Mud in Your Eye

Last week in the archeology of a story I noted that John’s approach to story is different from that of Mark, Matthew and Luke where stories flow out of events. In John it’s the other way around. The event emerges out of the story.

A good example of this is the first of John’s Seven Signs of the Kingdom – the much-loved story about the wedding at Cana in Galilee. Is this a real event or is it an event created by the story John tells to make a point about Jesus? John’s stories are created to reveal Jesus’ identity rather than as accounts of what did or did not happen.

Today we are two weeks away from the start of Holy Week – a week ending in the Great Three Days of Jesus’ death and resurrection. On the Fourth Sunday in Lent the scene opens onto John’s sixth Sign of the Kingdom – the healing of the man born blind. There’s only one Sign left after this – the raising of Lazarus and as its title suggests this is a time sensitive story that prepares us for the journey through Holy Week to the Great Three Days of Easter.

On the face of it – the healing of the man born blind is a story about two kinds of blindness. John wants us to see – ha – see, note the play on words – that this is not only a story about how Jesus cured a man’s physical blindness, but how he struggled with the community’s spiritual blindness – that is their refusal to see. It seems Jesus can restore physical sight but is powerless to remove a community’s blindness – which continues as a barrier preventing the dawning of deeper sight – that is – the discovery of insight.

I’m struck by the way John constructs this story. It’s not a story about any old blind man, it’s a story about a man born blind. It’s not a story about a man who loses his sight as the result of a misfortune. It’s a story about a man born into a state of blindness.

There are two groups of by-standers in this story. There is the man’s family and neighbors. Then there’s the godly -Jesus’ disciples and the serious religious types. The man’s neighbors are overjoyed when he gains his sight. The godly types are perplexed if not downright disconcerted.  They ask: Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus will have none of this. In answer to the question, he tells them, neither!

Jesus spits on the ground to make a poultice of mud and spreads it over the man’s eyes. There’s another whole sermon in this simple act. For here we again see the homeopathic principle in operation. The Hebrew for ground is adamah and the word for the first human being is Adam. Genesis tells us that Adam was made from adamah – the ground. We are formed out of the dust of the earth and it’s this same dust that holds the key to our healing. But I digress.

Having spread the mud poultice over the man’s eyes, Jesus tells him to go wash in the pool of Siloam. He does so and returns able to see for the first time in his life – an outcome that amazes his family and neighbors. Yet for the godly among the by-standers, this is a deeply concerning outcome. Their question to Jesus is not how was this man born blind but who sinned that this man was born blind? Blindness is not the issue here, but sin – more particularly – punishment for sin.

Today we understand that in premodern societies illness and sin were closely aligned. Sin explained the arbitrariness of illness – why him and not me, why me and not her? We don’t think this way today because in the wake of advances in medicine we know better. Or maybe it’s just that we think we do.

Today, medical science offers us an explanation for illness. Medical science may explain how and even why someone develops an illness, but in the face of incurable illness knowing the how and why still leaves us with the unanswered question – why them and not me?  Medical science has no answer for the sheer arbitrariness of the way illness strikes some and not others. We’re quick to disavow sinful behavior as a cause for illness. Yet beneath the surface – accusations of carelessness and negligence in lifestyle often persist and are not a million miles away from a notion of sin and blame.

The why him and not me question lies at the heart of the who sinned question of the godly by-standers in John’s story. Medical science may explain the causes of illness, but it remains silent before the question of suffering and punishment. Sin as a cause of illness address the question of suffering and punishment head on.

No amount of medical knowledge can reassure us against the arbitrary and indiscriminate injustice of suffering. Nevertheless, we still seek reassurance in the way we try to distance those who suffer from those who don’t.

We’re not that different from the godly in John’s story. We have many ways of assigning blame to reassure ourselves that we are different from the ill who suffer. She’s only got herself to blame – we say if we’re brave enough or just think if we’re not. Afterall he should have worn a mask – or they should have been vaccinated – or even more far-fetched – it’s because they were vaccinated that they became vulnerable to infection. She should have smoked less, he should have drunk less, you should have not eaten so much.  Our need to pronounce judgement is endless. What matters is that we find an explanation for reassuring ourselves by denying our own vulnerability.

