Archive for October, 2012

When God Finally Speaks…

Sunday, October 21st, 2012

Job, Chapters 38-41
October 21, 2012
Mary Hammond

For years, I was deeply disturbed by God’s response to Job’s heartfelt lament in the Book of Job. Job tackles a lot in his weakened, grieving state. He grapples with the age-old Problem of Suffering. He debates simplistic, yet popularized theologies of divine reward and punishment. He offers astute observations about the fortunes of the just and the unjust in this life. And what does he get for all this wrestling and struggle? An interrogation by God? A monologue about nature? How helpful is that?

The key that unlocked God’s response for me first unlocked an entirely different door, but one not unrelated, I believe. Many years ago, Kim Mammedaty, a Native American pastor, led the Bible studies at the Baptist Peace Conference. She used the first three chapters of Genesis as her text. In her introduction, she pointed out a simple fact that had eluded all my upbringing in the church and years of theological training. She noted that most of Genesis 1 and 2 is not about humanity at all. In fact, the vast majority of the story is about the non-peopled creation!

Think about it! For centuries, particularly in western culture, humans have viewed themselves as the crowning achievement of creation–its apex, if you will. Kim directly challenged the anthropocentrism, or human-centeredness, inherent in western biblical interpretation of these foundational stories. After this eye-opening experience, I began to see God’s response to Job in a different light.

While I had read the text silently many times throughout my adult life, one day I decided to read it aloud. The setting was significant. I was standing by a lake at a Conference Center in Wisconsin. The sun was rising over the horizon. The morning light shimmered across the gently undulating surface of the water. Fish leaped in and out of the lake, splashing and dancing with abandon.

The Holy One roared out of the whirlwind, “Where were you, when I created the earth? Tell me, since you know so much!…How was its foundation poured, and who set the cornerstone, while the morning stars sang in chorus and all the angels shouted praise?” (Job 38:4,6-7).

I heard in God’s incessant questioning an invitation for Job to open his eyes to what he had heretofore been unable to see. But God wasn’t just questioning Job. God was questioning me about what I could see and could not see. How much could I fathom the secrets and beauties of nature? What capacity did this bigger picture have to change me?

Our primary question when faced with personal suffering is usually “Why me?” But there is another Problem of Suffering, and that is the way that it turns us in on ourselves and often leaves us incapable of seeing beyond and outside our own pain. Job faces cascading, cumulative losses of a magnitude that is hard to fathom. He is inescapably stuck in his pain.

So God comes to Job, not with answers to his big questions, but with new questions. Job interrogates God, fearless in his sarcasm, brutal in his honesty, and God dishes out the same to Job. It is another sign of the raw and rare authenticity of relationship between them.

God’s response opens up Job–and us–to the wonders, mysteries, beauties, and intrinsic value of the natural world utterly apart from the human experience. God cracks Job’s suffering open, breaking through the anthropocentrism of both his perspective and his pain. God’s incessant questioning rips the blinders off Job’s eyes, as Job comes to a new place of Seeing that offers fertile ground for a transformed vision, not only of his personal life, but also of his place in the natural order.

The more I have read Genesis 1 and 2 and this God Monologue in Job 38-41 side-by-side, the more the latter feels like a midrash, or commentary, on the former. Both are poetry, steeped in lush and rich imagery. Both move in similar ways from land and waters, light and darkness, to the more intimate intricacies of the animal world. Where else in Hebrew or Christian scripture do we have such portraits of nature? On occasion, in the psalms, but not in such an extended way.

The natural world is alive with the breath of God, and we are not at its center. This is important, life-saving news for 21st century people. Acclaimed environmentalist, Bill McKibben, has written a book called The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job, and the Scale of Creation. The back cover states that the author “turns to the biblical book of Job and its awesome depiction of creation to demonstrate our need to embrace a bold new paradigm for living if we hope to reverse the current trend of ecological destruction…McKibben calls readers to truly appreciate both the majesty of creation and humanity’s rightful–and responsible–place in it.”

