So-Called Comfort (sermon 2 on Job)

When Friends Come

job friendsWhen the going gets tough in your life … who shows up? What do they do? What do they say?

“When Job’s three friends heard about all this disaster that had happened to him, they came, each one from his home – they wept loudly … each one tore his garment and scattered dust above his head toward the sky. They sat on the ground seen days and nights, not speaking a word to him, for they saw he was in excruciating pain.” (Job 2:12; the word for excruciating means “increasing in greatness”)

It is called “sitting shiva” – the seven day period of mourning for Jewish families; this lasts for seven days when family members traditionally gather in a home and receive visitors. At the funeral, mourners traditionally wear an outer garment or ribbon that was torn at the funeral in a ritual known as keriah.

Here is one of the first things I want us to hear from Job’s story and ours – especially when we or someone we know is in the midst of a storm. 1 Corinthians 12:26 says that when one member of the body of Christ suffers – we all suffer. When one member rejoices we all rejoice. That means that as followers of Jesus Christ, when our brother or sister is in pain – we come. I don’t care how we do it … but we need to do it and keep on doing it. Followers of Jesus show up – and yes, if they are Methodists, they bring casseroles … and they also sit, laugh, cry, talk, read, and pray together. Sometimes, they just sit together. It is called the ministry of presence.

When Silence is Golden

silence goldenIn the midst of such storms, we often crave silence. English poet, Thomas Carlyle, once wrote: “As the Swiss inscription says: sprecfien ist silbern, schweigen ist golden (speech is sliver, silence is golden) … or as I might rather express it: speech is of time, silence is of eternity.” We love to fill the air, the cable feeds, the web, and our social media streams with words – LOTS of WORDS – but sometimes silence is …  well, silence is just better. Here are a few other quotes you may have heard about silence. MLK JR: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Or how about this one from Mother Teresa: “We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass- grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence… We need silence to be able to touch souls.” Sometimes, silence truly is golden – especially when there are no words that can touch the depths of our pain and grief.

In Job’s case, the silence was golden compared to the round robin of words that were about to be unleashed on him by his “so called friends.” And the words that followed the silence? I doubt they could be called silver, for when they came, they came more like burnt ash, flaming darts, and heaping piles of disdain thrown atop Job’s already sky-high pile of despair and confusion.

When We Crave Words

blah blahIn grief we sometimes also crave words: Robert Louis Stevenson: “The correction of silence is what kills; when you know you have transgressed, and your friend says nothing, and avoids your eye.” Aldous Huxley: “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music. “

Job sings the blues.
Eliphaz takes it upon himself to correct Job and to overcome his despair: “Afterward, Job spoke up and cursed the day he was born ……then Eliphaz responded: who can hold back words?” (Job 3:1, 4:1-2) How often do we do this in the church? We hear someone say something we disagree with in Sunday School or a small group study, and we immediately make it our main purpose to set them straight … help them think right … which usually means, help them see things the way we do.

Round and round the friends go – Round 1 (3:1-14) Eliphaz (Job), Bildad (Job), Zophar (Job), At the end of round 1, Job states emphatically: You, however, are plasterers of lies; ineffective healers, all of you. (13:4). / Round 2 (15-21) Eliphaz (Job), Bildad (Job), Zophar (Job) / Round 3 (22-31) Eliphaz (Job), Bildad (Job) … and then Job. At the end of the three rounds of Job’s so-called comfort from friends, we read this: “These three men stopped answering Job because he thought he was righteous. Elihu son of Barachel the Buzite from the clan of Ram was angry, angry with Job because he considered himself more righteous than God. He was also angry with these three friends because they hadn’t found an answer but nevertheless thought Job wicked. Elihu had waited while Job spoke, for they were older than he. When Elihu saw that there had been no response in the speeches of the three men, he became very angry.” (Job 32:1-5)

When We Defend

comfortHere is the thing we need to stop doing when others are experiencing a storm. Stop defending God. We don’t need to defend God … God needs no defense. If we need to defend someone, then defend those who suffer. We need to stand with, defend, encourage, pray, weep, and comfort those who are experiencing excruciating pain. Let me say it again just to be clear. Defend, encourage, and stand with those who suffer – period. That is one of the key things we should learn from the book of Job.

