Losing My Religion: True Colors
“Instead of saying ‘God wouldn’t give you more than you could handle,’ you could say, ‘Let me come over and do some laundry.’”
So begins an article entitled, “Stupid Phrases for People in Crisis.” In addition to the ever popular “more than you can handle” phrase, the author lists statements we often say when we encounter friends in crisis, consolations that fall flat in the face of human pain. Things like, “It gets better,” or “When God shuts a door, he opens a window,” “Did you pray about it?,” and my personal favorite: “When I think about your situation, I’m reminded how blessed I am.”
We mean to help, but often our efforts fall flat, and worse: sometimes when we see friends in crisis, we add to the pain.
This morning the lectionary takes us back again to the book of Job, a little book of Hebrew poetry in our Old Testament. We’re in a four week series called Losing My Religion, following the mythical figure of Job, who lost everything and grappled with the question of suffering. Last week we talked about the invitation to cultivate a “disinterested faith,” to reject the cosmic equation that tells us if we’re good, good things should happen to us. If we do bad things, we’ll pay the price. We have to reject that, as did Job, because when he looked around at the human experience—as when we look at the human experience—that’s just not the way things work, is it? Good people suffer unjustly, and a lot of bad people live the good life.
When we encounter our friend Job today, he is in worse shape than he was last week. Attacked on all sides by even more trouble, Job’s three friends come to visit him, to console him as he sits on all he has left in the world—a pile of ashes—as he scrapes at the boils that cover his body from head to toe.
His three life-long friends, like brothers, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, come by to sit with Job and listen to his lament. You might guess what happened: they showed their true colors by offering advice like: “You say you haven’t done anything bad, but really…would something like this actually happen to someone who hadn’t done anything bad? You might want to think a little harder.” Their presence adds to Job’s suffering and he laments in chapter 6:
“When desperate people give up on God Almighty,
their friends, at least, should stick with them.
But my brothers are fickle as a gulch in the desert—
one day they’re gushing with water
From melting ice and snow
cascading out of the mountains,
But by midsummer they’re dry,
gullies baked dry in the sun.
Travelers who spot them and go out of their way for a drink
end up in a waterless gulch and die of thirst.”
We come into the story this morning during a loud lament—Job is sick and tired of listening to his friends and he feels sure that, if only he could express himself to God, God would address his situation.
But God is nowhere to be found! Silent as an abandoned house, painfully, wretchingly silent. “Oh how I wish I could find him! If I could, I would tell him how wrong all of this is. I would beg him to see my perspective, and to fix my pain!”
It’s not that Job is confused about what he thinks of his situation—here in chapter 23 he lays his case out plainly. The problem is, he just can’t get ahold of God, can’t find God to present his case, cannot LOCATE the divine. Riotous pain and horrible loss, and . . . silence. As his friends show their true colors with their not-so-helpful advice; Job is beginning to think he’s seeing God for who God really is, too: absent, silent, nowhere to be found. Does God even exist?
Our everyman Job is living questions that all of us have lived at one time or another along this journey of human life. There have been moments for us all when we have longed to find God, to ask our questions…but all we see when we look is an empty abyss. But Thomas Merton wrote: “If you find God with ease, perhaps it is not God you have found.” So, I got to wondering. What if what Job experienced as God’s silence—what we experience of God’s silence—is not really absence, as it feels to us, but actually a way of communicating presence and power, allowing us to sort through our pain and learn again the faithfulness of God?
After all, a God who comes when we call would get old really fast. If we were able to just snap our fingers and make God materialize, like a genie in a bottle, what kind of God would we have? We would have a God who was powerless, subject to our whims, a God with no meaningful ability to change anything.
I recall one Christmas when I was about 5 years old. I wished and wished for a special doll that you could actually feed. It came with all the baby utensils and little packets of food to feed the baby. I must have had great hopes for that toy, since I am the eldest of five and observed my mother actually feeding real babies, my sisters and brothers. I imagine I thought it would finally be so great to have my very own baby to feed.
Well, Christmas morning arrived and, sure enough, under the tree was the doll I wished for, brightly packaged with all the baby food she could possibly need. Well, was I happy. I fed that baby. I fed it and fed it and fed it . . . all day long. In fact, I fed the baby so much that I used up the entire supply of food in one day.
And do you know that baby just sat there and ate every bit of food I stuffed in its plastic mouth? Didn’t protest at all, didn’t act full, didn’t cry or get antsy, just ate and ate and ate. Well, when all the food was gone, that was it for me. I really cannot remember ever playing with that doll again. She had lost her power to engage me.
