October 28, 2018
Rev. Fritz Nelson
Text: Job 23
The Psalmist writes:
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
If I make my bed in the depths, you are there;
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
Elsewhere the Psalmist assures us:
Even though I walk through the darkest valley
I fear no evil; for you (God) are with me
Your rod and your staff they comfort me.
God is present. God is with us. God forms us in our mother’s wombs and never abandons us, never leaves us.
As a righteous man, steeped in God’s word, Job knows God’s promise of eternal presence. He knows he’s called, chosen, marked by his god as one of God’s own. But here, in the depths of Job’s darkness, God seems nowhere to be found.
If I go forward, he is not there
Or backward, I cannot perceive him
On the left he hides, and I cannot behold him
I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.
Oh that I knew where I might find him,
That I might come even to his dwelling
Job sits, mourns, cries, enveloped in a darkness so deep God’s light seems to shine no longer.
He sits amid the ashes of his house, scraping his sores with a potsherd. Hearing of his troubles three friends come to sit with him. They weep, they mourn and they join him among the ashes where together they sit for seven days and seven nights.
Job’s friends come to help Job sit Shiva – an ancient custom of mourning still practiced by observant Jews. During Shiva the mourner remains at home while neighbors and friends come to sit with them, cry with them, share stories of the deceased and generally offer condolences and support. Together, Job and his three friends, mourn the death of his children, the loss of his house, his livestock, his wealth.
Job sits among the ashes. How could this tragedy have happened to him, a righteous man who’d always experienced favor in the eyes of the Lord? Why had God allowed all of this to happen? Why hadn’t God protected him? For that matter where was God now? Job prays and receives no answers. Darkness, nothingness, has replaced any sense of the divine. Prayers seem to just evaporate into the void. Finally Job can pray no longer. Why bother? What’s the point?
I know I’ve been where Job is. I suspect many of you may have been there too. Maybe you are there now. The darkness settles in. God appears to be absent. What do we do – how do we get through?
The first is to pray. I know this is counter-intuitive. If God is gone why should we continue praying? If God has turned from us, why bother calling out to him? With God so distant, how can we feel holy and pious, how can we even form words to our prayers?
The Jewish custom of Shiva proscribes specific prayers to say at specific times of the day. These prayers are written out, to be recited by rote as they have been for generations. These are prayers to pray whether you’re feeling them or not. A friend of mine, who’d grown up very Evangelical in a tradition prioritizing free, expressive prayer, found herself in a very dark period of her life. During that period she walked into a very traditional Episcopalian church, scrunched down into the back pew, and let the very formal liturgy wash over her. She could mumble the responses and the creeds without thinking, responses she could never pray on her own, responses that chipped away at the darkness.
When God seems distant and far away its time to pull out the prayer tool kit given to us by our ancestors in faith. The Lord’s Prayer. The 23rd Psalm. Jesus Loves Me this I Know. The Apostles Creed. Amazing Grace. We say them even if we can’t feel them. Even if they seem pointless.
Its also time to pray out what we’re feeling. To scream at God. To question God. To ask, “Where Are You?” To ask “Why is this happening?” To plead for relief. Out of that a little prayer may emerge, a mantra to help pull us through the darkness. Something to repeat as we lie awake at night and struggle to get going in the morning. Something to repeat as the days get long and we remain out of joint.
The Jewish custom of Shiva also prescribes the continued presence of community. When darkness descends we want to be alone. When darkness descends we may become so difficult to live with nobody wants to be around us. Yet the custom of Shiva mandates the mourner welcome others into their house; and mandates others come to the house. Some of the prayers, for instance, must be done in community, with the leaders of the congregation. You’re not allowed to cook – so others must bring you food. When we cannot see God, the God calls the community to be the presence of God to us in our grief, in our darkness.
Of course, not all friends are created equal. Job’s friends, who come to sit with Shiva with him, prove less than helpful. They know Job must have done something horrible to warrant this level of suffering. He must have angered God. In speech after speech they urge Job to name his sin, to repent, to acknowledge his wrongdoing. As he sits Shiva, Job finds himself having to defend against their accusations. Instead of comfort he experiences a type of torture. Instead of helping him mourn, they make things worse – so much worse they become the objects of God’s judgment. Silence would have been better than their words of folly and their blind falsehoods. Their job had been to support Job. Instead they undermined him. Their job was to be the presence of God to their friend. Instead they’d enhanced Satan’s aggravation.
We are called to be companions with each other in our darkness – not judge, jury or psychological executioner. When our friend is so trapped in the darkness she or he has lost sight of God, silent companionship is better than the false prayers and platitudes. “You just need to pray a little harder;” “God helps those who help themselves;” “God never gives us more than we can handle,” “God disciplines us so we can grow stronger;” “If you’d just done ________ this would have never happened;” and so on. Even if your wisdom is true, or well intentioned, it cannot be heard or acted upon in the darkness.
To be God to our neighbor suffering through darkness is to be present – that’s it, that’s all. To dwell in the darkness with them while holding the candle they cannot see. Not to answer, not to fix, not to solve. To dwell with them. To pray the prayers they cannot.
Eventually the darkness begins to break. Honestly, I don’t know how it breaks or why it breaks. There are no timelines. There usually aren’t any big breakthroughs. Our darkness is not dark to God; and God is always near. God too sits Shiva with Job. God sits Shiva with us. As our darkness fades, we begin to catch glimpses of divine light. We begin to move again, to pray again. With movement and prayer healing begins. Life returns. We experience resurrection.