Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Devotion - No Easy Answers

Good morning, I'd like to welcome you to our time of devotion. We gather here every morning but Saturday at 8:30 for a time of prayer and reflection. You're welcome to join us if you're able. We'd also love to spend some time visiting with you today. If you'd like a visit from a chaplain, please call 2569 from any hospital phone.

Not long ago I met a woman here in the hospital who was going through a really tough time. She had been struggling with an infection that threatened to take away her sight, she had lost her job and as a result, her home and her daughter was no longer speaking with her due to an ongoing disagreement they had about her lifestyle (and the girlfriend she lived with). And all of this had happened in the space of about six months. It felt to her like her whole life had come crashing down around her. And like anyone who feels so totally threatened and out of control her mind turned to the one thing she could control: whether to go on living. This was not the first time she had contemplated suicide. She bore the scars of having faced this demon before, earlier in life. But honestly, she had been doing so well with her depression, that is, when everything had been going well. But now, things were not going well, not well at all, and she had come to the hospital for help. While waiting to see a doctor she had asked if she could talk to a chaplain and by luck or meticulous providence she got me.

I could tell immediately that she was a person whose relationship with God meant a lot to her because I was not the first minister she had consulted about her problem. She was grasping at trying to understand two things: why did this happen to me? and how can I end it? She told me of her many church "friends" who told her that she simply didn't have enough faith. If she would believe more and doubt less, then she would be healed and have all restored to her. She had been told that God was testing her and received a word of prophecy from another friend that God just wanted her to trust him more.

She had been trying so hard to act on these statements. To make her faith WORK. One look into the earnest desperation of her eyes let me know that she was trying as hard as she could to trust God. But it had been six months and the only news she had gotten had been bad news. She had trusted these friends but was beginning to suspect that their answers to her questions were somehow falling short of the reality of her situation.

As she unfolded this story for me I was struggling not to smile. Not because I thought her situation was humorous but because I was marveling at how little we humans have changed and how little we have learned over the past 2500 years. The smile I hid came from the direct parallels of he story to the story of Job in the bible. Job gets trotted out quite a bit as an illustration of calm stoicism in the face of unbelievable personal loss and tragedy. In the space of a few weeks he loses his entire fortune, his home and all of his family. His wife, in the bitterness that springs from the unspeakable pain of losing children, asks him "Why don't you just curse God and die (no doubt what she felt like doing)?" And he responds with those famous words "The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord." I've seen folks mouth those words in the face of incomprehensible loss, grasping for the kind of peace that they believe will come if only they "don't question God."

But lets fast forward Job's story a few months to the point where this young woman I mentioned earlier had reached. Job spends several days in silence, mourning the loss. But soon his friends hear of his great loss and gather around to offer their support. But before long they begin to speak and offer spiritual advice on his predicament. They suggest that there must have been something Job had done to offend God, to justify this kind of punishment and the sooner he figures it out and repents of it the sooner things will get better. Job cries out that there must have been some mistake. His friends reprimand him. This is just the way the world works. If you're do right in the eyes of God, all will be well with you (and indeed that maxim had described Job's life up to this point). If you do evil then you will be punished. It was as simple as that to Job's friends. Job had been punished, therefore he must have done evil.

For the young woman's friends it was as simple as this: God was testing her. If she simply prayed with enough faith, if she believed and trusted enough then God would heal and restore her. But she and Job both realized that these answers, and the simplistic understanding of the way the world and God work couldn't describe the complexity of their experience and they certainly couldn't account for the immensity of their suffering. But neither of them were willing to curse God and die, though both considered it (Job says at one point he wished he'd never been born, a common sentiment among those contemplating suicide). Instead they raised their voices to heaven and dared to ask "Why?" They dared to let their anger, their pain and their frustration out towards the God they had loved and trusted who, right now it seemed was ignoring them.

I don't know how much comfort it gave this young woman to know that she is not the first to find herself in this position. I do know that she was relieved to discover that even though well meaning, theologically minded friends had placed the blame squarely on her shoulders for the persistence of her problems, it might in fact not be that simple.

There is something in us that wants to believe in the idea that if we are good then bad things won't happen to us. It makes us feel that we have control, by means of our choices to avoid calamity. If we're good little boys and girls then Santa will bring us toys. But if we're bad then switches and coal will come our way. But the nasty side effect of this idea is that it becomes our fault when the whole world crashes down upon us. And I've seen people at this point, when they are most wounded and struggling, turn all their anger and pain in on themselves, following Job's friend's advice, looking for that secret sin in their life, or maybe in the lives of those close to them.

But the reality is that life is complex and we may never understand "why" something happens. The why may become the meaning we are able to make out of it. I believe God reaches into tragedy and sculpts beauty and connection. But just because God finds fertile soil in a freshly burned forest doesn't mean he set the blaze. Nor does it mean he didn't. As my Presbyterian friend reminds me, we should never reduce what God is doing to one thing.

Many of you may feel you are being tested, like the young woman, and maybe you are. The funny thing about God's tests, is that it's hard to know when you're in the middle of them. You may be feeling like the songwriter Dave Bazan when he sings "If this is only a test, I hope that I'm passing, cause I'm losing steam, but I still want to trust you..."

The point of Job, I believe, is that there are many things about this reality that we lack the capacity to understand and we are left reaching out, perhaps with desperate eyes, with a voice hoarse from shouting, we are left with hands outstretched to a God we cannot fully understand but who loves us, and will see us through.

[play "The Secret of the Easy Yoke" by Pedro the Lion]


Viator said...

You'll revolutionize chapel morning worship time, Matt:
"And now if you'll turn with me to page three of the insert, let's all join together in singing that age old tune, 'Letter From a Concerned Follower.'"

M. Lumpkin said...

These are uncut and I deliver them that way (perhaps they could do with a few more revisions). Sometimes I edit on the fly for better oral delivery. I have a very indulgent audience (composed mostly of chaplains) and the rest, if they're ever watching on the hospital channel, never complain if I run a little over ten minutes. As for music I do enjoy pushing past the tedious string instrumentals of standard hymns and praise and worship fare. My latest Devotion mix includes Moby, the Sacred Harp singers, Neko Case, Jack White, and several old blues gospel songs from the early 20th century. I'm not sure if I can slip Bob Marley past my co-workers. I love my job.

JFranklin: I love your little zombie pics, fresh from the grave, and her sweet little soil encrusted hands.