We draw distinctions between conditions we can reasonably catch and those we feel safe from catching. Allowing for the hypothetical that we all may develop cancer – we feel safe around cancer patients because after all they have it and we don’t. We comfort ourselves with the knowledge that we are not a member of a vulnerable population that is genetically predisposed to diabetes or heart disease. We congratulate ourselves on controlling our food intake, drink in moderation, and exercise regularly. Protected by the illusion of reassurance we are too ready to sit in judgment of the afflicted.

As we continue to recover from the Corona Virus plague – as a society we’ve been shocked by how hard it is to maintain the fiction of a protective barrier between us and them. How easily we reverted to ancient fears of contamination from conditions transmittable on the air, through touch, or proximity. How quickly those in authority stoked public fear as we reverted to the ancient remedy of quarantine with all its attendant moral judgements. We’ve been painfully reminded of what it feels like to be treated as a plague carrier. We’ve quickly rediscovered that quarantine is as much a moral as it is a physical segregation.

Having worked for 18 years in acute mental health ministry, I’ve long pondered public fear of those who experience mental illness. Who says the practice of shunning is dead?

Following one of my first patient groups one man who seemed struck by my rapport with the group asked me if I’d ever had mental illness – to which I replied – so far I’ve escaped being diagnosed. Mental and emotional disturbance- whether it ascends to the degree of psychiatric diagnosis is a matter of there but for the grace of God go we.

John’s story of the man born blind is the sixth in his Seven Signs of the Kingdom – which are all theological stories constructed to reveal Jesus’ divine identity to those capable of moving from blindness to sight, and from sight to insight.  For John, Jesus and God are indivisible – a feature that distinguishes his Christology from that of the other Evangelists. Yet, the story of the man born blind is also a story about our denial of human vulnerability and our conflation of illness and suffering as punishment. In John’s story of the healing of the man born blind Jesus challenges us to open our eyes to a new world view – and turn away from judgement and embrace our common solidarity.

If we can what will we discover in moving from blindness to sight and from sight to insight?

In his 1947 novel The Plague Albert Camus echoes John’s portrayal of the tension between Jesus and the godly-bystanders – his disciples and the Pharisees – when he contrasts the responses of Oran’s doctor and the parish priest. The priest condemns the suffering he sees explaining it away as God’s punishment for sin. Who has sinned – Jesus disciples ask him? This man has sinned by healing on the sabbath – the Pharisees complain. Both seek to distance themselves from the arbitrary, indiscriminate nature of illness and suffering.

Camus’ doctor knows that suffering is a cosmic tragedy -and if accepted as such leads to a softening of the heart. Camus’ doctor says that the only way to fight the plague is with decency. When asked what decency means, the doctor responds that decency: is doing my job.

What is that?

Decency and doing our job means committing to living lives of courage -trust fueled by hope. Not the fairytale hope in faith as some magical protection, some divine insurance policy, a denial of vulnerability, but the hope rooted in a refusal to be defeated by fear in response to the seeming random unpredictability of illness and suffering.

The man born blind moved from blindness to sight, and from sight to insight. When we do likewise, we find a surprising rediscovery. In the face of fear, we just need to be decent enough to do the job God called us here to do.

At the Last Supper, having washed his disciples’ feet John has Jesus give them a new commandment to love one another so that the world may know them by their shared solidarity. Accepting we’re all equally vulnerable to the misfortunes of illness and suffering – that we are all in this predicament together – is the greatest sign of Christian – of human solidarity with one another.

Liminal Times: Job a meditation

Image: Job and his family restored, William Blake. The Morgan Library & Museum

At St Martin’s, we find ourselves between the joyful celebration of the success of Opening Our Doors to the Future – the capital campaign and the launch of our Annual Stewardship Drive for 2022. The capital campaign – beyond dollar amounts raised – is an expression of confidence from our current members in the future of St Martin’s. Next week, we will officially launch the stewardship drive for 2022. Over the course of its five-week duration, we will be asking our membership to review and renew their estimate of giving so that we can effectively plan for 2022, our 125th year.

However, this review and renewal process asks us to reflect on the question: can we let our imaginations become tools through which God’s dreaming for the world can flow more freely into our world?

