“There are circumstances that must shatter you; and if you are not shattered, then you have not understood your circumstances.” (Leon Wieseltier)
Victor H. Floyd explored spiritual resilience as modeled by the “patience of Job,” finding the path to transformation.
Susan McMane, Charles Worth and the Calvary Choir led worship with Brahms’ beautiful “Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled” as we thanked Susan for serving as our interim music director. Soprano Pam Sebastian sang Job’s song from Handel’s Messiah.
The Lord answered Job from the heart of the storm, saying:
‘Who is this obscuring my plans with such ignorant words?
Hitch up your belt like the fighter you are!
Now, I will ask the questions, and you will answer me!
Where were you when I created the earth?
If you know the answer, tell me!
Who decided its size? Do you know?
Who stretched the measuring line across it?
Into what foundation were its pillars sunk?
Who laid the cornerstone,
while all the choruses of morning stars sang together
and the heavenly court shouted for joy?’
[i] The Inclusive Bible translation by the Priests for Equality, 2007.
Introduction: A Bulldog Grip
Fred Craddock tells the story of his time as a Methodist preacher in rural Appalachia. To welcome him to his new church, the congregation decided to redecorate the area behind the pulpit. They held a design contest, and the winner was a little girl, Mr. Hickey’s daughter, who had cut a 11×12 picture from a glossy magazine. Her entry featured a grimacing English bulldog, underneath the caption read: “Get a bulldog grip on your faith.” Fred Craddock preached underneath that bulldog for a long time. He says, “I don’t care where you are and how tall the steeple, it all comes to that.” ‘Get a bulldog grip on your faith.’ It comes to that.[i]
If we are to learn from the story of Job, we had better heed Craddock’s words. There are biblical scholars who throw their hands up at Job and call this book of the Hebrew Bible “one of the most difficult of all…to translate and interpret.”[ii] Others call it, perhaps euphemistically, an example of “polyphonic storytelling”[iii] polyphonic—many sounds. You just heard the choir[iv] sing in polyphony, where one group of voices sings a melody but are soon joined in dialogue by the tune sung at a different durations and even different pitches. How is it that difficult polyphony always seems gives way to beauty in the end?
I know that whose redeemer liveth?
Johannes Brahms, a north German cultural Protestant, did not believe in Jesus the way people wanted him to. Aren’t you glad that doesn’t happen today? When Brahms premiered his very personal A German Requiem, the conductor was so bothered by the lack of Jesus in the libretto, he had the soprano soloist, who just happened to be his wife, sing, in middle of the Brahms Requiem, “I know that my redeemer liveth” from Handel’s Messiah.[v] The problem with this, besides being disrespectful of Brahms’ integrity, is the bulk of the text of that solo comes from Job, written many centuries before Jesus.[vi] Yes, a line from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is added to represent Jesus’ resurrection, but Job’s redeemer was not Jesus but Yahweh, the one who set the morning stars to singing, the one who speaks in today’s scripture lesson. The one who finally “comes out of hiding”[vii] after over thirty-five chapters worth of misery and suffering. Finally, God shows up. For me, Job is the only righteous character in this ancient allegory, which goes something like this.
Once upon a time, way down south[viii] in the land of Uz there lived a man named Job. People always mispronounced his name and called him Jahb., but he didn’t mind. Even though Job’s name[ix] meant “Hated” and “Persecuted” Job was God’s favorite. Job was very wealthy and had a big family who all worshiped God faithfully, sometimes going overboard. God loved Job so much people began to say that a forcefield of good fortune surround Job and his family. One day, God and the Great Adversary, also called Satan, were having a talk.
Resist not the evil one.[x]
Like Jesus[xi] in Matthew’s gospel, God sits down and engages Satan, demonstrating that we can learn and grow even amidst adversity—when we keep a bulldog grip on our faith, and don’t let go.
God said to the Great Adversary, “Job is always praising me—always turning away from evil; there’s no one like Job!”
Satan did not like that one bit and, being the Great Adversary, said, “I bet I can make Job turn away from you once and for all. I will strike down everything he has, and just watch, Job’ll curse you to your face.”
But God knew Job would never do that, and, in a rare moment, God said, “Okay, Satan. It’s on. I hand Job over to you for testing, but you may not kill Job.” So, Satan arranged for all of Job’s farmworkers and livestock to die horrible deaths. Then, Satan let Job’s enemies invade his land and steal all of Job’s camels. And then, as Job’s children were all gathered together eating dinner, Satan blew down their house, killing them all. Only Job, his wife and few of their friends were left.
Say is ain’t so!
