To Go Beyond Itself…

October 22, 2010

In everyday life we may be willing to accept the existence of a reality beyond language or rationality, but we do so because our mind as a whole can intuit that aspects of our experience lie beyond either of these closed systems. But in its own terms there is no way that language can break out of the world language creates—except by allowing language to go beyond itself in poetry…

–Iain McGilchrist, The Master And His Emmisary, p. 229

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Whine! Whine! Whine! Over the course of the average lifetime, my guess is that you and I have found ourselves on the receiving end of a lot of whining. We have had our fill of two-year-olds, squealing in our ears as they get hungry and tired on the airplane. We have listened as our aging parents complain about bursitis and loose-fitting false teeth. We have endured the angry boos of the sports fans that rehearse and relive the dropped pass or the homerun given up by the relief pitcher. Whining is never pleasant and very often finds expression in words that are rude and in gestures that are inconsiderate of the feelings of others. Whining cannot be appeased with a simple hug or even a lengthy press conference. And, if the truth be told, each person in this room has done his or her fair share of it. Whining is the fuel by which the 24-hour news cycle keeps spinning. By some estimates, whining may comprise up to ninety-five percent of our everyday conversation. And yet, here’s the good news that is concealed for us today in the seventh chapter of the Book of Job.

In the seventh chapter of the book, bearing his name, Job leaves off of the carping and the criticism that has been shared between friends and acquaintances for millennia. He pauses. That is, he stops trying to defend the integrity of his life before his peers, and starts directing his words to God.

“Remember that my life is a breath; my eye will never again see good. The eye that beholds me will see me no more; while your eyes are upon me, I shall be gone.”

This moment, you see, is terribly painful. Job here acknowledges the brevity of his life and therefore will choose not to waste any more time whining with Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. That is, right in the middle of the conversation, he says in verse 11:

“Therefore I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.”

Now, if that sounds like ordinary, run-of-the-mill, off-the-cuff, pedestrian type of whining—it’s clearly not. And here’s the proof.

• “Am the Sea or the Dragon that you set a guard over me?”
• “What are human beings that you make so much of them, that you set your mind on them?”
• “Will you not look away from me for a while, let me alone until I swallow my spittle?”
• “Why do you not pardon my transgression and take away my iniquity?”

You see, each of these questions has been pointed in the direction of the transcendent Creator of the Universe. And that makes a huge difference in terms of Job and the deepening integrity of his faith.
“I want you to know that everything is all right, Daddy. I mean you mustn’t worry, really. You’ve helped me a lot—more than you can imagine. I was digging around in the cabinet part at the bottom of the bookshelves for something to read that you would like. I mean, not something from your favorite books of poetry and all, but something of your own. What did I come across but the issue of the magazine put out by your alma mater, with the piece in it about your philosophy of life. Do you remember it?”

These are the words of Carol Wanderhope, a child who is dying of leukemia in the novel The Blood of the Lamb, by Peter DeVries. She is speaking on a cassette recorder to her father, Don, a man who had denied religious consolations and who had said that human beings must learn to simply stand on their own two feet. But, you see, upon hearing his deceased daughter referring to his “philosophy of life,” something in Don Wanderhope’s psyche begins to shift and shutter and shake. Having beliefs is one thing. But having experiences that fail to resonate with those belief is definitely a reason to sit up and pay attention.

Part of the dilemma with the Book of Job is our instinctive tendency to summarize what those 42 chapters are all about. Our tendency, of course, would be to say they are about how an omnipotent and benevolent deity might theoretically allow human suffering. But wait. In the passage that we read through today, there really is nothing that’s theoretical. Everything that Job encounters is for Job his actual experience. And likewise you and I each live out or live into our own actual experience. So, the question has to be put this way: why does God allow this experience and not something else? And if my life and my death are precious things to God, and if they are more precious than my beliefs about them, how shall I go on?

One way is to stand upon your own two feet and go toe to toe with every Tom, Dick and Harry—every Eliphaz, every Bildad and every Zophar. One way is to defend to your last breath the honor of your own perspective. But, you see, another way is Job’s way. Another way is to surrender all that you see, all that you hear, taste, smell and touch to the possibility of the One whom you do not comprehend. Another way is to acknowledge that your belief will always be expressed as the next to last word on your experience.

In his book, Man’s Search For Meaning, Victor Frankl describes his time in a series of concentration camps at the end of World War Two. He says,

“One evening, when we were already resting on the floor of our hut, dead tired, soup bowls in hand, a fellow prisoner rushed in and asked us to run out to the assembly grounds and see the wonderful sunset. Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate grey mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, ‘How beautiful the world could be!’”

Now, I don’t pretend to tell you or to insist upon what you believe about God and human suffering in the world. Any statement to that effect would be too theoretical and absurdly abstract. What Job does, however, is something different. Job offers his prayerful whining to God precisely because he has embraced the peculiar integrity of his own God-given experience. And, you see, before we close the door on that experience by saying what it is we believe or don’t believe, perhaps it would be wise for us to leave the door ajar. Or even wide open.

Amen.