I like the way Barbara Brown Taylor puts it: “The friends are in Job’s way. They are in God’s way. They are trying to insert themselves between the silence of God and the one for whom the silence is intended, and in the end their interpretations are more painful to Job than the silence itself.”

Romans 8:28 is a go to verse for many who experience storms. It doesn’t answer all the questions that we raise in times of crisis, but it does offer comfort. More familiar translations say: “All things work together for good to them that love God” (KJV). But that doesn’t get the Greek quite right. God is the subject of this sentence, not all the “things” .. not all the “stuff” … not all the calamity that may happen to us. The CEV reads: “God works all things together for good for the ones who love God.” Tony Campolo once gave a better translation of this passage when he said: “God is at work cooperating with those who love Him, to bring about good.” God doesn’t manufacture the storms and does not sit on high looking for whom to smite next … but God can take any circumstance, any pain, any amount of suffering and somehow … over time … with large doses of grace, patience, love, and mercy – turn it to good for all who love, trust, and wait upon the Lord. Thanks be to God.

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Weathering the Storm (sermon blogging … intro to a new series on Job)

mississippi floodWhen the Storm Comes

Sometimes a picture says it all. This is Mississippi, but it could be anywhere, USA. This woman is carrying clothing out of a flooded house. She is wading through standing, muddy water that is under everything, and yet she has not thrown up her arms in despair. She is doing what she can … grabbing clothes and items that can still be used. It is a picture of perseverance in the aftermath of a storm.

Alabama tornadoIn another picture, a woman goes through what is left of her home, standing beside a bed that no longer has bedroom walls around it. It was the aftermath of a tornado that had swept through Alabama. What was left to do? Give up? Instead, she decided to sort through what remained. It is another picture of how one person weathered a devastating storm.

I grew up in tornado country – Oklahoma. One of the things we were taught on a regular basis was how to weather a storm – particularly, a funnel cloud coming your direction. Here is the question I want us to wrestle with today for a few more moments. The storm will one day come for us. The question is, “how will we weather it?”

Starting Fresh

What do you know about the book of Job? What questions does it raise for you? There are many, right? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do good things happen to bad people? Why do some insist Job was patient? (James 5:11) These are all good questions, but I want to suggest we suspend our questions and thoughts about this book so we can give Job a fresh hearing over these next weeks. We need to hear Job on Job’s terms … not on ours. So to do that, let me share just a few things that I believe will be important.

  1. Ask the right questions. Instead of starting with our laundry list of questions about suffering, pain, and the big “Why” questions related to calamity, lets first listen to the questions the book of Job wants to ask us. Along the way, it may also be helpful to identify the questions Job never intended to answer. For example, did Job really exist? Perhaps, but does the answer really matter in terms of the truth the story of Job tells? Not really. Is the message of Job true? This may be the better question, and I believe the answer is an unqualified yes. This story begins like many other stories that are trying to teach us something about life, about God, and about our relationship with God.  “Once upon a time” … or in this case … “A man in the land of Uz was named Job.”
  2. Notice the prose bookends and the large amount of poetry in-between. This is not a minor detail. The poetry in this book makes up more than 90% of the story. Let me share with you one definition of poetry that may be important for understanding why the book is written this way and not another. Poetrythe measured language of emotion. Lofty thought or impassioned feeling expressed in imaginative words. When you think about it … it makes sense why Job is poetic. What is more complicated, more confusing, more frustrating, or more emotional than the experience of suffering? There is great biblical truth and insight right here … before we even engage the story in detail. Suffering is beyond words … so we are actually following a biblical impulse when we turn to songs, to lyrics, to poetry, and to artistic verse to help us give voice to things that are beyond our comprehension. I love the blues. Job reminds me that God invented the blues. Incidentally, that means that when you are experiencing deep pain or suffering, you may need to find yourself a song (I have one for you today, but hang on … that is coming a little later so keep reading). Why turn to poetry? Because poetry helps us to wrestle with the hard questions that defy our futile attempts to give simple, pat answers. I love the way Lee Schott puts it: “the questions of Job are questions that lurk at the heart of our faith: about storms, faithfulness, and the character of God.”

