Job 1:1-22 – A Better Way Through Impossible Suffering

Satan Going Forth from the Presence of the Lord by William Blake, 1825

In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil. He had seven sons and three daughters, and he owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys, and had a large number of servants. He was the greatest man among all the people of the East.

His sons used to hold feasts in their homes on their birthdays, and they would invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. When a period of feasting had run its course, Job would arrange for them to be purified. Early in the morning he would sacrifice a burnt offering for each of them, thinking, “Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.” This was Job’s regular custom.

One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?”

Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.”

Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”

“Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied.“Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”

The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.”

Then Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.

One day when Job’s sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house, a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were grazing nearby, and the Sabeans attacked and made off with them. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”

While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, “The fire of God fell from the heavens and burned up the sheep and the servants, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”

While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three raiding parties and swept down on your camels and made off with them. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”

While he was still speaking, yet another messenger came and said, “Your sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house, when suddenly a mighty wind swept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house. It collapsed on them, and they are dead, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”

At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said:

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
    and naked I will depart.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
    may the name of the Lord be praised.”

In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing. (New International Version)

Much of life is a mystery. We simply do not know why some things happen. And it’s likely we won’t have answers to many of our vexing questions, this side of heaven. From our limited human perspective, **** happens, and that’s about all we can say about it. 

There are times in Holy Scripture, however, when the veil between heaven and earth is peeled back long enough for us to catch a glimpse of mystery. Today’s Old Testament lesson is such a story. 

Job was a wealthy man and had everything this earthly life could offer. What’s more, he was a pious godly person of faith. It was commonly understood that those two things always went together. So, when we see behind the curtain and are privy to a conversation between God and Satan, the devil himself points this out – that Job only praises God because of how good he has it.  Even with this understanding of what was behind Job’s misery, we still see the mysterious God allowing Satan to operate with only God-knows reasons why.

Whenever calamity strikes, or bad news causes us to slump in our chairs, or adversity hits unexpectedly, or trouble smacks us upside our life like a sledgehammer, it’s only human to begin wondering what we did wrong or what we did to bring on such a terrible set of circumstances. 

But the truth is this: We just don’t always know. 

Yes, I fully understand that statement is hard to swallow; it even sucks. For example, no amount of understanding why my grandson has a rare form of epilepsy will make the pain go away. All my wonderings about his future isn’t going to help my daughter. It’s an impossible emotional place to be. It’s sad and it’s frustrating.

Yet, there is a better way.

Although there is so much we don’t know, we do know Job’s inconceivable response to the mystery of God. He made an incredible confession of faith, despite the most awful of circumstances. Job made the affirmation:

“When I was born into this world,
    I was naked and had nothing.
When I die and leave this world,
    I will be naked and have nothing.
The Lord gives,
    and the Lord takes away.
Praise the name of the Lord!”

Job 1:21, ERV

Rather than spending all of our emotional energy trying to figure out an answer to our “why” questions, perhaps the more sage response is to confess our faith in a radical trust of God. 

Using these actual words from Job can be a necessary start to navigating the troubled waters of evil which swirl around us, even if we have to say them over and over again to believe them.

I know I do.

Almighty God, every good thing I have in my life comes from you. It is your prerogative whether I continue to have those things, or not. Whatever happens, whether it causes heartbreak or happiness, is completely known to you. I trust that you know what you are doing, and I completely throw myself upon your mercy through Jesus Christ, my Savior. Amen.

Luke 19:41-44 – Theological Tears

As Jesus approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” (New International Version)

There are Christians who believe in withdrawing as much from the world as possible, this side of heaven. There are yet others who believe in accommodating to the world, its structures and society. And there are yet others who believe the world and the church are simply two distinct realms which Christians move back and forth within, like doffing one hat and donning another.

