Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Living With Mystery (Blog on Job, Part 3)

New Orleans churchyard in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
(This is part three of my blog on Job. You can read part one here and part two here.)

In the book of Job, the character of Job loses all he has because of afflictions from "the Accuser" who bets God that Job will curse Him if Job suffers enough. Job spends chapters arguing with his wife and friends about the reasons for his suffering and pleading with God to answer his prayers. In the third lesson assigned for reading in the lectionary this fall, God finally answers Job.

And what an answer it is.

"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'" (Job 38:1-3). God proceeds to ask Job dozens of questions about the power of God. Can you measure the foundations of the earth or number all the clouds in the sky? Can you command the lightning or create a sea monster for fun?

God's response to Job is to put his questions in a broader context. The central tension that Job raises is “God is just” and “I am innocent.” The idea being that a just God wouldn't let an innocent person suffer. But God’s questions to Job undermine the very premise of Job’s complaint.

If you want to understand suffering, then can you first understand the complexities of the earth? Can you understand the tiny details of the galaxy and everything living in it? If not, then why do you get to decide what’s just? In this complex, crazy world, who said innocent people never face trouble? I'm God and I'm working with knowledge you can't possibly grasp.

God's questions to Job show there is a paradox we all live in. Each of us is unique and distinctly important to the world around us, but we are also largely insignificant in a world with billions of people and infinitely complex ecosystems. Therefore tragedies are both personal and massive. Disasters can hits thousands of people or cancer can infect millions and we can understand that most of the affects are random, but when they affect me or someone I love we can't help but look for a reason. 

And sometimes there isn't one. Sometimes, God suggests, there are enormous systems at play around us and we just get caught in the sweep. And if there is a reason, it is far more complicated that we can grasp. 

None of that is to say that God is unjust or uncaring, simply that the world is more chaotic and unpredictable than our reason-seeking brains would like and justice might not fit our simple definitions. Jesus himself says that the sun shines and the rain falls on the just and unjust alike (Matthew 5:45).

Martin Luther wrote that God had a visible side (deus revelatus) and a hidden side (deus absconditus). The visible side is what we can perceive and understand as humans, but most of God is hidden from us, Luther said, and the part we can see is only God's back. In Job, the writer lays the answer to much of life's suffering at the feet of the hidden God. How can we understand suffering when we cannot understand God?

On it's own, such an answer is unsatisfying. It smacks too much of the condescending adult who tut-tuts a child and says, "You just couldn't understand..." But that's why the revealed God is such an important part of this struggle.

Luther said that since we cannot know the hidden God, we must find faith in the God as God chooses to be seen by us and God chose to be revealed in Jesus Christ. Jesus makes it clear that God doesn't wish us harm and that we are loved. God is the business of promoting true life and inviting us to do the same. And in John 11, we see Jesus weeping at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, visibly disturbed by the pain death has caused. That's the revealed God: standing with us in our pain, joining us in our mourning, and promising that pain won't be the last word.

Job raises some deeply important questions that it cannot fully answer and we are still wrestling with thousands of years later. Ultimately there is mystery around suffering that we must content ourselves to dwell within for some time. We may not always understand suffering, but we are not alone when we suffer. We are not alone because the same questions are asked by millions like us. And we are not alone because God chooses to be found in suffering with us.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“I want a reason for the way things have to be. I need a hand to help build up some kind of hope inside of me.” -Train, “Calling All Angels”

Thursday, October 15, 2015

When God Doesn't Answer (Blog on Job, Part 2)

(This is part two of my blog on Job. You can read part one by clicking here.)

Last week, I mentioned that two great questions get raised by Job: Why has this happened to me? and Why would God allow this? In the second text assigned for reading in the lectionary this month, Job voices his pain when those questions go unanswered by God. 

In Job 23:1-17, Job cries out that God is not answering his prayers, saying, "If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him" (vv. 8-9). These verses (echoed many other places in the book) capture why so many people read and study this book. 

Job asks one of the profound questions of faith: Where is God when we suffer? And why does it so often feel like God is distant in times of pain?

