  I don’t know how to reconcile these two images, but I have an intuition that they both hold truth – however literal or metaphorical that truth might be.  I feel challenged to listen to each one more closely and to try and hold them both together, despite the paradoxical, almost contradictory nature of doing so.  I find both of them troubling and disturbing in some ways, and also find both insightful and revelatory. 

I feel the book of Job saying that this is ultimately not about Job or his friends, or any of their theology, or about us humans in general, but about God and about our being humbled before the God of the whirlwind.  But I feel the book of Night saying that this ultimately is about humanity and how we find meaning and how we treat each other ethically.

Job puts me in awe of the power of the universe.  Night puts me in awe of the power of humans to do evil.  Through Job I see a love from God that sustains us even in our smallness, is patient with us even in our bickering, and restores friends and foe alike to health.  Through Elie Wiesel I see a writer’s love for his people that insists that their story must be told and remembered, no matter how disturbing and unsettling it is. 

In both stories there is a responsibility that comes back onto the main character.  Job must pray for his friends before he is restored.  Elie Wiesel must write in order to keep his humanity.

I don’t want to be too quick to overlay a Christian theology of crucifixion and resurrection to either of these stories, but I do see glimpses of Christ both in the suffering and in the rising again that happens in both.   

I don’t say any of these things to try and derail or unravel anyone’s faith in God.  My intention through the study of Job has been to try and be faithful to the spirit of the story, which, I believe, is to disturb us from easy assumptions about ourselves and God and to invite us into this conversation as friends.  Hopefully good friends who listen to each other and who receive a grace from God in whatever way that would come.

In that spirit, I would like to invite us into a brief time of silence, followed by a chance for anyone to share any reflections you have had over these last three weeks that this study has brought about.  Anecdotes, brief insights, further questions, all these would be welcome.  I think this is something that we all think about from time to time, so soon there will be a chance for us to think out loud in the presence of a safe community of inquiry, if we wish.

Posted in Job

Job’s Friends – 10/11/09 – Job

“Miserable comforters.” (16:2)  Those who speak “empty nothings,” (21:34) and who tell “proverbs of ashes,” (13:12).  “Worthless physicians.”  (13:4)  These are some of the names that Job calls his friends after each of them try and speak to him in his suffering.    

It’s been seven days and seven nights since we were last here together in this place, worshiping and reflecting on the troubles of Job.  Plenty has happened, I’m sure, over the course of these days.  School projects and activities, developments at work, meals, conversations, sleep, alarm clock, sleep alarm, clock, maybe some time to relax yesterday.  Seven days and seven nights is also the length of time covered during the first period that Job’s friends are with him.  It gets mentioned very briefly in the narrative, but it is a pretty expansive time.  Three of Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, meet together, and come to see Job, and when they come to him he’s in such bad shape that they barely even recognize him.  “They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.”  So whatever has happened this past week, imagine that rather than doing that, you sat in complete silence all week long.  That’s the span of time covered in this initial encounter of Job and his friends.

This long silence, between Job and his friends, is at an important shift in the story.  Before the friends’ arrival, before the silence, Job has taken more the path of the patient sufferer.   When Job had lost all his wealth and his children, he had cried out to God in this humble, vulnerable voice saying, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”  His initial response is to be brought to humility and release all these losses to God.  But now that he is absolutely miserable and can find no comfort, he is emboldened.  He gives up, at least temporarily, on crying out to God, and instead cries out against God.  He says that he wishes he never would have come at all from his mother’s womb.  That the day of his birth should be cursed.  That God has basically tricked him by letting him live and is holding him hostage in this body racked with pain.  From one side of this silence to the other, the patient Job has become the rebel Job, the renegade who has given up on divine justice and will voice his complaint freely to whoever will listen.  Job is the first to break the silence, and what he has to say is not pretty.  

It’s been said that sitting there in silence with Job was the best decision these friends made during the whole story.  As soon as they open their mouths, things start to go downhill fast.   

On one level, I actually have a fair amount of sympathy for these friends.  Anyone who has ever tried to offer words of comfort knows that this is not an easy thing to do.  Because what do you say?  It’s great to be present and to spend time in silence together and recognize that there really aren’t words that can capture what’s going on here, but when it comes time to speak, what do you say?  What do you write on that card?  How does one express care through words?  It’s not all that easy. 

