Friday, August 14, 2015

Job, suffering, and a cat

Blake Job 15.jpg
William Blake's illustration of Job 40:15
Image from wikipedia.org
These days I am spending a lot of time in the book of Job. It is not as depressing as it sounds. There is a compelling story, a cast of interesting characters, a lot of impassioned and honest dialogue, some amazing poetry on the subject of creation, and a good number of philosophical and theological questions to ponder. Readers of Job looking for solutions to the problem of suffering or seeking to justify God's goodness in the face of unexplained tragedy are inevitably disappointed. This is not a book of answers; it is a drama. And it is a good one. I don't know about you, but if I were to read a book or watch a movie about someone whose life was easy and everything worked out well, time after time, I would toss that boring book in the corner after the first chapter or two, and I would walk out of that trite, simplistic movie. Because life is hard, we know it is, and a story with nothing but innocence and goodness is a fantasy that we can't relate to and don't really want.

One of the articles I read in my research is "The Glory of His Discontent" by Don Hudson. Hudson believes that the perfection in the Garden of Eden was characterised by a naive innocence and as such, was always meant to be the beginning of the story but not the forever state of humanity. Just like we do not long to go back to the time when we were a newborn baby (at least I never have), we should not be trying to get back to the way things were in the garden of Eden. Adam and Eve enjoyed communion with God, yes, but they also had an ignorance of God's world, a world where chaos had to be ordered and snakes practiced deception. Hudson writes: "One of the most intriguing ironies of the fall is that we now know as God knows because we know sin and suffering. The serpent understood all too well that the fall would bring tragedy and death. But inherent within evil is one fatal blind spot: evil does not see that tragedy compels beauty and evokes repair."

Hudson goes on to say that God is a suffering God, that even after two thousand years, God is not "over" the suffering and death of Jesus because it is always with him, throughout eternity. This is what we celebrate in the Eucharist; a past event as well as an ongoing sacrifice which is effective today and tomorrow and always. The point of the story of Job, and indeed of the whole canon of scripture, is not to avoid suffering and pain and death, but to share in the sufferings of Jesus, of God, and thereby, to see the world as God sees it: beautiful, ready for redemption, on the edge of glory.

It seems fitting that today, while I am finishing up my chapter on Job, I receive news that my long-time feline companion, Jazz, has cancer. The vet expressed her condolences as she conveyed the bad news to me, and I told her, "No, no, it's fine, don't feel bad. Jazz is 17 years old and has had a great life. And she's having a great day today because she doesn't have to wear the cone anymore. Thank you for calling." I hung up the phone and smiled at Jazz, sleeping beside me. What a beautiful creature she is.

My tragedy is small compared to Job's, but I join him in saying, "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord." Tragedy compels us in ways which "doing well" never does. Tragedy amplifies what is already at the core of our being. In Job's case, his unshakable loyalty to God came to the forefront, as did his desire for justice. Job's so-called friends relied on their tidy belief that tragedy is the reflection of a divine being who operates within a retributive, cause and effect system. YHWH, in his reply to Job, did not feel it necessary to explain suffering at all. Instead, he directed Job's attention to the glories of creation. As Brueggemann so succinctly says about this change of subject in the latter part of Job: "Theodicy is overridden by doxology." The need for explanation or justification fades away when we are confronted with the glory of God. So my prayer in the next few days, weeks, months, is that I see the glory of God on display in my household through a small cat, my own version of the untameable Leviathan, if you may. "On earth it has no equal, a creature without fear. It surveys everything that is lofty; it is [queen] over all that are proud." (Job 41:33-34).

People sometimes speculate on the questions they will ask God when they get to heaven. I think the hypothetical exercise is pretty much pointless. If, in the presence of the Almighty God in all his glory, I am focused on my petty concerns about why this happened and why not that, then I am to be pitied. Jesus invites us to share in his sufferings, to give up our lives for each other, to carry our cross, and to see the glory of God revealed in the darkest, painful places. This is the invitation, to courageously pray with Jesus, "Not my will, but yours be done." This is the glory of God shining in our lives: not that we avoid suffering, but that suffering loses its sting, that it cannot have its way with us, that it becomes but a single thread in the beautiful tapestry of God's goodness being woven in this world.

"Acknowledging the suffering of this world places us every day in the image of our Creator - we can create beauty out of nothing or we can repeat suffering in an endless cycle of destruction. Confronting suffering in our world becomes the fulcrum between ultimate tragedy or redemption. ... Ultimate tragedy is the evil one's story; redeemed tragedy is God's." - Don Hudson.

2 comments:

Shelley said...

great thoughts Matte. Our culture has damaged itself so much by our idea that all suffering indicates that something is wrong and must be corrected immediately and avoided whenever possible.

And my condolences re Jazz...I hope her last days are peaceful and painfree.

Matte Downey said...

Thanks, Shelley.