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Tuesday, October 10, 2006
There certainly are many voices in Scripture. Sometimes, these different voices are within the same book of the Bible, as we hear in the speeches given by Job’s friends, who recite for him the conventional theological wisdom that might be summed up in three words: Life is fair. If you do bad things, bad things will happen to you. (Conversely, if good things happen to you, then you must have done something good.) It’s a nice system, very neat and logical: there’s payback for sin, and reward for virtue. In Job’s case, the punishment is so great, losing everything and all his children and then his health, that his companions assume that his offense must have been unusually serious. But Job is not alone in disagreeing with his "friends." In fact, if they had indeed been friends, perhaps they would have done better at active listening or at being a compassionate presence, just sitting with Job in his pain and suffering. No, Job is not alone because we are with Job, aren’t we? Don’t we watch the innocent suffer and wonder at how just, how fair the universe is? When we see our children and grandchildren – or someone else’s children or grandchildren – suffer from illness or hunger or war, don’t we ask where God is in all that? How much more innocent could one get than being a child? And what about the prospering of those who have gone undetected in their cheating and stealing, so graphically illustrated by the calamitous fall of companies whose leaders have left widows and retirees impoverished? No, Job isn’t alone in this story. We sit with him sometimes, too, and ask where we can find God in it all. And then there are the different voices not only within but between books of the Bible, too. One can hardly read today’s text, "If I go forward, God is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive God" (23:8), without hearing the echo of Psalm 139: "Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?...If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast" (verses 7 and 9). Two ancient voices express different moments in the human condition, times of loss and questioning, times of utter assurance of God’s presence and love. We experience both in our lifetimes, and "faith" becomes at such moments a very different kind of word than just right belief in the correct doctrines. It becomes trust, a centering of ourselves in the mysterious One whose power and wisdom are so far beyond our own feeble but often noble attempts to make sense of the universe. Job’s friends are like preachers who have no good news and no comforting presence to share, only judgment and a kind of logic that violates Job’s integrity. Even though Job says that he can’t feel God’s presence, that he can’t find God so he can ask why these calamities have befallen him, he still holds to a stubborn kind of faith, a trust that God’s is just even if life is not. And so he longs to find God, to stand before God and make his case, like an attorney in a court before a judge, but right then, scraping his sores and surrounded by well-intentioned but misguided friends, Job thinks God is far, far away. When things are really bad, it may not be that God has left us but that we are blocked by pain from perceiving the God from whom we cannot flee. Some people see the Bible as a book of answers; others see in it both answers and unanswered questions. The Book of Job is best read in its entirety, as one passage gives us only a glimpse into this poetic and powerful reflection on undeserved suffering. But scholars provide an intriguing take on the final verses of today’s passage: the NRSV suggests Job is terminally depressed and despondent, longing for death and oblivion. But the Hebrew, according to o.t. scholar, James Newsome "is quite different, for it expresses Job’s continued and hopeful persistence…’It is God who makes me fainthearted, the Almighty who fills me with fear, yet I am not reduced to silence by the darkness or by the mystery which hides him’." Rather than resignation, Newsome says, Job embodies "continued faithfulness to his belief in a gracious God and to his belief in his own innocence." Walter Brueggemann, (another brilliant UCC scholar and teacher who is in Portland this week for a presentation at Trinity Episcopal) says that Job was like Adam in his need for a conversation partner who is adequate to the challenge. "Job seeks a conversation partner who will address him at the point of his anguish. The friends will not address him in his anguish, but will only rebuke him. Job must, however, find a partner who is not oversimple, boring, unconvincing. He must find a partner worthy of his life, elusive enough to interest, hidden enough to attract, severe enough to detain, awesome enough to encounter. He must find one or he is left with only his integrity" And, according to Brueggemann, this integrity is real and important, but "not adequate for the living of his life." How might we apply these reflections to our lives and to the life we share? Thinking of the desolation at Ground Zero or in Oklahoma City or in Lebanon or Baghdad or Gaza or Pakistan or any number of other disasters, the loss of innocent life and the suffering of those who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, do we feel the ashes around us as we sit and wonder why? When the cancer diagnosis is delivered, can we absorb it without losing our trust in God? In our modern understanding of depression, where is the theology of Job? How do these readings from Job resonate with our "stages of grief"? Is Job angry in this text, or is he bargaining, or is he in denial? When have you tried to find security in your integrity, and yet found yourself surrounded by loss anyway? What does that tell us then about our security?

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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