Imagine


We continue our journey with Job this week, our distressing journey with Job. But he hasn’t given up completely yet, and so we won’t either! At Wednesday’s online Bible discussion we talked about how difficult it is to read a passage like we had last week and try to come up with some inspiring positive words to say about it! It can certainly be challenging, but I think we did ok last week. Keep in mind that we are only midway through this series and so each week we will have varying degrees of good news to find. Some will be difficult to find any good news, and some a little easier, like today's. We have two passages that I read from today, one from chapter fourteen and one from chapter nineteen. You may remember that most of this book, is a conversation between Job and his friends, as well as a one-way conversation of Job to God. God only speaks at the very beginning of this book, and the very end, which may be its own lesson in and of itself.

In the two chapters that I read from today, there is a mixture of Job speaking to his friends at some moments, and Job speaking to God at other moments, and then there are these moments when Job seems to be thinking out loud. I imagine him almost delirious with grief and pain and not even knowing where to direct his thoughts and complaints. If this were a scene in a movie this would be the moment when someone smacks him in the face and tells him to get a hold of himself! However, I’m glad that no one does that, that no one stops his rambling, because these moments when he sits there thinking out loud are when he does some of his most profound thinking. It’s in these moments when he ponders things that only philosophers wrestle with. It’s in these moments when he allows his imagination to run wild, wild with hope, wild with a future, wild with life, a life he can only glimpse in his imagination right now. It’s in these moments that hope begins to sprout, from deep, deep within him, when hope begins to try and break through the hard shell that has formed around him, like a duckling that is desperately trying to be born. And all this happens thanks to Job’s imagination.

First, we hear Job, out of the blue, without any satisfying segue, talk about trees. He’s really struggling here! I’m picturing him sitting there in his ashes, pondering his own hopelessness, and looking up momentarily and his eyes just happen to notice a nearby tree, and he blurts out, “There’s hope for a tree.” Now, this might sound like rubbish to his friends but could it be, that something deep inside him, is trying with all it’s might, to get hope to sprout? Almost as if he’s doing a word association exercise where someone showed him a picture of a tree and told him to say the first word that comes to mind and he says, “hope.” Maybe it doesn’t even make sense to him, but you and I get this opportunity to imagine what is going on in his heart as he tries to process all that has transpired.

With a tree’s ability to sprout even after it has been felled still fresh in his mind, Job quickly turns his attention to humanity. He says “But a human dies and lies there.” You can practically see his heart trying to make that connection for him, trying to get him to connect the dots, rooting for him to realize just how valuable Job is to God if a tree is! And we as the reader are rooting for him too! He’s so close to a breakthrough here we can taste it! He asks, “But people die, and where are they…will they live again?” Bingo! He asks the question that we’ve wanted him to ask for so long now, especially because we know the answer! But I have to pause here and point something out, because modern readers of this story overlook just how significant this question of his is. In the ancient Hebrew mind, there was no concept of life after death. For them, death was final. It was a ceasing of all of life’s hardships and turmoils. It was the ultimate rest, the ultimate sleep. So, to think that there might be something afterward, was not only odd, it may not have even been a pleasant thought for Job, like it is for many of us. But aside from that, the point here is that Job here is imagining something more, imagining something beyond, even to the point of imagining a new relationship with this God that he only can seem to be at odds with right now. And it’s in this imagining, as silly as it may have sounded to his ancient Hebrew mind, that hope begins to sprout, that hope begins to break through.

But Job’s not quite ready to go there yet. He dismisses this idea as quickly as he imagined it. The God that he knew at this point is a destroyer of people’s hope, as he put it. And so we move on from here and into chapter nineteen after a few more back and forths with his friends, and a prayer to God that goes unanswered, and in this chapter we find hope beginning to rekindle in his imagination once again. In probably the most quoted verse from Job, maybe of the entire Bible, Job says, “I know that my redeemer lives, and will rise upon the dust.” Job imagines someone coming to his rescue. And who is this redeemer of Job’s? Hold on a sec before you say it’s Jesus! How would Job answer that question?

