Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Book of Job

I heard once that the book of Job is the oldest book in Bible, though I'm not sure if that is true or not.   I do know that I always hated it growing up.  Is it a true story?  A parable?  Whatever it is, it's quite a tale.  Satan and God are arguing about whether Job only loves God because God is good to him, so God gives Satan permission to basically reek havoc, to see how Job will respond.  And for some reason people always refer to 'the patience of Job', but I never saw how he was patient.  He was in agony--how does sitting in agony mean your being patient?  If people think he was enduring the agony 'patiently', I don't think they've actually read it:

“Therefore I will not keep silent;  I will speak out in the anguish of my spirit, I will complain in the bitterness of my soul...I despise my life...Let me alone; my days have no meaning. What is mankind that you make so much of them, that you give them so much attention,  that you examine them every morning and test them every moment? Will you never look away from me, or let me alone even for an instant?"

Yes, at the beginning of his torment he says, "Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”, but towards the end he changes his tune a little:

He is not a mere mortal like me that I might answer him, that we might confront each other in court.  If only there were someone to mediate between us, someone to bring us together, someone to remove God’s rod from me, so that his terror would frighten me no more...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... 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?"

I'm sorry, but these are not 'patiently enduring my suffering' words, these are fightin' words--pissed off words.  And the thing is, he has every right to be angry.  He didn't do anything wrong.  And to top it off his friends are saying, "You better watch your mouth, because God would never do this unless you deserved it" about insult to injury.

"Surely mockers surround me; my eyes must dwell on their hostility. God has made me a byword to everyone, a man in whose face people spit."

And then the end...God shows up.  This is the part I hated most.  Does He apologize to Job for allowing all this suffering?  Nope.  He actually seems mad at Job: "Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me", and he goes on and on about being Creator of all and caretaker of all, so who is Job to accuse Him?  And Job, after all he has been through, and even through he was innocent and suffered so much, agrees:

Then Job replied to the LORD: “I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted.  You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know." 

When I used to read this, I imagined that Job really didn't feel all that differently--I mean, God didn't explain why Job went through all that, or make it better (at that point) so I guess I thought that Job was just kowtowing out of fear, because he was in trouble for complaining to an all powerful God.  I imagine it very differently now.  Job saw God with his own eyes, and Job was no longer mad.  Job felt terrible for questioning the goodness of God...even without an explanation or an apology.  "You can do all things, no purpose of yours can be thwarted", he says.  And what are these things?  "Too wonderful for me to know".  I don't think it is fear that is making him react this way.  I think it's love.  Job must have seen something pretty amazing to make him forget all his pain.  I know a few people going through pain I just can't even imagine.  My hope, the hope that helps me not shake my fist at God even though He's all powerful and does nothing to ease their pain, is that there are things too wonderful for me to know that makes it all worth it.  In James 5 it says, "You heard of the endurance of Job, and you have seen the end of the Lord, that very compassionate is the Lord, and pitying."  Sometimes it's hard to see that--but I'll end with one of my journal entries from the book of Job.

S) My friends, you think up ways to blame and torment me, saying I brought it on myself.  But watch out for the judgment, when God will punish you. (Job 19:28)
O) Job's friends keep telling him he is suffering because he has sinned.  They can't believe he is blaming God.  But Job is not afraid to cry out and tell God exactly how he feels--betrayed and abandoned.  But he holds on to the hope that he will be vindicated.
A) Job has some guts to talk back to his friends this way.  I think when your in that much pain, you just don't care what people think anymore.  In the end, his friends were not punished, because God asks Job to pray for them--and he does.  How remarkable.  This is the compassion and pity of God.
P) God, you know the part of me that wants judgement to fall on the 'leaders of the church'.  What I really want is your heart of compassion and pity.  Help me surrender my rights to vindication and trust you.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

God the Gardener

So many parables in the Bible used to terrify me.  They always made me feel like I was just not measuring up, and that God was so disappointed...and very angry.  Many of the descriptions of God's discipline involve chopping off and burning up, and so no wonder the focus has mostly been "accept Jesus so God won't punish you".  Here's a few I remember reading as a child and feeling like it was a good thing Jesus saved me from this God who disliked people so much:

Weeds are gathered and burned. That's how it will be at the end of time. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will gather from his kingdom everyone who does wrong or causes others to sin. Then he will throw them into a flaming furnace, where people will cry and grit their teeth in pain. (Matthew 13:40-42)

Maybe you think those branches were cut away, so that you could be put in their place. That's true enough. But they were cut away because they did not have faith, and you are where you are because you do have faith. So don't be proud, but be afraid. If God cut away those natural branches, couldn't he do the same to you? (Romans 11:19-21)

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener...If you stay joined to me, and I stay joined to you, then you will produce lots of fruit. But you cannot do anything without me. If you don't stay joined to me, you will be thrown away. You will be like dry branches that are gathered up and burned in a fire. (John 15:5-6)
(because I cringe even now reading how I will be thrown away, let me use the Young's Literal:  "if any one may not remain in me, he was cast forth without as the branch, and was withered, and they gather them, and cast to fire, and they are burned"...(and also to help with fear, don't forget what he says two verses later) "According as the Father did love me, I also loved you, remain in my love."

