Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Ordination and Trees

Early on Tuesday morning, I posted what I had intended to be a very tiny celebration of having been ordained a year earlier.  I had received a lovely note the night before from Professor Who Preached at the service, and I felt like acknowledging, in a small way, the events of the year before.

Then I began to watch the news in earnest, and it seemed to me that a celebration of anything at all was inappropriate at best.

Now that we've been without power for four days, I kind of wish I'd gone ahead and  rejoiced.  I tried to contact some folks to see if there might be something our church could do to help anyone, but other than money, no one seems to want anything yet.

And then I began appreciate the challenge of life without light and heat.  We went to a hotel Wednesday night; the people who'd come to guard our street told us that it was too dangerous for us to walk through our yard, given the hot wires on the rain-soaked ground.

We came back yesterday. The wires had been cleared,  we can't stay in a hotel for days on end, and we wanted to be in our home.  The fact that no one had stopped us the night before when, in the dark and pouring rain, using flashlights to see, we had climbed our neighbor's fence to get into our backyard and then thown belongings over our back fence into the church lot where we had parked our cars, and then driven off into the night -- kind of gives us pause.  Half of our street is in the dark and the police are otherwise occupied.

Apparently most of our power crews are on New Jersey, and while I certainly don't begrudge those folks any help they can get, it's a little disconcerting to have seen power trucks in our city this morning for the very first time since Monday.

We have a house, and we have hot water, so I am clean, if disheveled.  We will have power again eventually, and I can go down to my church house tomorrow, where all is warm.   

Two trees are gone, leaving zero on on the tree lawn where there were five thirty years ago.  As someone pointed out on FB, those trees were filled with memories.  I watched them go down and thought of children selling lemonade under their branches, and pets promenading on the sidewalk below.

The hardest thing of all?

This morning I thought, If Josh were here, we could have gone to Chicago for a few days.  And then, coming into the coffee shop where I sit at the moment, I ran into an acquaintance whose son, Josh and Matt's age, lives and studies in Chicago.  "That's where we're headed as soon as I get home!" she said.  Her hair, like mine, clean and wet; her son, alive and happy.

I told her she'd better enjoy that she can do what I can't.

And what the mother on Staten Island, little sons swept away from her, will never be able to do.

 Next Door

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Crash Helmets (Sermon: Job 38 and Mark 10)

You all remember God’s words during the burning bush encounter with Moses, don’t you?

Moses was an ordinary fellow, trying to lie low and avoid the attention of the Egyptian authorities.  He was way out in the fields, tending his father-in-law’s sheep, when he happened upon a burning bush – God’s way of trying to get his attention so that God could explain to him that he’d be leading the Israelite slaves out of Egypt and toward the freedom of the Promise Land.

Startled, of course, is a word that  would not begin to describe Moses at that moment, and he, understandably, wanted to know who was speaking to him.  How was he supposed to explain this to his people; who was sending him?

“I Am Who Am” was God’s response.  “I Am Who Am.”  Clear enough.

Fast forward 3,000 years, and a great saint of the church, Catherine of Siena in Italy, a scholarly woman who had a great influence on the politics of her day, is reputed to have herself heard from.  And what did God say to her, echoing those long-ago words to Moses?

“I Am Who Am,” said God, “and you are She Who Is Not.”

I really did consider that those words were all I needed to offer you today in our reflections on Job.  I thought about just getting up and saying that God says to Job, “I Am Who Am, and you are He Who Is Not,” and sitting down.  Because that about covers it.

Job has lost almost everything, thanks to the Satan’s – the Accuser’s – determination to demonstrate that Job will, given enough provocation, turn from God.  But Job has not turned from God – Job has spent some 38 chapters haranguing God, beseeching God, expressing loudly and repeatedly his anger and hurt and bewilderment to God – and telling off his friends, who’ve tried to argue that he somehow deserved whatever he got.  No, Job has not turned from God at all.  Job has expressed, vehemently, much of the human predicament we experience when we find ourselves devastated by life and faced with a silent, seemingly impassive God.  And God has, indeed, been silent for all of those thirty-eight chapters.