For the moment, let’s just leave all that aside. Instead, observe the pathos of Jesus. Christ came to Jerusalem, a city with deep roots in both religion and the world. He stopped and gazed affectionately at the ancient place with a heart full of longing for what she could be, as well as a heart profoundly sad for what she presently is.

And as Jesus stood and looked at the city in all of its religious piety, as well as its worldly pungencies, he wept.

This was not a quiet shedding of a tear. No, the word “wept” means that Jesus openly cried aloud over the city. This is the kind of crying which happens when a person is in the throes of grief and lament. Jesus was expressing great emotional heaves of loud weeping.

The reason Jesus was lamenting with so much feeling was that the city did not recognize they had a gracious visit from God. The Lord looked at the city and saw all the future disaster which was coming. He knew it could be different, and he was completely undone by the city’s inability to see God, right in front of their own face.

That Jesus wept over a city is more than a deep emotional response; it is also a profound theological statement of subversion against the present order of things. Tears and crying are ways of pronouncing that the status quo of human oppression and indifference is not okay – that there is an alternative path, The Way, which leads to peace and life.

Contrary to many contemporary forms of Christian spirituality, theology and tears are not antithetical nor foreign to one another. They are related, and when practiced well, they inform each other in a full-orbed Christianity that is both holistic and holy. We can no more separate the two anymore than we can divide the humanity and divinity of Christ into parts, as if Jesus were some weird schizophrenic God-Man.

A dispassionate follower of Jesus is really no follower, at all.

Now, let’s return to our view of the world and our involvement in it. Taking some cues from our Lord Jesus, the first and foremost posture we are to take toward the worldly city is not separation, accommodation, or dual citizenship – it is, rather, to weep, to grieve and lament, to sit with and feel the immense sadness of a society askew and awry of God.

The longing Jesus had in his heart was to see the city of Jerusalem annexed and incorporated into the kingdom of God. The way of peace, of shalom on this earth, is to bring all things and all the world under the benevolent reign of God. It’s as if there are Twin Cities, like Minneapolis and St. Paul, which exist side-by-side but have different municipal structures. 

The kingdom of this world and the kingdom of God exist next to each other. Jesus wanted to bring the earthly kingdom into the peaceful and gracious realm of God’s kingdom. But the people would have nothing to do with it. Both the religious establishment and the secular authorities of the city wanted their own municipal conceptions of how things should go – and they both rejected the Christ who could bring everyone true harmony.

King Jesus is our rightful benevolent ruler. Yet, there are so many who do not, or will not, acknowledge that grace and mercy is among them if they would but only look and see.

Let us lament this world, which is chocked full of both religious and secular people who do not recognize the time of God’s visitation. May we journey with Jesus and follow him in his Passion for this world and all its inhabitants. May we sit at the feet of Jesus and imbibe his deep love for all who are estranged from God.

Blessed Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the holy Trinity whom I serve – the world and even sometimes the church is estranged from grace – they have not recognized your gracious coming and presence. I lament such a state of things, and ask you, blessed Spirit, to draw all people to the Savior, Jesus Christ, in whose name I pray.  Amen.

Psalm 71:1-6 – How to Cope with Change and Loss

I run to you, Lord,
for protection.
    Don’t disappoint me.
You do what is right,
    so come to my rescue.
    Listen to my prayer
    and keep me safe.
Be my mighty rock,
    the place
where I can always run
    for protection.
Save me by your command!
    You are my mighty rock
    and my fortress.

Come and save me, Lord God,
    from vicious and cruel
    and brutal enemies!
I depend on you,
    and I have trusted you
    since I was young.
I have relied on you
    from the day I was born.
You brought me safely
through birth,
    and I always praise you. (Contemporary English Version)

No one gets off this planet without experiencing several events of change and loss, resulting in grief and the need to lament. Because of this reality, you would think we all acknowledge this great need of lamenting our significant losses. Yet, we don’t.

