Job 10 – Remembering Lent

“I loathe my very life;
    therefore I will give free rein to my complaint
    and speak out in the bitterness of my soul.
I say to God: Do not declare me guilty,
    but tell me what charges you have against me.
Does it please you to oppress me,
    to spurn the work of your hands,
    while you smile on the plans of the wicked?
Do you have eyes of flesh?
    Do you see as a mortal sees?
Are your days like those of a mortal
    or your years like those of a strong man,
that you must search out my faults
    and probe after my sin—
though you know that I am not guilty
    and that no one can rescue me from your hand?

“Your hands shaped me and made me.
    Will you now turn and destroy me?
Remember that you molded me like clay.
    Will you now turn me to dust again?
10 Did you not pour me out like milk
    and curdle me like cheese,
11 clothe me with skin and flesh
    and knit me together with bones and sinews?
12 You gave me life and showed me kindness,
    and in your providence watched over my spirit.

13 “But this is what you concealed in your heart,
    and I know that this was in your mind:
14 If I sinned, you would be watching me
    and would not let my offense go unpunished.
15 If I am guilty—woe to me!
    Even if I am innocent, I cannot lift my head,
for I am full of shame
    and drowned in my affliction.
16 If I hold my head high, you stalk me like a lion
    and again display your awesome power against me.
17 You bring new witnesses against me
    and increase your anger toward me;
    your forces come against me wave upon wave.

18 “Why then did you bring me out of the womb?
    I wish I had died before any eye saw me.
19 If only I had never come into being,
    or had been carried straight from the womb to the grave!
20 Are not my few days almost over?
    Turn away from me so I can have a moment’s joy
21 before I go to the place of no return,
    to the land of gloom and utter darkness,
22 to the land of deepest night,
    of utter darkness and disorder,
    where even the light is like darkness.”

I’ve gotten a little side-tracked by some sub-themes in the readings these past few weeks and want to re-focus on the fact that we are still in Lent, since we’re about halfway through it.  Lent is a time we remember Jesus’ temptation in the desert, and prepare ourselves for his return on Easter.  I think calling out injustices, celebrating nature, and reaching out to those in mourning are all things he would want us to do, so the past few weeks worth of blog posts aren’t wasted, I just wanted to take the time to really focus on Lent itself again.

“If I am guilty–woe to me!” verse 15 declares, “Even if I am innocent, I cannot lift my head, for I am full of shame and drowned in my affliction.”  I am not a fan of needless guilt – I think it is bad for our mental health and can prevent us from getting out there and doing some real good – but this passage does invite us to marvel at the omniscient and omnipotent nature of God.  God is always watching, is ever present.  Poor Job is speaking out in pain, but there is truth when he says that God could always “bring new witnesses against [him]” (v. 16).  He even asks God to “turn away from [him] so [he] can have a moment’s joy,” (v. 20) realizing that even in the depths of his misery God is watching.

I got to go the Ash Wednesday service kid-free, which meant I actually got to listen to the sermon for once, and the Pastor asked – “if you knew Jesus was coming tonight, what would you do to prepare?”  It’s an interesting question.  In all honesty my first thought was clean the house and make some cookies.  But beyond that, it brings the reality that God is always watching, is ever present, into a more concrete reference.  There are definitely some moments where I wish God had maybe looked away and not noticed my petty gossip, losing my cool with the girls, or all the single-use containers I still buy.  But that is the beautiful thing about Lent: we know Jesus is coming, in reality we do not know the day or hour, but symbolically he will return on Easter, and we can prepare ourselves for him.

So how do we do that?  Giving up something is a nod to Jesus’ temptation in the desert, and if that helps you focus more on Jesus, then great, do it!  Dawn Hutchings, a Lutheran pastor whose blog I follow, has an interesting idea of Giving up God for Lent.  I know, it sounds a little out there, and maybe it is for some people, but the idea is to give up the idol of God and surrender to the spirit of God – I definitely suggest reading it.  But preparing for Jesus can be lots of things beyond giving up something. I took on reading Job as my Lenten practice because I never liked the book, and thought that would be an appropriate practice of spiritual rigor.  I’m happy to say that I’ve gained a new appreciation for the book of Job, and I hope that the gratitude and openness of spirit it has brought me is an appropriate preparation for Jesus.  And all that leaves is to re-dedicate ourselves to God: confessing our sins, or, if “sin” is too much of a trigger word, confessing our shortcomings and vowing to try harder.  That’s all we need to do.  Though I have to admit, if Jesus was coming tonight, I’d probably still try to clean the house.

Job 09 – Including Nature in Christianity

Then Job replied:

“Indeed, I know that this is true.
    But how can mere mortals prove their innocence before God?
Though they wished to dispute with him,
    they could not answer him one time out of a thousand.
His wisdom is profound, his power is vast.
    Who has resisted him and come out unscathed?
He moves mountains without their knowing it
    and overturns them in his anger.
He shakes the earth from its place
    and makes its pillars tremble.
He speaks to the sun and it does not shine;
    he seals off the light of the stars.
He alone stretches out the heavens
    and treads on the waves of the sea.
He is the Maker of the Bear and Orion,
    the Pleiades and the constellations of the south.
10 He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed,
    miracles that cannot be counted.
11 When he passes me, I cannot see him;
    when he goes by, I cannot perceive him.
12 If he snatches away, who can stop him?
    Who can say to him, ‘What are you doing?’
13 God does not restrain his anger;
    even the cohorts of Rahab cowered at his feet.