No more, though. God emerges, loud and clear, out of the whirlwind of all creation, and turns everything around.  Now it is God who questions Job: “Who are YOU?” God wants to know. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.”

Now what can Job say to that?  Was he there when God created the earth?

“Can you create floods?” asks God.  “Send forth lightning?  Provide for the animals?”  Or, as God calls out in the portions we haven’t read, “Do you tell the sun what to do?  Have you travelled the earth, and been to the gates of death?  Do you control the weather?”

In  other words, “Am I not I Am Who Am, and are you not He Who Is Not?”

How does God answer Job?  God never mentions the wager with the Satan; God seems to have lost interest in that.  God does not respond to Job’s litany of complaints; God does not offer explanation, or clarity, or sympathy.  God deals in . . .  creation!  God pours God’s very own self out of the whirlwind and drenches Job in the story of creation.

We tend to think of “the creation story” as set forth in Genesis – where, by the way, as we’ll be discussing in Bible study next week, there are two.  Two creation stories. If we read or study or pray the Psalms, we may realize that they, too, sing of the power and glory and startling surprises of creation.  But how often do we engage with Job?  And so we may not know that there is, essentially, an entire creation story flowing out of the heart of God and through these last chapters.

What does God talk about?

The earth, the stars, the sea, the clouds, the snow, the hail, the rain, the grass, human bodies and minds, lions, ravens . . .

That’s how God answers Job.

God is a both-and kind of God.  God is both close friend and majestic creator.  God sends Jesus, and sends us one another, so that we can know the close companionship of a walk with divinity, and the touch of love and healing that come as whispers from heaven.  But God is also the powerful, the mighty, the sovereign, the mysterious – and that’s the God who answers Job.

What does that mean to us, sitting here comfortably in our lovely sanctuary, singing music that we love, admiring our windows, spending time in a community in which we know and care for one another.  What might God be saying to us this morning about who God is?

The brilliant writer Annie Dillard says  to us that:

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.

Is that what God is doing?  Drawing Job, and us along with his, to a place from  which we can never return?  For if we see God, in all God’s power and glory and might, we might surely need crash helmets, and we might never return to being who we once were.

Jesus, in today’s gospel reading, seems to be engaged in a similar process.  Jesus is listening to James and John, the sons of Zebedee – also called the Sons of Thunder.  Bold, brash, occasionally insensitive men.  Men who seem to have no idea what they could be getting themselves into when they announce that they want to sit with Jesus, at his right hand and at his left, in his glory?

Can’t you imagine Jesus thinking, “They really do thunder about without wisdom.  Do I need to remind them about Job?  Do I need to spell out who it is whom they getting tangled up with; do I need to instruct them to go out and purchase crash helmets?”

He kind of does tell them that.  He talks to them about drinking from the cup from which he will drink,   about becoming servants of all, about giving up one’s own life for that of others. He hints, rather broadly, that to walk with him and to drink from his cup doesn’t mean sitting next to him on your own personal throne of gold; it means going to a place of love and understanding that will change you permanently, change your understanding of creation and change your relationship with others.

Is it possible that we will discover, in that new place, that it is not all about us? That there is a mystery in which our personal suffering, unbearable as it sometimes seems to be, plays only a small part?   God, speaking to Job, doesn’t mention us in the whirlwind of words that swirl around Job’s ash-heap self.  Not only does God not seek, at least not in any way that we might expect, to console the heartbroken Job; God doesn’t even deign to mention humanity, or human suffering, or human beings as the crown of creation.  Not here. God seems to be focused on a much larger and grander vision. God seems to be caught up in the grandeur of the whole of the universe, all of which God intends to redeem.  

And yet  . . . and yet . . .

To whom is God speaking?  Not to the stars or the rain.  Not to the lion or the raven.

God is speaking to Job.  

