Job 03-Faith in Times of Mourning

God has not forsaken you.

After this, Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. He said:

“May the day of my birth perish,
    and the night that said, ‘A boy is conceived!’
That day—may it turn to darkness;
    may God above not care about it;
    may no light shine on it.
May gloom and utter darkness claim it once more;
    may a cloud settle over it;
    may blackness overwhelm it.
That night—may thick darkness seize it;
    may it not be included among the days of the year
    nor be entered in any of the months.
May that night be barren;
    may no shout of joy be heard in it.
May those who curse days curse that day,
    those who are ready to rouse Leviathan.
May its morning stars become dark;
    may it wait for daylight in vain
    and not see the first rays of dawn,
10 for it did not shut the doors of the womb on me
    to hide trouble from my eyes.

11 “Why did I not perish at birth,
    and die as I came from the womb?
12 Why were there knees to receive me
    and breasts that I might be nursed?
13 For now I would be lying down in peace;
    I would be asleep and at rest
14 with kings and rulers of the earth,
    who built for themselves places now lying in ruins,
15 with princes who had gold,
    who filled their houses with silver.
16 Or why was I not hidden away in the ground like a stillborn child,
    like an infant who never saw the light of day?
17 There the wicked cease from turmoil,
    and there the weary are at rest.
18 Captives also enjoy their ease;
    they no longer hear the slave driver’s shout.
19 The small and the great are there,
    and the slaves are freed from their owners.

20 “Why is light given to those in misery,
    and life to the bitter of soul,
21 to those who long for death that does not come,
    who search for it more than for hidden treasure,
22 who are filled with gladness
    and rejoice when they reach the grave?
23 Why is life given to a man
    whose way is hidden,
    whom God has hedged in?
24 For sighing has become my daily food;
    my groans pour out like water.
25 What I feared has come upon me;
    what I dreaded has happened to me.
26 I have no peace, no quietness;
    I have no rest, but only turmoil.”

If you are hurting, this post is especially for you.  Let me start by saying: God has not forsaken you, you are loved. I pray that you find comfort, or at least solidarity, through this Bible verse: Even Job, a man of great faith, wept and cursed and wished for death.  What you’re feeling is normal, and, if whatever happened feels like a test of your Faith, try not to worry too much about that, just focus on getting through your sorrow.

This poem is beautiful in its anguish, something I did not notice or appreciate the first time I read through Job.  The imagery is vivid:  Even night is not dark enough for Job’s misery – he wishes a thick darkness to swallow up the (dark of) the night he was born.  He wishes he were dead.  But not just dead, never-even-been-born dead – “hidden away in the ground like a stillborn child, like an infant who never saw the light of day.” (v. 16)  And why wouldn’t he?  Beyond everything else he’s suffered, now the most basic of needs and pleasures, namely easing hunger and quenching thirst, have been taken from him:  “sighing has become my daily food, and my groans pour out like water.”

I hate it when people say “God won’t give you more than you can bear,” and “everything happens for a reason.”  Statements like that make it too easy to dismiss human suffering.  The saying I do like, and that I’ve mentioned before, is “God didn’t promise a smooth ride, but rather a soft landing.”  Hard things, sad things, are going to happen.  Maybe some of them are happening for our personal growth, but I truly believe some of them are just bad luck, too, and part of being human.  I adore my girls, but they still fall down.  I could put them in kneepads and elbow pads and not go for walks or let them play on the playground – but the occasional bumps and bruises are so worth the rest of life! 

So why is life given to a man whose way is hidden, as Job so excellently asks in v. 23?  If you have the answer, I’d love to know!  I was skimming an article just a few days ago that said there is a duality in Job we’d do well to recognize:  Job is faithful, but he is also mournful.  In other words, this question is in part a valid question: Job, and us with him, are exploring why God allows bad things to happen to good people. This is a question that any healthy faith should be able to ask. But also, this is a rhetorical question asked in anguish, a way for Job to express his distress.  I’ve written one post already about having Faith through times of Doubt, and having Faith through times of Mourning is similar.  Job curses himself and the day of his birth, and he even raises questions to God with v. 23, but he does not curse God.  Later he will plaintively make his case for being wrongly stricken by the calamities befalling him, but even in his frustration with his friends and sorrow over his situation, he will not curse God.  

