This sermon was preached October 14th, 2012 at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Richmond, KY. Audio can be found here.
He walked from the grocery store to his parking spot, the place he remembered leaving his car just moments before. His new car. Brand new car. It was missing. Stolen. Really? Could this be happening? He had just been dismissed from his job after 25 years of loyal service to one company, and now, to add insult to injury, his car was stolen.
Just then his cell phone beeped. It was a text message from his wife. “Come home now! Call me please.”
Great. Home was a five-mile hike, and still he had to deal with the police and reporting a stolen car. Could this day get any worse? He called her to share the horrible news.
But her voice was frantic and distraught. He could hear sirens in the background and she was sobbing, “Our house is gone—it burned to the ground!” She wailed, “Everything was destroyed and they were all inside! All of them… inside!”
His mind was racing: “Tommy, Erin, Jackson, Dillon, Amy… all of my children? Inside our burning house? Oh God… Oh God…”
He fell to his knees in the parking lot… alone…. and he cried out with the deep guttural sounds of grief only despair herself knows…
We’ve all had a bad day or two. But our scripture passage from the book of Job occurs in the wake of the worst possible day any of us could ever imagine. Job hears back-to-back-to-back messages that all his livestock have been stolen and slaughtered; his livelihood has been utterly destroyed. Another messenger arrives to tell him that his house has collapsed and his 10 children were killed. For Job, this grief was compounded by illness: only a day later he discovers a skin disease that will torment his body… In such a short time, Job’s world has been turned upside down with more pain and grief than any of us can dare to imagine.
This is the context for our scripture passage this morning. Job is crying out to God, trying to sort out the devastation that has befallen him. Let us read together
Job 23:1-9; 16-17
God of All life, open us to the wonder of your word in scripture; help us to explore the spiritual depths of pain, anger, confusion, and grief that often leaves us feeling so distant from You. And now may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing to you, O God, our Rock and Redeemer. Amen.
Job feels completely cut off from God: Job does not experience God in front of him, behind him, or on either side. No matter where Job turns, he feels abandoned by God. Job is faint, scared, hoping to vanish beneath the oppressive darkness that presses in upon him. This is the devastating power of grief, pain, and torment; it isolates us; it closes us off; it shrinks us.
Yet Job’s words, honest as they are, despairing as they ring, reveal something more. Job wants only to stand before God face to face and reason with God. Job trusts that God is a God who listens, who understands, who vindicates the innocent. And Job is not content with silence in the midst of despair. He wants to speak his pain directly to God.
Job knows that God is big enough to handle all the pain, grief, and despair that grips him and cripples him; so Job complains; he complains to God.
Job holds on to God with a fierce faith; his words of lament and bitter complaint are simultaneously, because spoken to God, the birthplace of hope.
Poet, farmer, and theologian Wendell Berry writes, “The distinguishing character of absolute despair is silence. There is a world of difference between the person who, believing that there is no use, says so to himself or to no one, and the person who says it aloud to someone else. A person who marks his trail into despair remembers hope — and thus has hope, even if only a little.”
Job’s words are themselves painful, but his desire to speak and confront God is nothing short of the birth pangs of hope.
And Job cries out in our scripture passage before others. He is not alone. In the wake of his terrible misfortune and great loss, he is comforted by three friends who come to visit him: Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. Out of respect for Job’s mourning, they have sat with him… in silence… for seven days.
Rebecca’s cousin Stacey received the terrible news that her fiancé Mike was killed in Iraq. In the days and weeks that followed, friends and family members reached out to Stacey. Reflecting on her grief and the way that others cared for her, Stacey shared with me that what helped her most was the silent presence of those who stayed with her while she grieved. And she was especially grateful for the honesty of those who said, “I’m sorry, I really don’t know what to say.” Most of the time, she didn’t know what to say either. At first, she didn’t need words—her own or those of her visitors. She needed hugs, time, and honesty.
