I just finished watching President Obama’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney. If you haven’t watched it, please click here and spend the 37 minutes. It’s important.
He spoke a lot about grace and how we don’t earn it. This is something I’ve been thinking about since last Sunday when my own pastor tackled the root cause of suffering in his homily.
We want a God, he said, who will protect us 24/7.
But that’s not how it works. For a meditation on justice and suffering, he pointed us to the Old Testament Book of Job. I read it this week – it’s a crazy one. Job is a good man who has earthly riches and is pious. God is kind of bragging on him to Satan who tells God that it’s easy to be pious when things are going so well. Satan proposes to God that all Job’s good stuff – land, family, health, status, etc – be removed, then see how much he praises God.
Poop hits the fan all at once for Job and he starts to crack. His oh-so-helpful friends tell him that even though he thinks he been a good boy, he obviously hasn’t been or God wouldn’t have visited such retribution upon him. Eventually, God comes in and doesn’t explain the rationale at all. God instead just drops the bomb that there is more wisdom to the universe than Job has.
Job acknowledges that.
Side note: Shakespeare did too.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
– Hamlet (1.5.167-8), Hamlet to Horatio
Eventually, God gives him back his good life, but not before telling his “friends” they there were wrong in their theology, and they’d better atone post-haste.
My pastor said that the Book of Job puts to rest once and for all the idea that what we call blessings are distributed by merit.
But that thinking is as prevalent as ever. Just today, I’ve read countless religious opinions about how we are inviting the wrath of God upon us by the SCOTUS ruling in favor of marriage equality. Here’s a whole Wikipedia page about Hurricane Katrina and divine retribution.
On a small scale, I can tell you that we love to blame cancer on the patient. What’s the first question we ask when we find out someone has lung cancer? I wonder how many people I know secretly believe that I got breast cancer because I didn’t breast feed my kids, or because I ate hot dogs for dinner for more than 1/2 my childhood?
Even when facts are staring us right in the face — the cause of cancer is still unknown and risk reduction has minimal impact — we still want to believe that we can draw a logical, straight line with an indelible marker from point A to point B.
We want to believe that people who get cancer have done something to deserve it.
A couple of years ago, I heard an interview with author Emily Rapp. She had written what I later discovered to be a beautiful and profound memoir of her time with her dying baby, The Still Point of the Turning World. The book talks a lot about trying to find a new metaphor to live within – her child developed to a certain point, then went backwards to total incapacitation until his death from Tay-Sachs disease. When the other new moms are delighting in the developmental milestones laid out by their doctors and in the What to Expect books, how is she supposed to view motherhood? Specifically, her motherhood?
In the interview, she discussed the way talk about blessings in our lives. Indeed, nothing is more blessing-worthy and pride-inducing than watching your own child grow, develop, and achieve. Since her child was never going to walk, ride a bike, go to school, etc, how is she supposed to view him? I’ve been thinking it over this week, and upon revisiting the interview I discovered that she discussed the Book of Job too. But this is the quote I went back to find:
“I had this period when I would go out in Santa Fe,” she says, ” … and people would say to me in the grocery store, like, ‘You must feel cursed,’ and I would just be like a) ‘That’s not helpful,’ and b) ‘So are you if you think about the fact that you’re a human being and you never know when chaos will find you.’
And that’s the crux.
I can appreciate the humility behind calling yourself blessed – you are giving credit to someone other than yourself and that’s always a good thing.
But it’s far, far too easy to fall into the trap of believing you’re blessed because you’re chosen and you’re chosen because you’re good. And when chaos comes, which it will, your distress might be compounded by a crisis of faith that you have created by believing that you earned those non-chaotic times. Then, instead of focusing on the best way forward, you will dwell on your anger over a perceived divine betrayal; or maybe on trying to pinpoint what your great sin was.
I’m here to tell you – no good can come of that. It’s better to stay away from that minefield, and the time to avoid it is before the poop hits the fan.
My pastor didn’t tell us why good people suffer. That’s ok, I didn’t expect him to. For the last couple of years, it has slowly dawned on me that this search for the answers to unanswerable questions is a colossal waste of time. And most likely deleterious. And squanders a tremendous opportunity.
He said that crises are an invitation to delve more deeply into Mystery.
That’s what I’m thinking on now.
I’m also thinking of John O’Donohue’s poem that has held a deep meaning over the last seven years. “For a Friend on the Arrival of Illness.” Here are the opening lines, click here for the whole poem.
Now is the time of dark invitation
beyond a frontier that you did not expect.
Abruptly your old life seems distant.
Yes. That’s what I’m thinking on now.
The dark invitation. The mystery. Something I hadn’t previously imagined on heaven or earth. Grace.