Unfortunately, many translations capitalize the word redeemer, making it a proper noun. In the original Hebrew, it was not. It’s simply the word redeemer, in Hebrew, ga’al. The term ga’al was actually a legal term. A person’s ga’al was usually a family member whose legal responsibility it was to rescue another family member from some predicament they were in. They would be their advocate, would plead their case for them. For instance, if you were sold into slavery, a family member could come and buy your freedom and be your ga’al, your redeemer. Or, a ga’al could be someone who marries a widow in order to provide an heir for her dead husband. Or, a ga’al could be someone “avenging the blood of a murdered relative”, or even someone “buying back family property that has fallen into the hands of outsiders.” So, in Job’s mind, who was he expecting to come to his rescue? It’s hard to imagine him thinking it was a friend or family member because his relationships with them aren’t very good right now. It’s equally hard to imagine Job’s ga’al, Job’s redeemer being God at this point in the story, they can’t even have a two-way conversation right now! I honestly don’t think Job had any idea who his redeemer would be.

For Job, this was a mysterious figure, and I kinda like that! Remember, we are operating within Job’s imagination here, and Job is imagining someone, some mysterious figure, to come and rescue him, to be his ga’al, to be his redeemer. And it doesn’t matter who it is to Job. What matters is that he is finally able to imagine something beyond his current predicament. What matters is that he is finally able, through the use of his imagination, to see a future, as fantastical as it may be to those around him, he is able to imagine life ahead of him, in some way, in some form, in his mind’s eye, and that is allowing hope to finally sprout, to finally break through, even if it’s fleeting. And most of all, it’s keeping him from completely giving up, which is what faith is all about.

So, as I contemplate Job’s use of his imagination, and the way he uses it to cultivate hope where there was none, I can’t help but think of how we do that same thing today. In spite of the hopelessness we often find ourselves in, we imagine a better tomorrow, we imagine a way out of this, we imagine, with our mind’s eye, a world where today’s challenges, where today’s heartaches, where today’s pain, is a distant memory. Because I believe that unless we can imagine it, it can’t come to fruition. History has shown us this time and time again through the various movements and their leaders over the centuries. When I contemplate Job’s imagination I can’t help but think of leaders like Dorothy Day who imagined a world where women had equal rights, or Dr. Martin Luther King and how he imagined a world without racism, or Marsha Johnson who imagined a world where the LGBTQ+ community could have equal rights. These iconic figures sacrificed so much for their causes but what I want to highlight today is their imaginations, because without their ability to imagine a better world, it could never be so.

And so I ask you, dear listener, what do you imagine? What does your future world look like? And when was the last time you shared your imagination with others the way Job did? Could Job’s imagination will something into existence? Is our imagination that powerful? I have to believe that it is. For it is there that hope springs. So, my friends, my family, imagine with me. Let’s see what happens when we imagine. Amen.



Make Your Case


If you only knew Job from the first two chapters of this book, which we read last week, you not only would be getting a partial picture of this character, but you’d also question whether he was even human or not. He handles those first two chapters, with all the tragedy that befell him, like a champ! At the end of chapter one the author writes, “In all this, Job didn’t sin or blame God.” I don’t know about you but if all that had happened to me, you better believe that God and I are gonna have words! I would be sitting God down to have a come to Jesus moment! But not Job, he remains as steadfast as ever! Well, at least in those first two chapters. However, if you were listening very closely last week, there was a clue that Job’s steadfastness was already beginning to falter. You may have missed it but at the end of chapter two, Job ends very similarly to the way he ended chapter one. But instead of saying, “In all this, Job didn’t sin or blame God”, this time the author writes, “In all this, Job didn’t sin with his lips.” Job goes from not sinning at all, to not sinning with his lips. I can’t imagine this being a trivial detail. That had to be on purpose. That was the author’s way of saying, Job is not doing as well as he appears on the outside. Inside, he’s breaking. And break he did.