Job cannot find God in his sufferings, although he looks diligently and faithfully. This is very clear. Yet, he rediscovers God in a direct encounter with the Holy One who immerses Job in meditation on the mysteries and wonders of nature.

I preached the Sunday we commissioned Oberlin College grad, Beth Peachey, to her service with the Mennonite Central Committee in Guatemala. Beth was charged with starting a Music Ministry there among four Mennonite churches, specifically for survivors of genocide and their children. How could I preach on anything but Job? After Beth returned to the States four years later, she told me what helped her the most from that sermon during her years in Central America. It was this insight I gleaned from Job: “If you can’t find God where you are looking, look somewhere else.”

There have been times in my life when God has been difficult to see in the trajectory of my own daily journey, so I have plunged my heart into looking for the Holy One in the natural world, my grandchildren, or the most vulnerable around me. This is a journey that Jesus also encourages us to take, as he invites us to encounter God through meditation on the wildflowers, the birds of the air, and the tiny mustard seed…through interactions with little children, the sick, the prisoner, and the hungry.

God’s questioning and “unveiling” provides enough of an answer for Job that he seems to no longer “need” the other answers for which he has been clamoring. Last spring Allie Lundblad and I talked about the vast number of God-questions she was bringing with her to seminary this fall. Knowing Allie and the kinds of questions her heart is always pondering, I suggested that she might not find as many answers as she was hoping for. Allie replied, “I’m not expecting to find answers to all my questions. I just want to get to the place where I can be at peace with my lack of answers.”

That is an important place to arrive. It just might mean that we have glimpsed enough of God to carry on, even as our hunger and thirst for more of the Divine Presence continues to propel us forward.

How does Job respond to God’s interrogation?

That’s next week…stay tuned.

Amen.

When God is Silent…

Monday, October 15th, 2012

Job Chapter 23
October 14, 2012
Mary Hammond

The Book of Job has been my traveling companion for decades. In fact, there have been several periods of my life where it has been the only book in scripture that could speak in my own faltering voice. During such times, the healing stories of Jesus felt like simple teasers in contrast to the hard-won, painfully slow miracles of everyday life in the Hammond house. The call to work tirelessly for justice raised by the Hebrew prophets placed a burden too heavy to bear on my already wearied soul. The Psalms so quickly shifted from lament to praise and back again. My personal turn-around time was not nearly that fast.

So I parked my heart in the Book of Job, and found life there, again and again. God met me in the friendship I developed with its main character. Job is a plucky God-lover who dukes it out with the Holy One. He is also a fearsome debater who spars with his friends over the popular theology of his day. Job is a wise contemplative who rejects easy answers for unanswerable questions. And yet he is also a suffering believer who refuses to give up on his faith in spite of cumulative, cataclysmic loss.

The world is and always has been full of people like Job–those who remain true to God, yet lose everything but their own lives through natural disaster, war, disease, or other trauma. The meta-narrative that is the Book of Job is lived out again and again. This is a story for the ages, because it is the world’s story as well.

There is a phrase coined by St. John of the Cross for such turbulent times as Job faced: the Dark Night of the Soul. These journeys are “unveilings,” revealing not only what we truly believe about God (not just what we say about God), but also showing us–in bold relief–who we really are and what stuff we are really made of.

Here’s my quick and easy summation of the Dark Night of the Soul: God is silent when we need God the most.

We remember Jesus, crying out from the cross, “Eli, Eli, lema’ sa bach’tha ni?”, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Jesus mounts his agonized protest and lament to the God he trusts whom he cannot apprehend in this, his greatest hour of darkness.

Job experiences a series of cumulative, crippling losses in the prose introduction to this meta-narrative written mostly in poetic form. He is stripped of children, staff, livelihood, reputation, and health. His friends come to comfort him. They wind up doing just the opposite, blaming Job for his suffering. Even Job’s wife thinks he is a fool to keep trusting God. All he has left is his stubborn, faithful heart and determined, plucky soul.

