My plan for today’s post was to do a little experiment called ‘questions for God’. The idea being that I would read Job 21-22 and write down any tough questions it brought up for me. Questions I’d like to ask God, funnily enough. Sometimes I find that I avoid these questions when writing this blog, or refer to them briefly, partly because I can’t answer them and partly because they scare me. I thought this would be a good way to face them head on.

The problem is, Job’s done it for me. Chapter 21 is his tirade of questions directed at his mocking and, in his opinion, deluded friends. But early on he asks “as for me, is my complaint addressed to mortals?”; these are really questions for God (21:4). And they’re good ones too. “Why do the wicked live on,  reach old age, and grow mighty in power?” This pretty much sums up Job’s detailed inventory of the prosperity of the wicked in 21:7-16. Next he moves on to refuting the naive claims of his friends, starting with these questions that ring with irony:

17 ‘How often is the lamp of the wicked put out?
   How often does calamity come upon them?
   How often does God distribute pains in his anger?
18 How often are they like straw before the wind,
   and like chaff that the storm carries away?

He is referring back directly to claims his friends have made (eg 15:20, 18:6, 18:12) and you can just hear his tone: ”Really? That’s what you think happens to the wicked is it? Hellooo!’ My favourite part is when he says “You say, “God stores up their iniquity for their children.”   Let it be paid back to them, so that they may know it.” Too right! I’ve always thought the whole generational guilt thing was a bit unfair!

So, Job gets that off his chest, and his friends see his point, right? Of course they don’t. Eliphaz’s reply is sooo frustrating! First of all he lists loads of things that Job has done wrong, which is confusing because he’s supposed to be “blameless and upright” (1:1) so you get the feeling Eliphaz is clutching at straws somewhat. Then he says “Agree with God, and be at peace; in this way good will come to you.” Oh, cheers, Eliphaz, I’m sure the blameless and upright Job hadn’t thought of that one! The point is that he’s still clinging to the idea that Job is suffering because he’s in the wrong, but we know it’s not like that, don’t we?

If we thought along the lines of Eliphaz then we would think that all rich and prosperous people were good and everyone who suffered disasters and loss was in the wrong. This is the kind of logic that led to some of the repugnant thinking about the Haitian earthquake from certain people who I hesitate to call Christian. It’s also the kind of thinking that can lead to a sort of self-satisfied malaise in those who have it good; something that Jesus wasn’t too keen on.

But knowing that life just isn’t that simple just makes everything more confusing, doesn’t it? I find myself reading Job’s words and thinking “yeah! yeah, exactly!” And, like Job, I want answers. The thing is, none will satisfy, even if they were a bit more complex than “bad things happen because you’re bad!”

These are questions for God and, as such, there is no real answer in our vocabulary. Except trust, I suppose, to trust in the bigger picture. But then I think tell that so someone who just lost their home to a flood, or their child to a bomb, or their arm to a diamond mine. This is tough stuff and it’s one of the fundamental questions of faith. What it all boils down to is, why doesn’t God just sort everything out?

You know, I sort believe He does sort everything out or that he is sorting everything out. That doesn’t stop me having a thousand more questions for Him though.  Because faith isn’t mindless, it’s just not mind-limited. One big point is that we should never impose our trust on someone who’s suffering. Telling someone who’s just been diagnosed with cancer that it’s all part of the bigger picture is not always the best route to go down. If we can learn anything from Job it is that just being there with a friend and allowing them to feel all their anger and pain is probably the most useful thing we can do. We’re allowed to not know why things happen the way they do, in fact that not knowing might help us to empathise with others. Job’s friends have all the answers, and they’re not so helpful…

To be comfortable with an unanswered question in this age-of-reason culture is pretty radical. And I like being radical.

I ended an old post on this subject with the phrase “may all of your prayers and none of questions be answered”. I think I might make it my catchphrase!

A nice piece of synchronicity means that in Isaiah 50-55, like yesterday’s reading from Job, we find words used in Handel’s Messiah. Like those words from Job, it is also a passage for which many Christians see the interpretation as ‘obvious’. The song of the suffering servant (chapter 53) is used in Handel’s Messiah and by many Christians over the centuries, to reflect on the suffering of Jesus on Good Friday, and I can see why. The song ends with “yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” Sounds a lot like Jesus to me. But when you read this chapter in its context, this interpretation doesn’t seem so obvious.

A traditional Jewish interpretation of this text, and now the view of many Christian scholars, is that it personifies the nation of Israel and its sufferings under occupation and exile. The voices who speak here are the kings of the powerful nations, struck by the resurgence of God’s people. This actually makes a lot of sense to me. Not only is Israel named as the servant in previous chapters (44:1, 44:21, 45:4, 48:20, 49:3), but the kings are mentioned in the preceding verse 52:15;  “kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.” This leads straight in to the first line of 53; “who has believed what we have heard?”

