I’m going to admit something that may make me seem like a bit of a downer, but here goes… I have never really liked weekends. There is a certain pressure that comes with a sunny summertime Saturday; an unwritten law that we’re supposed to be out enjoying ourselves, soaking in the sun… a rule to be stress-free, care-free, work-free, and “happily” relaxing. That mindset may be the basis for the strange guilt I feel on those Saturday mornings I awake on the wrong side of the bed or the root of the loneliness that visits on those afternoons when no-one is free to go play. To add insult to injury, I live next to the park, so a cloudy mood on those sunny days, means that my grumpiness is juxtaposed with the laughter and joy of the perfect families flying a kite with their smiling 2.3 children, fetch with their dog who actually fetches a Frisbee (I’ve never had a dog that understood the game!), and feasts on their picnic lunches with perfectly cut pb&j. Yeah, Saturdays can be hard, lonely, or even depressing because we have it in our heads that weekends are supposed to be fun and full of family, friends and a healthy dose of frolicking…. it is suffering to suffer on the weekend.
Over these next couple weekends we are going to look into the idea of “suffering” a bit. Don’t worry, for as unpleasant as that sounds, this is not going to be a morbid, painful, saddening series; in fact, I hope that everyone will find it just the opposite. We will be looking at the Book of Job; a book known for it’s raising the infamous question, “Why does God allow the ‘righteous‘ to suffer?” It’s a question Job asks, that Job’s friends ask, and one that we all have at one point, in some way, tossed up to the heavens.
“God, what did I do to deserve this?” we cry when a tire goes flat or a doctor reports some bad news. We wrestle as we walk down the street just why that man is homeless and hungry, while that guy passes by in a Lamburgini? “Why did so and so get a raise, while so and so got a cancer diagnosis?” or “why were those innocent families on that airplane while terrorist roam the ground?” These are hard questions and unfortunately I don’t have an answer… You will find that Job doesn’t get a direct answer either; but instead, while he asks God “why,” he demonstrates “how” through his actions perseverance… “How should we suffer?”
These coming weeks probably won’t end the causes of our suffering, but hopefully they’ll free us from its chains. We are not going to learn how turn off or mask our pain, because the more that we attempt to avoid and question suffering, the more we suffer; and as we do, the smaller more inconsequential things in life will slowly begin to torture us. Instead, we are going to learn how to embrace it as a stage of our journey. So we turn to Job, which teaches us how to suffer, and is part of a series of what are referred to as the wisdom books, along with Psalms (how to pray,) Proverbs (how to live,) and Ecclesiastes how to enjoy.) Note the order of those: suffer, pray, live, enjoy.
SCRIPTURE: Job 23:
So the false presumption, “I must enjoy my weekend,” is derived early in our childhood, when the weekend signified a two-day break from arithmetic and cafeteria food, and Jean Baudrillard puts a little spin on the simple children’s game of hide and seek that accentuates today’s message. “One of life’s primal situations,” he writes, “is the game of hide and seek. Oh, the delicious thrill of hiding while the others come looking for you, the delicious terror of being discovered, but what panic when, after a long search, the others abandon you! No, you mustn’t hide too well. You mustn’t be too good at the game. The player must never be bigger than the game itself.”
When I hit one of those suffering Saturday’s, my initial instinct is to hide away in a strange guilt, an embarrassment of sorts that I am not out in the world enjoying the life I’ve been gifted. And guilt is a heavy emotion.
“Today also my complaint is bitter, his hand is heavy despite my groaning” we hear Job cry out in the second verse of Chapter 23. I wonder if it was a gorgeous Sunday afternoon when Job voiced his “bitter complaints.” The original Hebrew translation of this verse is interesting- “Today also my complaint is ‘rebellious’,” not bitter (an allusion that he is doing something wrong in his suffering.) My (not his) hand is heavy despite my groaning.”
This is where we may best connect with Job, the feeling that we are doing something wrong when not feeling “joyous.” A quick bit of background… Job, at this point, had just lost his children causing overwhelming emotional pain, only to be accentuated by his being struck with a rather unpleasant and quite severe skin disease. Hopefully no one in this room is battling either of those things; but sitting in this room (on a weekend none the less) we have individuals who are un- or under-employed, have lost family members or friends recently; are burdened with stressed, soreness, anxiety, illness, and so on… and because we “hide to well,” we may never even know the struggles of those at our tables, co-workers in our office, actors staring on our favorite tv show or those sitting on the park bench who we pass on the way to work. The one beautiful thing about suffering is that it doesn’t discriminate; it just appears in different forms.
