Saturday, October 27, 2018

That We Might See Once Again

Stanley Hauerwas in his seminal volume, A Community of Character, observes that life is a gift – not a right, not an entitlement – but a gift from God. Or, if you must keep God out of it, life is given from the very origins of all that is, seen and unseen. And we now know that most of Creation remains unseen as dark matter and even more so dark energy – which are called dark not because they are evil or bad but simply because you cannot see them. About which I choose to join with my late friend, colleague and teacher, Richard Chiroff, that Dark Energy, that which appears to hold the universe together and allows it to expand all at once, is what some of us call the Holy Spirit.

Those who choose to see life as gift, as given, have a particular world view. Whether or not we call this religious or not does not matter. Knowing life as gift, as given, leads to living in says that some have called righteousness, or right-mindedness, or even mindfulness.

In his most recent volume of Sabbath Poems, A Small Porch In The Woods, Wendell Berry, gentleman farmer and thoroughly American poet and visionary, offers the following definition: Right mindedness: a mind in place, in right relation to Nature, and it’s neighbors. And as the African-Scottish folk song Jesu, Jesu puts it, “All are neighbors to us and you.” With “you” being Jesus, the Anointed One who falls on his knees to wash our feet in an effort to open our eyes to see once again that the stewardship of creation granted to us “in the beginning” is always to be a life of thanksgiving for the gift of life itself. And that the character of our lives of thanksgiving is always to be a life lived in service of others, all others, including all of creation.

Or, as Berry puts it, accepting life as gift leads us to recognize that we are in relationship with that which brought us here in the first place, and with one another. Life known as gift leads us to desire to be in “right relation” to Nature, and its neighbors – others, all others.

Whether we care to admit it or not, we are not doing a very good job in our relationships to Nature and its Neighbors. Job-like, we are in perpetual anguish over this breakdown in our relationships with Nature and one another. We imagine that such things as God and Science are  somehow adversaries, at war with one another, rather than complimentary world views within the totality of all creation, that which is seen and unseen. We keep making advances in the realms of that which we can see. Yet, these advances seem to further alienate ourselves and one another from all that remains unseen.

Perhaps the Book of Job offers what might be called a Daoist resolution. After 41 long and at times tedious chapters, the Book of Job lands in chapter 42 with a confession of humility the likes of which seems utterly foreign in the current atmosphere of angrily competing voices of certainty. Job finally surrenders when faced with the sudden and inscrutable felt presence of YHWH: When I asked you to meet me in court, O Yahweh, I simply didn’t know what I was talking about. But things are clearer to me now. I no longer wish to challenge you; I only wish to learn from your wisdom. I will be quiet while you answer my questions. Therefore, I yield, And I admit my mistakes.  [Job 42:1-6, as paraphrased by Walter Brueggemann et al in Texts for Preaching: pp 558-559]

We could all stand more often to be quiet and do much more “yielding,” and admit our mistakes. Even more so, admit that in the end we simply do not know it all. And as the author of the Dao De Jing puts it: we all know that beauty is beautiful and yet makes ugliness; being and non-being arise together; hard and easy complete each other; before and after follow one another; the things of this world exist, they are, you cannot refuse them; to bear and not own; to act and not lay claim; to do the work and let it go; for just letting go is what makes it stay.

Ursula K. Le Guin sums up this portion of the Dao: “To believe that our beliefs are permanent truths that encompass reality is a sad arrogance. To let go of that belief is to find safety.” [Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching a new translation, p 5] It is in letting go that Job finds safety and his life flourishes once again. Not because of something he does or believes, but in his letting go and “not doing.” It is in that moment of “not doing” that he becomes the recipient not of God’s justice, but rather he experiences the welcoming gift of God’s mercy. Job shows us how to experience life as gift with humility and thankfulness. He yields to the very fact that he does not and does not need to know it all to be in a right relationship with Nature and its neighbors.

Again, Brueggemann et al conclude, “In other words, Yahweh loves Job as Yahweh loves all people. Yahweh has blessed Job as Yahweh intends to bless all people. To be sure, human willfulness and sin often distort our relations with God and with one another and frustrate God’s mercy. But Job’s new happiness is no more the result of some new righteousness on his part
than his sufferings were the result of some terrible act of sin. God’s ways are mysterious and past our understanding, but one thing is not in dispute: the God of Israel, the Father of Jesus Christ, is a God of compassion whose ultimate will for all persons is peace and joy.” [Ibid p 559] Replace “God” with “Nature” if you must to allow what this ancient wisdom tale means to convey – to “do not doing;” to yield to that which is unseen; to admit our mistakes and allow a new wisdom and presence lead us to safety; to give up the need to fight for what will always be an incomplete wisdom, knowledge and truth. To abandon our sad arrogances and open ourselves to others – all others. To do so is to dwell in the safety of the ultimate will of all creation to know peace and joy.

