Saturday, July 16, 2016

With Friends Like These

suffering - Paula Smith Heffel

Job 3:1-10, 4:1-9, 8:1-6, 11:1-6, 14-17
July 17, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Last week we heard the opening two chapters of Job, in which the writer imagines God and “ha-shatan” – the adversary, debating whether Job would stay faithful in the face of unspeakable suffering. It is worthwhile to emphasize a few important points as we explore this story.

First, it is widely recognized to be a story – a parable, not a literal account.
Second, the character we would call “Satan” is not a being whose name is “Satan” or “Lucifer.” We get the term “Satan” from the Hebrew words “ha shatan” which means “the adversary” or “the accuser.” The term is used to designate the character’s role in the story, not a name. So “Satan” is not a name of an individual any more than “politician” or “banker” or “arguer” or “liar” is a name.
Third, like all folk tales or parables, this story is purposeful –the characters and the story line are drawn broadly so that we are forced, as the hearers and readers, to think deeply about what this story says.

Let’s listen for God’s word to us in the story of Job.
We have four brief readings today – I couldn’t figure out what to leave out!

This first reading is Job’s reaction to what he has suffered – losing all of his children, all of his livestock, all of his wealth, and his health. He expresses his despair in a cry of desolation and sorrow, wondering why he was even born: Job 3:1-10.
After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. Job said: ‘Let the day perish on 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.

In our next excerpt, Job’s friend Eliphaz offers his advice in Job 4: 1-9.
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 plough iniquity and sow trouble reap the same. By the breath of God they perish, and by the blast of his anger they are consumed.

Now Job’s friend Bildad weighs in, suggesting that somehow Job’s suffering is a result of God’s justice, or Job’s sin: Job 8: 1-6.
Then Bildad the Shuhite answered: ‘How long will you say these things, and the words of your mouth be a great wind? Does God pervert justice? Or does the Almighty pervert the right? If your children sinned against him, he delivered them into the power of their transgression. If you will seek God and make supplication to the Almighty, if you are pure and upright, surely then he will rouse himself for you and restore to you your rightful place.

And finally, in Job 11: 1- 6, 14-17 we hear Zophar’s two cents worth:
Then Zophar the Naamathite answered: ‘Should a multitude of words go unanswered, and should one full of talk be vindicated? Should your babble put others to silence, and when you mock, shall no one shame you? For you say, “My conduct is pure, and I am clean in God’s sight.” But O that God would speak, and open his lips to you, and that he would tell you the secrets of wisdom! For wisdom is many-sided. Know then that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves. If iniquity is in your hand, put it far away, and do not let wickedness reside in your tents. Surely then you will lift up your face without blemish; you will be secure, and will not fear. You will forget your misery; you will remember it as waters that have passed away. And your life will be brighter than the noonday; its darkness will be like the morning.

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

What an overwhelming disaster. Job has just lost everything except his wife and his life. Not only has all of his livestock been killed, a house has fallen on all of his children – seven sons and three daughters. Only his wife survives, and she suggested that he should simply “curse God and die.” So supportive, no?

Good thing he has his three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. In last week’s reading, they came to sit with Job. They wept with him. They were exemplary friends. Now, it’s as if they Googled “Top ten worst things to say to a suffering friend.” Or maybe they Googled “why God makes people suffer.” Now it’s easy to think, “With friends like these, who needs enemies?”

Actually, of course, they didn’t Google anything. They simply relied on the faulty logic that all people use. These three friends wanted to say something in a time when there really wasn’t much to be said. I’ve done that. I bet you’ve been there, too. You want to offer some words of comfort to a friend, so you say, “Well, it was God’s will that this happened.” Or maybe “I know exactly how you feel.” Or maybe someone has said to you, “Well, it’s sad, but just put it behind you.”

“You shouldn’t feel that way.” Perhaps someone has implied that you brought your suffering upon yourself: “Maybe there was something you could have done….or shouldn’t have done.” A lot of us say these things to ourselves!

And none of these attempts to be helpful are helpful at all. But let’s not be too hard on Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. They are, after all, fictional characters, drawn to make particular points. Each one of them has a long speech in which he puts forward the pious and popular beliefs about suffering. They suggest that Job somehow deserves these calamities. They suggest that he just needs to be strong and trust God’s will. They suggest that if Job would repent of his sin, and stop protesting his innocence, that things would go better for him.