Yes, when I read 53 as a whole, rather than certain verse or half verses, and especially when I read it in its place within Isaiah, I see that it may well be about the suffering nation of Israel in exile. But so what? Does that make it less powerful? Less relevant to Christians? I don’t think so, not at all.

Isaiah 50-55 is striking in that it is awash with contrasts. The suffering servant songs of 50:4-11 and 52:13-53:12 occur between shouts of jubilation and hope. In 52:7 we read the beautiful lines

7 How beautiful upon the mountains
   are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
   who announces salvation,
   who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’

and in 55:1 there is what the NRSV entitles “an invitation to Abundant Life:

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
   come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
   come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
   without money and without price.

There is something vital for us to learn from this song of hope and suffering, or of hope that comes out of suffering. Something about patience, endurance, something about every experience forming who we are.

One reason I’m reluctant to subscribe to the Jesus-as-suffering-servant model is that I’m wary of presenting Jesus’ suffering as a substitute for our own. You know, the whole “Jesus: he suffers so you don’t have to!” slogan; it just doesn’t float my boat. Plus it’s totally not biblical; hello! John the Baptist, Paul, Stephen – there was definitely some suffering involved in following Jesus. He died that we might live, he didn’t suffer that we might live it up.

So there is something we have to face in the fate of the nation of Israel, in their rejection, exile, oppression. We have to face the idea that being called to follow God doesn’t mean an easy life, far from, it means more is demanded of you. It also requires faith when hope seems absurd.

But that’s easy for me to say. I’m not in Congo or Kashmir or Cote d’Ivoire or Queensland right now, for me it is likely that this talk of suffering will only ever be relevant on an existential level. I know nothing of war or coups or natural disaster.

So I think there is another reason we must face this image of the suffering servant. We must face it lest we become like the powerful kings who are startled when they realise that those they had thought of as below them are those who God loves. We must know that’s God’s love is for the oppressed, and we must live our lives in honour of this. If the Bible teaches us one thing it is that the rich need to watch themselves!

So may we know that in every suffering, there will later be song. And knowing this may we be a part of helping others to sing.

Amen.

A shared sorrow…(Job 17-18)

December 30, 2010

“My spirit is broken and my days are extinct.” (Job 17:1)

It’s funny, isn’t, how this resonates with so many of us. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had all I own and most of my family obliterated in the same moment, yet somehow Job’s words speak to some feeling in me. Some deep distress, even as I sit in my wonderful home, with my wonderful husband in the next room, with full cupboards and a healthy family. Middle class guilt perhaps, or something deeper. Something closer to the bone.

I think we all recognise, somewhere within, that deep sadness. It’s hard to admit it when things are going well, that we’re not happy happy through and through, but there it is. It’s why we all love sad songs and sad films, well some of us more than others. If someone recommends me a book and proceeds to tell me how tragic it is I run for the hills; why do I want to spend my leisure time having my heart-broken by the lives of fictional characters?? But I do love to indulge in a melancholy melody. The catharsis of hearing someone else’s lyrics mirror your own pain is a great release.

And that’s part of what Job gives us. I feel silly even writing it because I have had nothing to cause me suffering as Job has. Don’t get me wrong, I can put a suffering spin on my life if I want to; grew up in a single parent family with money worries in London, Dad never lived with me, hard time a school blah blah blah. Or the non-spun version; wonderful creative childhood with loving mother and dedicated (if absent) father, never wanted for anything although money was tight, very academically successful at school. It’s important to notice when my mind craves drama, or even trauma, and so concocts its own. But still, there is a deep longing in me. I often have moments of depression. Just moments (and I am grateful that they are so fleeting), but they are there.

Is it just me? I doubt it, or Leonard Cohen and Radiohead and Jonny Cash would have a much smaller fan base. I have a theory that most people’s favourite song is a sad one, in fact I’ve attached a poll to this post to test my theory, please take part in it! Because there is something seductive about sadness, but also because there’s a bit all of us that is sad.

There are many reasons for our personal melancholies, many stories attached to our sorrow. But I think, I really believe that there is one reason we all share. It is a deep longing. What some people would call being in original sin, I suppose, though I think that phrase has too many centuries of shame and dogma attached to be useful to many people. I think we sense that we are not as close to God as we could be, that we have made barriers between ourselves and Our Lord. We long for closeness we sense is achievable and yet we believe so many lies that few of us ever feel it for more than moments.