Chapter three opens with someone finally opening their mouths to speak. They had been sitting in silence for seven days and seven nights and now someone speaks. Being the friends they are, they allow Job to speak first, and when he does, we hear just how broken he really is. His brokenness erupts from deep within, no longer can it be contained, nor, as it seems, can it be controlled. Graphic this description may be, but vomit is the best way I can express what Job does with all that has been festering within him for the past seven days and nights. His friends allow him to have his moment, they allow him to vent, to get it all out, or so they thought. But I can only imagine the look on their faces as he does so, as they realize just how much of a dark place that Job has fallen into. And please hear me when I say that I don’t judge him for this. He just lost nearly everything he held dear: his wealth, his possessions, his children, his health. Who could blame him for falling into such a dark place? And dark it was.

When Job finally speaks he expresses his will to die, no, to have never been born! And though morbid his words may be, it is also some of the most beautiful writing found in the Bible. You can’t help but wonder the tragedy that had befallen the author to be able express such deep pain so articulately, so poetically. Though the beginning and ending of this book are in prose, all the chapters in between are written in poetry. Many scholars have called this book the most beautiful poetry of both the ancient and modern world, and after hearing these opening verses of chapter three we can see why. As we read through this book these next few weeks, think Shakespearean play, and you’ll get the feel for the type of writing this is.

After Job has had his say, for now, one of his friends, Eliphaz, finally speaks up, and you can’t help but feel how not only confused but also frustrated he is with Job. Confused because, as Eliphaz tells Job, “you’ve instructed many and given strength to drooping hands. Your words have raised up the falling; you’ve steadied failing knees. But now it comes to you, and you are dismayed; it has struck you, and you are frightened?” We unfortunately don’t know a whole lot about Job and what he actually did in his own local community but it sounds to me like he had done some serious ministry for the people in his community, that he has been a source of support and encouragement and spiritual leadership for his community! If I didn’t know better I’d think he had some kind of pastoral role there. Whatever kind of ministry he was doing, it wasn’t helping him now, which is what was confusing Eliphaz. In his mind all Job had to do was follow the advice that Job had given to so many other people! But anyone in any kind of ministry knows, and that includes you dear listener, that it doesn’t really work that way does it? Helpers need just as much help as anyone else! Pastors need just as much pastoring as anyone else! Friends need just as much friendship as they give out.

Eliphaz goes on to give two chapters worth of less then helpful advice. He tells Job, God love him, he tells Job to just rely on his religion and integrity to see him through this. But Job is tapped out! Job is beyond running on fumes here, he’s got nothing left in the tank! He’s done with all that! He’s done! Eliphaz goes on tell him that innocent people don’t perish and the sinful will reap what they sow but that’s not the reality that Job is sitting in and if I were Job I would have thrown Eliphaz out of his ash heap right then and there. How dare Eliphaz say that when the smoke of death and destruction still hangs in the air! I don’t know what Eliphaz did but I sure hope he wasn’t in any kind of ministry!

Job listens to Eliphaz for two chapters but can no longer remain quiet. Our final selection for today sees Job speak up once again, only this time, he’s ready to talk to God. And he does not hold back! He and God have words finally, and if you had any doubts before, now we know for certain that he is not doing as well as we had thought last week! All his emotions come pouring out once again, but now they are directed straight at God: all his anger, all his frustration, all his confusion, all his disappointment. And I must say, a lot of it comes out with a healthy dose of sassiness and sarcasm! If I ever sassed my parents the way that Job sasses God here, well let’s just say I’d be walking around with a pillow for my bum to sit on for a week! Job gets so sassy here that he makes a mockery of the eighth Psalm, but we can talk more about that on Wednesday evening at our online Bible discussion. God just let’s Job get it all out, for now. God will certainly have some words of God’s own to share later, and might I add, some sassiness too.