In Job’s suffering and grief, he had some friends who came to give him comfort. And at first, they were the best friends Job could ask for. They sat silently with him in his grief. I suspect that was tremendously awkward and very uncomfortable. But they didn’t try to do anything; they just cared for him with the warmth of their presence. Job was not alone. Job was allowed the space to feel the depths of his pain and let the unfathomable grief settle.
After the seven days, Job breaks the silence; he is given the space to speak for himself when it is time. Job’s cries begin a conversation in which each of the four men share their thoughts on the afflictions that have befallen Job. Unfortunately, this is where Job’s well-meaning friends go terribly wrong. Job needed to speak, they did not.
As they sort through the mess Job is in, Job’s friends suggest that Job must have done something to deserve his misfortune, and that Job would be best served to fall penitent before God and seek out God’s favor. One friend, Bildad, concludes that Job’s children likely brought their own deaths upon themselves. Another friend, Zophar, tells Job that whatever he is experiencing now doesn’t actually compare to what he deserves—no matter how bad it seems, God has likely shown Job mercy. Zophar gives Job an ancient version of “you know, it could have been worse…”
It’s difficult to find the right words for those who are grieving. And the truth is that our words are probably not what really matters. Our presence matters. Sharing our love matters. Making space for the grieving person to speak their own pain matters.
And yet, the most well-intentioned friends can still say of the most shallow and insensitive things.
Earlier this week I asked friends on Facebook to share with me the WRONG thing to say to those who are mourning. The following is some of the poignant advice I received:
Whatever you do, under no circumstance, say:
“Let’s put the FUN in funeral.”
“Black is quite slimming, you know.”
“Let’s turn that frown upside down.”
“That’s a good way to go. I’d rather die the way he did than be eaten alive by coyotes.”
“There goes that tax deduction…”
“Oh I totally understand how you feel, I just lost my hamster”
I sure hope that no one has ever had to receive that kind of “comfort” in a time of grief. But the truth is that these are extreme cases of things we often do hear. Things like:
“Be thankful for the time you had with them.”
“You’re so young, you’ll find someone new.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
“God just needed another angel.”
“She’s in a better place now.”
These words are meant to soothe and heal, but they often fall shallow and empty on hurting hearts. Why? Not simply because they are tidy explanations for the confusing mess of tragedy, explanations that don’t ever feel very satisfying in the midst of great grief; but also because these words are resisting or attempting to eliminate the deep pain of sorrow. In our grief, we often don’t need encouragement, or simple answers, and we don’t need to feel “happy” right away; what we need is the open-hearted presence of another and the unspoken assurance that the pain we feel and the confusion we experience have room to find expression. In grief, we need to know that our pain and confusion do not make us unacceptable or unworthy of love. The greatest gift in grief is the permission, the space, and the support to feel what we are really feeling; and to say it honestly in the company of others. The truth will set us free.
But as people who care for those who grieve, we have a hard time being with people in their pain; we have a hard time letting them weep, or letting them complain; the wreckage of bitter words unsettles us; so we search for words that will help them figure it all out in their head or that will alleviate their terrible suffering. With our words we stop paying attention to the grief of another and speak out of our own insecurity or discomfort.
Our scripture passage this morning suggest us a different route: The path of silent listening and compassionate presence before the pain of another; the path of letting the one who grieves scream, shout, and seek out God on their own; and the revelation that such bitterness and lament is not what we should avoid; but rather, that it may be the very birthplace of hope.
Job did not feel God’s presence. But God had not abandoned Job. God was there as Job screamed and complained. And unlike Job’s friends, God let Job’s words land with all their force.
God makes room for our lament, because God knows when we form words, however bitter, angry, sad or confused; we give birth to hope, if only just a little.
 Wendell Berry, “A Poem of Difficult Hope,” in What Are People For? (New York: North Point, 1990), 59. Emphasis mine.