Sunday, 24 June 2018

“Do you think this is just? You say, ‘I am in the right, not God.’ – Job 35:2

Today’s Scripture Reading (June 24, 2018): Job 35

“Good Morning!" said Bilbo, and he meant it. The sun was shining, and the grass was very green. But Gandalf looked at him from under long bushy eyebrows that stuck out further than the brim of his shady hat.

"What do you mean?" he said. "Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?"

"All of them at once," said Bilbo. "And a very fine morning for a pipe of tobacco out of doors, into the bargain.”

Words can mean many things, at least according to Gandalf in J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit;” even if the words are just a common greeting. And it might be the common greetings of which we sometimes forget the meaning that becomes the most bothersome, like Bilbo’s Good Morning. We say “Goodbye,” or we don’t, depending on our outlook on parting, but often forget the root of the word. Goodbye is a contraction of “God be by ye” or in a little more modern English “God be with you.” So, if you are a believer in God, but you maintain that you don’t believe in saying “Goodbye,” what is it that you are saying. Do you not wish God to be with the one who is leaving your presence? Is the withholding of your “goodbye,” inserting a casual “see you later” or “until we meet again” instead, a message of malice that you hope that harm comes to your departing friend? Probably not. Unless that is exactly what you intended with your words, or you are good friends with the wizard Gandalf, and it is he who is doing the leaving.

Elihu returns to a familiar theme, the one that had been already presented by Job’s friends. He has searched the situation of Job, and he has listened to the words of Job, and now Elihu gives the situation and words a meaning that suits Elihu. No one argues that the situation of Job is bad. Elihu and the friends of Job argue that the situation is bad because Job has offended God and stands in the wrong. Job admits that the situation is bad, but he is at a loss to explain why. (And there are moments in all of our lives when we inhabit that same plane; things have gone dreadfully wrong, but we have no idea why.) And now Elihu steps up and gives meaning to Job’s confusion. It is obvious from the pain of Job that Job has sinned against God. Job then compounded that sin when he ignored the wise counsel of his friends, and then again in his refusal to repent of his sin. In fact, according to Elihu, Job’s refusal to repent has spoken clearly that Job believes that he is in the right and God is in the wrong. And according to Elihu, it does not matter if that is not what job intended to imply. It is the reality of the situation. Here Elihu becomes a Gandalf like character with his analysis. He supplies the meaning with confidence. God would not inflict this kind of pain on Job if Job were not in the wrong. Elihu thinks that this interpretation is plain and available to anyone who is willing to use their heads.

Of course, the message of the story is that we need to be careful when we are seeking out the meaning of words and situations. Because, sometimes, there is a different answer than the one that we think is plain. And sometimes stuff just happens, and we need to pause with Bilbo in the light of the sun and accept the moments which God has provided.

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Job 36

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Can someone who hates justice govern? Will you condemn the just and mighty One? – Job 34:17

Today’s Scripture Reading (June 23, 2018): Job 34

It appears that the United States of America has restored the Monarchy that it ran from a little more than two hundred years ago. In a land that had maintained for decades that Lady Justice was blind, we are now waking up to a new truth. The Lady has undergone radical eye surgery and has regained her sight. The result is that Black Lives don’t matter, only white ones do. And the King is above all of this petty justice argument. The Mueller Probe is a witch hunt and grand waste of time and public money. Because in the end, the verdict doesn’t matter. Lady Justice has regained her eyesight, and the king has decided that all he has to do is to pardon himself if it happens that he is found guilty. Of course, the king is pretty sure that won’t happen now that Lady Justice has regained her eyesight. After all, he is white, male, and rich. If Lady Justice sees him, she will not dare to stand against him.

So it doesn’t matter which side of the political spectrum on which you might live. Because the question of whether you see the world from the right, center, or left doesn’t matter anymore. Neither does the name that you attach to that political belief, Republican or Democrat. Now the real question is whether or not you are a monarchist. A king, who is above justice, now sits on the throne. And as with the kings who have gone before him, all that matters is what he believes is right. Justice is a matter of concern only to those who are not kings or queens. They are the ones who have to work hard to curry the favor of the King.