In a book called Love: A Guide for Prayer, the authors tell us that

The God who spun stars into space has shaped with infinite care his human creatures. As insignificant as we might experience ourselves to be, we are in reality the creation with whom God most profoundly shares himself. He has given us the power to know and to love. This inestimable gift offers to each man and woman the extraordinary vocation to bring all creation into God’s service.

We might need crash helmets, if we are, like Job, to come face-to-face with the living God.  We might need seatbelts to keep us from being thrown into the nebulae and black holes of the sky that arches over us.  We might need to be careful about whose cups we drink from, because we will be changed.

But we are, below the billions and billions of stars out there, in the midst of the millions of animal species on our planet – we are the ones to whom God speaks.  Painful as it may sometimes be, we are the ones with the power to know and to love – and to serve.  We cannot do what God can do.  We cannot even understand who God is.  But we are the ones to whom God is present.  

Perhaps we are intended, with Job, to hear in God’s response the words of the writer of Psalm 8, who says in astonishment and wonder,

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.

So put on your crash helmets.  Buckle up your seatbelts.  If we seek the face of God, if we draw near to the creator of the universe, we will be changed.  When, still in the distant future for Job, God invades history in the form of Jesus Christ in order to redeem and restore all of creation into the beloved beauty God always intended, we will be altered.  We will be gathered into a love that extends far beyond the boundaries we imagine to be fixed for ourselves, and we will be unable to return to the place from which we began until we understand it to be completely transformed by that love.  We may be last in the ordinary human scheme of standards and hierarchies, but we will be made anew in vision and in hope and in love.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Beautiful and Terrible

Beautiful and terrible ~ the phrase of Frederick Buechner's that came to mind as I began to think about a blog overhaul.  It seemed to reflect something about where I find myself right now.  Seeing both, simultaneously. As Mary Oliver says in her poem Heavy, "I went closer and I did not die."  And I like Buechner ~ a lot ~ how could I not?  A Presbyterian pastor who writes with a singular grace; a minister who got his start as the chaplain at Phillips Exeter Academy, a school in New Hampshire which, although I've never set foot on the campus, looms large in our family lore as the one from which my father and his brothers graduated; and a man who as a boy lost own father to suicide.  How could I not see myself in his intricately crafted sentences?

Beautiful and terrible.  As I wrote to a friend yesterday, I often feel as if I am living two parallel lives.  Genuine, authentic lives ~ but two of them.  I wonder whether everyone who lives under a cloud of  grief knows that dual reality.  How many times in the past year has one person or another said to me, "No one knows. You can't talk about it. People go on with their own lives, they wonder what's wrong with you that you aren't "over it," and they don't want to know differently." Women who have lost husbands recently, parents who lost children last summer or decades ago, people who toil under the weight of constant care for a spouse or child that upends all semblance of normal life.

I have been much taken of late with the work of Becky Eldridge, a gifted young spiritual director.  (I think she lives in Texas now, so those of you down there might want to look her up ~ although I don't know where she is, and I do realize that Texas is kind of large.)  This morning she writes (yes, I took the picture from her post) about the rails of a train track as a metaphor for the consolations and desolations ~ God seemingly very close and very far ~ of life, with the railroad ties representing prayer, which holds the rails together.

She caught my attention right away.  Long ago, I was an attorney for a  railroad company, and one of my tasks was to meet periodically with lawyers for the Federal Railroad Administration which, among other things, regulates track standards and inspects for safety.  As a consequence, I know a few things about train tracks.  (There's a crossing out here in the country where my church is located that causes me to wonder, every time I bump over it, "Where the hell are the FRA guys when you need them?")

It occurred to me, reading her piece this morning, that the rails might also illustrate Beuchner's phrase about beautiful and terrible things happening in life, and my own sense of apprehending and living those things in parallel, distinct lives. And the cross-ties as prayer?  I suppose I might say that in the first couple of years after Josh died, it was as if the ties had been blown to smithereens, and the process for the rest of my life will be a painstaking re-laying of track, foot by foot, with frequent do-overs for the ties that unpredictably splinter into fragments just as I think I've secured them into place.