Perhaps the silence of God is not really the ABSENCE of God. Perhaps what Job needed, and what we need from time to time, is an opportunity to express, to voice our sorrow and pain and hopelessness to God, not so that God will know how we feel (God already knows) but so that WE can begin to understand our role in relationship to God, so that we can realize, finally, that we are not in control and that God is not some divine bell boy who comes everytime we ring.
God’s silence is, in fact, a kind of presence. Silence is a strange way that offers us the opportunity to remind each other what we believe, that allows us to listen to ourselves, to hear our own arguments, to tire of our control and to, ultimately, surrender everything we think we need, to God.
So how do we go about living with hope, living with expectation of God’s answer, even when we can’t seem to hear anything?
Well, that is where you come in. Each and every one of you. Job didn’t have a community of people who helped him remember that God was there, even when he was not receiving an answer to his questions. All the people around him added to his pain; none of them held a banner of hope for Job. In the darkest, most quiet moments of his suffering, Job did not have any loving voices to surround him and to remind him of God’s everlasting love.
When God is silent, when my heart is aching because I cannot hear a word of comfort or direction from God, I need you. I need all of you to remind me that God’s silence does not mean God is absent. I need your voices to remind me and to hold me accountable when I begin to buy into the falsehood that God should be available for me whenever I snap my fingers, whenever I feel that God should show up and give me an answer.
The church represents over 2000 years of people who, embracing their questions, have offered them back to God, over and over again, until the cacophony of voices blends together to form a sure and beautiful confession. We call each other to remember, over and over, that God is here, that God is loving, and that there is never a time when God has abandoned us.
One of the greatest modern thinkers on the absence of God is nobel prize winning writer, Elie Weisel. His life is a story of listening for God, finding nothing but silence, and slowly making his way back to faith, surrounded by people who, even in the face of horror and suffering, affirmed that God was alive, God was listening, God was there.
When Elie Wiesel was 14, Nazi soldiers took him and his family, crammed them onto a railroad car, separated men from women. Boys went with fathers, girls with mothers. Families were divided, never to see each other again. Freedom disappeared. Night came. Even the days were covered with darkness. God appeared to be absent; Weisel’s family was killed, and slowly, Elie Wiesel’s faith died.
By age 15, Elie Wiesel began to pray Psalm 22. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me?”
Elie Wiesel’s book Night tells of his journey of faith through the dark night of the soul. In one memory, Weisel recalls celebrating Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, in the concentration camp where he was held. The leader would cry out, “Bless the Eternal, Blessed be the name of the Eternal!” Weisel would think, “Why? Oh why should I bless Him?” Wiesel could only think of all the misery and death and pain that surrounded him and wonder where God was. But still, he heard the voices rising, “All the earth and the Universe are God’s! All creation bears witness to the Greatness of God!” Even as his faith was slowly dying, Weisel heard the voices of those who refused to believe God was absent or impotent. At age 15, he heard these proclamations of faith, and they followed him all the way through utter despair and disbelief back, finally, to faith. The faith of those around him carried him through.
At age 16, Elie Wiesel was liberated; eventually, he came to this country to live. In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In his speech accepting that honor, he affirmed strong faith in God. Listen to the words of faith coming from the heart of someone who had suffered profoundly, doubted the existence, never mind the goodness, of God, and yet emerged with hope. He began his acceptance speech as follows:
Words of gratitude. First to our common Creator. This is what the Jewish tradition commands us to do. At special occasions, one is duty-bound to recite the following prayer: “Blessed be Thou for having sustained us until this day.”
I remember: it happened yesterday, or eternities ago. A young Jewish boy discovered the Kingdom of Night. I remember his bewilderment, I remember his anguish. It all happened so fast. The ghetto. The deportation. The sealed cattle car. The fiery altar upon which the history of our people and the future of mankind were meant to be sacrificed.
It is in his name that I speak to you and that I express to you my deepest gratitude as one who has emerged from the Kingdom of Night. We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering; not to share them would mean to betray them.
For Elie Weisel, sharing the suffering reminded him that God is never truly absent. God’s silence is not God’s absence.
God is with us, as God was with Job and and with Elie Wiesel, even when we cannot hear the answer of God. And, when God seems absent, we can look all around us and see lives of experience and faith, a community of living, breathing ambassadors of God’s grace. All around us are people who will touch a hand, wipe a tear, remind us we are not alone, our community, who will show true colors of perseverence and presence and be true friends who will abandon trite phrases, pick up the overflowing laundry basket, and wait with us until we remember that God will never leave us.
For this we say: thanks be to God.