Elihu asks an important question. Can someone who hates justice govern?  If age rules, then can those like, and the accusation seems to be directed against Job himself, the one who has been up until this point declaring his innocence, be placed in a position of governance. There is a slight difference between the idea of governing and that of ruling. One who governs is concerned with questions of ultimate justice. Admittedly they govern from a clear set of rules set out by the society. But whether it is landowners, or people of a certain racial background, or believers in a particular God, they believe in the idea of justice within that group. Much of contemporary Western Society is built around the idea of the equality of people, regardless of race, sex, religion, sexual orientation or a myriad of other characteristics that may separate us. To govern, the governor has to assume a place within the society and declare that justice is uninfluenced by these things.

To rule, all one needs is a blanket authority. Whatever the ruler says or believes is law. And they, the ruler, are above the law. And that is the question to which Elihu is trying to ask. Is Job a governor or a ruler? Does he govern against the backdrop of absolute authority of God, or does he rule in place of God? It is an important distinction. And one that the American king has answered. He will rule over the people as one to whom justice does not matter. He will never be a governor charged with maintaining justice in the society.   

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Job 35

Friday, 22 June 2018

And they will go to others and say, ‘I have sinned, I have perverted what is right, but I did not get what I deserved. – Job 33:27

Today’s Scripture Reading (June 22, 2018): Job 33

A friend’s car was broken into over the past weekend. Some damage was caused, and there was some theft of the things that had been left inside of the vehicle, including the change that was found in the ashtray. (Just as an aside, it is evidence of our extreme wealth that we keep money in what is essentially a garbage can; just sayin’.) And my friend was suitably upset. Being a religious man, he also called down hellfire on the perpetrators. If there was a bright side in the whole affair, it was the sure knowledge that he was going to heaven, but the lowlife idiots (his words were a little more colorful) who broke into his car would being going someplace else; someplace much hotter.

His emotional outburst was a little amusing (don’t tell him), and a little disturbing. I know we all do it, but it was based on what it is that we think that we deserve. Somehow, when someone wrongs us, we begin to think that we are the perfect ones. Donald Trump does something stupid, and Van Jones reacts as if there was never a moment when he did something as equally stupid. We speak about the racists who mar our societies, and then turn around and put down Muslims (or insert the faith group that annoys you the most here) and think that it is somehow okay because we do it on religious grounds. Maybe that tells us something about ourselves, although I am not sure that we are listening.

Elihu stumbles onto the truth. Job has been working hard to argue his innocence. But the problem is that none of us are truly innocent. There is some wrong that we have all committed. Essentially all that any of us might be able to argue is that we are less wrong than someone else, or that making a racial slur is not as wrong as making a religious one. But none of us, including Donald Trump and Van Jones, can maintain that we have never committed a wrong or a sin for which we require forgiveness from someone.

Job had sinned. He had also made sacrifices for his sin and the sins of his children. At best, Job had worked hard at keeping short accounts with God, asking for forgiveness in the evening for sins that had been committed in the light of the day. And he was working at living a life that could be considered righteous. But he was not innocent. Centuries later, Paul would put together a summary of the biblical understanding of man by writing:

   “There is no one righteous, not even one;
    there is no one who understands;
    there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
    they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
    not even one” (Romans 3:10-12).

Is this a pessimistic outlook on human life? Yes! But if we are honest with ourselves, we also recognize the truth. We are a fallen people. And Elihu’s summation is meant for all of us, including Job. None of us ever truly receive what it is that we deserve. At some point, God’s grace always interferes with that reality.