The Dark Night of the Soul is a “No Neutrality Zone.” Coasting through this terrain is impossible. We either “jump ship” and bail out or we persevere, watching and waiting, then watching and waiting some more with no end in sight. Prayers turn to agonized cries or unfettered laments. They morph into wordless groans, or the heaving breath of heavy silence. Famished for the felt presence of God, the heart keeps praying long after the mind has given up, as if programmed to do nothing less.

We never know what our faith is made of until sight is truly ripped away, and all we have left is reckless trust. My own Dark Night of the Soul came within a seven-year stretch between 1989 and 1996. These years spanned eleven anorexia-related hospitalizations for our oldest daughter, Sarah, three of them from 5-10 weeks long. After these two years, she contracted cytomegalovirus, which took three months to diagnose and a year of sleeping 20-22 hours a day to overcome enough to return to school. Just when I was catching my breath, I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. I bore the brunt of the after-effects of chemotherapy and radiation for five years, and really, to some degree, for the rest of my life.

Concurrent with my cancer diagnosis, our daughter, Rachel, had failed knee surgery. I fought insurance battles for nine months just to find a doctor who would take her pain seriously. When I finally found that doctor, her first comment to Rachel was, “You are one accident away from being crippled for life.” Our daughter spent half her junior year of high school on crutches and in a wheelchair.

I parked my life in the Book of Job during those first three years when we fought so hard for Sarah’s life. I was so ready to leave Job behind after that. By the time of the cancer diagnosis and failed knee surgery, I crawled back to Job, metaphorically kicking and screaming. “I don’t want to do Job again!” I protested. But there was no other place for my heart in the scriptures. So, there I was.

Watching Job navigate his Dark Night of the Soul gives me strength for my own journey. His stance before the Silent God is one of protest and engagement. He simply doesn’t give up. He may hang from the tightrope by his fingernails, but he holds on as tenaciously as anyone possibly could.

Job also possesses a strong sense of self. My journey to that kind of inner strength has been neither quick nor easy. Rather, it has been gradual and hard-won through counseling, recovery literature, journaling, feminist theology, Spiritual Direction, and so many other means. When Job’s friends offer up their own theories of his suffering, he responds with neither silence nor self-doubt, my two instinctive, learned-in-childhood reactions to such advice in times of deep vulnerability. Plucky and determined, Job is convinced of the authenticity and integrity of his heart. I love it! What an inspiration and example to follow!

Job comports himself before God with a raw and rare honesty. No sugar-coating. No praise choruses. No surefire formulas. No “should be’s.” Just a sturdy confession, “This is who I am. This is how I see things. If I’m missing something, God, come show me!”

Job eagerly wrestles with the Holy One–ranting, raving, lamenting, even blaming God. He tackles the lame theology of his friends with the same passion and fervor he devotes to his arguments with God. Both acts reveal Job’s visceral, deeply authentic relationship with the Silent God, with his friends, and with life itself.

Job protests the injustice of his predicament while still believing in the ultimate justice of God. He sees God as enemy while still remembering God as friend. He reminds me that we can, indeed, forge a profound relationship with God amid such deep, painful silence and suffering.

There is one more thing Job does that helps me out in times of darkness. He puts one foot in front of the other and keeps moving. There have been times in our family life, trying to help Sarah survive early adolescence, that it was all Steve and I could do to get out of bed each morning. One Thanksgiving Day, Mary Meadows invited us over for dinner. Sarah was in the hospital at the time. When we came in the door, Mary asked us how we were. I will never forget Steve’s response: “I feel like saying to God, ‘Hit me again, because it feels so good when you stop.’” It was a “Job response,” through and through. It was a classic “God is with me/God is nowhere to be seen” bitter conflict of the deepest parts of Steve’s soul.