Righteousness and Suffering on Trial

The first two chapters of Job are set up like an ancient court trial, complete with a clearly innocent and righteous person falsely accused, a prosecuting attorney (ha satan … The designated Accuser [the Msg], the Adversary, the Satan), the judge, and the various witnesses and competing voices that each have their own perspective on Job’s guilt or innocence.

If the story’s premise sounds too odd and other worldly to you … lets not forget that we today continue to put suffering and righteousness on trial today … all the time. Take AIDS. Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s, many Christian leaders stated emphatically that AIDS was evidence of God’s judgement on sexual sin. As one famous evangelical TV personality once put it (I’ll leave out the name to protect the guilty): “AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals; it is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.“ This kind of thinking has not gone away. Some other Christian leaders said similar things about the Ebola crisis a few years ago … it was God’s punishment, for immorality, for a divided Jerusalem, for … well you name it. These are the kinds of voices we will be hearing in the book of Job … from people like Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Elihu. Remember this – when we do the same – when we paste simple prose answers on top of complicated questions about suffering and pain, we are imitating ha satan – the Accuser, not God.

We still judge suffering. We also still judge righteousness. Here are some actual quotes from various preachers and Christian leaders: “Poverty is from the devil and God wants all people prosperous.”“If you live as a blessing to others God will bless you abundantly.” What people often hear in this statement is its opposite. If your life feels more like a curse, does that mean you are NOT living right? The book of Job doesn’t just take on contemporary televangelists … Job also takes on other priests and prophets from Israel … other thoughts and ideas that are already in the Bible. Take this verse from Deuteronomy 11: “Pay attention! I am setting blessing and curse before you right now; the blessing if you obey the Lord your God’s commandments that I am giving your right now, but the curse if you don’t obey the Lord your God’s commandments and stray from the path that I am giving you today by following other gods.” Both Job and Deuteronomy are God’s word … but clearly we have to take the whole witness of Scripture into account when we step to the edge of the chasm that marks the end of our understanding and the beginning of something beyond.

The BIG Question

carrot and stickI am sure you have heard of the proverbial donkey motivated by either the carrot or stick? If you want to motivate the donkey, you need to use a carrot (promise of reward) or a stick (threat of punishment). This is the primary question Job wants to ask us as people of faith. Is our faith, trust, and service to God only present because we fear punishment or anticipate reward? Do we just serve God because we desire blessings? Do we just obey God because we are afraid of punishments or have a fear of hell? This is at the HEART of the big question in Job, and make no mistake about it … it is HUGE. Everything hinges on the answer. Why? Because a real relationship of love cannot be founded on fear (avoiding the stick). Because a real relationship of selfless love cannot be founded on self-interest (what’s in it for me … the carrot).

The BIG question is found directly in the text: Does Job revere God for nothing? (Job 1:9) Think about that question. Why are you a Christian? Wait … don’t answer too quickly. Why Jesus? Why Church? Why pray? Why study scripture? Why serve others in Jesus’ name? To make it pain: what’s in it for you?

