“In the land of Uz, there lived a man named Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared G-d and shunned evil.” Job 1:1
In Emerald Isle, NC on this Monday, September 24, folks are picking up the pieces of their lives. Emerald Isle is a beach town, but it is also a community of full-time residents. Today, our streets are littered with sorted piles of debris: household goods, appliances, furniture, mattresses, rugs, etc. lie in heaps to be picked up by gargantuan debris trucks. These physical evidences are profound reminders of the implacable power of nature to upend our illusions of order, but internally, people bear other bits of debris. Each person in Emerald Isle must reckon with his or her own piles of detritus. People may question or they may pray or they may despair. In my dealings during the past week of recovery, I have been troubled by a trend that pops up in times of trouble–the tendency to ascribe a person’s material/physical wealth or luck to “G=d’s favor.”
In the days after our return to the island, I had a conversation with someone about a colleague. I mentioned that this colleague was a lucky fellow, and the person to whom I was talking said that the man was “favored of G-d.” I was taken aback, for I knew many good people, many people “of G-d” who had lost much or everything. I uttered a nervous response, not wanting to offend my acquaintance. In my heart, I said, “But what of Job?”
In the Old Testament, the Book of Job is a philosophical and theological challenge. A man of G-d–by all accounts righteous and obedient to the Lord–is tested. The Lord G-d allows (yes, allows!) Satan to challenge Job by taking away all he loves. Job is visited by tribulations that include physical maladies, loss of wealth, loss of reputation and friends, and the destruction of all those he loves. Still Job praises G-d, even when those in his community whisper that he must not have been as righteous as he seemed, for if he were so righteous, how could G-d have allowed such tribulations?
The response of Job is beautiful and challenging: “…Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship.” Job 1:20
Apparently, G-d knew what he was doing when he allowed his servant to be tested, for Job is faithful, even in the loss of EVERYTHING. So, where do we take this terrible and awe-inspiring story? How do we face the world in which magical thinking has taken hold yet again? It seems that an entire branch of Christianity has fallen into the shamanistic formula. If you are wealthy, it must be because you are righteous. If you are healthy, it must be because you are worthy! If you are visited with trouble, you must be hiding some secret sin. This “easy” form of judgment is not only wrong-headed, it is actually the point of the entire Book of Job. The Book of Job is more about the COMMUNITY than about JOB. It is the community that is shown to be unrighteous in its treatment of the unfortunate Job; they judge and condemn and shun. Why? Perhaps because if we are honest with ourselves, it is truly hard to understand the capricious nature of fate and misery. We want G-d to be understandable and easy to grasp. We want to know that our belief in an invisible Being is warranted. We want to believe that if we are GOOD we will be rewarded. This is patently contrary to observable fact.
“Anyone who withholds kindness from a friend forsakes the fear of the Almighty.” Job 6:14
I have been deeply troubled by the so-called “prosperity Gospel”–the doctrine that if you only follow the right path, you will be healthy, wealthy, and wise. For one thing, it is not a Biblically sound doctrine. The Book of Job is a meditation on the fact that rain falls on the just and unjust alike. The realm of FREE WILL is FREE. Bad things happen to good people. The more important point, however, is to the community. The community does not get a pass to ignore the suffering and struggles of others. We do not get to assume that there is some great cosmic accountant doling out rewards for following the commandments. The greatest evil we can perpetrate as human beings is to be intentionally cruel to others. The greatest blasphemy is to use our so-called “faith” as a way to dismiss and/or categorize our fellow men.
My views have taken me on a lonely path. After being a life-long Moravian, I pushed away from organized religion to find my own path. It is not easy. In fact, the loneliness of this journey is one I would never recommend for others. It is just that I found it impossible to reconcile the way organized religion ostracizes and judges with the narrative of redemption that I knew through the Old and New Testaments. The risen Christ I wondered at as a child on Easter cannot, in my heart, be reconciled with the hatred of the “other,” the demonization of those who are different, the condemnation of sinners. Grace either exists or it does not. Belief in the “right” doctrine is not a magical spell that will give you material wealth or health. The only true worship of G-d is through our love to each other, for in loving our friends and enemies, we are loving the very G-d we claim to embrace as Creator of All Things.
So I turn to Job as I ponder the detritus of our little community here on Emerald Isle. One house is water damaged, while the one next door escaped any harm. We cannot compound the sorrows of our fellow men by ascribing some supernatural formula of righteousness. To do so is true blasphemy.
“Can you fathom the mysteries of G-d? Can you probe the limits of the Almighty?” Job 11:7
And so I find myself alone. I align with no branch of organized religion. I long for the voice of G-d, but I cannot hear him. There is a silent emptiness in my heart. I mourn for this loss, but at the same time, like Job, I continue to revere the mystery. Does G-d exist? Does G-d now my name? When I utter a prayer, does it fall on the empty mechanical universe? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I will not abandon the belief that if there is a G-d, he would want us to love each other. I will practice this act of worship and continue to probe the darkness for a sign.
“When he passes me, I cannot see him; when he goes by, I cannot perceive him.” Job 9:11
September 24, 2018