Eliphaz is the first friend to muster the courage to speak and he starts out almost apologetically, but soon moves into the lecturing kind of tone that will characterize the rest of these comments from there on out.  After Job’s first tirade, Eliphaz says, “If one ventures a word with you, will you be offended?”  He’s kind of wading in slowly to this conversation.  He sticks his toe in the water, but then pretty soon just goes ahead and takes the plunge.    “If one ventures a word with you, will you be offended?  But who can keep from speaking?”  So he goes on and speaks for quite a while.  He would like for Job to consider the wisdom that he feels is pretty well established.  “Think, now, who that was innocent ever perished?  Or where were the upright cut off?  As I have seen, those who plow iniquity, and sow trouble reap the same.”  He uses this common metaphor of reaping what you sow and thinks that Job should consider what he has sown to reap such disaster.  This would be one of those statements that Job now considers a proverb of ashes.

As it’s structured, this is a fairly orderly conversation that’s going on.  Job speaks first, followed by Eliphaz, then Job gets a response, then Bildad chimes in, then Job has a response to him, then Zophar speaks and Job comes back to him, then the cycle starts over again.  This pattern continues with each friend again speaking and Job responding.  It cycles through three times, although Zophar does not speak on the third round.  Whether he gave up on Job, or whether he decided silence might be the rest route after all, or whether part of the original manuscript has been lost, we can’t be sure.   

The tensions do escalate as things go on.  Job refuses to yield to his friend’s counsel, and his friends become more and more upset with his brazen defiance of conventional wisdom and his rejection of their image of God.  They are essentially talking past each other.  Eliphaz accuses Job of undermining the very basis of religion.  In chapter 15 he says, “But you are doing away with the fear of God, and hindering meditation before God.”  Job says, “those who withhold kindness from a friend forsake the fear of the Almighty.  My companions are treacherous.”  Plus they use very poetic statements to basically tell each other to shut up.  Bildad says to Job, “How long will you say these things, and the words of your mouth be a great wind?  Does God pervert justice?  Or does the Almighty pervert the right?”  And Job says a little bit later, “As for you, you whitewash with lies; all of you are worthless physicians.  If you would only keep silent, that would be your wisdom.”      

One thing that Job’s friends do so poorly, is that they are unable to really listen to Job.  They bring their own understandings and explanations to Job without truly considering his experience and his authentic anguish of body and spirit.

The element of being heard, of having a witness to one’s sufferings is an important part of what is going on here.  In a statement that is full of both excruciating pain, and some humor, Job cries out, “O that my words were written down!  O that they were inscribed in a book!  O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever.”  (19:23-24) The funny part is, of course, that Job’s words are written down.  In the midst of his suffering, Job has a deep longing for his words, his thoughts, his experience, his pain, to be recorded permanently.  For it to never to be forgotten.  For it to be written in a book or engraved into the side of a granite mountain for everyone to see and remember.  For people to see, to take note, to enter with him into this experience. 

This desire to be heard and to share one’s experience has some interesting outlets these days with the onset of blogs.  We had the opportunity to follow Jared Hess’ Caring Bridge blog and keep up with some of the medical things going on with him as well as his reflections on what was happening to him.  I went to the front page of the blog this week and saw a tally on the right column that said it has received 62,437 visits to date.  I’m sure each of those visits, and each of the comments that were left were a significant way for Jared’s experience to be shared, and for his voice to be heard and remembered, engraved somehow on our hearts.

And now Margaret Penner, another child of this congregation, another young adult with cancer, is sharing her experience through her blog – Getting Rid of Grazelda.  I had some interaction with Margaret recently and I told her that I wanted to quote her blog in the sermon and that her entries sounded a lot different than those of Job, which was maybe a point in itself.  I asked her if she had ever asked the question WWJB…What Would Job Blog?  She seems to carry a lot less theological angst than Job, but the theme of companionship does show up throughout.  This past week she blogged about getting a visit from a friend from St. Louis and making vegetable korma together; kids from a Sunday school class at Shalom Mennonite in Tucson gave her a sweet collection of cards, and another friend managed to have the Accordian Club of Tucson lend out a beginners accordion for Margaret to learn to play, which Margaret felt was very very cool.  Because accordions, are, quote, “awesome.”  In the About Me section of her blog, Margaret says this: “Grazelda is the accursed (and utterly doomed) ovarian cancer that I was diagnosed with in August 2009 – dude, I’m only 25! This is my chronicle of surgeries, chemo, and other fun cancer-y stuff, so people know how I’m doing and so I don’t go nutso.”