Here is what I appreciate about these readings for today. None of this is about who is right and who is wrong. None of this is about getting answers. None of this is about trying to figure out why these tragedies have fallen on Job. That’s not what this part of the story is about. It’s about Job naming his pain, out loud, to the one that he suspects is the cause of it—God. Job believes that there is a case to be made here, against God, and he thinks he’s got a good case! But again, whether he does or not isn’t the point here. The point here is naming the pain, giving your pain some legs to walk with, a voice to scream with, some fingers to point with. And that is grace in my book. That may be the most merciful thing God could have done in that moment, allowing Job to name his pain and even point his finger at God.

I think this is a crucial step in any relationship. Allowing each other to name their pain, and point their fingers, even if, especially if, the end of that finger is pointed at us. How else can forgiveness and reconciliation and peace happen in a relationship, whether that be the relationship between two individuals or two groups of people. We have to be allowed to name our pain and point our fingers. And again, this is not about who is wrong and who is right because as I’m sure many of you know, often times we point our fingers and end up realizing we were wrong but you can’t come to that conclusion unless you’re allowed to make your case. But when we’re not even allowed to do that, that’s when relationships begin to fall apart. Now, keep in mind this is only part two of a five part series on this book of Job. But for now, I wanted us to take a moment and see the beauty and necessity of Job making his case, of pointing his finger, of naming his pain, because the same God that allowed that then, allows that today. May we allow it with others, in the hope and promise that it will bring forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace in our relationships, in our communities, and in our world. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Sitting in Solidarity



Inspired by Job 1-2

I know I say this all the time but Job is one of my all-time favorite characters in the Bible, maybe in all of literature! I wish we had time to read more of this book but we will get the highlights over the course of five Sundays. You will certainly walk away with the gist of the book, and hopefully with how to use it in your everyday life. If you’d like to read more, let me once again point you to the online daily devotions and readings which will fill in the gaps of the parts that we had to skip between the Sunday readings. It really is a great resource, especially during a pandemic. But enough of the advertisements, let’s talk about Job! I’m going to do something I never do and begin at the end. One of our members, RuthAnne Ijames, told me she is in the habit of reading the end of a book first, to see if it’s gone end well before she commits to it! So, in that spirit, let me read to you the last sentence of the book of Job, “Then Job died, old and satisfied.”

Now, if you read that and think, “Oh this is gonna be a great book with a great ending!” Well, don’t get your hopes too high. I guess it all depends on what a “good ending” means to you. But I’ll tell you right now, a lot of people walk away from this book very unsatisfied. Does the character Job end up in a good place? You could say that. However, where it leaves a lot to be desired by many is as a Bible book that is supposed to teach us something, answer our questions. And in the case of Job, a very specific question indeed, “Why? Why do people suffer? Why do the good suffer, and the wicked prosper?” That’s a big question! And one that the world has been asking since the beginning of time. This book searches for that answer but, spoiler alert, it comes up short. Or maybe it doesn’t! Maybe a non-answer is the answer! But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s tackle these first two chapters that I just read.

By way of introduction, the book of Job is a work of fiction. It’s no accident that it begins with, “Once upon a time...” And even if we read it in the New Revised Standard Version it begins, “There once was a man in the land of Uz…” I mean, come on, who begins a work of nonfiction like that? It is designed to let you know that what you are about to hear is a story, in the truest sense of that word. For some, this is a hard pill to swallow. Finding out that some parts of the Bible are made up seems to take away from it for some people. If you are one of those people, I urge you to stay away from seminary! For me though, it’s a relief. Especially with this book! If this were a historical account, there would be some things about God in here that I just couldn’t swallow!

However, in spite of its fictitious nature, or maybe because of, it contains some of the most profound truths that the world has ever heard, no, not just heard, experienced! This author invites us, draws us to experience this life of Job, so much so that by the end of chapter two, you are in fact sitting in that silent pile of ashes with Job and his friends, waiting, begging for someone to say something. Think of this book as a “what if” book. We all play that game every once in a while, when we ask each other, “What if…” and then you ponder some scenario, sometimes outrageous scenario, just to see where it might end. That’s what this book is like. Someone asked, what if God was asked a question by one of God’s subordinates in heaven and then was tempted to prove that God’s answer was correct? And the book of Job was born. And so, I invite you, to journey with Job, to struggle with Job, to sit with Job, just don’t forget to put your seatbelt on.