This morning, seeing the dawning light reflected in the windows, I hurriedly pulled on some pants and a fleece pullover so that I could take a short walk to watch the sunrise over a vacant field.  As I stood there in the early chill, I thought about how lovely the mist was, low across the ground, with the sky beginning to brighten above it.  And then I thought: Josh will never see an early morning sunrise again.

Here is the world.  Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


I'm gonna make some changes to the bog over the next few days.  Rather than start yet another one, I'm staying here, and changing everything from title on down.  

It may be kind of messy and goofy for a week or so.  It may change moment by moment some days.


Looking Back

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to emcee an event next April: the dinner celebration of the tenth anniversary year of the Ignatian Spirituality Institute, the program in which I studied spiritual direction. I started wondering what I had been up to during the April in which I was making the Exercises, and dug back through my journals to see whether I could uncover something that might help me introduce the event.  (I may have.)  

Then, as long as I had my file boxes of prayer reflection journals out (twenty-some over the past eight years!), I wondered what the October entries would show.  How life has changed  .  .  .   .

October 19, 2005

A few weeks into the Spiritual Exercises, which means that I have made a commitment to an hour or so of prayer time each day (I am nowhere close to meeting that commitment) and a weekly meeting with a spiritual director, who is very gentle and very funny, and takes my beginning efforts very seriously.  Recently returned from visiting Josh at The University of Chicago.  I am an elder in my home Presbyterian church and a teacher in an Orthdox Jewish school, and my life of prayer is in its infancy.

" 'Be still and know that I am God.'

Really, these are words that you could put into use anywhere, any day, in the middle of anything.  Staring with the 'be still.'  Meaning: Create an interior stillness.  Lose all the internal chatter.  That in itself would be a discipline.

Just right now: I can hear the tv in the living room, the dog walking around hopefully in the kitchen, the clatter of these [computer] keys.  But I can try to create an inner stillness.  A hollow place.  Not an empty place, but a warm, hollow, inviting place for God to rest.  How would I do that during the day?"

October 17, 2006

The Exercises are, officially, behind me, and have become the framework for my spiritual life.  I am embarking upon the ordination journey, and have just been endorsed by the Session of my home church as an Inquirer in the official process.  I'm visiting and applying to seminaries, and there's no reason to think that all will not go splendidly.

In my journal: A brief email exchange with my spiritual director on the continual dilemma in my life: Protestant/Catholic; Ignatius/Calvin (both studying in Paris in the 1530s, where I spent time in July imagining them both).  He has some reading suggestions. 

October 20, 2007

I am a brand-new new seminary student, reflecting on the Eucharist, which had been transformed for me the previous year from a boring ritual to a deeply significant sacrament, thanks to a Seder dinner at the home of one of my students, a meal shared in the context of Week 3 of the Exercises with its many imaginative prayers based on Jesus' final days.

"The seminary feels physically bereft to me.  No labyrinth.  No stained glass.  No statues.  No art. Puritan starkness in the extreme  It has its own beauty but it seems, as a day-after-day-after-day experience, on the empty side.  I begin to see how much I depend upon material, substantial reference points for faith."

Mid October, 2008

The entries are not dated, but they are stacked in order in a folder.  Josh has been gone for seven weeks.  My father thinks his cancer had recurred.  (It had not.) Spiritual director emeritus does have cancer.  ( From which he eventually recovered.) How much? I wondered, sitting in my living room late in the afternoon, hair dripping from the shower, looking in despair at the emails on my laptop. 

"What does it mean that people keep speaking and writing to me in this way -- you teach us so much, you will have more wisdom and compassion for others?  Does it mean that even in the midst of such a horrific loss, I am still called to serve?  Even though I am now a person who can barely get out of bed in the morning?  A person who could not be trusted with the life of her own child?"

October 19, 2009

I am back in seminary.  I am taking Worship and Sacraments and Hebrew Exegesis and something else (I have no idea what that might have been).  This is the fall that I spend almost entirely on Psalm 88, which probably helps to save my life.  