Jared and Margaret have had strong companionship.  It’s hard to know how to be an electronic comforter from a distance through these blogs, but my guess is that even the very act of reading what is being written from time to time is a much appreciated act of companionship.

Job must voice his chaotic thoughts and have them written down so he doesn’t go nutso, and one of his  major criticisms of his friends is that they aren’t really listening, not really looking at him.  They are, according to Job, afraid.  Job says, “You see my calamity, and are afraid.” (6:21)  He says a little bit later, “Look at me, and be appalled, and lay your hand upon your mouth.” (21:5)

What would happen if Job’s friends were to actually look at him?  To hold their gaze on him, and to tune their ears to him long enough to hear what is going on in front of them?  My hunch is that they actually have good cause to be afraid.  Job’s experience of suffering without cause poses a threat to their very way of making sense of the world.  They have a particular notion of God and a particular notion of the way things are supposed to work and their friend Job doesn’t fit into any of those categories.  And so rather than being able to comfort Job, what they are really trying to do is to comfort themselves.  Whenever Job says things that challenge their certitude of how it all is supposed to go down, they come back a little more forceful and a little more convinced in their own minds that they must keep repeating what they hold to be true in order for their worlds not to also fall apart.  They are miserable comforters, as Job calls them, in part, because they refuse to enter into the pain of another and be changed by that pain.  They don’t quite know what to do with this (the chaos in the middle of the wall hanging).  They are much more comfortable with this (the more orderly, predictable notion of God above). 

And we can most likely sympathize with Job’s friends on this account also.  Because it’s hard to know what to do with this.  And when we see things we don’t understand happening to others, we often look for ways to console ourselves primarily.       

Last week we noted that in the end God considers Job’s words to be more right than those of his friends, and the friends are to ask Job to pray for them.  Job becomes the priest for his friends.  Henri Nouwen would call this the wounded healer.  The one who has experienced pain actually takes on the spiritual task of helping others work through their pain and mediating God’s presence to them.  The book of Hebrews talks about Jesus as the great high priest in this way. 

Job becomes a priest, but he also can become a rabbi, a teacher.  Should Job’s friends choose to listen, Job and his experience are able to teach them something.  Should they be able to hold their gaze long enough to look on Job, to let this reality soak in, they will be changed, softened perhaps.  Humbled certainly.  Taken into the same kind of journey on which Job himself has been traveling.         

Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury,pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen

Posted in Job

Job – 10/4/09 – Job

If one were to look at the very beginning and ending of Job and squeeze out the middle, one could get the sense that this is a fairly simple and tidy story about a righteous individual who went through great suffering and came out triumphant on the other side.  It would go something like this: There once was a man, named Job, who lived in a far off land.  He was righteous, blameless, and wealthy.  God tested him by allowing him to suffer.  Job lost all his children, all his wealth, and spent weeks lying on his bed in physical agony, crying out to God and against God, surrounded by friends who made things even worse.  But Job passed the test and ended up with his health and his wealth fully restored, with children as well.  It’s a hard story, with a happy ending, so it’s all good. 

But I don’t buy it, and neither should you.  That Job survives and is able to re-accumulate riches and have another child for each of the children he lost before is not the point of the story.  That God always rescues those who offer the right prayers for healing is definitely not the point of the story. 

Job is one of those books of the Bible that can be called a counter-text.  The biblical tradition can be understood as a sustained conversation over time about humanity’s relationship with God, and within this conversation, differences of thought and experience are given a place.  In this case one of the voices in the conversation, present especially in Deuteronomy and parts of the wisdom literature, taught that if you do right, if you follow God’s commands, if you seek wisdom, that you will be blessed.  Do good, and it will go well with you.  Live a righteous life and you will fulfill the Vulcan salute of Spock, you will live long and prosper. 

But Job, among other writings, Ecclesiastes, some of the Psalms, is a counter-text to this prevailing theology.  Job, the ideal man of righteousness and prosperity (…which really go together…), undergoes great suffering, great agony, without cause.  It doesn’t line up at all with standard wisdom.  Job is sometimes called the Old Testament Jesus because he suffers unjustly to the point of it appearing that he has been abandoned even by God.

