A Pastor's Ponderings and Such

Posts tagged ‘Grief’

Experience Is A Hard Teacher

Job 14:7-15

“For there is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease. Though its root grows old in the earth, and its stump dies in the ground, yet at the scent of water it will bud and put forth branches like a young plant. But mortals die, and are laid low; humans expire, and where are they? As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up, so mortals lie down and do not rise again; until the heavens are no more, they will not awake or be roused out of their sleep. O that you would hide me in Sheol, that you would conceal me until your wrath is past, that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me! If mortals die, will they live again? All the days of my service I would wait until my release should come. You would call, and I would answer you; you would long for the work of your hands.

******************

 Job is having an experience of grief and torment that he has never known before. He is in anguish and so he laments and wails. His friends accuse him of sin and unrighteousness which he denies. This only creates a greater accusation from his friends that Job is in the wrong. They cite their beliefs, many of which we can find in the book of Proverbs, that those who do good receive good and those who do bad receive bad.

Job says in 12:4 and 5, “I am a laughingstock to my friends; I, who called upon God and God answered me, a just and blameless man, am a laughingstock. In the thought of one who is at ease there is contempt for misfortune; it is ready for those whose feet slip.” And then Job continues saying that he is innocent and that he will insist on that to God’s face.

We feel comfortable when we can confidently blame the victim of what has befallen them. It helps us to believe God is simple and that life is simple.

But Job has other things to say about that. He has learned that life and God are far more complicated. He also believes that others need to know about this as well. He says,

 

Job 19:23-27

“O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book! O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever! For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last God 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. My heart faints within me!

Job is in the midst of a difficult lesson … the one that only experience can teach. In an earlier reading of this story we learn that Job used to be someone others came to with their problems. He was revered as being wise and sought out for inspiration. He did give counsel well. And he also helped folks find their footing and find their can-do spirit. The trouble was that Job had apparently been protected all his life. God baited the Accuser to consider Job and his righteousness. The Accuser indicted God of setting a hedge of protection about Job. Of course he acts righteous, is the inference, but is he really righteous? Take down the protections and Job will curse you, God.

But Job does not curse God. Instead he questions. He rails. He curses his own life but he does not curse God.  Mostly, he learns. What he learns he longs to tell others. He longs for his words to be written in a book. Although throughout his life he was one considered wise and sought after for advice and inspiration he understands that now he truly knows what only experience could have taught him.

Experience is a hard teacher though. Even if he wrote down everything that he went through, as this story supposes he did, who could truly understand what he is talking about except those who have also experienced incredible loss, grief, pain, and hopelessness. When Job says in chapter 19 that he wants to write this down and that part of his testimony is that he knows his Redeemer lives he is saying this from a particular experience. It is not trite. It is not religion. It is the experience of the Presence who is God. Those of us who may not have experienced the devastation of Job might read these words and think, “of course God is present with us.”

The truth is that one doesn’t know hunger until there is no food to eat. One doesn’t know thirst until there is no water to drink. One doesn’t know grief until death has taken a part of you. The book that Job would write is one that we might read and then look back on after calamity and say, “ah … now I understand.” It is also a book to read and say to oneself, “Now I know that I am not alone in the world.”

The story is meant to slow us down, to make us think deeply, and to feel deeply. When we identify with one of Job’s friends we might pray, “O God, help me listen more fully and care more completely.”

When we listen to Job we might pray, “Divine Presence, help me remember that you are with me always and in everything. That you grieve with me and experience my plight in ways I will never understand. It doesn’t make the situation okay, but it gives me strength and hope. It also gives me determination to make a difference for the better in this big beautiful world you have given us creatures.”

God bless us … if not with a hedge of protection then with an indwelling Holy Presence. May we never curse God but instead learn. And God help us to never forget our learnings so that when we abound we will always remember those who are constantly in the grip of pain, hopelessness, and grief. Let that remembrance turn into love so that we might be a holy presence in the lives of others.

Undeserved Suffering and Unhelpful Friends

This is  my sermon from July 10, 2016

Job 2:11 – 13
Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home — Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.

Job 3:1 – 10 (to his friends)
After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. Job said: “Let the day perish in which I was born, and the night that said, ‘A man-child is conceived.’ Let that day be darkness! May God above not seek it, or light shine on it. Let gloom and deep darkness claim it. Let clouds settle upon it; let the blackness of the day terrify it. That night — let thick darkness seize it! let it not rejoice among the days of the year; let it not come into the number of the months. Yes, let that night be barren; let no joyful cry be heard in it. Let those curse it who curse the Sea, those who are skilled to rouse up Leviathan. Let the stars of its dawn be dark; let it hope for light, but have none; may it not see the eyelids of the morning — because it did not shut the doors of my mother’s womb, and hide trouble from my eyes.

Job 4:1-9 (to Job)
Then Eliphaz the Temanite answered: “If one ventures a word with you, will you be offended? But who can keep from speaking? See, you have instructed many; you have strengthened the weak hands. Your words have supported those who were stumbling, and you have made firm the feeble knees. But now it has come to you, and you are impatient; it touches you, and you are dismayed. Is not your fear of God your confidence, and the integrity of your ways your hope? “Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same. By the breath of God they perish, and by the blast of God’s anger they are consumed.