In my journal: A long email received this day from SDE, which I carried around, crumpled up in my pocket, for months, because I needed to read and re-read what was, in effect, an extended meditation on the Suscipe,  a prayer at the end of the Spiritual Exercises.  He writes, among other things, about coming to an acceptance of the mystery of faith.   I will get no answers, he tells me.  It is oddly reassuring, to be offered companionship in the articulation of that hard reality. 

Not a bad re-read this week, as I am contending with Job in the pulpit.  Odd, to look back at these entries from this vantage point.  What a terrible and strange and wonderful journey this has become.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Ministry: Cultivate Imagination; Interpret Experience

I wrote the following during my days walking alongside the water at Birch Bay, on almost the northernmost edge of Washington State, last June.  After two weeks of preaching Job, with two to go, and a bedside vigil Tuesday and funeral Saturday, I'm off to the beach here on the North Coast of Ohio, to ponder it anew.

I think that those might be the tasks to which I am called: to cultivate imagination and to interpret experience.

I've been trying to distill the diffuse activities, plans, thoughts, and priorities of my daily life into a short phrase that might provide me with a sort of plumb line by which to gauge whether I am in alignment with who I am supposed to be and what I am supposed to be doing.  Life as a pastor is, as I had suspected, much like life as a mother in the variety of its demands, which often materialize as if out of nowhere and on the turn of a dime.  (The analogy between pastoring and mothering occurred to me when I was deep in the discernment process with respect to seminary, and has caused me to wonder ever since exactly how it was that men managed to reserve ordained ministry to themselves for nearly twenty centuries.)

While we were on vacation a couple of weeks ago, I intently focused my thoughts away from the church and my role therein.  The consequence has been that the cauldron of  ideas bubbling away beneath the surface of my consciousness has now boiled over.  It's possible that trying to contain them will be as elusive a prospect as would be attempting to scoop up tangible bubbles which lie glistening on the ground after having overflowed their pot.

Four little stories to illustrate where I might be going with all this:

Some months ago, I sat talking with a lifelong and actively engaged church woman whose death appeared to be imminent.  She had insisted on pursuing further medical treatment, which even her doctors had suggested was futile at that point. (And, as my son says, when the doctors finally say so, then you know that you should have stopped six months ago.)  I suggested that perhaps God was inviting her into a new path on her journey.  "What are you talking about?" she asked.  I paused, confused.  Was it possible that our death-defying culture had so permeated her approach to her illness that she was incapable of envisioning a change in direction?  Of course it was.  And I was stymied as it dawned on me that I had, at most, a few days in which to help her gain a sense that God was at work in the heartbreaking and agonizing road she had begun to walk.

Last night, I spoke with a man who has invested several weeks in tests that may (or may not) reveal very bad news and will no doubt indicate a need for a prolonged course of treatment of some sort.  How well I remember the unsettled frustration of last fall, when the wait for results and the complications of decision-making were far worse than the concrete reality of diagnosis.  Recognizing that he has at least several more days of uncertainty ahead of him, I told him that the morning's reading had been Mark's narrative of Jesus stilling the storm.  I suggested that he is in a rocking boat in the midst of a veritable storm of unhappy symptoms and medical testing, and that perhaps he might pray to know the presence of Jesus in the boat with him, stilling that storm with the gift of peace.  "Thank you," he said,  And again, "Thank you."

I see, finally (because I am often extremely slow on the uptake), that I cannot merely ask the question, "Do you think . . .?" but that I need to offer the beginnings of an answer, in order to help someone see and understand his or her experience in the light of religious faith.

When I was seven years old, and my family was in the terrible car accident that took two lives, the adults responded by walking away from God, from church, from any conviction that there was anyone or anything at work beyond the obvious and horrific reality that confronted us.  I have often wondered, especially in the past few years, whether my outlook on life might be dramatically different from the one I possess if someone at that time had tried to articulate something, anything at all, about God's relational presence to us.  Even something sappy about angels in heaven.  What if someone had offered the slightest hint that our experience might be interpreted in light of something beyond the devastation that lay before us? 