Job is high stakes.  At stake is not only the question ‘why do bad things happen to good people?’, but also the question of survival itself.  And not just Job’s survival, but God’s survival.  If God is one who we depend on to keep us safe in life, to protect us from all harm, to carry out punishment against the wicked and to reward the righteous, then can this image of God survive such an ordeal of suffering experienced by Job, or any of us?  After the battle with cancer, after the great war, after the holocaust, after Job, can we still believe in such a God?  And if this image of God doesn’t survive, then what do we have left?  Those are the questions that are addressed in between the beginning and the ending of the story.

For the next three weeks we’re going to be looking at Job, each week from a different perspective within the story.  Today we’ll consider the perspective of Job himself.  Next week we’ll look at his three friends, who come in and offer their thoughts to Job.  “Friends” here should really be in quotes because they are pretty lousy friends.  And then we’ll look at the way that God enters the picture.

So as we consider this story you are invited to be asking yourself what is your own understanding of suffering.  How do you hold together faith in God with the reality of suffering and injustice that you see?  What continuing questions do you have about this? 

I’m really pleased that we have been able to get this wall hanging that we’ll be able to look at these three weeks.  This was made by a friend of mine, Myrna Miller Dyck, who is now pastor of Steinman Mennonite Church in Ontario, Canada.  And she calls this piece Job and his God.  And it basically tells the story of Job’s experience with God and how this develops over time.  Myrna made this after an intensive study of Job during seminary.  Rather than assigning a lengthy research paper on Job, the professor allowed students to make some kind of visual representation of the studies, so after some thought, Myrna made this wall hanging.  Myrna wrote this about her choice of colors: “Black was chosen to signify Job’s understanding of God as his enemy.  I decided to use heavy, textured black fabrics rather than simple cottons to show some of the heaviness and chaos that Job felt.  I chose yellow and gold to depict God as (trustworthy)… I needed to begin with yellow and gold fabric to show Job’s original understanding of God.  These blocks would be neatly squared away, in straight lines, to depict Job’s understanding that Yahweh was a predictable God.”  So Job’s story goes from top to bottom, with most of the picture being filled with these conflicted squares, and then reaching some kind of transformation at the end, but nothing quite like what he began with.      

The readers gave a nice taste of some of the ways that Job is crying out.  If anyone ever thought that their prayers should be filtered or self-censored or edited to conform to theological orthodoxy, then Job is the shocking news, hopefully good news, that this need not be the case.  Job voices despair, cynicism, thoughts of suicide, satire, and utter disgust with God.  Here’s some more of what is on Job’s mind.

Here is a Job prayer (6:8,9,11-13): “O that I might have my request, and that God would grant my desire; that it would please God to crush me, that he would loose his hand and cut me off!  What is my strength, that I should wait? And what is my end, that I should be patient?  In truth I have no help in me, and any resource is driven from me.”  Please God, end my life.  I’m done.

Here is a response to a friend who is trying to comfort him: Job’s friend Bildad is speaking poetically about the glory and majesty of God and how Job really can’t be righteous like he claims since no mortal can be pure before God.  So, Job shouldn’t feel like he is exempt from suffering.  This summarizes a lot of what Job’s friends have to say.  Job is claiming that he has done nothing to deserve this, and Job’s friends keep spouting this understanding, text and counter-text, that God will protect those who do right so surely Job messed up somewhere along the way, and surely Job shouldn’t speak so rudely to God.  Bildad, who’s not all that skilled of a comforter, says that we mortals are like maggots and worms compared to God’s righteousness.  So Job says, “How you have helped one who has no power!  How you have assisted the arm that has no strength!  How you have counseled one who has no wisdom, and given much good advice.  With whose help have you uttered words, and whose spirit has come forth from you.”  You know, you’re freakin’ brilliant Bildad.  I’m so glad you’re my friend.  You are the voice of divine inspiration.  I don’t know what I would do without you, you lousy excuse for a friend.  This is how Job responds to his friends, who have taken lots of time off of work to be by his side.

Here is Job’s meditation on scripture.  Psalm 8 is this psalm about looking up into the night sky and being in awe at the vastness of the universe and that God cares for us small human beings.  It says, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon, the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet, you have made them just a little lower than the gods, and crowned them with glory and honor.”  It’s a beautiful Psalm.  So Job, who apparently is aware of this Psalm, you know, he’s doing his daily Bible study.  It was a really small Bible at that point.  And he says, “What are human beings, that you make so much of them, that you set your mind on them, visit them every morning, test them every moment?  Will you not look away from me for a while, let me alone until I swallow my spittle?  If I sin, what do I do to you, you watcher of humanity?  Why have you made me your target?”  Sounds like a nice morning devotion with his Bible. 