Perhaps this is why the experience of finding faith in Jesus can be so euphoric. Because he is a gateway to God for so many of us, because he has broken down barriers that we could not, or would not perhaps. But we Christians must be honest and say that this euphoria is fleeting; it is not a lifetime’s supply or a reward for ‘signing up’. I think the taste is enough to beckon us closer, though in the end the presence of God is bigger than anything we could feel, and present always; whatever our experience. Perhaps it is this sense, of God’s presence and yet the feeling of separation, that  causes our deep longing and sadness. This is certainly something that Job experiences acutely and expresses with a wonderful lucidity that taps into something we all know well. Don’t we? Perhaps I have made a personal experience universal, but I expect not…

And now for my first poll…enjoy…

 

What can I say about Judges 17-21? No, seriously, what can I say? It’s pretty bleak, and very brutal. There are two stories really. Chapter 17 tells us of Micah and Levite. In short: Micah steals his mother’s silver but then gives it back because she curses the person who stole it, then she is happy to have it back so turns it into an idol. Okay… Then Micah meets a wondering Levite who is “going to live wherever I can find a place” so  he employs to be his priest. Then in chapter 18 the Danites, who are on the look out for territory and spy some where the people are “quiet and unsuspecting” take Micah’s priest and idol for their own and when Micah complains they threaten to attack him. All unpleasant enough, but you ain’t seen nothing yet.

The second story is not one I want to recount; it’s a bit like the story of Sodom only without divine intervention and with some war and kidnap added on the end. Both this story and chapter 34 of Genesis, which I read yesterday, involved rape, and I don’t want to brush over that fact. Especially today’s which is horribly disturbing in every way. This is the stuff that reminds us not all of the Bible was written to instruct or inspire us. Some is written to show how far astray humanity can and has gone.

I began to write an exploration of the statement that ends the book; “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” I wanted to explore whether having a king made them any better, but more than that whether any one could ever really think any of this was “right”. But I don’t know where those ideas are leading… I seem to go around in circles. The fact is that I’m heart-broken by what I read in these chapters, especially chapter 19. It is a similar feeling to reading or hearing about the atrocities committed against women in the Congo or other parts of the world in which rape is used as a weapon of war.

These stories force me to face the darker side of humanity. They don’t, as others may suggest, prove to me that we are innately wicked and that is why Israel behaved this way without God to guide them (you may like to read my post on Genesis 1-3 for my thoughts on that subject). But they do confront me with the inescapable truth; that parts of the world and parts of ourselves that seem so so far from God, and there people who have forgotten or never knew that they were made in his image. And I am not talking about atheism. There are countless humanitarian and compassionate atheists in this world, I’m talking of a much deeper forgetting.

Perhaps this is not the inspirational post you signed up for (I do see and appreciate the subscriptions, thank you), but then the Bible’s not really what any of us signed up for is it? Not all of it. We signed up for ‘Love God and Love your neighbour’ perhaps, or ‘I am the Way the Truth and the Life’, or ‘freed from the letter of the law to live in the spirit of the law’, but not many of us signed up for facing rape, murder and kidnap. But perhaps those of us who are privileged enough to only read about such trauma have the duty to face it, to remember that it is not just archaic horror recorded in a book, but present in the world today. It is something that we should care about, something that should break our hearts open. Jesus did not take kindly to those who bubble wrapped themselves into cozy lives and tried to keep the worst of the world out. So perhaps Judges 17-21 has done me a service today, strange though it may seem.

But, to end, I do believe that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. And there are lights all over the world including the Heal Africa Hospital who, among many other things, seek to heal the women in the Congo who have been abused like our nameless woman in chapter 19. May God bless them.

 

 

Listen up! (Job 13-14)

December 2, 2010

One could quite easily get to Job 13-14 and think “alright Joby mate, change the blooming record, I mean you’re talking but all I’m hearing is ‘moan, moan, moan, moan moan moan moan!” But let’s have a brief recap. Job was a prosperous man with many livestock; they all died. Job had 10 children; they all died. And none of this was spread out, it was like bam! There goes your life Job, hard luck. And Job, good chap that he, is responded by saying “the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed me the name of the Lord.” Impressive stuff. Well,at least he had his health, right? Wrong! He then gets afflicted sores all over his body. Ouch.

And at first his friends were incredibly sensitive. They sat with him in silence for a whole week. But when Job starts speaking, boy do they chip in with their two pence. I wonder if they spent that time in silence preparing their pearls of ‘wisdom’ for when the chance came. Last week I wrote about how Job’s suffering had put him on the defensive so that he didn’t hear comfort in his friends’ words. This week I’m realising that perhaps it’s Job that needs to be heard.

In chapter 13 Job asks to be listened to, or to be let to speak, no less than six times. He needs to speak out his grief, his anger, his confusion, his desperation. He needs to make his case to his friends and to God. He does not need a theology lecture or an oration on the nature and causes of suffering.

