Friday, October 19, 2012

Pentecost +20B

From time to time, as a priest, I find myself trying to give comfort in situations where, humanly speaking, there is no hope.  A particularly testing experience very soon after I was ordained was the young couple who asked me to conduct the funeral of their three month old little girl Sharne, who died for no apparent reason and was one of the sad statistics we call Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.  Grieving for her child, the young woman was doubly traumatised by the insensitive questioning of police officers conducting the necessary investigation of Sharne's death.  And they came to me with questions: why does this happen? Why does God let it happen? If Sharne was a gift from God, why would God take her back?

We began last week reading some selections from the Book of Job, which resonates with the experience of anyone who has ever felt crushed beneath the weight of misfortune or suffering.  It is an honest book, and a helpful book because it takes suffering seriously enough not to offer pat answers, but instead echoes the questions that countless people have asked in situations of despair and grief – why?  Why me?  Why God? And – what next?

At 42 chapters, the Book of Job is a very long – and surprisingly tedious – read, consisting for the most part of set speeches by Job, his friends and - eventually – God.  The storyline is fairly simple – and of course mythological, unless you think the human author of Job was able to listen in on conversations between God and God's heavenly support staff.  Job was that rarity – a man with every blessing – wealth and friends and a loving family – who was also righteous, a man of integrity, who loved God and was loved and respected by all who knew him.  The ancient world, like ours, tended to be suspicious of the ultra-wealthy or hyper-successful – surely it has been achieved by cutting corners or sharp practices, by knifing others in the back while climbing the ladder of success? The tall poppy syndrome is no modern invention!  So the story opens with God having a good old skite about Job to the heavenly council.  If only the rest of them were like Job!

But not everybody is as easily impressed as God – along comes the chief prosecutor in the heavenly council – the name Satan – or in Hebrew, ha-Satan – is not actually to be equated with the devil of Christian nightmares, but should be understood by its literal translation as 'the Accuser' – counsel for the prosecution, devil's advocate if you must.  But Satan in this story is not evil to God's good, they are definitely in cahoots.  'Oh yes?', says the Accuser.  'Well it's easy to be pious if you're getting the red carpet treatment through life'.  So basically God and ha-Satan make a bet – God thinks Job will continue to be righteous even if his life goes down the gurgler, and bit by bit all Job's business enterprises go bust, his house burns down, his children all meet sticky ends, his wife turns bitter and sarcastic and Job himself is covered from top to toe with loathsome sores.

It's not quite clear why the lectionary writers chose to skip over the last 23chapter between last week and this, but in the meantime Job's friends have turned up and done their best to offer him comfort.  Job is still sitting where we left him in chapter one – on the ash heap, scraping his sores with a bit of broken pottery – and for the intervening 22 chapters his friends have been telling him, one way or another, that it's all his fault.

But let's not be too hard on them.  They arrived promptly when they heard of Job's misfortune – turning up straight away in chapter two immediately after Job's wife has suggested that his best course of action would be to curse God and die.  Job's three friends are wiser than that.  Seeing him sitting on the ash heap they weep and tear their clothes and heap ash on their own heads, and then they sit with him in the ashes and say nothing.  For seven days.  Chapter two, verse 13: "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".

This is really important.  Yes, Job's friends are going to get it wrong, very wrong indeed, but they start right.  There is a massive temptation, is there not, when you visit a friend who is sick or dying, or going through a divorce or a loss of employment or whatever it might be?  The temptation to open your mouth.  To say: 'everything will be OK.  I'm sure everything will turn out alright.  Doctors can do miracles these days.'  But as soon as you open your mouth you have denied and minimised the reality of what your friend is going through.  You can't necessarily make it alright.  Maybe everything isn't going to be OK.  You certainly won't have the right words to say.  Learn the wisdom of saying nothing.  But be there.