Quick, what is the first response that jumps off of your tongue when someone asks, “how are you,” at the office coffee machine Monday morning? “Great, doing well, just fine,” but how often are those comments simply a reflex? Being transparent of our sufferings is difficult; imagine what would happen in a passing coffee conversation with Job. “How are you Job?” asks a co-worker in small talk. “Well, Job says well scratching, “I’ve got this crazy infectious rash and just lost all my property as well as most my family.” [insert awkward silence here].
In the eyes of his “friends,” Job’s suffering was a showing of insufficient faith. Today’s passage is Job’s response to one of these “friends,” Eliphaz the Temanite, who in the previous chapter asks “Is it for your piety that God rebukes you? Is not your wickedness great and your sin endless?” Ouch… No wonder it’s hard to let people in to our dark spaces when we fear comments like that, and Churches can be the hardest places for transparency. Think about the irony of a building where most the windows are stained glass, what and why are we hiding?!
A couple weeks ago I was on beautiful evening ride with some friends and we missed timed the sunset. It was a gorgeous night, right up until I found myself diving down into one of our trademark Louisville potholes! After almost taking out the whole group a buddy pointed out that it may be a little bit safer to ride if I took off my glasses off. So it wasn’t one of my more intelligent moments, but sure enough, when I un-shaded my eyes, the world got a whole lot brighter, everything besides my damaged ego that is!
I don’t do much without my sunglasses; they are my top article of clothing in a race. Shorts, you all know me well enough by now to know I’d run bare butt through the park any day if I could. Shoes? No, tribes went centuries running through the woods barefoot. So why sunglasses? Because our eyes show pain. Our eyes are transparent. The best example of this occurs around mile 20 in a marathon; that’s when the pain really starts kicking in, your legs start throbbing from thousands of strides on hard pavement, and your lungs catch fire… but that’s when its most important to smile, look strong, and hope your competition’s spirit breaks before yours. That may work on a racecourse, but it’s a lonely way to live your life.
Unfortunately that’s how we’ve learned to function in this world. We want to be perceived as strong or ‘happy,’ we strive to make others think we have it all together, that we’re carefree. Heaven forbid we let others see inside of our souls (through our sunglasses) and glimpse the pain and suffering that is playing hide and seek inside.
We’d rather fix others problems and shade our own, that’s less painful. Job, by this time, was worn down; he bore “a heavy hand” and “heavy heart,” but wouldn’t let Eliphaz in. “I am not silenced by the darkness, by the thick darkness that covers my face,” he responds to Eliphaz’ who in the previous chapter stated, “When others are humiliated you say it is pride, for he saves the humble.” Humility is easier said than done… instead of being humble in our suffering, we fight and we hide it, be it through our defensiveness, an empty smile, a forced laugh, a reflex-response of, “I’m doing great,” to a passing by friend.
I never really knew my father as he died when I was pretty young, but I knew him through what people told me about him. “Your dad was always so welcoming, so strong, so funny… he was happy all the time.” I vaguely remember him sitting on the beach, laid back, like the world was perfect, and I admired that; I strived and strive to be that man, after-all, that’s why everyone liked him right?
It was only a couple years back when my mom told me about his alcoholism and his addiction to adivan (a prescription anti-anxiety med.) The drugs didn’t make him a bad person, in fact, on onlooker would say that they hid his pain so that he could be an exemplary person to everyone else… but it killed him.
Despite our many medical, nutrition, and educational breakthroughs, Cancer is a growing pandemic in our society. Why? Because we hide in our souls the worst of carcinogens, our pain and suffering, and until we let them go they will eat away undetected to the human eye.
Job “cried out his case to a distant God.” We can all relate to Job. In my suffering I often kneel at night, alone, and pray to a God far off in the stars. That’s safe. What is a little harder is praying to the God that is around me, the God in the hearts of my friends and family, because that requires taking off my sunglasses so others can see my pain and that is scary. Job had developed a fear of God, he was lost in darkness, but maybe that’s because he, because we, chose to hide in darkness. Why do kids love hide and seek so much? Because hiding is our natural inclination. We must never hide too well though, because we risk never being found.
It’s when we admit that this life is not all smiles and laughter that our hearts lighten enough to experience happiness (notably not always joy), to smile and laugh. It’s when we are not ashamed of our struggles, understand that suffering is normal, that it strengthens us. Its when we open up to the world around us that we realize God was and is with us all along; not in a distant star but right here, right now. We don’t know why people have to suffer, but do have the choice of to either let that question cause us suffering or teach us how to suffer with grace. I’ve probably caused a slight political stir lately by poking fun at the republicans and by quoting Hitler, so how finish it off with the trifecta as I turn to Bill Clinton this time who states, “No nation hiding behind closed doors is free, for it is imprisoned by its own fear.”
Be who you are, the bliss and the tears included, and know that it is more than alright to suffer, it is normal.