These are questions that I am asked all the time. They are questions that I ask all the time. 

They are questions that deserve careful examination because they are a part of everyone's lived experience. We all are afflicted at times with loss, pain, suffering, and disease. We will all likely think things can't possibly get worse only to be proven wrong. 

Because they are so universal, they are questions that have led to much spilled ink over the millennia (including the ink originally spilled to write Job) and it would be impossible to settle them in one blog post. (Job alone spends 42 chapters trying to answer these questions and still leaves them partly unanswered.) But there are a few points we can draw from the Bible in and around Job that help shape how we ask the question today.

When God Speaks, It's Rare

When we read the Bible, it seems as though God is answering prayers and saving the day left and right. God has prophets and priests and rulers hearing God's word and doing miracles all over the place. It can lead us to wonder why God has stopped speaking and acting as much today.

But if we look more closely, we see that many of the stories of the Bible the highlights in a long timeline, kind of like SportsCenter showing all the runs from a three hour baseball game in thirty seconds. In fact, there are long periods of silence from God within the Bible. The Israelites are enslaved in Egypt for generations; the period of Judges has years of suffering in between a few heroic battles; and there are four hundred years between the Old and New Testaments. 

God's silence seems to be the rule more than the exception for much of the Old Testament. Why that may be is hard to say, but it is clear that God does not speak out of burning bushes to every person in trouble, then or now. 

So does that mean that God just doesn't care? Does God ignore us most of the time? The Bible says "no," because...

When God Speaks, It's Hopeful

When God does speak in the Bible, it's often to offer comfort and hope. (God's response to Job doesn't really, but I'll get to that next week.) God makes it clear that he doesn't intend suffering for those who trust in God and promises that there will be a time when all we be right. Even if we don't experience justice or an end to suffering in this life, God's final word to us is hope.

In the Bible, God shows care for us in the midst of our suffering because God often sympathizes with us, joins us in our mourning, and cries over injustice in our world. Most importantly, we see God choose to physically enter our suffering and walk alongside us in the person of Jesus. Jesus seeks out those who suffer and answers their questions with himself. Rather than be indifferent, God promises to be present with us in this life.

But why then does it not always feel like God is with us in pain? Why does God feel silent?

When God Speaks, It's...To Voice Our Question? 

The Bible is filled with people and poems asking a version of Job's question. The Psalms are full of so-called songs of lament, crying for the God that feels distant. Perhaps the most famous of these is Psalm 22, which bears a great resemblance to the crucifixion of Jesus in the New Testament. In fact, the opening words of the psalm, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" are spoken by Jesus on the cross. 

And there is the great mystery and hope of this difficult question. The wrenching cry of "Where are you?" spoken by Job and the psalmists is also spoken by God the Son in his time of suffering. And the immediate answer is silence... and death.

The meaning of that moment in history is profound. Jesus shows that God hears our suffering, God comes near us in our suffering, and God experiences our suffering to the point of despair.

There are some who will say that asking the questions that Job and the Psalmists raise is a sign of weak faith or is unfair to God. They may say that we must simply trust "God's plan" and never question God. But when Jesus cries from the cross, he validates all of us who ever sit on the ash heap with Job and ask why we're there. Without offering the answer to why there is suffering to begin with, Jesus makes it okay to keep raising the question. Even without the example of Jesus, the author of Job is clear to say that Job "did not sin with his lips" (Job 2:10), meaning all of his questions did not separate him from God. 

One of the lessons of Job is that even when we get no answers, there is no sin in asking the question. Even if we get no answers, asking the question puts us in the company of Jesus. 

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

"Cuz I, I got a question... I got a question: Where are you?" -Jars of Clay, "Silence"

Next time: Living with Mystery...

(If you are interested in exploring the question of God's presence in suffering in more detail, I strongly recommend two books. In "Where's God When It Hurts?," Philip Yancey asks this question very directly and uses Job to explore it in depth. For a fictional approach, read "Silence" by Shusaku Endo, a classic novel about Christians persecuted in the era of feudal Japan.)