Decades later, when I was making the Spiritual Exercises (yes, there they are again), someone finally did.  By that time, I had become a leader and teacher in the church myself, but it was not until that year of gentle prodding that I sensed my own spiritual imagination being cultivated, my own experience being opened to an interpretation in the light of Christian faith.  There wasn't much in the way of verbally articulated direction, which is no doubt why I hesitate to impose much on others, knowing that I learned from a master how to step out of the way and let God issue the invitations.  But there was a question here, a directional pointer there.  "Have you considered?"  Have you ever looked at it this way?"  "Maybe you should consider thinking about it that way."

But that degree of restraint often leaves people in the lurch.  And so I am trying to learn ~ how to teach and model and then invite them to mine their experiences and utilize their imaginative gifts to begin to see where God is at work.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Silence of God (Sermon: Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Mark 10:17-31)

Sell all you have and give it to the poor?  Hmm . . .  I’m not going to dwell on today’s gospel reading, one that we could actually roll about in our minds and hearts for weeks without reaching definitive conclusions, but I do want to take note of it.  Not for the usual reasons: the teaching that wealth places a barrier between us and God, and that we would do well to dispense with as many of our material goods as possible.  No, I want us to think of this passage in a reverse kind of way, a more positive kind of way.  What might Jesus be saying about the benefits of depletion?  Might he be saying that there are profound ways in which we pursue God only when we are bereft of what we hold dear?

What might Job have to say about that?

When we left Job last week, he was huddled on his heap of ashes, the very picture of misery.  His crops, his animals, his servants, his children – all had been taken from him as the Satan, the member of God’s heavenly court whom we identified as the Accuser, sought to demonstrate that, given enough provocation, Job would turn from God.  Job hasn’t done that.  As we watched, he muttered words which no doubt some of us have repeated.  “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away.”  “Shall we accept the good and not the bad from the Lord?”  “Blessed be the name of the Lord.”  Phrases which have caused people for centuries to refer to “the patience of Job.”  And I asked you: Is that enough?  Is it enough to talk about God in times of trouble, to offer the teachings of faith in the face of catastrophe?   

Today, we’ll hear one answer to that question and, as you might have imagined, it’s a resounding “No!”  Job’s patience is at an end.  Job is finished with platitudes.  Job is finished pretending that what’s happened to him is in any way acceptable, or even tolerable. The pious, willing-to-bear-all-without -argument Job – he’s gone.

Two things have happened to Job in between last week’s reading and this week’s.  First, he has these  . .  .  friends.  Job’s friends – have you ever heard that phrase?  Have you encountered any of them?

At first, Job’s friends are reduced to silence by the enormity and gravity of his plight.  So much loss!  They step away, and wait in silence, accompanying him in that manner which is so often the best of all – a quiet, sharing of grief, a stunned stillness of wonder that so very much can go wrong.

But then they begin to get restless, these friends of Job.  They, like most of us most of the time, believe that life should be just, should be fair.   In our presumptive ideal world, bad things do not happen to good people.  And so they begin to accuse Job:  You must have done something wrong.  You must have made some terrible mistakes.  You must have engaged in evils about which we do not know.  The only possible explanation for the calamities that have befallen him?  They’re his fault.  “The righteous are not cut off,” they tell him; the wicked are punished.  Job must have deserved what has happened to him.

We know those feelings and ideas, don’t we?  Every one of us.  Have you ever heard about a teenager’s bad behavior and muttered, “Those parents . . . I thought they were all right, but there must be something going on in that house.”  Have you ever thought, “That wouldn’t have happened to her if she’d dressed decently; it wouldn’t have happened to him if he stayed out of that neighborhood?”  Have you ever wondered, when something terrible has happened in your own life, whether God is punishing you for something?

We want life to be fair.  We want God to be just.  And we want to understand when things appear otherwise.