To do so, we need to be like Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, that beggar who hears Jesus and his followers walking in the way of Jesus from Jericho to Jerusalem in Mark 10:46-52. It is a caravan, with more people joining it every day until it is a long procession as Jesus enters Jerusalem. They are walking together in the hope of recovering what it means to walk in the way and to acknowledge life as gift. Bart cries out for mercy, for compassion. The followers who seem to fancy themselves as arbiters and gatekeepers of access to Jesus the root, the shoot, the offshoot if you will, of the source of all life as gift, try to keep Bart away. But Jesus hears his cry for mercy and stands still – he yields to the moment. It is a noisy and somewhat chaotic scene this caravan headed to Jerusalem and the three-times announced showdown with those in power, those representatives of Caesar, who in Biblical terms is the new Pharaoh. In the midst of this whirlwind of activity Jesus stands still and calls Bart to come forward.

Some find it odd that Jesus then asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” Shouldn’t it be obvious? We should note, however, that Jesus does not presume to know what Bartimaeus really wants and really needs. And Bart’s answer ought to surprise us as he says, “Let me see again.” Again. He has somehow lost the ability to see, which has made it impossible for him to walk in the way, but rather must sit by the side of the way and beg. Like Job, he seems to know that simply being in the presence of the one who was “in the beginning” and through whom all life has emanated and moved out from a single point and burst of energy and light and life and continues to move out and expand and evolve can, must, somehow reestablish his capacity to see again what we all wish to see: The Way. 

Job just wants to know. Bartimaeus just wants to stand before the life-giving light so he can see once  again. Like Job, that is all he needs to do. Wanting to stand before the gift of life is all it takes to know mercy and to see once again how to make our way in right relationship to Nature and its neighbors. All are neighbors to us and you. Jesu, Jesu, show us how to love, show us how to serve, the neighbors we have from you. Right mindedness. Knowing, accepting, life as gift makes all the difference in the world, seen and unseen. When we lose the capacity to know this we lose our sight, our vision. Without vision the people perish. Seeing life as gift again restores our vision, our hope, our vitality – and our capacity to be in right relation to Nature and its neighbors.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Job Part 2

The Story of Job Part 2
It is always inevitable. For each natural disaster it seems there is at least one Evangelical Pastor who claims to know who is responsible for it. Hurricane Michael is not the exception. Self-appointed Christian “prophet,” Mark Taylor tweeted: “Does anyone else think it's strange that Justice K is sworn in and we have a major hurricane inbound? DS [Democrats] scared? They should be. Retaliation? Absolutely. We will not be intimidated! Warriors arise, time to go to work! You know what to do. … — Mark Taylor (@patton6966) October 9, 2018”

To understand chapter 23 of Job one needs to hear chapter 22 in which his friend Eliphaz, in the spirit of Pastor Taylor, also attempts to assign blame for all the bad things that have happened to Job. Then Eliphaz the Temanite answered:

2 “Can a mortal be of use to God?
    Can even the wisest be of service to him?
3 Is it any pleasure to the Almighty if you are righteous,
    or is it gain to him if you make your ways blameless?
4 Is it for your piety that he reproves you,
    and enters into judgment with you?
5 Is not your wickedness great?
    There is no end to your iniquities.
6 For you have exacted pledges from your family for no reason,
    and stripped the naked of their clothing.
7 You have given no water to the weary to drink,
    and you have withheld bread from the hungry.
8 The powerful possess the land,
    and the favored live in it.
9 You have sent widows away empty-handed,
    and the arms of the orphans you have crushed,
10 Therefore snares are around you,
    and sudden terror overwhelms you,
11 or darkness so that you cannot see;
    a flood of water covers you.