14 “How then can I dispute with him?
    How can I find words to argue with him?
15 Though I were innocent, I could not answer him;
    I could only plead with my Judge for mercy.
16 Even if I summoned him and he responded,
    I do not believe he would give me a hearing.
17 He would crush me with a storm
    and multiply my wounds for no reason.
18 He would not let me catch my breath
    but would overwhelm me with misery.
19 If it is a matter of strength, he is mighty!
    And if it is a matter of justice, who can challenge him?
20 Even if I were innocent, my mouth would condemn me;
    if I were blameless, it would pronounce me guilty.

21 “Although I am blameless,
    I have no concern for myself;
    I despise my own life.
22 It is all the same; that is why I say,
    ‘He destroys both the blameless and the wicked.’
23 When a scourge brings sudden death,
    he mocks the despair of the innocent.
24 When a land falls into the hands of the wicked,
    he blindfolds its judges.
    If it is not he, then who is it?

25 “My days are swifter than a runner;
    they fly away without a glimpse of joy.
26 They skim past like boats of papyrus,
    like eagles swooping down on their prey.
27 If I say, ‘I will forget my complaint,
    I will change my expression, and smile,’
28 I still dread all my sufferings,
    for I know you will not hold me innocent.
29 Since I am already found guilty,
    why should I struggle in vain?
30 Even if I washed myself with soap
    and my hands with cleansing powder,
31 you would plunge me into a slime pit
    so that even my clothes would detest me.

32 “He is not a mere mortal like me that I might answer him,
    that we might confront each other in court.
33 If only there were someone to mediate between us,
    someone to bring us together,
34 someone to remove God’s rod from me,
    so that his terror would frighten me no more.
35 Then I would speak up without fear of him,
    but as it now stands with me, I cannot.

I once had a pastor who said she thought it was a shame that early Christianity was formed at a time and place where popular thought was enamored with the idea of a separation of body and soul.  While there is nothing inherently wrong with Plato arguing that that soul is immortal (he is not the first to do so, but probably is the most influential), it leads to a disconnect from the physical world. To paraphrase: Stoics believed the highest human achievement was rational thought; Epicureans believed one could only achieve the highest mental state through focusing on rational (instead of physical) pleasures; and Skeptics doubted anything that could be perceived through the senses – basically the whole natural world.  All of these early philosophies were focused on taking man beyond body and the experiences of the physical.  Nature became a second-class citizen.

Then, with the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, nature became something for man to dominate through conquering and rules.  This was the great age of exploration, where “new” worlds were discovered, colonized, and bent to the will of the ruling people.  As scientific thought became first less dangerous and then more popular, western society approached nature through rules and laws, and it became at best a system from which to take resources, at worst an adversary to be quelled.  Yes, nature was God’s creation, but one over which people (at least, the people in power) have total control to exploit and subvert at our own pleasure.

It makes some people uncomfortable to think about Christianity being prone to “influences,” but the truth is, it did not form in a bubble.  Jesus was a vocal critic of society in a time of great political tension. Yes, he came to save all mankind, but the problems of his day were searingly visceral as well as spiritual.  And the societal influences, as you can see from the previous two paragraphs, just continued from there, usually at the expense of nature’s influence on worship.  I will say that there has been a slow return towards a respect for nature as God’s creation.  Romanticism, in particular, held a mystic view of nature, and conservation efforts today help us recognize the finite beauty of the world, and our responsibility towards it.  But there are still those who are afraid of nature, afraid that by looking to nature we are introducing pagan practices to Christianity and polluting our Christian faith. Well, I have a news flash for anyone who believes that: Pagan practices have been a part of Christianity from the very beginning, so that ship has sailed.  Here’s a whole Wikipedia article, with a whole subset of links, that describe all the pagan practices currently in Christianity, if you don’t believe me.

The early authors of the Bible did not have a conflict of thought between God and Nature.  And it readily apparent in the Book of Job.  Clearly, God is the great creator of nature, and when we are in awe of nature, we are in awe of Xyr power.  To illustrate this point, I think a whole section of this chapter bears repeating:

He moves mountains without their knowing it
    and overturns them in his anger.
He shakes the earth from its place
    and makes its pillars tremble.
He speaks to the sun and it does not shine;
    he seals off the light of the stars.
He alone stretches out the heavens
    and treads on the waves of the sea.
He is the Maker of the Bear and Orion,
    the Pleiades and the constellations of the south.
10 He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed,
    miracles that cannot be counted.