Job's friends – and Job himself, for that matter – have a theory, or more precisely, a theology.  Suffering comes from God as a punishment.  Job must have done something pretty massively awful, for God to be punishing him that much.  So for 22 chapters, once they did, tentatively and with great respect, begin to speak, Job's friends have been telling him it is his own fault, that he has to repent, to listen to them and to ask forgiveness of God.  To be humble in his suffering.  And Job's friends accuse him of all sorts of faults, trying to uncover some hidden sin in him because – when it comes down to it – they need to protect themselves from the chaos to their own worldview that would result if they have to conclude that Job didn't deserve his fate.

This is not just a quirk of the ancient worldview.  We do this, ourselves.  For a start, how many times have you heard the expression, 'what goes around, comes around'?  When we hear of terrible, random things happening we look for reasons.  No, it doesn't fit easily with the modern worldview or with a helpful theological perspective to suggest that God makes bad things happen.  That God took Sharne.  Although you might be surprised how many people still think so, deep down.  It's even scarier to think that bad things happen by chance.  That there was no particular reason why that particular young woman was raped and murdered in Melbourne a couple of weeks ago.  And psychologists tell us we all practise what they call ideologies of control.  Which means ways of interpreting reality that make us feel personally safer.  Fill in the gaps – 'oh, that would never happen to me because – dot, dot, dot'.  'Oh, they can't have been watching their child closely enough'.  'Oh, she shouldn't have been out on the streets at night'.

Job's own problem is this – that like his friends, he also thought he knew that suffering was a punishment from God – but what he knows for sure is that he has not sinned, and he stands on his integrity.  He refuses to ask God's pardon, to take the rap for something he didn't do.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Because in the 22 chapters we didn't read, Job changes tack in two very important ways.  And the first way is this, that he begins by wanting to give up, by wanting to die – in chapter three for example he begins his first speech cursing the day he was born – and even though the death wish still keeps surfacing from time to time his main focus has shifted.  Now he wants justice.  He wants vindication, his day in court.  He has moved from depression to anger – this of course is the reverse of the movement in Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's famous stages of grief.  He is no longer dying, he is fighting to live, and that is a good thing.  It's a hard thing to watch, it's not pretty and if you have ever been with someone going through this process, lashing out at anyone and everything in their grief, it is confronting.  But it is vital, and gutsy, and honest and necessary.

The second thing is this – that Job has moved from talking about God – to talking to God.  This starts as early as chapter seven, when he blurts out: "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?". [1] Job's words are bitter, even despairing. He accuses God of terrible things, of watching him like a hawk, waiting for him to sin.  In today's reading, he complains of God's silence and God's absence, but continues to outline the defences he wants to lay before God.

This is also vital, it is the difference, for example, between theology and lament.  Theology – thinking and talking about God – is helpful and necessary in working out what reality is about, and what we ourselves are about.  But lament, in a situation of grief or suffering, is personal and engaged.  This is a move that Job's friends never make – they keep talking about God, and about Job – but never once do they address God, never once do they intercede or pray for Job.  This is a lesson for us, if we would be friends to another in their grief – and it is also a lesson in our own grief.  The theologian Wendell Berry points out that the depressed person falls silent: "The distinguishing characteristic of absolute despair is silence. There is a world of difference between the person who, believing that there is no use, says so to themself or to no one at all, and the person who says it aloud to someone else. A person who marks the trail into despair by sharing it with somebody else remembers the possibility of hope".

In lament, the despairing person "says it aloud" to God, and so holds on to God even in the depths of despair. And in that holding on, something like hope is made possible. Job dwells in the depths of despair, but in the midst of that despair he addresses God; he demands that God answer him; he holds on to God; and in that holding on, a fierce hope is affirmed:  "I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another". [2]

Well, at the end of today's reading, Job is still sitting in the ash-heap, and God is – as God so often is – utterly silent.  This is of course part of our own authentic experience, and we may have to come back to this in a week or two.  The story is not yet over.  But already we have learned how to lament – how to be vital and real in our own distress or the shared distress of another.  Job teaches us how to be real with God and in the process – real with and about ourselves.  And when we come back to this we will learn from Job how to hear in the silence that follows lament – God's answer.


[1] Job 7:12, 17-19

[2]  Job 19:25-27a