Putting one foot in front of the other is truly victory at certain times in our lives. We should never regard it as the lowest level of maintenance. This act is a shout-out to life in the midst of death, a shout-out to light in the midst of darkness. During the nine months Sarah lived with us before her move to Williamsburg and subsequent suicide, I would wake up each morning way before dawn to stare at the blue Emergency Light at Tank Hall and confess once again, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never put it out” (John 1:5). I doubt that this Emergency Light means more to anyone on campus unless they have had to make an actual Emergency Call to Campus Security. That light became a symbol to me of the Greater Shining in spite of the utter depths of Sarah’s darkness.

Job is eager to spar with God in the early verses of this chapter, ready to take God on. In the later verses, he scales back a bit and wonders what he might be getting himself into if he does this. There is a mixture of eagerness and trepidation in his heart. He knows God well enough to realize that there are a lot of things he doesn’t know about God. What will he find out if he continues down this path? He’s willing to take the chance.

The treasures Job eventually apprehends are a long way down the road in his story. Stay tuned for the unfolding, when the Silent God speaks at last…That’s next week!

Amen.

We’re All from Uz

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

Job 1:1-2:10
Steve Hammond
October 7, 2012

Here I am preaching on the Book of Job. That’s usually Mary’s territory. But the Lectionary has Job on the schedule for all the Sundays of October. This looks like this is going too be my only crack at it since Mary is laying claim to the remaining three. At least, I get to give you some introduction to this really strange, hard, and wonderful story.

To begin with, it seems to me it’s helpful to think of this as a story, maybe a parable, a piece of drama, and not necessarily a biography of a guy named Job. You could really see this story as beginning this way. “Once upon a time there was a man named Job.”

In the Interpreter’s Bible, Carol Newsom shows us how this is all set up as a story, a folktale, or even a drama. “All the numbers used are symbolic, suggesting completeness and perfection: seven sons and three daughters, for a total of ten children; sheep and camels in the same ratio of seven thousand and three thousand; and agricultural animals in a balanced distribution of five hundred plus five hundred. Just as Job’s piety is complete and perfect, so also his family and property are complete and perfect. The reader is encouraged to see these as two things that fit naturally together. What binds them is the religious notion of blessing….The picture the narrator draws of Job is easily recognized as the image of the righteous person blessed by God; his wealth and the status that accompanies it, can also be seen as a mark of divine blessing.”

But then, like in all good stories, there is a twist. It’s not enough to say disaster falls on Job. He loses everything save his own life. And, of course, his wife suggests that maybe there is no reason for him to hang on to that. Why not just curse God and die? I remember a guy saying he had a wife like that once. It’s easy to get down on Job’s wife. But she lost her children, too. All the money is gone and she is watching Job waste away before her.

Some argue that Job was a real character. That could be true, but then we have to see the opening wager between God and the Satan, not simply as a literary devise, but also true. And that kind of weird’s people out. And we can get lost in how awful it is for God and the Satan to be using Job as a pawn in their larger dispute that we miss the point of the story that unfolds for the rest of Job.

What’s going on in this story is the much deeper and more personal issue of how we deal with evil and suffering in this world, if not in our own lives, than certainly the lives of others. That’s the question the writer wants us to grapple with as this story unfolds, not why God would enter into such a wager in the first place.

You might want to read the Book of Job over the next weeks. Because whether it’s a story about a real person or something like a parable, like all good stories, it’s a story about us. These are our questions. Since nobody has ever found a place called Uz, one commentator was lead to say that means that Uz is everywhere and we are all Uzians? Or is Uzites?