This insight gives birth to an odd, but wonderful truth: The book of Job is about love. Love between God and humanity. Love that cannot be reduced to carrots or sticks. Love that goes deeper, that means more, that burns within our souls come hell or high-water. Scripture often refers to the image of marriage to describe God’s relationship with God’s people. In the New Testament, we envision Christ as the Bridegroom and the Church as his bride. To use that metaphor, we might consider Job as a poetic exploration of our marriage covenant and our baptismal vows made with God, the lover of our souls. Do we freely and heartily yield all things to God’s pleasure and disposal? Do we love God in sickness and in health? In good times and in bad? For better or for worse? So long as we shall live? THAT is a big question. Does this mean God doesn’t want to bless us? No. But a relationship based on our desired “bottom line” is not love. Does this mean that there are not consequences for disobedience and sin in the world? No. But a relationship based on fear of punishment is not true love.

Love – true love – has to be an act of free will. It can’t be based on coercion, fear of punishment, or pure self-interest. Does this one insight answer all the other pressing questions around suffering in the book of Job? No … but it does do one thing … it invites us to think about this story differently. It invites us to see Job as a love story about a love that can endure, hold on, and persevere, even in the face of the greatest storms life might unleash on us.

My Soul has been Anchored

The storm will come for us – literal storms, spiritual storms, relational storms, you name it. How many of you have experienced a devastating storm of one kind or another in your life? How many of you are going through a major storm right now? I don’t have a lot of answers for why that may be happening to you (and neither does Job), but I can tell you one thing. Get you a song. Find you some poetry. One my “go to” songs is “My Soul has been Anchored.” The author is unknown – but the experience that he or she gives voice to is known by many. The lyrics echo a passage from Hebrews 6:17-19: “In the same way, God desired to show even more clearly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose … we who have taken refuge might be strongly encouraged to seize the hope set before us. We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.”

My Soul Has Been Anchored
Though the storms keep on raging in my life, And sometimes it’s hard to tell the night from day; Still that hope that lies within is reassured, As I keep my eyes upon the distant shore, I know He’ll lead me safely to that blessed place He has prepared.

But if the storms don’t cease, and if the winds keep on blowing … my soul has been anchored in the Lord.

Oh, I realize that sometimes in this life, we gonna be tossed, By the waves and the currents that seem so fierce. But in the Word of God, I’ve got an anchor, And it keeps me steadfast and unmovable, Despite the tides.

The pillars may roll, the breakers may dash, I shall not sway because He holds me fast; So dark the day, clouds in the sky, I know it’s alright ’cause Jesus is mine

Goodness is Stronger than Evil

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We live in interesting times. No one could have guessed that the summer of 2015 goodness is strongerwould bring a different kind of heat to so much of our common life and discourse in our local communities and nation. I have an AP app (Associated Press) on my smart phone that sends me a short blurb with every event deemed newsworthy. Part of me has wanted to turn that app notification off this summer just because of the content that has been bleeping onto my screen over the past few months: the Charleston Church Shooting on June 17th, the death of Sandra Bland in police custody in Texas on July 13th, the Chattanooga shooting on July 16th, the Louisiana shooting on July 23rd, just to name a few. The presence of such repeated, senseless violence and trauma is unnerving and disconcerting. It can bring out the best in us as human beings; it also often brings out the worst.

In the midst of a public square that is already electric with communal fear and suspicion, we have also experienced controversial and historic events that have been received with very mixed and divided opinions: Supreme Court Decisions on same-sex marriage on June 26th, lethal injection on June 29th, and Health Care Subsidies June 25th; a South Carolina House vote to remove the Confederate flag from the State House; and a local debate around Graham’s confederate soldier statue in front of the downtown Courthouse. Just a few weeks ago, I heard of a church that had responded to this recent climate by turning one of their Sunday School rooms into a storeroom for packaged meals for their membership. The majority of the church is convinced that a great tribulation is around the corner and they don’t want to be caught unawares. Though such a reaction is likely to prompt dismissive laughter from most, it did cause me to ask a more important question about the church: What should be our response to all that is happening in our world, our nation, and our local communities?