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Just Who Is This God Anyway? (Blog on Job, Part 1)

One of the gifts of using a lectionary to preach is I am given four texts to choose from each week. One of the curses of using a lectionary to preach is I am given four texts to choose from each week. 

There are times the lectionary offers up too many good texts to preach on or worse, texts that I know will raise difficult questions or concerns in the minds of those who hear them, but I cannot address the questions from different texts in one sermon. This month, our lectionary offers up some important and difficult lessons from Jesus in Mark's Gospel while at the same time giving us three weeks of lessons from the Book of Job, a book that raises all sorts of (cue the heavy, baritone narration...) deep, meaningful questions. Since I can only preach one sermon on Sunday and live to tell about it, I promised my congregation that I would blog on Job as a way of exploring those questions.

The first week's lesson was Job 1:1; 2:1-10, the prologue to this epic poem in which Job is identified as a righteous, wealthy man who loses everything and spends the rest of the book trying to figure out why. It has become a favorite study for many people because it seeks to address one of the universal questions of human experience: How do we explain suffering and evil in the world? 

Before going further, it's important to note that Job is almost certainly not an historical account. Most of the book is written in poetry and it has always been grouped with Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs, which are all books of poetry, philosophy, and wisdom, not histories. In other words, Job is a book that is trying to explore universal truth, not historical fact.

That can be important to keep in mind because Job opens with a disturbing scene. In a conversation with God, Satan (literally, "the Accuser") asserts that Job is only righteous because he is so healthy and wealthy. If he lost everything, the Accuser suggests, he would curse You to Your face. With God's permission (really?!), the Accuser sets about causing havoc to Job's life, destroying his family and wealth and inflicting him with a painful skin disease. After causing this trouble, the Accuser never appears in the book again.

The reader is left with two questions. First, Job asks, Why has this happened to me? Second, most readers ask, Why would God allow this? The book spends chapters exploring these questions, but (spoiler alert!) never really answers them clearly. Like many works of philosophy, the book of Job seems more interested in the questions than the actual answers. Still, there is much to draw from these early chapters to make reading worth our while.

Job's Faith in God

As Job ponders why he has come to tragedy, his interactions with his wife and friends provide an important exploration of the nature of God and faith.

His wife says, "Curse God and die." God for her was only as good as the blessings he provides and like an appliance that stops working, it's time to kick this one to the curb. What good is a god if that god stops working the way you want?

In her mind, God doesn't care and is hurting them for sport. The idea of a god toying with the lives of humans would not be a strange idea in the ancient world. It was expected. If you want an example, try reading a couple other ancient epic poems — the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Greek gods in mythology are every bit as petty and selfish as humans themselves.

His friends insist that he must have done something bad. Tragedy must have a source to blame and therefore Job must have sinned in some way.  If God isn't uncaring, then God is punishing Job for some reason. He should fess up and beg for mercy.

They echo many of us who want to find some reason or meaning for the suffering we see in the world. What have I/you/they done to deserve that?

But Job refuses to go along with either opinion. Instead, he repeatedly holds up two things he knows to be true: "God is just" and "I am innocent." How those can both be true in the face of tragedy becomes the central tension of the book. Job refuses to believe that God is petty or has stopped caring for him. He trusts that even if God is responsible for his suffering, because God is just, Job's cries for justice will be heard and answered.

God is just and Job is innocent.  How the book tries to answer that tension will be dealt with in the third part of this blog series. For now, Job's faith in God's justice and concern for human life is still an important cornerstone to this book and reading the Bible in general. Some of us may take it for granted, but the idea that God is not callous or distant, but is just and compassionate, was and remains a radical suggestion that deeply affects the faith of anyone who holds it as truth like Job.

God's Faith in Job

The remaining question of why God would allow the Accuser to afflict Job is one of the most troubling in the Bible. And, frankly, there is no good answer within the pages of Job. About the best that can be said is to try chalking it up to artistic license on the part of the author who was setting the stage for the story as efficiently as possible. But even that doesn't sit too well with me.