There’s a theological term for this kind of dilemma.  The word is theodicy.  It refers to the questions raised by our beliefs in the power and goodness of God and the incontrovertible evidence that bad things do happen to good people.  Theodicy: the huge question at the heart of Job.  

Job, too, wants life to be fair and God to be just.  And he know that fairness and justice, at least not as we humans understand them, are not words that can be applied to what has happened to him.  Remember, it was made very clear to us at the outset of the book that Job was a completely righteous man, a man who deserved none of what was about to happened to him. And when his friends can no longer contain themselves, and begin to insist that he must somehow be at fault, he finally roars -- his grief over his losses, his fury at his friends and, most of all, his bewilderment at God’s apparent abandonment of him.  

And that’s the second thing that has happened between the readings for our two Sundays: Job has begun to speak of his anguish and frustration with honesty.  Job has begun, even, to speak to God.  His so-called friends?  Those he describes as “miserable comforters with windy words.”  But God?  God he wants to hear from.

“I will give free utterance to my complaint; I will speak in the bitterness of my soul.  I will say to God, ‘Do not condemn me; let me know why you contend against me.  Does it seem good to you to oppress? . . . Do you see as humans see? . . .  you know that I am not guilty . . . [and yet] you turn and destroy me.”

Where is God?  That’s what Job wants to know, and in crying out for an answer, he echoes the long biblical tradition of lament.  Sometimes we think, or perhaps we’ve been told, that it’s somehow wrong, incorrect, inappropriate, to express our deepest angers and fears and sadness to God.  I don’t know where we get that idea, but we do.  We think we are only allowed to express gratitude to God, or that we are only allowed to ask God nicely – that we are somehow rejecting God if we give voice to our hurts and sorrows.

But the Bible is filled with expressions of human unhappiness.  The Bible is filled with voices crying out to God: Why?  How?  Where are you?  What are you thinking?  

Many of those voices are heard in the psalms, the songbook and prayerbook of the Jewish people, and most particularly in the specific psalms of lament.  There’s even a book in the OT entitled Lamentations.  Other laments are heard in the voices of the prophets, and in the words of Jesus himself.  As he dies upon the cross, he calls out in agony, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – the words of the first verse of Psalm 22.  His words echo the lament of human beings for centuries before him.  Where are you, God?  Why have you abandoned me?

Those words continue to be heard today.  Was there not someone who stood at the roadside earlier this week, at the intersection of 302 and 49, which looked like hell itself as the smoke and flames engulfed the collision of trucks and house and wondered, “Why have you forsaken us?”  When a young girl in Pakistan is shot in the head for speaking out for the education of girls, when a child we know dies of cancer or is catastrophically injured, do we not wonder, in the words of the Psalmist, “O God, why do you cast us off?” [Psalm 88]  How many times during the Holocaust of WW2, surely one of the seminal events of the twentieth century, did words from the Psalms rise into the sky with the smoke of the furnaces in which human beings were incinerated? “O God, why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture?” [Psalm 74]

No, this movement of Job, from pious words about God to expressions of anguish made to God, falls within a powerful Biblical tradition of lament.  And from what does that power extend?    The words themselves, the poetry, the images – yes, surely, all of those.  When Job says, in today’s reading, “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” – when he deplores the resounding echo of God’s silence – those of us who have been there turn to him in gratitude for his expression of the wails of our innermost hearts.

But surely the greatest power of these laments lies in the fact that they address God.  Job, like those who gave words to the psalms of lament, like the prophets who contend with God in the face of disaster – he goes directly to God.  These voices do not circumvent God; they do not take a detour to avoid a direct confrontation with God.  Even Psalm 88, the only one of the 150 Psalms in which no resolution of hope whatever is uttered, begins with the words, “O Lord, God of my salvation when, at night, I cry out in your presence, let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry” – a direct approach to God.  When everything is gone, when all has been lost, these ancient speakers still turn to face God.  