I have a good friend who likes a bit of moan. And quite right too, he/she (identity preserving non-gendering going on here) has had it rough in a lot of ways. When we spoke I used to try to help him/her look on the bright side, or to put the other person’s view across if they were in conflict. This did not go down at all well and my ‘advice’ fell on deaf ears for the most part. Then one day I was telling friend about something that was upsetting me and I made some over-the-top melancholy statement I knew not to be true like “men always leave me” or something as daft. This friend tried to reason with me “now you know that’s not true; you’ve had a great life, etc etc…” This was perfectly correct, but I did not need correction, I needed sympathy. I needed someone to hear my pain and comfort me. Of course, this had to happen more than once before I realised that I treated my friend exactly the way I didn’t want to be treated. Now I  try to just listen and allow them to me in whatever place they are, perhaps offer some advice if asked, and when I do that the conversation is much more satisfying on both ends.

Job reminds me that we are not rational when we suffering, and for the most part we know that. As Job put it 13:1-2 “look, my eye has seen all this and my ear has understood it. What you know I also know; I am not inferior to you.” We don’t need teachers, we need friends. Luckily, friends are teachers. Like my friend who needs to talk about their not-so-peachy life and taught me a very important lesson. To open my heart and close my mouth, if you like. Perhaps we can all learn from Job’s pleading.

But his friends aren’t the only ones who Job needs to be heard by. He need’s God’s ear too.  And he needs to hear God. There are so many questions in 13:21-14:22. Does God hear them? And does God hear us now? I’d really like a booming voice from the sky saying “yes I do!” just to be sure, wouldn’t you? But that’s not the deal…okay it is at the end of Job, but not for us.

If God’s speaking is subtle then God’s listening is too. He doesn’t hear us like we hear our friends; at the end of the phone at the end of a busy day. He doesn’t receive in Dolby Digital surround sound. But he does hear us I think, somehow, we are heard. It’s just really hard to connect with that truth sometimes, to feel heard by this transcendent intanglible being.

All the more important to listen to each other then…

It’s all getting a bit heated in Job 11-12. Job’s mammoth moan isn’t even half way through but his friends are starting to lose their patience. Zophar speaks for the first time and he’s not pulling and punches;

3 Should your babble put others to silence,
   and when you mock, shall no one shame you?
4 For you say, “My conduct is pure,
   and I am clean in God’s sight.”
5 But O that God would speak,
   and open his lips to you,
6 and that he would tell you the secrets of wisdom!
   For wisdom is many-sided.
Know then that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves. (11:3-6)

Ouch. Job claims to be blameless (and we read in chapter 1 that he’s God’s favourite!) but Zophar wishes God would have a word with him; put him in his place. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but Zophar will get what he wishes for by the end of this book.

Job’s dry wit rings out in his reply; “No doubt you are the people and wisdom will die with you.”  (12:2) . The last thing he needs, he reminds his friends, is a lecture about wisdom. He’s bereaved, forlorn, hopeless. He’s been made a “laughing-stock”. Zaphor means well but perhaps he could have found a nicer way to say it!

The thing is, that the telling off was not all Zaphor offered Job. Yes his opener was rather biting but then he offers these wonderful words of comfort;

13 ‘If you direct your heart rightly,
   you will stretch out your hands towards him.
14 If iniquity is in your hand, put it far away,
   and do not let wickedness reside in your tents.
15 Surely then you will lift up your face without blemish;
   you will be secure, and will not fear.
16 You will forget your misery;
   you will remember it as waters that have passed away.
17 And your life will be brighter than the noonday;
   its darkness will be like the morning.
18 And you will have confidence, because there is hope;
   you will be protected and take your rest in safety.
19 You will lie down, and no one will make you afraid;
   many will entreat your favour.

Your misery will be remembered as waters that passed away; even your dark times will be like the morning. Zaphor is attempting to remind Job that this, too, shall pass. To offer him hope. But Job doesn’t seem to hear this, he heard Zaphor’s reproaches and  locked onto them. He can’t hear the hope; only the shame.

Do you recognise this mind-set? I do. Job has a much better excuse than me too; I’ve never experienced anything like what’s he’s going through. But still I know what it is to be so wrapped in my own suffering that I can’t accept any comfort that is offered. I brush it off saying “I know that! I don’t need you to tell me, thanks very much!”. Even the gentlest words of correction feel like attack. Someone telling me that this will pass is useless; what do I care about the future? It’s now that I feel like rubbish.

When we are suffering it’s hard to be vulnerable. Our barriers are up to ensure that we don’t fall apart. The only problem is that these walls keep comfort out and lock our insecurities and self-pity in. While I continue not to ask for or accept help I continue to suffering.

Sometimes we need to indulge our self-pity, our anger, our despair. Job needs to feel his feelings and ask his questions. But if we allow others to be a part of this process the weight of it seems to lift a little.

So I guess the question is; Do I want to be vulnerable? Or do I want to miserable?  

Chosing the former is brave and pretty counter-culture… It’s also, for me at least, a step closer to freedom.

We have the choice.