To sum up Eliphaz, “You are obviously not as good as you think. It’s your own fault for not taking care of the widows, orphans, strangers and resident aliens whom God commands us to care for.” Strangely, this still seems to assign Job’s situation as “an act of God,” while the reader already knows it was Satan who brought this calamity on. Further, as I read it, I am not so sure that the author of this poetic fable is not aiming his charge at one and all who are listening or reading this story. What are we doing for the weary, the thirsty, the hungry, the widows, the strangers who by virtue of national policy are being warehoused, imprisoned, families ripped apart, people losing their homes while “the powerful possess the land, and the favored live in it?” More than a fable, the speech from Eliphaz is more like a prophetic critique of the status quo that seems to stretch on for centuries and even millennia to this very day.

Job holds steady and agrees that God is Just and what’s more our God is reasonable and merciful. If only he could find God to lay his case before him. “Oh, that I knew where I might find him” This is the lament of all faithful women and men in every age who experience undeserved suffering. Just ask the people of Mexico Beach, FL today. Just ask the women who were sexually assaulted yesterday. Just ask the LGBTQ community who remember that 20 years ago this week Matthew Shepherd was beaten, tortured and left to die near Laramie, Wyoming simply for being who he was – a young gay man. Just ask the 53,000 voters in Georgia, 70% of whom are black, whose registrations are being held up by the very man who is running for Governor and is also the official overseer of his own election. Just as #Me Too and #VeteransforKaepernick, and dozens of others raising all sorts of Justice and Peace questions.

It is here that the NRSV translation fails us in verses 16-17, making it sound as if Job is resigned to die. A more accurate translation, according to Walter Brueggemann, et. al., would be:
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.
That is, Job is resolute in his trust and faithfulness in his God, is not “reduced to silence,” and seeks even more so to penetrate the inscrutable presence of God. If he only knew where to look.

Job does not seek blame or explanations or theories or doctrines. He seeks a response. A compassionate response. And the opportunity to make his case; to tell his story; to get some sense that his case is being heard. This is what a lot of different people are asking for today.

Brueggemann, et. al., conclude, in Texts For Preaching:
“And here the matter is held in suspension. Job has confronted what is perhaps the most difficult question posed by Christian theology: How does one account for all the suffering that takes place in a world created and governed by a gracious God? When one replies, as Eliphaz does, that the answer lies in human sinfulness, there is ample evidence to affirm that Eliphaz is correct—but only partially so. Eliphaz’s views do not take into account all the innumerable instances in which suffering is inflicted on men and women for no apparent reason whatsoever, from the ravages of nature to terrible diseases that cripple and kill. There simply are those terrible moments when no human sinfulness lies behind our pain. In those moments, where is God?
“Job not only protests that Eliphaz’s views are wrong, but he also, in his stated inability to locate God, confesses his own partial agnosticism in the face of his pain. It simply is not possible to know the mind of God in certain situations of life. It is not possible to dialogue with God over this matter and to come away with solutions that are completely satisfactory. Job finds God to be simply unreachable!
“Job points to a dilemma whose solution he “cannot see” (v. 9b), but one for which Christian men and women find resolution in Jesus Christ (although Christians would also confess very imperfect knowledge in the matter). In Jesus Christ, God joined humankind in its suffering, both deserved and undeserved. The cross of Jesus Christ is that point in time and space where, more than any other, God identified with human suffering and experienced it to its fullest extent.
“Thus Job performs the enormous service of raising questions which he cannot answer and of pointing beyond himself to One who can.” On to chapter 38 and the Voice from the whirlwind. To be continued in two weeks…

Saturday, October 6, 2018

What We Can Learn From Job Part I

Rabbi Harold Kushner once sought to answer the question, Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? Properly this is called the problem of Theodicy: if God is good why is there evil and suffering? To become a Christian through the rite of Holy Baptism, we are called to “renounce the evil powers in this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” In particular, both the Church and the nation have been recently and increasingly focused on the problems of sexual violence against women and children. All attempts to sweep such concerns under the rug have been proven futile. The curtain has been pulled back. Corrupting and destructive evil is real.

And if there was any thought that once our current political dilemma is “resolved” this might all go away, the one and only Nobel Prize that is conferred by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, The Peace Prize, was awarded to two individuals who have devoted their lives “for being symbols in the fight to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.” The Committee goes on to say, “that while wartime sexual assault and the #MeToo movement in general are significantly different, their goals share key elements: They both aim to acknowledge the abuses of women, eliminate the victim shaming and support women who speak out about their sexual assaults.”