I am not sure I have the answer to that question, but I think it is a question worth asking and reflecting on together as the Body of Christ. I do know that there are a few things that I would like to see more of in our common life and witness: 1) Prayer for all people, and especially those in authority (1 Timothy 2:1-2); 2) Patience, with one another, and especially with those with whom we disagree (Proverbs 14:29); 3) Forgiveness – (Matthew 6:15; 18:21); 4) Honorable and Edifying Speech (James 1:19), and 5) Proactive Action (Micah 6:8).

In recent days I have been in conversation with area pastors and churches (across lines of race, ethnicity, and denomination) around some of these shared concerns. I am not sure where such conversations may lead us in terms of proactive action, but I am certain that Christians of good faith can and should come together to witness to a better way, a higher good, and a deeper compassion and love. After all, we are followers of Jesus.

10 Things I Pray

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10 Things I’m praying for Graham and Alamance County residents right now:

heritage poster

Flyers posted this week for a rally on Saturday, July 18

1. That the cross would be the central symbol and heritage around which we rally and unite (1 Corinthians 2:2; John 12:32)

2. That the Holy Spirit would fan flames of righteous indignation in us for the things that outrage God (things like: sowing discord, Proverbs 6:19; turning aside from the needy, Isaiah 10:1-4; giving glory to things or people other than God, Romans 1:22-23, Jeremiah 9:23-24; injustice and oppression, Zechariah 7:8-12).

 

3. That those of us who are called to “take up the cross” would be willing to die first to our persecution complex, which diminishes and devalues the old and contemporary saints that have and continue to suffer real persecution (Matthew 16:24)

 

4. That more of us could learn to take a breath and fret not – it leads only to evil.” (Psalm 37:8)

 

5. That we can learn to speak the WHOLE truth to one another. These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace, 17 do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath; for all these are things that I hate, says the Lord.” (Zechariah 8:16-17).

     That means, at the very least, that part of our heritage includes both hate and love; both slavery and fried chicken. If the part we are celebrating is love, then I am not sure why we choose rallies over real conversations. I, for one, believe the rebel battle flag over a Georgia statehouse is a completely different issue than a statue in front of the Graham Courthouse – but some conversation is needed here. A lot less heat and a lot more patience and honest listening. Such a conversation might reveal that many who wave the flag are doing it more because of their teenage nostalgia for the rebel spirit nurtured in them through pop culture phenomena like the TV show, the Dukes of Hazzard and the southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd (I grew up watching one and listening to the other, and I am now starting to think so did many others).
Company E, 4th US Colored Troops at Fort Lincoln

Company E, 4th US Colored Troops at Fort Lincoln

It may also mean that Graham residents need to consider honoring all of our history – which means finding a way to also commemorate, honor, and celebrate people like Wyatt Outlaw, an Alamance County veteran of 2nd Regiment U.S. Colored Calvary of the Union Army and one of the first Black Constables in Graham. (I may also need to find a copy of Shuttle and Plow, by a former history professor at Elon to learn more about such history)

 

6. That each of us, regardless of our race, religion, or creed would be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for our anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save our souls.” (James 1:19)

 

7. That while we are debating and fretting over fabric and concrete, we might remember to collectively get down on our knees and pray for the families of Sandra Bland, the fallen Marines and a shot police officer in Chattanooga, the many children and families in our community that suffer abuse and neglect, and the city and county leaders, firemen, police, and emergency workers who regularly work hard to serve our community on a daily basis. (1 Timothy 2:1: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone …“)

 

8. That we might guard our tongues – avoiding speech, labels, stereotypes, and virtually any words that seek to hurt rather than heal (James 1:26-27).

 

9. That we might collectively seek peace despite our differences, always seeking the good of the other – especially the ones with the “other” opinions. (1 Thessalonians 5:14: Be at peace among yourselves.14 And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. 15 See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.”

 

10. That we might unite across lines of race, ethnicity, gender, and orientation to seek, yearn for, pray for, and work for “the welfare of the city … and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:7)