We know there is plenty of pain and suffering in this world, and that bad things do happen to good people. Here are some of the responses to suffering and pain that we Uzians have come up with. This list is from Bruce Epperly. (processandfaith.com)

1) Punishment for sin, “you deserve it” – remember when those pastors invoked divine punishment for the floods that hit New Orleans during Hurricane Isaac – they deserve it because of their immortality and toleration of homosexuality, it was suggested. The “they” included a mostly African American community, small children, and elderly adults.
2) “You chose it” – some new age philosophies suggest that “we create our own realities” – everything that happens to us is a result of our thinking either in this life or a previous lifetime. The “decision makers” choose rape, incest, abuse, and cancer by their attitudes!
3) “Karma” and “acts-consequences” – there is an exact, unbending correlation between behaviors and outcomes that shapes our lives, whether as result of previous lifetimes or current actions. We reap what we sow. Those who “reap” are two years with advanced cancer or babies born with fetal alcohol syndrome!
4) “Stuff happens” – evil and suffering are simply realities serving no purpose and having no intentionality…the evils of life are purely random and so are the benefits we experience. “Stuff” comes equally to the righteous and unrighteous.
5) “God’s will” – God determines everything in God’s wisdom, saved and unsaved, blessed and cursed. All things flow from the hand of God. “God wills” an automobile crash that kills a young mother!
6) “Education and testing” – our sufferings strengthen us and show our true character. The “exam takers” are parents who watch helplessly as children die of incurable diseases.
7) “Many factors” – there is no overarching source of evil; but evil occurs as the result of the interplay of creaturely freedom and creativity, environment, randomness, and God’s action in the world. “I’m responsible but not fully responsible. I can make a difference, but there are factors beyond my control. Even God has to deal with limitations.”

There may be other ways we try to explain the suffering and pain in this world. Do you have any more?

“Still, at the end of the day, the problem of suffering has an existential quality: every solution must be tested by whether or not it does justice to a parent who has just buried a young child or a soldier who has just lost both legs.” (Bruce Epperly)

We do such crazy things with Job as we try to grapple with pain and suffering. When people don’t get past the prologue they look at what Job says when these disasters unfold. ‘The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. Blessed by the name of the Lord.’ Job also says in that prologue that ‘We take the good days from God – why not the bad?’ And so we either praise or dismiss those responses as the kind of piety we need to imitate or dismiss for ourselves.

Kathryn Schifferderker, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul writes this. “To those who would dismiss these responses as overly pious, it must be said that they are faithful. Job responds to the loss of all he holds dear by praising the One who gave him those gifts. Stripped of all that gave his life meaning, Job clings to the God who gave him life in the first place.
“To those who would hold up these responses as the only proper way to respond to suffering, it must be said that these statements are not Job’s last word, and that what follows them — Job’s long and anguished lament — is also faithful. Praise and lament are two sides of the same coin. In both praise and lament, we cling to God, even when we don’t understand God. In both praise and lament, we believe that our lives are inextricably bound up with God’s life. In both praise and lament, we acknowledge that God is God and we are not.”

There aren’t right and wrong answers here. Job had to deal with these things the way he did. Have you ever heard someone talk about the ‘patience of Job?’ If you get past the first two chapters you realize what a crazy statement this is. In his story you read about somebody who is impatient, afraid, confused, and angry. But Job is also open, searching, trusting, and hopeful. There is doubt in his faith, and faith in his doubt. He is willing to question the answers and be as honest with God, himself, and his friends, as he can be.

Since before Job’s day, humanity has grappled with the issue of evil in this world. And we Uzians are still looking for answers.

I have had the opportunity to participate a few times in a program they have held at the High School called Challenge Day. The premise of Challenge Day is that life can be hard enough, even for high school kids. And you would be surprised about how hard some kids have it. Maybe it’s not to the proportions that Job experienced, but plenty of us experience hard, and often, unexplainable pain. The Challenge Day program teaches that, at least, we can make it a little easier during school. Instead of making it even harder by some of the ways kids treat each other during the school day, the Challenge Day goal is to find ways to encourage, support, care for each other for those hours they share during school.

That makes so much sense, and not only for school kids. Jesus was plenty aware of how hard things can be in this world too much of the time. We may not be able to answer these hard questions the Book of Job raises,
but showed us that love, compassion, kindness, gentleness, forgiveness, mercy, and trust go a long way in the land of Uz.