Because I now believe Jesus is the reflection of God, and his death is the symbol of God's suffering for us and in us and with us until we are transformed into his image, (instead of Jesus being punished instead of us, much like a loving sibling would take a beating from an abusive Father in place of another sibling) I see these parables in a whole different light.  If I wanted to convey to you that the pain you were going through was not a result of hate, but of love...what better image to use than a gardener?  Who is more patient and caring and gentle (and nonviolent) than a gardener?  Everything he does is for the benefit of his help them grow.  What gardener prunes his trees because he hates them?  Who would believe he picks the ripe grapes because he thinks they are so much more deserving than the unripe ones?  And when he burns his yard waste, he is just cleaning up.  Who would imagine him standing over the burning branches and saying "suffer, you piece of crap branches that didn't produce for me!"  But our shame over our failures, and our anger at those who hurt us, obscure our ideas about who God is.  When we can look at Jesus and say, "THAT is who God is", then we are able to see Him as the gentle gardener, weeding and pruning to make everything beautiful and productive.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Cross

Is there anything more central to Christianity than the cross of Christ?  On churches, on jewelery, on tattoos, on clothing--the cross is the symbol that is known everywhere to represent Jesus and what it means to follow him.  But what does it mean, really?  I'm certainly not the only one who is rethinking how the cross has been traditionally understood.  It seems odd though, doesn't it, that all of a sudden there is all this debate about it.  But I have to think that maybe there was always debate about it--I mean, it's such a deep subject.  Because I come from a religious background of such black and whites, (where you were told what was true, and that was that) I assumed that nobody ever questioned these 'truths'...especially this central belief that Jesus was punished in our place.

It's been a shock for me to find that a very clear "Substitutionary Atonement" theology has never really been agreed upon.  I understand why it makes people so uncomfortable to even think about it...there's a fear the meaning of the cross will be diminished or even discounted if you pick at it too much.  In no way do I want to do that.  For me, seeing the cross as a punishment for sin is what diminishes it, and that's why I'm so certain it cannot be it's true and fullest meaning.  And so, I'm going to try my best to present a deeper way of seeing it.  These are excerpts from Hannah Hurnard's book  The Winged Life,  from the chapter "Revelation Made by Jesus Christ".  I think it is the most meaningful explanation of the the cross I have ever found, but I certainly can't 'prove' to you it's true.  All I can say is, when I see it this way, my love and devotion deepens...for God and humanity both.

     "As a young Christian my first conception of God represented Him to me as...high and lifted up and inhabiting eternity.  He was entirely unapproachable by sinners, save through a mediator, his son Jesus Christ.  I knew that He knows everything and nothing can be hidden from Him...but I conceived of Him as cognizant of it all in an absolutely impersonal way, except of those who were brought into a personal relationship with Him through Jesus.  I was quite sure that when Christ arose again and returned to the glory of the Father...he is now past the reach of all suffering.   I can never forget the shock of horror of the very idea with which I reacted to a passage in a book...
     'God knows and is cognizant of all the sin and the horror of its manifestations and results all over the world.  Not a single detail is unknown to him...I can pity, I can sympathize, I can try to help, but then I can come home...and I am away from it all.  But he stays there.'
     With my whole will I longed to reject it--a suffering God instead of the high and lofty one, who had only needed to suffer once in order to atone for all the world's sorrow and anguish.  But God, being omnipresent, must be conscious of it all the time...and feeling it all with the anguish of holy love.  But still, revolutionary as this new idea was, I still thought of Him as suffering from without...suffering in much the same way as a loving and heartbroken father or mother suffers while tending a child in some agonizing illness.  It took another twenty years (when I saw) what our Lord Jesus has revealed about God through his choosing to become incarnate in a man--namely that he is conscious of himself in all men.  Until that moment I had thought of God as conscious of everything from without...but now I saw...he is conscious of it from within.  This is what the saints mean when they speak of God as immanent...immanence, not pantheism. God manifest in the not this stupendous and awe-inspiring revelation which was made by Jesus Christ?  Once, in the fullness of time, when we were able to be shown, God in Jesus Christ revealed himself to us and the truth about himself.  Every part of his incarnation, life as a man, and death on the cross--yes, and his glorious resurrection is a revelation of this truth.  
     The Jewish people found it overwhelmingly difficult to grasp the significance of a suffering God, of the Creator on a cross, just as they were so unable to understand the revelation of the presence of God actually dwelling in a tent of skins...and would not believe he was present and incarnate in a human body.  He was wounded and has been wounded for our transgressions all along...from the moment of the first sin it began to be true.  "Surly he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows", "In all their afflictions he was afflicted"...these passages now take on a marvelous and overwhelming significance, and a host of other ones as well.  Never again can I despise or be indifferent to a single individual that I meet...for I see someone in whom the eternal God and Redeemer is conscious of...feeling and bearing all they feel and bear and all the consequences of their sin and the cruel sins done against them by others.
     Here, at least as far as I can see, is the answer to the mystery of suffering...Love himself is in them, feeling it all, bearing it, crucified and rising to life making himself responsible to undo, in the end, all the results of sin...and bringing forth in his own good time resurrection life out of agony and death."