Job 7:11-21 (to God)
“Therefore I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul. Am I the Sea, or the Dragon, that you set a guard over me? When I say, ‘My bed will comfort me, my couch will ease my complaint,’ then you scare me with dreams and terrify me with visions, so that I would choose strangling     and death rather than this body. I loathe my life; I would not live forever. Let me alone, for my days are a breath. What are human beings, that you make so much of them, that you set your mind on them, visit them every morning, test them every moment? Will you not look away from me for a while, let me alone until I swallow my spittle? If I sin, what do I do to you, you watcher of humanity? Why have you made me your target? Why have I become a burden to you? Why do you not pardon my transgression and take away my iniquity? For now I shall lie in the earth; you will seek me, but I shall not be.”

******************

After this week’s events all I really want to do together is stand in a circle, hold hands, and pray our guts out that we the people of these United States of America will stop the momentum of violence by being unafraid of hearing and believing someone else’s story of their life.

The momentum that we are in has a life of its own. Unless an outside force stops it we will become its subjects and do its bidding. This force that can stop it is not the force of more violence. It is the force of non-violence … of listening, of sharing, of being fearless to put down our pre-designed arguments in lieu of having no argument at all. This force is the action of listening to our own fears and the fear of others.

When Job’s friends gathered around him they sat for seven days without talking. Finally Job spoke. The problem arose when his friends began to speak. During their course of silence it seems they were figuring out all the things they wanted to say rather than just sitting with Job and being present with his pain.

When Job speaks he expresses his despair and confusion. His friends didn’t respond with something like … “Yes, Job. This is terrible. I don’t know what it feels like to be you. Thank you for sharing your pain.” Instead they correct him, which they have no right to do; and they try to make things better which they have no power to do. They might say that they are motivated by care and concern but really they are motivated by fear. They are afraid that what is happening to Job might happen to them and they afraid that Job expressing his pain might actually touch them deeply enough so that they end up experiencing their own pain.

When we hear Job’s friend’s talk we might forget that the truth of Job’s situation was told to us at the beginning. Job was blameless. He did nothing wrong. This is hard to remember because we have a habit of blaming the victim. When bad things happen we want to make sense of it. Typically that means giving an explanation of why the victim wasn’t actually a victim but really what happened was a consequence of who they are or what they did. This happens with rape victims all the time. Comments about what she was wearing, how she was standing, or if she was drinking take precedence over the fact that she was a victim of violence. It is a veneer of order that is meant to help us feel safe. The problem with it is that it actually keeps us all at risk because we are excusing away perpetrators of violence.

This week, after a celebration of our country’s declaration of independence, two black men, Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, LA and Philando Castile in St Paul, MN were fatally shot by white police. These killings are under investigation as being racially charged. The Governor of Minnesota, Mark Dayton, made this statement. “Would this have happened if those passengers, the driver and the passengers, were white? I don’t think it would have. … I think all of us in Minnesota are forced to confront that this kind of racism exists.”

Thursday in Dallas, during a peaceful rally about racialized violence in our country, a sniper took matters into his own hands and fatally shot five police officers. Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarripa, and Brent Thompson.

We must not let the momentum of this violence take us. Let us mourn. Let us sit for seven days in silence … not to gather together our arguments and justifications, but simply to listen and bear witness to the humanity of all those who have died.

It wasn’t right for those police officers to die. They were doing their job respectfully and well. There are a lot of good cops out there. Know that I believe this when I say that there is also a problem in this country where black men are perceived as more dangerous than white men and end up fatally shot by police during situations where they pose no real threat.

This problem is where the Black Lives Matter movement came from. It doesn’t mean that white lives don’t matter or that police lives don’t matter. Given Job’s friend’s reaction to his out-pouring of grief about the violent losses in his life I have no doubt that they would have taken issue with the concept of Black Lives Matter if they were alive today. But that is a reactionary response which only justifies the violence and does nothing to keep anyone safe.

Job is blameless in his grief and in his defense of his innocence. His friends see the violence, and wishing to keep it a distance from themselves, they blame Job for what has happened to him. They are very unhelpful friends in the midst of Job’s undeserved suffering.

God help us so that we are better than that. I pray that we are helpful friends. That we don’t react against the violence because we are afraid of it … but rather that we embrace those who are grieving … all of those who are grieving.

This week I grieve with the families of Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarripa, Brent Thompson, Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile. On behalf of all the innocents who are killed I ask Job’s question to God which we read from Job 7:21, “Why have you made me your target? Why have I become a burden to you? Why do you not pardon my transgression and take away my iniquity? For now I shall lie in the earth; you will seek me, but I shall not be.”

We can pray this prayer and pose this question on behalf of all those who are killed in their innocence. We are Christians. Mercy and Love are at the heart of our path. Let us practice it with abandon the way Jesus offered it to us. This is what will change the world toward peace and give our next generations hope and safety.

With Love

Today I heard some devastating news. One of my seminary professors has died. But he didn’t just die, he first shot his long time partner and then he shot himself. Every system in my body shut down for several moments. It wasn’t like how I felt when I heard about the massacre in Orlando or at Mother Immanuel. Those events made my heart race and my anger flare. No. This time my heart stopped and it felt like the world was ending.

I only had Dr Moore for one class, but it was a life-changer. He broadened my world and helped me find my bravery. Once when talking after class I told him how vulnerable I was feeling. During the course of the conversation he gave me advice I hope I never forget. “Never become a fundamentalist of yourself.”

I did not know him well. I never met his partner, Margaret Shanahan. I admired them both from afar mostly. Now I wish I had been more forthright with my interest in them as people. Not that I think it would have made a whit  of difference in the outcome of their lives … just to make a connection.

Dr. Moore was a hero of mine. I didn’t realize that until this morning. I don’t know why this tragedy happened but I do know that he is still a hero for me. This last year I have come to understand more than ever before that we are very complicated inside and out. The depth of that just increased.