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Job 34

Thursday, 21 June 2018

But it is the spirit in a person, the breath of the Almighty, that gives them understanding. – Job 32:8

Today’s Scripture Reading (June 21, 2018): Job 32

“I believe what really happens in history is this: the old man is always wrong; and the young people are always wrong about what is wrong with him. The practical form it takes is this: that, while the old man may stand by some stupid custom, the young man always attacks it with some theory that turns out to be equally stupid.” It is in this way that G. K. Chesterton describes the battle of the generations. And in the end, everyone is wrong. In my society, the effect is often reversed. We have lost the respect for age. It is the young voice that is sought after and valued. I listened as one young pastor complained to me about the great age of his board. He had hoped that I could help him figure out a way to replace the aging voices with younger ones. Chesterton would argue that the result would be exchanging one wrong voice for another. And so the answer continues to elude us

As Elihu attempts to enter the conversation between Job and his friends, but he needs to find a way to justify his voice. In a world that values age, he is young. He has sat quietly by as the older men discussed the situation, but at least to Elihu, the conversation has been unfulfilling. There is no doubt that in the mind of Elihu, there have been arguments that were not being raised. There were things that he would say if he were just given a chance. But no one invites him to speak; age would seem to have no respect for his youth.

And so Elihu decides to force his way into the conversation without an invitation. And his justification for his voice is that it is the spirit inside of us, that which God has breathed into each of us, that brings true wisdom. Elihu, like Job, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, possesses that breath of God. Therefore, at least in the mind of Elihu, that gives him a right to give voice to the thoughts that are carrying on inside of his head. The older ones, bound by tradition, are wrong. Elihu will speak the voice of youth, but the problem is that the voice of youth will be no more correct than that of age. Elihu will simply be wrong for different reasons.

However, Elihu, like the others, has stumbled onto a truth. The breath of God does bring wisdom, and that wisdom is in all of the participants of the conversation. The problem is that it is the conversation that is important. In all of our interactions, truth and wisdom are found somewhere in the midst of our communication. Much like the story of Job, when we commit ourselves to speak with each other, God eventually appears – even though sometimes we don’t recognize him.

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Job 33

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

It is a fire that burns to Destruction; it would have uprooted my harvest. – Job 31:12

Today’s Scripture Reading (June 20, 2018): Job 31

Oscar Wilde in “The Picture of Dorian Gray” remarks that “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.” Wilde was a mistaken. As those of us who have given into temptation know, giving into temptation only increases the hold that temptation has on us. The only way to weaken the hold that temptation has on us is to resist its approach; to not even consider the possibility of giving in to it. And to understand the destruction that comes along with the giving into whatever it is that tempts us.

Job is talking about the temptation of being enticed by a woman who is not his wife. Job does not say that he has never been tempted by another woman. He has been enticed, but he had never given in to the temptation. And part of the reason for his resistance of temptation is that he understood the terrible consequences that would result because of his actions. Giving into that temptation would not just be a mark on Job’s character, it would destroy everything that Job had worked hard to build up, including the family that Job valued so consistently, and now missed. Job calls giving in to this temptation a fire that burns to “Abaddon,” a Hebrew word that is often used to describe the Devil or Hell.

I am currently teaching about Hell, but I hope not in the traditional sense. I am not sure that I believe that God sends us to hell, although I do believe in Hell in a very real sense. The problem is not that a vengeful God sends us to burn forever with this fire of Abaddon. The problem is much more evil than that. The problem with hell is that we choose it, in fact, we would not be happy in heaven

As Job talks about this temptation that can burn his life, destroying everything that he has built up, the reality that he realizes in his mind is all about how easy it would have been to choose that fire, to have followed the words of Oscar Wilde and freely given into the temptation. He could have chosen the fire. As Job looks around him, there are others who have done precisely that; they have chosen the fire. But Job doesn’t understand. He has not given in to the temptation because it is the resulting fire that scares him. But know his life lies in ruins. He has been burned to the core anyway.

One more note about hell. Job’s comment here about the fire of Abaddon or Destruction or Hell is an indication of how long this association between fire and hell has existed. But we need to be careful that we do not think that Hell is literally fire. I do not believe that this true, and Job’s comment here seems to support the idea that hell is made up of a figurative fire and not a literal one. For Job, it is not that giving into the temptation of Hell is literally going to burn his life and uproot his crops. But fire has long been seen as a force of complete destruction. Just like some had chosen to destroy their lives with an affair, so hell is like that, a place where we choose to be, and yet a place where we can only be destroyed.  And the fact that we freely choose destruction only makes hell an even sadder, and scarier place.

