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  • Writer's pictureSt. Luke's

Holding Suffering

The Rev. Laurel Hart, Deacon

Hey, have you ever been in “Job’s shoes” so to speak? Things just didn’t go the way you wanted or had planned. The perfect interview for that dream job ended in a “thanks but no thanks”. Had that happen. A long- term friendship ended for reasons never fully understood because the friend wouldn’t communicate anymore. Had that happen. The airplane trip to celebrate my dear brother-in-law’s 50th birthday was grounded because some terrorist flew airplanes into buildings. Had that happen. Oh, and the most recent – don’t tell my family – I was making a pot of oatmeal one morning last week– I always put cinnamon into a bubbling pot of cooking oats. I put a heaping teaspoon of chili powder into the pot because I grabbed the wrong bottle from the spice rack. I was able to rescue that mistake – lucky for the boys. But Job’s tale seems like everybody life’s story to some degree or another. Events for many people are and continue to be far more tragic than these few examples from my life. But there have also heartbreaking events in my life. Events for which I was responsible and others I had no hand in or foresaw happening. Many incidents changed the course of my life - some for better and others for the worst. Many times, I wanted to scream a big loud “why me” to God. I know I raised my fist to the heavens more than once in frustration because of those bad events over which I had no control.

In this passage God does not address Job’s situation or Job’s questions about justice. God does not even acknowledge Job’s suffering. Instead, God takes Job on a whirlwind tour of the cosmos, beginning with the foundation of the earth, and the birth of the Sea. These speeches of God near the end of the book of Job can leave us dissatisfied. We want God to apologize for all of Job’s suffering. We want God to be at least, well, comforting but what is heard instead is God saying, “I’m in charge not you human beings”. The beautiful verses describe a world of wild beauty and creatures who are free to roam.

Just like us in times of turmoil, Job doesn’t like what he hears. But what does God’s response have to do with Job’s situation or with Job’s suffering? Afterall Job was the center of his universe, sitting in judgment at the city gate, surrounded by family and possessions and admired by one and all. Job thought that the world ran by a strict system of punitive justice: the righteous are always rewarded and the wicked are always punished. And Job was a righteous person. After all the troubles come on Job, his friends continue to hold to the doctrine of retaliatory justice: because Job suffers, he must have done something to deserve it. Job himself knows that this isn’t true. His world has descended into chaos, but he still holds to his integrity and questions how he is supposed to keep his faith in the God he loves when he has lost absolutely everything else. So, he calls on God to answer him.

Then when God shows up and answers, the answer breaks open Job’s world and expands his vision to include places and creatures Job never imagined in his former life. God speaks of freedom and grace rather than reward and retribution. The world is not centered on human beings, according to the divine speeches. It is a world full of good things which interact with each other, however, it is not an entirely safe or predictable world, but it is beautiful and good, nonetheless. And God invites Job to continue to live in that wild and beautiful world and to continue to risk interactions with creation.

Is this an adequate response to Job’s suffering? It is not, in a conventional sense, very comforting. while personal piety and righteous behavior may be worthwhile in and of themselves, they may not necessarily lead to personal gain or material success. This can certainly be disconcerting to us believers — we think of ourselves as good people who will win our hearts desires in the end. God would probably fail at a present-day pastoral care class. Nonetheless, these speeches of God at the end of the book of Job accomplish something profound. They move Job out of his endless cycle of grief into life again. They enable him to live freely in a world full of heartbreaking suffering and profound beauty, and to do so in a way that reflects God’s own care for the world. It can also be a relief, though, in that it is a very clear statement that victims — of tragedy, illness, violence, and poverty, among other things — are not necessarily to blame for their misfortunes. Sometimes bad things happen and there is no good reason. Pandemics rise up when we least expect it, and people are infected with a terrible disease and die. And it hurts like hell when they are people who you’ve loved.

In a universe created by God and in which humans live, the challenge is how to hold these two contradictions together — 1) the world is orderly and 2) tragedy doesn’t always have a reason. The fact that God responds with questions, though different than Job’s, also suggests that the dialogue between God and Job and between God and us is ongoing, open, and unfinished. This might be the best news of all.

I’d like to close today with a prayer from Richard Rohr’s daily meditation group:

Loving God, you fill all things with a fullness and hope that we can never comprehend. Thank you for leading us into a time where more of reality is being unveiled for us all to see. We pray that you will take away our natural temptation for cynicism, denial, fear, and despair. Help us have the courage to awaken to greater truth, greater humility, and greater care for one another. May we place our hope in what matters and what lasts, trusting in your eternal presence and love. Listen to our hearts’ longings for the healing of our suffering world. Amen.

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