There’s a grain of truth in each of their speeches, and there’s a part of each of us that is drawn to these beliefs. When tragedy strikes, we want to understand. We try to make meaning of it. We want to know who to blame. We even revert to childlike thinking, half-believing that if we can just find the magical key, we can reverse the heartbreak. So the words of Job’s friends echo in our own hearts: “If only I had….” “I should have…could have…if only…”

And sadly, when we are not at our best, we project those same judgments on our own suffering friends. Then we start problem solving – “Have you tried…? If you would just… Why don’t you…?”

Job’s friends truly care about him. They see that he is suffering. And certainly, these many hundreds of years later, we do not have to look far to see suffering all around us. And though we may blunder, we are called to respond to that suffering.

The writer of the prelude pondering, Venetha Rendall Risner, is no stranger to suffering. She has written some very helpful articles about what not to say, and offered some solid thoughts on what is helpful in the time of suffering. Her list includes some of the responses I’ve mentioned – and how they feel. See if some of these resonate with things you might have heard.

1. Minimizing– it’s not that bad. Look on the bright side.
2. Criticizing -if you had enough faith, things could be much better.
3. Moralizing - if you confess your sin and change your ways, God’ll bless you.
4. Scrutinizing and Advising - Why don’t you take a walk?
You just need to get your mind off your problems.
5. Vaporizing - some people virtually disappear when tragedy strikes.[1]

Risner’s writings address the reality that sometimes, human suffering is a mystery. Job’s story addresses that same reality. Job didn’t like the advice his friends were giving, and neither did God!
Sometimes, there is no explanation whatsoever for disasters – whether personal or global.

We might like to single out a single adversary, a Satan, an enemy, to blame.
We might like to blame the victims, pointing out what they should have done.
We might like to believe that if only the suffering person would turn to Jesus,
their suffering would end and all would be well.
In the face of such difficulty, in times of tragedy, which we have seen yet again this week,
we want to make sense of everything. But we can’t.

What can we do, then?

In any case of trouble or suffering, the best way to help is to find out what is needed, and then provide it, as much as possible. When disaster strikes, our first impulse is to provide what we have, or what we think is needed, or what we believe is comforting. For example – and it is just one example: in the weeks following the murder of twenty children and six teachers in Newtown, Connecticut the agencies in the area were inundated– $27,000 worth of toys, sixty five thousand stuffed toys and teddy bears, six truckloads of paper snowflakes and origami cranes –for a town of less than 30,000 people.[2]

Every gift, I am sure, was given with a heartfelt desire to help.
Every gift, I am sure, was given out of a need to take action.
But not one gift changed the problems at the root of that horrible event.

That’s much harder.

That takes stamina and courage and the willingness to listen and maybe even reconsider what was once a certain truth. Disaster relief workers and associations assure us that when tragedy strikes and we want to help, that our good intentions are not enough. One estimated that a donation of a can of peas can cost up to $80 to handle before it gets to the intended recipient.[3] So when global disasters happen, the most immediate and useful response is to give money that can be used to help those most in need.

When the suffering is personal, we can respond like Job’s friends did at first: Sit and listen.
Listen to the stories of others, without judgment or advice. Listen to the pain that is not yours, until you feel it. Listen with empathy and love. After the listening is done, be present and offer to help. Stay present and connected, even when it is difficult and painful.

When the suffering is bigger than us, as it has been so often lately, we can begin by tamping down our first impulses to blame and moralize. We can understand that God is big enough, and strong enough, to hear our anger and our frustration and our distress. (If you are not certain that this is true, read the Psalms.) We can trust that God is not indifferent to our suffering, even while we trust that God does not visit that suffering upon us. We can pray, even if our prayers have no words, because the Holy Spirit will pray with us and for us. And we can listen, offer to help, and stay connected.

We’ve once again had a difficult week, with much violence in the news. In situations such as the latest horror in France, or when acts of violence, terror and racism take place in our world, or even in our own town or neighborhood, we start by listening to the voices crying out in anguish. After the listening, we can respond with acts of care – not only prayers, though prayers are always good, but also with actions – advocacy, assistance, and action. By listening, we can learn how to advocate, and what actions to take. I don’t know what that advocacy or assistance or action will look like for you – it should emerge from your own prayers and attentive listening – but I do know that if the answers we find or the actions we take are something that is easy and cost us little or nothing, we need to carefully examine our decisions.

As Christians, we respond to suffering on behalf of those who suffer – not to make ourselves feel better, but to materially, spiritually and physically aid those in need. When that happens, people in misery and pain 
can see God’s love in action, 
can feel the empathy and grace we share, 
can know that there are people who truly, deeply care, 
can learn about faith by seeing how we live,
can look to followers of Jesus and be glad to have friends like these.



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