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Job 32

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

My lyre is tuned to mourning, and my pipe to the sound of wailing. – Job 30:31

Today’s Scripture Reading (June 19, 2018): Job 30

The Eagles released their hit “Hotel California” in February 1977. Don Henley described the song this way; "Lyrically, the song deals with traditional or classical themes of conflict: darkness and light, good and evil, youth and age, the spiritual versus the secular. I guess you could say it's a song about loss of innocence." “Hotel California” is a mournful song of loss. The music was written by the Eagles guitarist Don Felder, and it features one of the great guitar solos of all time, a solo that most guitarists have tried and failed to replicate. The lyrics were a result of the collaboration of two of Felder’s bandmates, Henley and Glenn Frey. The meaning and significance of the song, as revealed in several of Henley’s interviews, is fluid. Depending on the moment, it can mean very different things. But no matter what the meaning of the moment might be, the song is always about loss.

What is maybe most impressive is that the lyrics and the music are married beautifully in the composition. Both the lyrics and the music speak of loss. The song is written in the key of B minor. And while a song written in a major often feels uplifting even without the lyrics, a song written in a minor key feels sad. Consider Cat Stevens “Wild World,” the Rolling Stones “Angie,” or even the Led Zepplin classic “Stairway to Heaven,” all of which were written in a minor key. The music of these songs alone, without any lyrics, all sound sad and mournful. The music of these songs reveal a time of loss.

Job says that his lyre is tuned to mourning. Maybe a more contemporary understanding of the feelings of Job is that the music of his life, which was once played in a major key, has now been replaced by the minor scale. Even without knowing the events of Job’s life, the key in which his life is now being revealed is sad. Even the pipe no longer carries a joyful tune but is now content to simply wail out its remorse.

Or maybe Job is simply singing the blues. In any event, the sad story of Job’s life is now being played with music suitable for a tragedy. There comes a time in all of our lives that we sing a sad song, and for Job, that time has arrived. The music itself consoles us and reminds that we are not alone, after all, at some point everyone sings the blues.

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Job 31

Monday, 18 June 2018

Oh, for the days when I was in my prime, when God’s intimate friendship blessed my house … Job 29:4

Today’s Scripture Reading (June 18, 2018): Job 29
Here is an interesting question (admittedly stolen from Facebook). If you didn’t know your birth date, how old do you feel? Our age, in some ways, is a meaningless number. You are not the age that is revealed by your birth certificate. You are as old as you feel. I have friends in their thirties who often seem ready for retirement. The energy and vigor are gone, and it takes everything that they have to make to through the day. Others, who are much older, have a spring in their step and the energy and adventurous nature that often hides their birth certificate age.
My physician for many years retired a couple of years ago. He maintained that your best decade of life was the sixth decade. According to him, most of us still have enough health in our sixties to enjoy life, while at the same time having both the means and possibly a reduction of responsibilities to enjoy life. His retirement came half-way through that decade, but there was a wistful feel to his retirement plans that indicated that he wished he had retired earlier.
The major difference between the sixth and the seventh decade is health. More health issues begin to creep up in your seventies than in your sixties. But the reality is this; no matter how old you might be chronologically when health issues begin to impact your day-to-day life, that is the age at which you have become old. The sad part for all of us is that, while we seem to chase after our youth in some ways, there are some very basic things that we can do (don’t smoke, watch your alcohol consumption, maintain an active lifestyle, watch your weight) in our youth which will allow us to feel healthy, and therefore young, well into our sixth and seventh decades. But we, including me, refuse to do this when we are young, and we pay the price for our sins as we get older.
What has changed in Job’s life is his health. When he had his health, he was in his prime. He felt closer to God. But now, health issues have not only made him feel older, but they have also provided a barrier between him and God. And that is something that we understand. When we are sick, often we feel further from God. The truth of Job’s story, one that we need to remember in times when our health suffers, is that there has been no change in his relationship with God. God is still there, as close as Job’s next breath. God still loves Job.
And we are still loved by God, even when our health declines. God still values us, even as we grow older – and it doesn’t matter whether it is an age that is revealed by our birth certificates, or just revealed by the way that we feel. You are still special in the eyes of the one who created you. And how you might feel will never change that.
Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Job 30