The 2018 Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to Dr. Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist, who has treated victims of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for most of his adult life, founding the Panzi Hospital, which supports survivors of sexual assault. Sharing the Prize is Nadia Murad, a Yazidi survivor of rape and captivity by ISIS. She is a member of the Yazidi minority in northern Iraq and was taken captive by ISIS members who had launched an attack on her small village. She was held as a sex slave for three months before escaping from her captors. In 2016, she was named the U.N.'s first Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking. It is believed that some 3,000 Yazidi women and girls remain enslaved. As long as they are enslaved, ISIS has not been defeated. Corrupting and destructive evil remains real.

One might say that God is trying to keep our attention on the problems of sexual violence against women and children. Against this backdrop, we begin a cycle of readings from the Book of Job: “There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” Job is offered to us, like Dr. Mukwege and Ms. Murad, as one who has “renounced the evil powers in this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.”

In this nearly 3,000 year old fable, Job’s faith in God is challenged by Satan  - a Hebrew word meaning “adversary,” or “accuser,” not the Devil of the New Testament. Job has a flourishing family, much cattle, bountiful crops and life is good. Job thanks God for all good gifts that surround him. Satan suggests that if Job is to lose everything his faith and love of God will vanish and he will curse God. Suggesting that Job serves God because it is profitable.

God, it turns out, has faith in Job and says, “Very well, he is in your power, but spare his life.” Satan strips Job of everything he has, and goes so far as to cover his body with sores. Then his wife says to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” But he says to her, “…Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this, we are told,  Job did not curse God.
What follows are something like 40 chapters of theological attempts to explain or answer the problem of suffering and evil in the world. Much of it features three friends of Job and a fourth, Elihu, who offer all the usual bromides: You must have done something wrong. You brought this on yourself somehow. God doesn’t give you more than you can handle. Job swings between faith and despair, cursing the day he was born, and finally ends with a flourish demanding that God declare why this has happened to him. Job has no patience. There is no such thing as “the patience of Job.” Job demands that God stand trial.

The three friends give up, Elihu summarizes their efforts, stating that Job has risen for the defense of self, not God. And then it happens. The Lord answers Job out of the whirlwind.  “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins for I will question you, and you shall declare to me!” Then comes what William Safire once described as, “the longest and most beautifully poetic speech attributed directly to God in scripture.” The foundation of God’s defense is, “Where were you when I was creating this universe in the first place? If you have so many good ideas you should have been there to help out!”  The idea being that God, suggests Safire, is busy bringing light to darkness, imposing physical order on chaos, and leaves his human creations free to work out moral justice on their own. In fact, in Genesis God pretty much leaves the stewardship of creation entirely up to us. [New York Times, January 10, 2005]

Job is humbled. “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” Yet, in telling his story, in testifying to friends, in demanding an explanation from God, and through sheer resilience, Job realizes that he has been graced by the living presence of God. His tirade has caused God to appear, demonstrating, much as Jesus does on the cross, that those who suffer are never alone. Job is satisfied, not so much by the content of God’s answer as by contact with God himself. Emmanuel. God with us. Us. All of us.

That is, the answer to the problem of evil is not to be found in the arguments of Job’s friends, or even God’s defense. The answer, if you will, is a response. Rabbi Kushner suggests, “A religious response to tragedy need not be solely about God.  It can be about how the sufferer responds, whether with acceptance, with rage, or with a new understanding of how life works.  It can be about how others respond to his or her pain, with pious explanations or with hugs and shared tears.” Like Job, we can repudiate past accusations, doubts, and even anger and know that we are not alone, living this life in communion with a God who is with us in our sufferings. And listening to and honoring other’s stories of suffering and survival is what heals. All of us.

Wesley Morriston in his essaay, God’s Answer To Job, reminds us of a story that The Hasidic teacher, Rabbi Bunam, tells: ‘A man should carry two stones in his pocket. On one should be inscribed, "I am but dust and ashes." On the other, "For my sake was the world created. "And he should use each stone as he needs it. The experience of the Whirlwind has taught Job to use the first stone. But what we need, and what the book of Job tries, with only partial success, to teach us, is how to use them both together.’ [Religious Studies 32, Oxford Univeriy Press: 1996]
Knowledge is to know the difference and when to use them. As we listen to others, or tell our own stories, we need to learn the difference. Job held to his faith in God. God had faith in Job. God has faith in us. God is with us in the suffering. To be continued.