We have a bird’s-eye view of Job’s story, and know things that he does not at the time he utters this lament, particularly that God has not forsaken him. Let’s try to remember that in our times of sorrow, too.  To my readers that are hurting, I’ll say again: God has not forsaken you.  Perhaps you will grow from this experience, but if you don’t that’s OK, too.  Maybe you’re sad because a shitty thing just happened, the spiritual and emotional equivalent of falling off the swing at the playground.  If it helps you cope to ask “why,” then do so, but know that you can also just mourn, as Job does, and God will listen.

Genesis 17 – Patience and Listening

God patiently waits for us to listen.

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”

Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan,where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”

Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant,you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. 10 This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

15 God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. 16 I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.”

17 Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!”

19 Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. 20 And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make 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. 21 But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.” 22 When he had finished speaking with Abraham, God went up from him.

23 On that very day Abraham took his son Ishmael and all those born in his household or bought with his money, every male in his household, and circumcised them, as God told him. 24 Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised, 25 and his son Ishmael was thirteen;26 Abraham and his son Ishmael were both circumcised on that very day.27 And every male in Abraham’s household, including those born in his household or bought from a foreigner, was circumcised with him.

I bashed Abraham (so renamed as of this chapter) pretty hard in my last post, and I was still in a bash-y sort of mindset when I was reading this chapter. The main question I kept asking myself was “Why him? Why did God chose Abraham? What was so special about him?”

The answer? Nothing, really, except Abraham was a ready listener.  I’ve already illuminated Abraham’s many shortcomings or possible shortcomings (twice denying his wife to save his skin, questionable faith when sleeping with Hagar…) But everything I’ve read about Abraham shows that he listened to God, and was ready to receive his message.  Sometimes he was incredulous, as in this chapter when he laughs at the idea of a man one hundred years old having a child by a woman who is ninety (17:17), but wouldn’t you laugh, too?  But when God said “leave your country” (Gen 12:1), Abraham left. When God said “I am your shield, your very great reward.” (Gen. 15:1), Abraham believed him (15:6). When God requested a sacrifice, Abraham brought it forthwith (Gen. 15:9-11). And when God made circumcision a sign of his covenant with Abraham – more about that in a minute – he did it.  Not only did he make sure he and his son were circumcised, but the Bible takes care to tell us that “all those born in his household, or bought with his money, every male in his household,” (17:23) were circumcised.

Abraham’s failures occurred in the God’s silences.  That lays the blame at God’s feet – let me see if I can phrase it a different way.  Abraham’s failures occurred when he stopped listening for God.  No, God is not going to verbally converse with us all the time, not even with Abraham, but He is still there, it’s just up to us to seek His guiding hand and follow it.  Abraham didn’t trust God when he gave Sarah to the Pharaoh.  Some argue he didn’t trust God when he left for Egypt during the famine in the first place.  I’ve argued that he was also guilty of at least impatience with God if not flat out faithlessness when he agrees with Sarah to sleep with Hagar.  But don’t we all fail in our faith sometimes? Maybe even on a daily basis?  And when faced with really dire consequences – starving to death, being killed by the Pharaoh, seeing the end of your bloodline in a patriarchal society – it’s hard to trust God’s plan.

And you know what the beautiful thing about that is?  God forgave Abraham.  His forgiveness is so pervasive it’s not even really mentioned, just implicit.  At any time God could have cut Abraham off for his faithlessness, but He recognized Abraham’s human fragility and forgave him for it. Perhaps even Abraham’s lapses in faith are even part of God’s grace: You can’t hold a conversation with a drowning man.  Perhaps God let Abraham go to Egypt, even though He was fully capable of saving him from famine, because He knew Abraham was not in a good place to listen.  But, when the time was right, God continued to talk to him, because He knew Abraham was ready.

And perhaps that is why God waited until Abraham was a full one hundred years old to make this covenant with him.  Think of your grand- or great-grand parents and all the wisdom they have accumulated over their lifetimes.  Age generally seems to give people a larger world-view. I hope, as I get older, to be less bogged down in petty details but also able to enjoy all of life’s small pleasures more fully.  Abraham, wised-up and mellowed-out, wouldn’t balk at a little genital mutilation the way a twenty-something year old man would.