Many Christians avoid grief work. The following are just a few of the statements I’ve heard over the decades from parishioners when they experience loss:

  • “Christ is resurrected and alive. There’s victory in Jesus. No need to grieve like unbelievers.”
  • “My loved one is in heaven. No more suffering or pain. It would be selfish of me to be sad.”
  • “It’s a sin to be depressed.”
  • “I can’t let myself cry and fall apart. I need to be strong for my family.”

Those statements are very far from what we find in the biblical psalms and throughout the entirety of Holy Scripture. Consider these realities in the Bible:

  • 62 out of the 150 Psalms in the Old Testament are laments; some are communal, many are individual expressions of grief.
  • God laments. And God grieves with us. (Genesis 6:5-6; Isaiah 53:4; John 11:1-44)
  • An extended time and process of grieving was practiced by biblical characters when loss occurred. It was a normal emotional, spiritual, physical, and relational reaction to that loss. (e.g., Genesis 50:1-3)
  • Lament is an intentional process of letting go of relationships and dreams and discovering how to live into a new identity after the loss or change. There’s even an entire book of the Bible given to lamenting: Lamentations.
  • Everyone’s grief is personal; there is no one size fits all.
  • Avoiding grief, mourning, lament, and loss is totally foreign to the Bible.

Psalms of lament have a characteristic structure, distinct from psalms of praise, trust, or wisdom, like today’s psalm:

  1. Address to God: The address is usually a brief cry for help; and is occasionally expanded to include a statement of praise or a recollection of God’s intervention in the past (Psalm 71:1-3).
  2. Complaint: God is informed about the problem or experience through a range and depth of emotional, relational, and spiritual reactions to change (Psalm 71:4).
  3. Confession of Trust: The psalmist remains confident in God despite the circumstances and begins to see his or her problems differently (Psalm 71:5-8).
  4. Petition: Filled with confidence in God, the psalmist appeals to God for deliverance and intervention.  Petitioning is not bargaining with God or a refusal to accept loss; it is a legitimate seeking of help (Psalm 71:9-13).
  5. Words of Assurance: The psalmist expresses certainty that the petition will be heard by God (Psalm 71:14a).
  6. Vow of Praise: The lament concludes with the psalmist’s vow to testify to what God will do or has done through praise (Psalm 71:14b-24).

The biblical psalms do two wonderful services for us as God’s people: First, a constant stream of reading, quoting, memorizing, and meditating on them actually shapes our faith into a full-orbed, mature, and robust belief. Second, the psalms provide us with a healthy means of expressing the complete range of our human experience. 

So, then, the psalms both reflect our feelings, and, at the same time, form those feelings to know God better, cope with situations, and relate appropriately with others. 

The fourth-century Bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, had it right about the psalms when he said: 

“Whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book [the Psalms] you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you not merely hear and pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill.”

St. Athanasius (297-373 C.E.), Bishop of Alexandria

Today’s psalm of lament is the expression of a person getting along in years and discovering all the limitations and weaknesses that go along with aging. It is a plea for help. Whereas in younger days the psalmist had the vigor to engage problems and enemies, now he has the realization that he must increasingly depend upon God (and others).  

Far too many people hitting the aging process do not deal with it well. The change to their bodies, even their minds, is so unwelcome that they do not cope quickly, or, sometimes, at all. They believe it silly to lament such a natural occurrence, even though those physical changes dog them day after day.

Based upon the psalms, I insist that lament is a powerful and necessary form of coming to grips with change. God has not promised us life-long health and constant energy. Rather, the Lord has promised to be with us as our refuge and help through all the vicissitudes of changing health and altered situations. 

Let praying the psalms, then, be a regimen as familiar and daily as your using your pill planner and taking your meds.

Ever-watchful God, you are a rock of refuge, a never changing reality in a world of constant change. You are my hope, Lord, and my faith has been in you all my life. I lament all the difficult changes I encounter. I can never go back to the way things were. So, please open to me a new reality where fresh hope and life can be found, through Jesus Christ my Savior. Amen.