Spiritually speaking, this is not God’s finest hour: handing Job over to Satan. This is when we realize it’s an allegory, a story. Not a history, not the Law, not a blueprint for “God’s plan”, nor is it a prophecy of things to come — but a story to mine for gold. Alfred Lord Tennyson said that [Job is] “the greatest poem of ancient and modern times.”[xii] Martin Luther declared Job “magnificent and sublime like no other book of scripture.”[xiii] Biblically speaking, Job is part of the Wisdom writings, the poetic Ketuvim which also includes Psalms and Proverbs.[xiv]
Even after Job had lost nearly everyone and everything, he still praised God, saying: “I came into this world with nothting, and with nothing I will leave. God gives, God takes away. So, I will praise God forever.” Job held onto his faith and would not let go.
But Satan, the Great Opposer, loves a challenge. Satan afflicted Job with sores and boils all over his body. Job took broken shards of pottery and scraped his itching wounds. Even Job’s wife encouraged him to give up. “Curse God and die!” she told Job. But Job kept on holding onto his faith in God. Then, just when it couldn’t get any worse, Job’s friends showed up.
With friends like these…?
You’ll notice them on the cover of the bulletin. Job’s friends yammer on and on, filibustering Job’s questions, and ours: “Why do bad things happen to good people? And why do good things happen to bad people?” The book of Job is meant to dispel, once and for all, the notion of retribution theology. Job does nothing to deserve his suffering. Likewise, God does not zap evil and reward virtue. Evil and virtue often bring bestow their own rewards.
One by one, Job’s frenemies lectured him: “If you had prayed harder, Job, God would bless you.” “If you just had more faith, these things wouldn’t happen to you.” “If only God wasn’t punishing you, poor thing, for your heinous sins.”
Job listened to their endless pontifications patiently, but Job had faith-filled integrity. Job protested, “God knows my heart, and God knows I do not deserve any of this. Why is this happening to me?” To this day, people still wonder why God did not answer Job’s question.
Job’s Own Fault?
In Chapter 3, Job cries: “What I feared most has come upon me, and what I dreaded has happened to me.”[xv] Some say that Job’s dread brought on his trouble. Is worry and doubt the work of devil? Job’s fear do not seem proportionate to his catastrophes. There’s an infamous church sign that advertises: “Don’t let worry kill you, let the church help.”[xvi] Job’s friends were faithful men who knew exactly where Job had gone wrong, but their versions of God did not jive with Job’s version of God. We carry within us different versions of God, variations on a theme, and we must all make our peace with our version of God.
Just last Sunday night, a young man in upstate New York at the Word of Life Christian Church,19-year-old Lucas Leonard, was beaten until he stopped breathing. The beating was led by church people and Lucas’ parent who demanded that he and his little brother Christopher “confess their sins and seek forgiveness.”[xvii] Lucas’ brother survived what the church and family described as a “counseling session”[xviii] and is listed in serious condition, but Lucas died at the hands of his church. Let’s be clear, we confess our sins corporately every week because those are usually the worst: the sins of unjust systems. We confess to God who is our only and ultimate judge. May God forgive us when we choose to stand in for God. And may angels sing Lucas Leonard home.
It’s stories like this that made me run away from ministry most of my life, believing what my religious frenemies told me: that gay people have no place in the church, that I am somehow more broken than all the other sinners, that maybe I’m cursed because of who I love, and that advocating for justice is too political for church work. With friends like those, who needs enemies!
After nearly two years, Calvary Presbyterian Church feels like a spiritual home for me and Lou.[xix] Last week, we taught Sunday Studio. The children were bustling with good questions about God and faithful living. One little girl asked Lou, “What happens when you use your cane but you still run into a tree or something?” Lou’s response: “I say ouch and keep on going.” That’s the message of Job: endure. Endurance is the theme of The Martian movie: Matt Damon’s problem-solving, how we must address one calamity at a time and draw on the sense God gave us to live full lives. Like Job, The Martian “reminds us amidst [all] the wreckage… the human animal is capable of remarkable things.”[xx]
So Job’s friends lectured him, and Job listened patiently. Finally, Job responded, “Back off, and just be with me. My integrity is intact.”[xxi]
Integrity in Pieces
Integrity, like Brahms’ in his public agnosticism. Integrity, as in honoring the version of God that dwells richly in you, and we must honor God even more when bad things happen. Leon Wieseltier makes it plain in his book, Kaddish.
“There are circumstances that must shatter you; and if you are not shattered, then you have not understood your circumstances. In such circumstances, it is a failure for your heart not to break. …Do you wish to persevere pridefully in the old life? Of course you do: the old life was a good life. But it is no longer available to you. It has been carried away, irreversibly. So there is only one thing to be done. Transformation must be met with transformation.”[xxii]
Perhaps Job learned how to honor his chaos. Like some of us, Job learns best the hard way. But the good news is this: the church is here to help. By that, I mean what Job says in the chapter six:
“When we’re desperate, we need the devotion of our friends lest we forsake our reverence for God.”[xxiii]
The phrase “the patience of Job” was penned in the New Testament book of James.[xxiv] Job was famous forever for his endurance and devotion to God.
At last, God put an end to all the soliloquizing and judgmental preaching, and, out of the whirlwind, Job encountered God again, and that’s all Job needed.