Despite the unease I feel with God's permission giving to evil, I do find a positive facet to God's interaction with the Accuser. The Accuser believes Job is a pushover, but God believes that Job will be faithful. What occurs to me is that God has faith in Job.

As a Lutheran, I was taught and I teach that there is nothing I can do to earn God's love, nor can I come to faith or God without the Holy Spirit drawing me there. I believe both of these, but I also recognize that they have at times been excuses for inaction. "Why do good if it doesn't change God's mind?" or "I don't want to appear like I'm trying to earn my way to God." 

But God's faith in Job reminds me that Jesus grants me grace and eternal life and trusts that it will change my heart to love as he loves me. In the same way, God entrusts the Church into human hands. And even though we make mistakes along the way, God has faith that, led by the Spirit, we will remain faithful even in times of strife. That God has faith in me is good news on days when it feels like I've been left on the ash heap with Job.

Next time: When God Doesn't Answer...

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“I’m looking for something that I didn’t notice was gone.” -Jets Overhead, “Heading for Nowhere”

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Bible as Story

The Bible is a central thing to Christianity. We read from it every week in worship. We speak about it in sermons and quote from it in our songs and prayers. Most denominations encourage individuals to have their own copy and read it regularly. And yet I often find that in conversation and study with people, many are still asking a very basic question: What is the Bible anyway? What kind of book is this?

Many people think of the Bible as a rule book that contains God’s commands for us to follow. Certainly there are “rules” or laws in the Bible (like Leviticus, Proverbs, and James), but there are huge sections of the Bible that aren’t. Some might call it a history book. Again, parts of it are history, but there is also poetry, letters, and symbolic books (like Revelation). Some like to think of it as a book of advice for living, but as Christians we believe that God is wanting to give us eternal life, not just advice. Some call it scary or confusing and they avoid reading it at all, but hiding from it doesn’t help us grow as people of God.

As I've read, studied, and taught this great book, I’m going to propose a different image that I've come to appreciate. I think the Bible is a storybook. 

Now before you go thinking that I’m calling this holy text a children’s book, let me explain what I mean by “story.” When I use the word “story,” I don’t mean something made up. Far from it. Stories are the narratives that shape our identity and tell us who we are. They are core to who we are as individuals and communities. Let me give you two examples.

*When I was growing up, I heard a lot of stories about the ministers in my family history. One was a missionary, two served in the Upper Midwest, and one taught at seminary. Hearing about their work gave me the sense as a young person that our family answers God’s call when it comes, we are proud to be Lutheran, and we value education. Those ideas shaped how I understood myself and my family and who I’ve become.

*As Americans, we tell stories about how we conquer adversity. From the Revolution to the Depression to Pearl Harbor, whenever America has struggled or been threatened, we pull together, work hard, fight back, and almost always win. Because we tell these stories, we believe we are a great country and that we can do anything. Those beliefs then shape our actions as a people.

The Bible tells us these kinds of stories. The stories of God’s people throughout time. Stories that shape who we are as God’s people today. They tell us the truth of how people have experienced God in their lives, how God has been active in our world, and how others have tried to describe God. Since we believe that God continues to reach out to us and be active in our world, these stories define for us who we are and how we fit into God’s continuing story of loving our world. 

Therefore, the Bible's stories are also our story because we continue to have many of the same experiences that God’s people did long ago. In the song "Cover to Cover," singer Wes King puts it this way: “I’ve stood strong like Daniel; I’ve fallen like David; I’ve wandered in the desert like the Israelites; I’ve denied You like Peter: I’ve struggled like Paul; run from You like Jonah, but You loved me through it all.” When we see ourselves as part of these stories, they take new relevance to our own lives in a way that just rules or advice cannot. They shape our actions and purpose. Open the Bible. Join God’s story.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

"The more I read, the more I find, the more I have uncovered stories just like mine." -Wes King, "Cover to Cover"

(A version of this post first appeared in my church's newsletter in 2012. I decided to repost it as I've been reading "Shaped by the Story" by Michael Novelli, which has a similar thesis.)