We don’t know much about Job. No one knows where the land of Uz was, which is another clue that this is a fictitious work. If it was written today it would probably be the “land of Oz.” What we do know is that it was in the East. That is not an insignificant detail. That tells us that Job was an outsider, a Gentile, not of the Jewish faith or culture. This is significant for multiple reasons but two most important. One, it means that the answers that are sought in this book are for everyone, that these are not just Jewish struggles, they are human struggles, and so these truths are for all and are universal. And two, it is further evidence of how wide-reaching God’s love is, even in these old, old stories from the Hebrew scriptures. Grace abounded, long before Jesus was a twinkle in God’s eye.

Job was a well-to-do man, and was also a devout God-worshipper. He was so devout, it’s hard not to roll your eyes at this guy. He didn’t just go to worship for himself, but he made offerings on behalf of his children, just in case they sinned since the last time he went! That’s how devout this guy was! You all know people like this, right! Those people that go to every worship service and they’re always at the church doing things. Ugh, pastors can be so annoying! But you know, I don’t think Job was doing any of those things in a sanctimonious way. I really get the feeling that he simply loved God and loved his family and wanted to do right by them, even if it came off a little overzealous at times. And that’s what makes this story so painful to read.

So, Job loses almost everything, his wealth, his possessions, his children, all ten of them at once. Oh, and just to top it off, his health too. Why? Would you believe me if I told you it didn’t matter? I’m not kidding! I know that part about God and the accuser arguing over whether or not Job is gonna falter or not is quite seductive storytelling but I honest to God don’t think that’s the point of this story, otherwise the author wouldn’t have wasted it in the first two chapters of a forty-two chapter book! It’s just the spark that gets the story moving, which is why scholars of called these first two chapters the prologue. The meat-and-potatoes of this story is what follows in the next forty chapters, where we get to see how Job and his friends react to his predicament, where we get to hear them process his pain, and in doing so, they not only process their own, but they help process ours too. Will we all come to the same conclusion in the end? Well, I don’t want to spoil the ending but no, we won’t. Hence the unsatisfying ending I mentioned earlier.

The prologue ends with three of Job’s friends entering the scene, creating one of the most profound images of care. There is Job, scrapping the lesions off his body with a broken piece of pottery, sitting in a pile of ashes, his torn clothes strewn around him. In walk his three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. They had heard what had happened to him and had come to console him. Life had struck him such a blow that they didn’t even recognize him, and it brought them to tears. They all tore their clothes and scattered dust on their heads, in solidarity with their friend Job. And then they sat with him. For seven days and seven nights they just sat there. They didn’t try to fix his situation, they didn’t try to give him advice, they didn’t try to explain his pain away. They tore their clothes, scattered some dust, and just sat there, with him, in silence, for seven days and seven nights.

Have you ever experienced that? Have you ever received that kind of ministry of presence, as many have called it? Have you ever sat with someone like that? Odds are, you can answer yes to one or both of those questions. Sometimes, more often than we’d think I’d argue, that is the most meaningful way to care for someone—to sit, or stand, in solidarity with someone, and just be there for them. Maybe it’s someone who’s had a death in the family. Maybe it’s someone who’s just lost a job. Maybe it’s someone in recovery. Maybe it’s someone in a health crisis. I’m reminded of a friend of the family who lost her hair due to cancer treatments and my daughter Grace shaved her head to support her. Or, maybe it’s not a person but a group of people. For instance, as a person of color, every time I see a white ally either join a protest or post something on social media to fight racism, I can feel them sit with me, in solidarity, in the pile of ashes that every person of color sits in. Now, we’ve got a lot of Job to get through in the coming weeks, and we will be struggling with Job on some big questions concerning who God is, and who we are, and why people suffer, but for me, none of that matters, if we can’t figure out how to sit in solidarity with one another in the many and various ash heaps of life. But when we do, Grace will abound. Thanks be to the God of Job. Amen.