The Land of Uz Estates Homeowner’s Association recently had a meeting. The purpose of the meeting was to review the by-laws and to elect new officers for the coming year. The Land of Uz Estates is a gated community with a large fence that wraps around its perimeter. This large fence, also known as a “hedge,” has been placed there for as long as anyone can remember. On the one side of the fence—there are reports of mischief, mayhem, unruly behavior, random acts of violence and consequently suffering. By contrast, on the other side of the fence, on the inside, each family enjoys the privileges of belonging to The Land of Uz Estates. Job, for example, as president of the Homeowners’ Association does extremely well for himself. He is blameless and upright. In addition, as the bylaws of the Land of Uz insist upon a direct correspondence between a homeowner’s fear of the Lord and the benefits of a good creation, Job has reaped an abundant share. For example, as the owner of “seven thousand sheep,” Job has cornered the market on wool and other clothing accessories. Likewise, “three-thousands camels” might be the equivalent of a fleet of Hummers and Sport Utility Vehicles. “Five hundred yoke oxen” would mean that like a farmer with lots of tractors and combines, all the crops would be planted and harvested in season and out of season. “Five hundred donkeys” might correspond today to all the latest appliances and computerized gadgets that make our lives so easy. Plus “very many servants” implies that Job enjoys a highly trained and competent staff of the highest caliber.

Now, to be clear, no one in heaven or on earth should find fault with Job for these blessings. No one should resent him. The covenant agreement of the Land of Uz simply works this way. And if you could, wouldn’t you want to live there too? Job is well. And wouldn’t you want to live as well as he and his children and all their families seem to live? The point of this morning’s message is to get us thinking and feeling about our fenced-in lives and how we might imagine or believe that God works. For instance, you may have heard about the recently released Pew Charitable Trust survey, dealing with religious knowledge. Well, get this. On average, it turns out that more atheists and agnostics know more about religion and the Bible than ardent believers and supposed practitioners. So, clearly, it’s not the case that people see a direct correspondence between what they know about God and the way God might decide to bless or curse.
Last Saturday morning, our aptly named dog, Caesar, dug under our fence and into our neighbor’s yard. He, we are convinced, dug the hole, and Pearl, our other, more-well-behaved pet followed. And so, when I opened our backdoor to call them inside, Caesar crawls back through, but Pearl can’t make it. I can hear the chain around her neck, jiggling, but for some reason she can’t return through the same chasm through which she escaped. “Excuse me, Tom,” I then say to my neighbor, after knocking on his front door. “My dog is in your back yard; would you mind unlocking your gate?”

Now, think about this incident as an analogy for what’s going on between us and God. Ordinarily we lead sheltered lives. Ordinarily, “I believe in God the Father Almighty” is like the name tag that dangles around our necks. Ordinarily, for the vast majority of believers, we translate faith in God as it relates to our safety and security. But what if that reflex developed a glitch in it?
“One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord and Satan also came among them. The Lord said to Satan, ‘Where have you come from?’ Satan answered, ‘From going to and fro on the earth and from walking up and down on it.’”

You see, according to verses six and seven, Satan is free to roam. And what this ancient figure does as he goes to and fro is find fault with human beings. Satan, in the Hebrew language of today’s passage, might be rendered as the Accuser. Satan accuses. Among the heavenly beings who make their reports to God, that’s what he does. And yet, when it comes to Job, whom God identifies first as “my servant,” the Accuser can’t accuse all. And the problem, according to verse ten, is that blasted fence!
“’Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side?’”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I am bothered by these questions. I am bothered by the possibility that God may even entertain them, and that God may even listen to the Accuser as he proposes to test all that Job believes about God’s blessings, and perhaps what we believe too:
“But stretch out your hand now; and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.”

Will he? Will we?
The Scent of A Woman is a movie, starring Al Pacino as a blind war veteran and Christopher McDonald as a naïve and untested young man from Oregon. Charlie Simms, the Christopher McDonald character, attends the Baird Preparatory School for Boys. Over Thanksgiving Break, he has a few choices to make. One choice involves the moral dilemma of whether or not to turn in some friends—spoiled, rich kids that he witnessed performing an act of vandalism. The other choice, however, will push him even more. Charlie chooses to take care of, and be an escort for, Lt. Colonel Frank Slade—and Frank Slade is a very interesting kind of guy. First, as I mentioned, he’s blind—the result of a careless accident with a grenade. And second, Lt. Colonel Frank Slade wants to have one more fling in New York City before he commits suicide. Charlie, it turns out, could be the Colonel’s only hope. Or, could it be the other way around? In the final scene of the movie, after all these moments of tangoing with exotic women and driving a Ferrari through the streets of Manhattan, the blind man sits with Charlie at an inquisition that’s been convened by the school administrators. He says in Charlie’s defense,
I’ve been around, you know? There was a time I could see. And I have seen. Boys like these, younger than these, their arms torn out, their legs ripped off. But there isn’t nothin’ like the sight of an amputated spirit. There is no prosthetic for that. You think you’re merely sending this splendid foot soldier back home to Oregon with his tail between his legs, but I say you are… executin’ his soul! And why? Because he’s not a Bairdman. Bairdmen. You hurt this boy, you’re gonna be Baird bums, the lot of ya…

You see, the thing that’s compelling about this quote from the film is the way that the person who had been sheltered becomes unsheltered for the sake of another, vulnerable person—and the way that the person who has “been around,” actually provides shelter.

I think, according to today’s passage, God has this goal in mind with us. And that goal is not simply to protect us, our children and our belongings from harm. Even through the life, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus, God guarantees us neither safety, nor security. What God guarantees, however, is integrity. What God promises is wholeness, a wholeness of spirit that only comes as faith is tested by human suffering, as belief crawls under the fence and back again. Amen.