Even in the silence, they insist upon God: They insist upon speaking to God; they insist that God is present, somewhere; and they insist upon God’s faithfulness.  Do you know that one of the most beautiful reflections on God’s presence in the entire Bible is found right here, in the midst of Job’s agonizing sense of abandonment:

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.

We are used to hearing those words sung – “I know that my redeemer liveth” – in the context of Handel’s Messiah, which we sometimes hear at Christmas, and sometimes at Easter, and sometimes at funerals.  But do we know that they come from Job?  From the broken, hurt, bewildered Job, who has lost almost all and is set upon by comfortless comforters, but is insistent upon God’s faithfulness?
So insistent, in fact, that in today’s reading, Job calls for a trial.  Listen to him:

Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling! I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments. I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me. Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power? No; but he would give heed to me. There an upright person could reason with him, and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.

Job cannot find or see or hear God, but he remains undeterred.  What is the great grace, the great gift of God, reflected in Job’s words?  That he longs for God.  That his hope in God, that his belief in God’s care for him, persist.  That he is certain that the silence of God is not the last thing that he will hear.

The silence of God – it’s very silent, indeed.  And it’s difficult for us to interpret. We are people of story, of narrative, of proclamation, of conversation – people of a multitude of words.  We know, from the first verses of Genesis, that God spoke creation into being.  We know, from the first verses of the Gospel of John, that Jesus is The Word – God spoken and speaking into humanity.  And we know, when we, like Job, experience that vast silence in which God resides seems to reside in times of trial, that we, too, long to know that God is there.  We long to know that God witnesses our suffering and hears the protestations we are called to utter.    

And, if we have the integrity of Job, we say so.  If we have a remnant of hope, even in the face of the destruction of all we love, we say so.  Wendell Berry, the great writer of the natural world whom I’ve mentioned before, says, "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 himself or to no one, and the person who says it aloud to someone else. A person who marks his trail into despair remembers hope -- and thus has hope, even if only a little."

Job himself, along with the psalmists of lament, the prophets, and Jesus himself, tell us that we are not called to remain mute in the face of suffering.  We are not called to pretend to celebrate when we sorrow.  We are not called to be stoical in the face of rejection.

There is no one answer, of course.  No one demeanor we are called to exhibit, no one form of conduct to which we are called at all times.  In fact, there are few people more convinced of the value of silence and listening in the context of prayer than I am.  But there are times in which our honest voices are welcomed by God.  Times in which we are not required to make do, to accept pat explanations, to suffer in silence.   God may be silent, but we may be called to give voice, to who we are and to what we experience.  

I have a friend who often writes, when I am going through difficult times, that she is praying for me “fiercely.”  I love that word, “fiercely.”  And I think that it characterizes Job, and his prayer, and his lament.  Job is fierce in what he perceives as the injustice of his situation and, even more importantly, in his relentless pursuit of the God whom he believes will hear him and respond.  So are we called to be.  

Remember that young man, rich in material possessions, in today’s gospel reading?  Does he pursue God fiercely?  No . . . he’s like most of us.  We try to cling to prosperity and wealth – material, physical, intellectual.  We don’t want to lose our belongings, our physical strength, or our mental acuity.  We resist those losses with all of our might; we think of them as destroying our very identity.  What we do fiercely is that we try to hang on – but not to God.

Job didn’t have a choice about his losses, but he did have a choice about his response.  Unlike the rich young man, he doesn’t simply walk away.  Unlike his original patient, long-suffering self, he doesn’t simply say those things he might think that God wants to hear. 
No – the growing, maturing Job, the Job whose relationship with God calls him to integrity and honest self –expression – that Job responds fiercely.   He leaves his friends way behind, and he heads directly for God, the God whom he believes wants to hear from him, just as he wants to hear from God.  Somehow Job knows: there is no rejection of God in lamenting our deepest woes to God.  The rejection comes when we walk away or refuse to speak our truths.  To bring our anger, our hurt, our bewilderment, our misery to God – that is to honor the living God.  To approach the God with whom we claim relationship, not merely in the midst of plenty, but in the desert of nothingness – that is fierce faithfulness.