Abingdon, Job, Pentecost 19C, Revised Common Lectionary

Scratching the Itch

It starts with little red bumps on my forearms, just above the wrists. At first they are so faint they seem to be beneath the skin. Untreated they rise above the surface and become dry, red patches.

All my life, I’ve had eczema. At its worst, in a flare, it spreads all over the place. The last time it was that bad, I found myself quite unconsciously rubbing my shoulder blades up and down a door jamb.

Job and the Missus (Jusepe de Ribera, 17th Century)
Job and the Missus (Jusepe de Ribera, 17th Century)

It felt awful enough that I thought of Job and his potsherds. The terrible itch came up from deep places; it needed digging out and scraping off.

The trouble is scratching makes the itch worse.

Before we launch into dozens of chapters of poetry, Job is a short story, a fable about a man coming to grips with undeserved suffering. He scrapes at his sores while sitting on the ash heap. When his wife comes to him and, in her own excruciating grief for the loss of their family, tells him to curse God and die, Job remains faithful.

I want to be that person. I strive to be that person, receiving even suffering with equanimity where God is concerned.

But sometimes I still end up rubbing my shoulder blades against the door jamb.

Here’s the thing: almost all suffering is undeserved; almost all suffering simply arises from the human condition. We have an auto-immune disorder. We lose the baby. The roads were slick. The other driver was drunk, or inexperienced, or simply driving too fast. Life itches, and scratching the itch hurts us more.

I remember Job when the little red bumps reappear. I smooth salve on my forearm. I breathe. I take the bad with the good. I pray for patience. I breathe again and try not to make things worse.

(A reflection on Job 1:1, 2:1-10. This is one of my reflections for The Abingdon Creative Preaching Annual for 2015, the project I’m working on right now.)

Job, Midway, Twitter

My friend, Job

I wrote a paper about him once, that Job, a long, long paper on a teeny, teeny bit of the text. I wrote it for Carole Fontaine, who is a wonder. I loved writing it. I loved Job and his struggle and his humanity and the exegesis and the old part of the story and the expanded part of the story and analyzing the meter of the poetry and the way Job argued with God.

Which is hilarious, because I am *so* disinclined to have the argument directly with God myself.

Job One of my church members (Hi, Laurie!) is the librarian at Bangor Theological Seminary here in Portland, and she brought me this old card, now on the scrap paper pile, that came across her desk recently. 

In some ways I'm sitting on the scrap paper ash heap right now, scraping myself with the pot shards, looking back to that crucial year on the library card, wondering why I wanted what I wanted, and why I decided what I decided, and why I asked for what I asked for and, mostly, where God was in all of it.

Job did not hesitate to give God his opinion, even when his friends warned him against it.

Yesterday on Twitter, I asked whether it was okay to be angry with God, and of course people responded in the affirmative: people who know me in real life, people who have been blogging friends for five or six years now, and people I only know in the Twitterverse. They raised the Psalms and Job as examples of human outcry toward God when the situation seems unbearable, and unjustifiably so. 

Other sources, of course, justify those circumstances. We hear it from Jeremiah this week, for instance:

Thus says the LORD concerning this people: Truly they have loved to wander, they have not restrained their feet; therefore the LORD does not accept them, now he will remember their iniquity and punish their sins. (Jeremiah 14:10, NRSV) 

That sounds more like what I learned as a little Baptist girl. No, really, let me state that more clearly. I learned it as a Very Good Little Baptist Girl, or one who attempted to be that anyway. But life as an adult, life as a divorced seminarian mother of three was more complicated than anything I had ever imagined, and I yearned for companionship, which I believe was fairly human of me.

It may be that I wandered, that I did not restrain my feet. I did so in an attempt to make things come round right. Maybe I needed to learn that coming round right need not be so tortured. Maybe I needed to learn that coming round right really is just about turning and turning until you get to the place where you can see God and feel Love and know Joy. 

For Job it comes at the end of a long haul. It comes with friends who sit with him but also give terrible advice. It comes with an urge to put God on trial. It comes with an answer from a whirlwind, and a defense of those friends, and we, the readers, know that Job was a good guy all along. I'm a little dissatisfied with God, to be honest, and the way HE is portrayed in Job. I like the sweeping expanse of Creation version of God, yes, but I don't like the whole dysfunctional family dynamic that suggests if we give God a hard enough time, we'll get somewhere. That's the direction Jeremiah heads, of course. Oh, God, are you really going to abandon us? We are so, so sorry!!!

I have to think that's human despair speaking. When we're turned the wrong way, we can't hear God. We can't see God. We can't apprehend God in any way.  

So keep turning, that's my thought for the day. Keep turning. Job did, and sooner or later, he came round right. I'm glad to know him.

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(This could only be considered an excursus from the lectionary, but here's a link to the full Jeremiah reading, one of the alternates for this coming Sunday.

Church Life, Grief, Job

My complaint is bitter

Job in Despair (Thinking about Proper 23B, especially Job.)

Then Job answered:
"Today also my complaint is bitter; his hand is heavy despite my groaning.
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 23:1-7, NRSV)

Sometimes life feels like a heavy load, doesn't it?

In the life of a church, many things can be going well while at the same time those who know carry in their hearts the ill, the depressed, the fragile elderly. Pastors become privy to stories of emotional hurt and personal injustice played out on the small stages of family life. We understand why it's important for the Bible to contain laments and questions about why God lets human life unfold complete with random occurrences and terrible losses unrelated to the goodness of those who live through them.

What we hope we'll find in a faith community is a safe space in the midst of trials, a home for the heart and the spirit in times of questioning or despair as well as rejoicing. 

But in many churches, we're too invested in appearances to make room for grief. It makes us uncomfortable. We want to see a sad person recover, because after all we are a people of the Resurrection Hope!

I spent many years being sad in my 30s. From 1992 to 1997 I lost a baby, my mother, my father and my marriage. I lost my identity, for I was certainly, emphatically never going to be a person who divorced. I questioned my calling: could God make use of a person with my life story? All these bad things happened after I declared I had a call to ministry. Were they discouragements? Proof I was not doing the right thing?

I would have appreciated a chance to talk with God, to ask a few questions, to lay my case before the One I by that time thought of as neither male nor female and not personified enough for an actual dialogue, but that did not make me want the opportunity any less.

Later, as I finally finished the theological education I had straggled through in my thirties, I wrote a paper about Job, a big paper exploring a brief passage. I sat at this same kitchen table and developed my ideas and diagrammed the poetry and delved into the scholarly thought. I remember sitting up late, not feeling well, trying to finish, aware of the chaos of my life in that last semester of seminary, trying to figure out what would come next.

I have my own sadness still; you surely have yours. Some days it pierces and other days it gnaws, and some days it merely occupies the smallest corner of my consciousness. When I feel the deep sadness, my own or yours, I go to that place where Job lived. I want to know why, and I feel overwhelmed by the distance between God and me. I feel that God ought to be more involved; I reinvent Her in my own image. Surely I would straighten out that problem, wouldn't I? Surely I would prevent that tragic death? 

Clearly, I desire an Administrative God.

This afternoon I came home hoping to dash out and walk Sam in between
rain showers, but as soon as I came in the door, the wind picked up and
the rain began to pour and I heard the rumble of thunder, looked out
the window to see the flash of lightning. We waited through the short
but enthusiastic storm, and then I took the eager dog around the
neighborhood. We saw branches down, and just a few blocks over power
lines on the ground, under the mislaid top of a tree. On the right
hand, we observed chaos, but on the left? A rainbow, beautiful, the whole arc visible.

Somehow if feels like God taking heed to us.