I don’t think we should go out and pray to the trees, or the moon, or the sun.  They are all creations – glorious ones, but still just creations – of our almighty God.  But, does a mindful walk through the forest count as a prayer?  If done with intention, I think so.  Same goes for marveling at the beauty of a sunset, the vastness of the ocean, the delicateness of a butterfly.  I think it similar to admiring a painting.  When we admire a painting we are admiring the artist’s skill.  What artist wouldn’t want their painting admired?  To admire nature is to admire and acknowledge God.

And then there’s the act of planting.  Planting, in particular, I find synonymous with prayer.  We plant a vegetable garden in the hopes of a bountiful harvest, or plant bulbs in the fall in the hopes for flowers in the spring. Even planting saplings in the hope of a timber harvest decades from now is a hopeful and even prayerful act: planting implies hope for the future, faith that God will carry us through to the next season.

Perhaps, if we all spend a little more time with nature – admiring it, respecting it, and caring for it – then we will be spending more time with God, too.

Job 08 – A Delayed Response to the Christchurch Shooting

Then Bildad the Shuhite replied:

“How long will you say such things?
    Your words are a blustering wind.
Does God pervert justice?
    Does the Almighty pervert what is right?
When your children sinned against him,
    he gave them over to the penalty of their sin.
But if you will seek God earnestly
    and plead with the Almighty,
if you are pure and upright,
    even now he will rouse himself on your behalf
    and restore you to your prosperous state.
Your beginnings will seem humble,
    so prosperous will your future be.

“Ask the former generation
    and find out what their ancestors learned,
for we were born only yesterday and know nothing,
    and our days on earth are but a shadow.
10 Will they not instruct you and tell you?
    Will they not bring forth words from their understanding?
11 Can papyrus grow tall where there is no marsh?
    Can reeds thrive without water?
12 While still growing and uncut,
    they wither more quickly than grass.
13 Such is the destiny of all who forget God;
    so perishes the hope of the godless.
14 What they trust in is fragile;
    what they rely on is a spider’s web.
15 They lean on the web, but it gives way;
    they cling to it, but it does not hold.
16 They are like a well-watered plant in the sunshine,
    spreading its shoots over the garden;
17 it entwines its roots around a pile of rocks
    and looks for a place among the stones.
18 But when it is torn from its spot,
    that place disowns it and says, ‘I never saw you.’
19 Surely its life withers away,
    and from the soil other plants grow.

20 “Surely God does not reject one who is blameless
    or strengthen the hands of evildoers.
21 He will yet fill your mouth with laughter
    and your lips with shouts of joy.
22 Your enemies will be clothed in shame,
    and the tents of the wicked will be no more.”

I, like many of you, have been listening to the news coverage of the shooting at a mosque in Christchurch, NZ.  On Friday, hours before I write this, twenty-six victims were laid to rest, including three year old Mucad Ibrahim.

Bildad’s words particularly seem like disingenuous lip-service reading them in the light of this tragedy.  Does God pervert justice? Does the Almighty pervert what is right? (v. 3) Suddenly this doesn’t seem such a rhetorical question.  Surely God does not reject a blameless man or strengthen the hands of an evildoer. (v. 20) Are we so sure?

What angers me the most about Islamophobia is how quickly people – supposed Christians – forget that we all worship the same Abrahamic God.  God may have chosen Isaac and later Jacob for Xyrs special covenants, but both their brothers, Ishmael (a forefather of Islam’s great prophet Muhammed) and Esau (associated with Islam, but to a lesser extent), received blessings, too. It is in Genesis! We’ve seen one already, in Genesis 17 God says to Abraham: “And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will makes him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation.” (Gen 17:21).  The blessing is less explicit with Esau, but the Bible goes out of its way to tell us of his prosperity:  In Genesis 33, when Jacob and Esau meet again after many years, Esau is not only rich, but magnanimous. “I already have plenty, my brother, keep what you have for yourself,” Esau tells a deferential and nervous Jacob in Gen. 33:9.  And then, all of chapter 36 is dedicated to describing the great and long line of Esau’s descendants.  To make a long story short, Muslims are our brothers and sisters in an extended faith tradition.  Those who claim otherwise are willfully shutting their eyes to truth of the Bible.  Yes, there are some very bad people who claim Islam.  But there are also some very bad people who claim Christianity.

I don’t want to white-wash the pain of the Christchurch and larger Muslim community away by saying “it’s all part of God’s greater plan.”  That is cold comfort when you are mourning the loss of a father, a brother, a child.  I am sure God grieves with them and with us over this tragic, needless, and hateful loss of life.  So what I’ll say instead is don’t let this get swept under the rug.  Let us not be like Bildad, and mumble pious false comforts, let us instead provide real solidarity and support. Islamophobia is a real problem impacting people’s daily lives in this country and around the world.  In case you don’t believe me, here’s an article citing 86 (!!!) times our current president made Islamophobic statements.  Are you ready to take action?  Here is a thoughtful article that gives an introduction to talking, in a meaningful way, with friends or acquaintances who may make Islamophobic statements. It is of the utmost importance, I would even argue our Christian duty, to combat the hateful rhetoric that leads to attacks like the ones in Christchurch.  Regardless of faith practices we need to stand with one another, protect one another.  We are all God’s children, and deserve to be treated as such.