The Suffering of Christmas

Christmas:  a time for joy and a time for cheer…  But, unfortunately, it is also a time of profound loneliness and a yearning of days gone by for many people.  A few years back, I received a call on Christmas Day.  One of my parishioners was stretching out to put the angel on top of the family Christmas tree, and fell over dead from a heart attack.  The family’s Christmas will never be the same again, a weird mix, a strange amalgam of both happiness and heartache.  Tragedy that occurs around the holidays makes all future holidays awkward and different.

I also know folks who were expecting a juicy Christmas bonus, instead finding a pink slip and a surprise lay-off from their job.  Children of divorce probably know the strangeness of the holiday the most, being shuttled here and there obtaining more gifts than they need but more bitterness than they want.  For every one of us who look forward to Christmas Day, there is another who dreads facing another season with unpleasant memories of what happened and what could have been….

Whether Christmas is chiefly joyous for one or sorrowful for another, the bald fact of the matter is that we all suffer in some way.  Let me offer a definition/description of suffering for you to ponder: 

Suffering occurs when someone or some circumstance acts against your will and damages either your body, mind, soul, spirit, or all/part of them, creating the great need for healing.

Suffering creates a portal, an opening to either love or hate.  It brings us to the point of decision:  We did not choose suffering; it chose us.  But the choice for healing is very much in our control.  Suffering is an event, maybe even extended over time, which will make us either bitter, or better – it’s your choice.

There are numerous people who will offer you a cup of bitterness, the sour wine vinegar which will dull the pain.  Jesus had such an offer while he hung on the cross, and he refused it.  Nothing was going to stand in the way of his full faculties experiencing the vicarious suffering for our sins.  Dulling the pain doesn’t bring healing; it only makes us forget for a time and just prolongs the actual healing.

Instead, the wise choice is to take charge of your life and choose the hard path of healing.  There is a world of difference between the pain that is forced upon us, and the pain which we choose so that we become better and healthy.  The pain of violation must be followed with the pain of healing. 

“It takes courage to love, but pain through love is the purifying fire which those who love generously know. We all know people who are so much afraid of pain that they shut themselves up like clams in a shell and, giving out nothing, receive nothing and therefore shrink until life is a mere living death.”

Eleanor Roosevelt

A major way you know your choice of healing is happening is when your heart and life open-up to love, when the shape of grace begins to mold your soul and brings a reception to people who benevolently wait to help with kind words and ways.  Your sight becomes different.  The world becomes brighter.  Decisions are motivated more by love than by protection.  There is the willingness to persevere and patiently complete the process of healing and see it through to a new maturity.  You cease trying to manipulate others and focus more on your own responses to people and situations.  Every day becomes a fresh opportunity to love God by serving others.

Because God is love, and we are created in the image of God, this means we were designed to receive and to give love.  We are love, as well.  To not love is to buck our inherent design from the beginning of time.  We are not just to grit our teeth and force loving words and actions; we are to tap into the originality of our souls and be love.  The great task of the Christian life is to awaken to who we really are, to become a whole person, complete and mature.  The means for this to happen is through the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Jesus, our great professor in the faith, knows that suffering is a teacher.

Far too many persons are perplexed as to why they still struggle and hurt.  They have prayed.  They have read the Bible.  They have tried, time and time again.  Hurt and pain might and is very personal; but healing is communal – it demands more than our own efforts.  Unless we open ourselves to the love of others, and risk putting our souls on the line, we will not realize the peace we long for and the mending of our spirits. 

The first step is speaking to someone who is safe, someone for whom you trust, and telling them where you are in your soul – not making yourself look better than you are, and providing a real picture of the state of your life – and, not diminishing the very real abuse which occurred against you by saying others have it harder than you.  In other words, be real.  Humility and honesty will always serve you well.

Yes, it’s Christmas.  How will you choose to deal with it?