One of the other aspects of this wall hanging is that Myrna has tied in images that are present in Job’s outcries.  So Job calls God this watcher of humanity, and she has made some pieces with these two triangles like God’s eyes watching.  And Job feels like he is God’s target, that he has a big bull’s eye on his back and God is using him for target practice for sickness and pain, so there is this square with the target.  Often the hands of God are understood as being a place of safety and comfort, but Job talks about feeling like he is under the hand of God and no one can get him out of it, so there are these squares with five lines which are like the hand of God on Job.  These are troubling images.          

This past week Job on his bed came in the form of Jan Abel in her closing days of living with cervical cancer.  I had several chances to be with Jan this week as well as her husband Stan who has worshiped with us from time to time these last couple years.  Jan didn’t have a whole lot to say this last week, she was in and out of consciousness.  But I remember the first time I ever met Jan, a couple years ago, before we knew she had cancer.  I had seen her around the church collecting cans around the neighborhood and she came into my office and told me a condensed version of her life story.  She had been through a lot.  Her life had its share of agony before this final stretch.  Sometimes we get to be in this priestly roll and standing in for God and hearing somebody’s pain poured out in front of us.  And we get to witness those unorthodox and unpolished prayers of frustration and desire for healing.

A remarkable thing happens at the end of Job, and it has nothing to do with Job getting his stuff back.  After Job has said all he has to say, God speaks to his friends who have been trying all along to keep Job on the straight and narrow and convince him that his prayers should fit a little more nicely into the theological paradigm of the day.  God tells Job’s friends that they should go to Job, and take with them seven bulls and seven rams for a burnt offering so that Job can pray for them.  Usually it’s the ones who are well who are supposed to be praying for the one who is ill, but God tells Job’s healthy friends to go have Job pray for them.  God says, “for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done.”

Job’s prayers, his words of frustration and cynicism and agony and even accusation toward God for being unjust, are considered to be more right in God’s eyes than those of his friends.  Job ends up being the priest for his friends.

I don’t know about you, but I find this to be very freeing.  Because it means that when it comes to our relationship with God, our prayers, our desires, our deepest longings, that nothing is out of bounds.  There are no thoughts, no words, no outcries of spirit that are unwelcome or muted or rejected.  Because they’re real.  They’re genuine.  They come from a place that can’t be accessed except through some experience of pain and they put us in a place where all of our pretenses and sense of having it together are so stripped away that we encounter the divine in this raw, mysterious way.  

So if your prayers ever look something like this (the middle part of the wall hanging), or your thoughts toward God become this dark or angry, or conflicted, then that’s alright.  There’s a place for that.  You  may very well have a good case to make and those who try to polish over pain too quickly may be missing something key in the spiritual journey.   

Job survives and God survives, but because of this, things look different and will never be quite the same.

The night before Jesus was to enter into his suffering, he gathered together his friends all in one place, and he shared a meal with them.  And during the meal he lifted up the bread and he compared it to his body that was soon to be broken.  Unjustly, wrongly, with no right cause accused and injured and crucified.  And he also took the cup, the wine, and spoke of it like it was his blood, his very life, and his death, that would soon be poured out.  And around this table, their unofficial priest who had mediated God’s presence to them so many times, Jesus, called into being a community, a new covenant, that was to be all about to the bread and the cup.  The suffering, and the joyous life of table fellowship.  They were to share in this bread and cup often and it was to be a sign of their communion.  A community at the same time celebrating the feast of the kingdom, God’s party where are all invited, and remembering, being attentive to the presence of suffering.  A family where all are priests for one another and where the hurting are recognized as having an open pathway to the ear of God.  That God is not only aware of the suffering, but that God is somehow, mysteriously, present within the suffering, somehow within that image of the cross, there with Job. 

So on this World Communion Sunday, let us come to the meal with great hope.  Let us bring our doubts, our fears, our frustrations, our cynicism, and maybe even our outrage toward God, and let us receive this gift.  The bread of life, the cup of life, the feast that sustains our body and spirit and keeps inviting us back for more.

Posted in Job