Something I learned about circumcision while reading this chapter: It wasn’t unheard-of before Abraham.  In fact, Egyptians and Phoenicians were among some of the populations who practiced circumcision at the time.  At least for me, knowing that it had a certain degree of cultural norm before the Abrahamic Covenant makes it seem like a less bizarre request.  There are a myriad of proposed reasons as to why any group performed circumcision – some in direct conflict, including both to limit sexual arousal and to improve sexual performance. But Abraham’s circumcision, the one that we are most concerned with here, was to signify this new covenant with God. It is symbolic.  God said to Abraham “Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, shall be cut off from his people.” (17:14)  People means family means offspring, so it makes sense that cutting the organ used for procreation symbolizes the cutting off from offspring should the covenant not be followed.

Should we still circumcise today?  I don’t have any boys, so I haven’t had to deal with that question directly.  Paul argues against it in the New Testament, others say it still holds as a symbol of faith.  I really don’t know.  It’s a topic I’ll think more upon as we cross it again, as it’s mentioned nearly 100 times in the Bible. (Thanks, Google!)

For now, I’m just thankful to have a God that is patient with us.  It is something I will try to remember when things aren’t going my way.  Sometimes things don’t go our way, that’s true, and we chalk it up to not being part of God’s plan.  But perhaps it is not part of God’s plan because he is just waiting for us to be still and ready to listen. Again, it’s not easy to quiet yourself in the midst of a crisis (whether that crisis be dealing with as little as a traffic jam or as large as car crash), but it’s something I’ll try to remember, since God always remembers me.

Genesis 12 – Assessing your Spiritual Gifts

Knowing your spiritual strengths and weaknesses.

I got deep into some home improvement projects while the girls’ were with grandparents, and the blog fell by the wayside.  But now the house is put to rights, the girls are back, and so am I.  A note on the readings: I’m going to keep reading Genesis this month, and with the start of Lent (March 6 this year) I’ll be reading Job.

***

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.

“I will make you into a great nation,
    and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
    and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
    and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you.”

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Harran. He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Harran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there.

Abram traveled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the Lord, who had appeared to him.

From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the Lord and called on the name of the Lord.

Then Abram set out and continued toward the Negev.

10 Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe. 11 As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. 12 When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will let you live. 13 Say you are my sister,so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.”

14 When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that Sarai was a very beautiful woman. 15 And when Pharaoh’s officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace. 16 He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels.

17 But the Lord inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife Sarai. 18 So Pharaoh summoned Abram. “What have you done to me?” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife? 19 Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her to be my wife? Now then, here is your wife. Take her and go!” 20 Then Pharaoh gave orders about Abram to his men, and they sent him on his way, with his wife and everything he had.

My last post was about using our gifts to do God’s work, and here we see God calling upon Abram to follow His path.  Like, really follow His path: leaving your family and wandering out into the unforgiving wilderness to foreign lands is scary enough now; back then it was a real act of faith.

I (only half jokingly) say that I hope I never hear directly from God.  If I hear the voice of God, I’ll have to follow whatever he commands me to do.  How can one ignore the direct voice of God? I never want to be Abram, who uprooted everything and moved away.  But, with that being said, I constantly question if I’m doing the right thing, if I’m on the right path.  Perhaps some of this is normal and healthy, but I do tend to be an over-thinker.  This past week or so I’ve noticed a lot of reminders in my life about finding your purpose, or your own special place in God’s plan, so I decided to take the Spiritual Gifts Assessment offered by the United Methodist Church.  There are others, but this was the one recommended to me, and you don’t have to sign up for anything to take it, so it’s the one I went with.

For those curious, I scored highest in “Interpretation,” i.e., I’m good at bridging the gap between different groups of people.  I also scored well in Sheperding, Healing, and Servanthood, which makes sense as I do those things on a daily basis with my kids.  I scored really low in Faith and Helping, which kind of bums me out, but I guess gives me something to work on.

But now that I know my strengths (and weaknesses) I can compare my efforts to them.  I’m feeling good about this blog – at least today, like I said, I’m a classic over-thinker -because it fits solidly into the “Interpretation” strength. I can weigh other potential endeavors, such as joining church committees or taking up volunteer work, against these strengths to see if I’d be a good fit and more likely to stick with it.  That’s not to say that sometimes things won’t fit neatly into the mold.  I ran the art committee at my previous church and I don’t really think that played to my spiritual strengths, but more to my love of art. But still, this test and these strengths are a nice starting point.

If you’ve felt like you could be doing “more,” or if you feel like your faith could be doing more for you, I encourage you to take this test.  We may not be Abram going through the strange lands of Canaan and Egypt, but we are, each and every one of us, going through this strange and wondrous life without a guidebook.  Knowing our spiritual strengths is another tool in our toolbox to make the most of it.