God said to Job’s friends, “Stop confusing my thoughts with your throughs. My ways are not your ways.[xxv] Pull yourselves together. I made formed you to be fighters. I AM the one in control, ever since I set the morning stars their orbits. I always will be God. Get out of my way, and I will bless you again.” And Job’s sores went away.
The text says that Job had replacement children, but we know it doesn’t work like that. We cannot replace those we’ve lost, but we can choose to meet transformation with transformation. Jewish philosopher Martin Buber writes of Job’s healing:
“[Job] not only laments, but he charges that ‘cruel’ God had ‘removed right[eousness]’ from [Job] and that the judge of all the earth acts against justice. [Job] receives an answer from God. But what God says to [Job] does not answer the charge, does not even touch upon it. The true answer that Job receives is God’s appearance only, only this: that distance turns into nearness, that ‘his eye sees [God],’ that [Job] knows [God] again. Nothing is explained, nothing adjusted; wrong has not become right, nor cruelty kindness. Nothing has happened but that man again hears God’s address.”[xxvi]
If Martin Buber isn’t your style, here’s how A.A. Milne illustrated up this same philosophy in The House at Pooh Corner.[xxvii]
“Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind.
“Pooh!” he whispered.
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”
Perhaps we just want to be sure that we are not alone.
The Fortuitous Decline
BBC television celebrity Clive James has battled leukemia publicly for over five years. In a recent interview he said:
“[I realize that] I more or less promised … I would totter away and die in the garden. And guess what? I didn’t. There has been a change… My leukemia came out of remission, but this new drug was ready and now I really don’t know when I’ll be finished. I’m more reflective now. I haven’t got the excuse of moving forward just on impulse anymore, which I did…for a long, long time. My decline has been the making of me.”[xxviii]
In shattering circumstances, it is a failure for your heart not to break. Whatever you’re suffering, listen for God’s voice from the heart of your storm. And if you have no faith, I have plenty to share. Here, take some of mine. Come talk with me, and we’ll pray together. Get a bulldog grip on your faith, and do not let go. Amen.
Musical Reflection: Soprano Pam Sebastian sings “I know that my redeemer liveth” from Handel’s Messiah.
[i] “Luke 18:1-8” by Fred Craddock, accessed online at <https://www.goodpreacher.com/shareit/readreviews.php?page=8&cat=5> (October 14, 2015)
[ii] Ken Stone in The Queer Bible Commentary (London, SCM Press, 2007), 286.
[iv] Susan McMane conducted the choir in “Lass dich nur nichts nich dauren” Op. 30 in an English translation by Alden Gilchrist. This commemorated the end of our music ministry transition following the loss of Alden a little more than year ago. Next Sunday, October 25, Michael Conley will begin leading worship as Calvary’s new Director of Music Ministries.
[v] Jan Swafford, Johannes Brahms: A Biography (New York, Knopf, 1997), 316-318.
[vi] Mostly likely written around the 6th century BCE, according to scholarship.
[vii] Robert Seltzer, “The Book of Job: A Whirlwind of Confusion” accessed through My Jewish Learning online at <http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-book-of-job-a-whirlwind-of-confusion/#> (October 13, 2015)
[viii] Most identify Uz closely with the area known as Edom, southern tip of modern Israel and spilling westward into Jordan. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_of_Uz#/media/File:Edom.png Also, I love that Uz sounds like Oz. It’s an allegory, not a history.
[x] Matthew 5:39
[xi] Matthew 4:1-11
[xii] Leland Ryken, Literary Introductions to the Books of the Bible (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2015), Job.
[xiv] Later in the Ketuvim: Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Nehemiah and Chronicles.
[xv] Job 3:25
[xvii] Samantha House, “Police: Brothers beaten…” syracuse.com, accessed online at http://www.syracuse.com/crime/index.ssf/2015/10/police_brothers_were_beaten_in_new_hartford_church_for_hours_in_hopes_they_would.html#incart_river (October 15, 2015)
[xix] Lou Grosso is my spouse and has been completely blind for 25 years.
[xxi] Job 6:29
[xxii] Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1998 & 2009), 226.
[xxiii] Job 6:14
[xxiv] James 5:11 “You have heard of the patience of Job, and you have seen the purpose of God, how God is compassionate and merciful.”
[xxv] Isaiah 55:8-9: “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways, my ways,’ says Yahweh. ‘As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways an my thoughts above your thoughts.’”
[xxvi] Buber as quoted by Seltzer (see above), accessed online at <http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-book-of-job-a-whirlwind-of-confusion/#> (October 12, 2015)
[xxvii] Accessed online at <https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/81466.A_A_Milne> (October 14, 2015)
[xxviii] Clive Jones interviewed by Phillip Williams, August 15, 2015, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), accessed online at <http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2015/s4296555.htm> (October 14, 2015) Jones’ statements re-ordered by preacher for emphasis.