Job: experience speaks to tradition
August 6, 2012
Sometimes in life you go on journeys you didn’t ask to go on.
In my student days I went to Palestine to do some voluntary work, and arrived with my friend Bridget at Tel Aviv airport in the middle of the night. Our guests weren’t there to meet us as arranged, and the charity we were working for had told us that if anything went wrong, we were to go to St. Georges Cathedral in Jerusalem and to ask for help there. We hailed a taxi, which set off up the motorway. After half an hour or so the taxi driver left the motorway and we started heading up a bumpy hillside road. We tried asking the taxi driver where he was going, but he was an Arabic speaker, and didn’t seem to understand our question. It was too dark to see where we were, and Bridget and I became more and more concerned for our safety. Finally the taxi came to a halt at the end of a stony track. “Get out of the car” the taxi driver told us. In a daze, and very scared, we got out. “Look!” he said. We looked. Across the valley the first pink rays of dawn were lighting up the golden domes of a city. It was like a vision of heaven: our first glimpse of Jerusalem. The taxi driver beamed at us. “Is my city. Is beautiful, yes?” “Yes”, we said, as we began to reckon with the fact that this was not so much a kidnapping as a sight-seeing trip. Then we got back in the car and he drove us to St. Georges Cathedral.
As I say, sometimes in life you go on journeys you didn’t ask to go on.
Last week Martin Kerry got our sermon series on Job off to a start. Martin suggested that the book of Job is a story of a journey of suffering. He described to us how Job starts out on his journey of suffering begins, a bit like the patients Martin works with at the Northern General, coming to terms with a new diagnosis. Martin reminded us how Job was a man whose life was centred in his faith, and it is as a person of faith that he begins his suffering journey. We began wrestling with the fact that, in Martin’s words, being a Christian doesn’t guarantee us an easy ride in the suffering stakes. As Christians, we face the challenges of suffering alongside everyone else. Illness, redundancy, relationship breakdown: we are not immune to these realities. The difference for us as people of faith, like Job, is in the course of the journey, and its direction. For our travelling companion is the God who, in Jesus Christ, suffers with us, and offers the possibility we can be transformed through our suffering.
In a fortnight Kon will take up the baton and explore high point of Job’s journey, his encounter with God. But today we’re going to look at Job’s journey of suffering continues. Like Bridget and I on the mountain road, it’s a journey he didn’t want or expect to go on. All have been on journeys like that. Maybe you’re on one now.
So if you open your bibles at Job chapter 3: the long middle section of the book starts here, and carries fully on for 35 chapters, up to chapter 38. It takes the form of an alternating dialogue, in which Job speaks from the depths of his suffering, and his three friends try valiantly, and with zero success, to help him make sense of it. Not a great plot, I can here you thinking. Well, on the face of it, no: and yet the book of Job was named in a recent literary survey and one of the hundred greatest works of literature of all time. It commands huge respect not only among Jews and Christians whose scriptures it forms part of, but among all those who love great literature. Why? I asked myself this question as I read the book again this week. I think the answer is, because it pays really close attention to the inner world, the lived experience of an ordinary human being. It is also a book that insists that how we make sense of God and the world needs to fit, to match with our lived experience.
So what’s going for Job? He tells us in no uncertain terms. For a start, he’s experiencing extreme physical symptoms:
“My body is covered with worms and scabs/my skin is broken and festering”
Not only this, but he knows the profound hopelessness and early morning waking that are markers of depression:
Nights of misery have been assigned to me. When I lie down I think, How long before I get up? The night drags on, and I toss till dawn. (7: 3 -4).
And where is God in all this? For Job, it seems at times that God is simply absent:
” if I go to the east, he is not there; If I go to the west, I do not find him.”
At other times, he feels himself to be the victim of a God who remains stubbornly silent:
“God has wronged me, and drawn his net around me. Though I cry “I’ve been wronged!” I get no response.”
We talk about “the patience of Job”, but Job seems to me to be far from patient. Throughout his journey of suffering he rails and rages, and yet he won’t give up on God, nor will he give up on the truth of what he’s going through. Job insists on stubbornly giving voice to his experience: ” I will not keep silent; I will speak out in the anguish of my spirit.”
And what about Job’s friends? Well, for them the matter is pretty clear cut. Good folk thrive, wicked folk get punished, period. Somewhere along the line, Job must have messed up. They say this lots of times, in every more poetic and eloquent ways. No wonder Job gets furious with them. “”How long will you torment me and break me into pieces with words?”
It seems to me that Job’s journey of suffering have taken him to a really uncomfortable place. It’s a place of tension, the tension between experience and faith. For me Job represents the truth of human experience: his friends represent the received traditions of faith. And there’s a problem: it’s not working any more. There’s no fit between the world of Job’s suffering and the world of traditional belief. They don’t mesh together. So maybe both worlds are going to have to change.
Throughout the church’s history, it has been brought to this place of tension many times. Until the late 18th century the church believed that slavery and the slave trade was consistent with Christian belief. When Olaudah Equiano, a former slave published his memoirs, the voice of the experience of slavery was heard for the first time. Like Job, Olaudah was unable to keep silent. The tension between experience and traditional belief was exposed. It was a time for the church to listen, and to repent.
In our own time, we find a similar disparity between experience and received belief in the Church’s clumsy efforts to engage with the issue of homosexuality. Like Job’s friends, the church keeps on and on re-iterating its traditional teaching on homosexuality, while gay and lesbian Christians, if we choose to listen to them, are saying like Job: “I’m sorry, but traditional Christian teaching doesn’t fit with our lived Christian experience.” We’ve come to a point of tension where, as in the Book of Job, traditional belief and lived experience don’t seem to fit. This is an uncomfortable place to be, and a journey that many in the church don’t want to be on. But like Job, we sometimes go on journeys we didn’t ask to go on.
The Lambeth Conference of 1998 issued a resolution saying that the Anglican Church should listen to the voices of gay and lesbian Christians, and yet I look around at the church and ask myself where this is happening. It’s so easy for marginal voices to be silenced and ignored. And yet the Book of Job encourages us to listen closely to the voice of authentic experience, even when what that voice has to say is uncomfortable and unsettling.
With God there is always a bigger picture. The place of stuckness and tension is not the end of Job’s journey, and nor will the church’s current stuckness over the gay issue be the end of the story. Tradition is a river, not a glacier, and Christian tradition lives by being renewed in every generation and the life-giving waters of the spirit flow through it. We leave Job looking forward to a new and life giving encounter with his God, the God who in Jesus Christ longs to bless and renew and heal his church afresh.
Job 19: 23
“For I know that my Redeemer lives
and that at the last we will stand upon the earth,
and after my skin has been thus destroyed
then in my flesh I shall see God.”
Frances Eccleston August 2012