We find ourselves in what Susan Beaumont in her insightful book How to lead when you don’t know where you are going –described as a liminal season. A liminal season is a shoulder season – a time in-between. How do we proceed when between an ending and a new beginning—when the old way of doing things no longer works but a way forward is not yet clear?  It’s not only in the church but as a wider society we find ourselves in a liminal time when the continuity of tradition disintegrates and uncertainty about the future fuels doubt and chaos. In a liminal season it simply is not helpful to pretend we understand what needs to happen next. Prophetic words for us in this moment of history.

St Martin’s endeavors to occupy a place of tension weathering the uncertainty of the times through a commitment to traditional worship combined with a radical theological messaging that recognizes and attempts to speak into the uncertainty of the times. We are all watching the stalwart generation of faithful members pass on to the next great adventure and wonder who is coming up behind them to take their place? Our fear that we are on a trajectory of decline fills some of us with despair while provoking in others a manic attempt to delay what we all fear is inevitable.

In last week’s sermon I offered a sweeping overview of the essential themes found in the book of Job – a book that offers one of the most profound explorations of the nature of human suffering in the face of a God who often seems to us uninterested in our plight – a God who from our experience remains silent in the face of humanity’s age-old question concerning suffering – why?

In today’s Job portion we hear him exclaiming:  Oh that I knew where I might find him, that I might come to his dwelling. We might read this sentence as Oh what I wouldn’t give to know that God is really there. Words that remind us of the partial nature of our knowledge and the narrowness of our vision.

Our vision is clouded with self-preoccupation and protests of self-importance – cutting us off from the divine energy for renewal. So much of our vision – both individually and in community is hedged-in by our need for reassurance. We strain to hear a false note of security – a grasping for knowledge as a defense against the uncertainties of the future.

Job continues:

I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments, I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me. Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power? No; but he would give heed to me. There an upright person could reason with him, and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.

Eventually, God will respond to Job in rhetorical metaphors that expose the human dilemma; we cannot know what we feel we need to know. We fill the vacuum in our knowledge with simplistic answers such as leading a charmed life is a sign of God’s favor and suffering means God’s punishment or abandonment. Feeling alone and abandoned in an indifferent universe – we cast ourselves even further adrift when concluding that because our suffering is not instantly alleviated – we are not given the miracle we demand, we cease to matter to God.

In the end, God responds to Job by effectively sidestepping his complaint. God will not meet Job’s complaint by justifying divine action or inaction. Instead, we will hear God reminding Job of the paradox of his quest for omniscience -to know the entirety of things:

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world? Tell me if you have understanding who determined its measurements – surely you know! Who laid the cornerstone when the morning stars sang together, and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

We cannot know the entirety of things. We cannot know the future except in outline – glimpsed through a glass darkly. Yet, journeying into the future has never required us to know where we’re going. Oh, I know we like to pretend that we often do, but, we have never known the future before it arrives. In this lies grounds for hope. Instead of being preoccupied with our own construction of a future of either doom and gloom or of false and brittle certainties – can we let our imaginations become tools through which God’s dreaming for the world can flow  with greater freedom?  Our future lies in the mind of God and always has done!

If we learn anything from the serious practice of a spiritual life, God’s surprises are so much more exciting and fulfilling than anything – when left to the impoverishment of our own imaginations -we could predict or plan for ourselves.

Between the Job of the prologue and the Job of the epilogue lies the experience of his suffering. Job’s is not an experience of senseless suffering although through protest he demands for God to show him its meaning.

God never gives Job an answer to his insistent question why. Many see in this refusal to satisfy Job’s demand a suspicion that maybe God can’t give Job a satisfactory answer. Nevertheless, between beginning and ending lies the experience of change and being changed – albeit by something pretty awful. Maybe this is the purpose of Job’s suffering – a catalyst for change.

In the beginning, before Job has everything he cherishes taken from him, he believes that his prosperity reflects his own greatness. In this he is a great icon for many of today’s obscenely wealthy 1%-ters. The book ends with God’s restitution to Job not simply of the original wealth taken from him but of a magnification of that wealth tenfold. But Job is not the same man he was before. Suffering has changed him, and he now understands his wealth as a sign not of his greatness, but of God’s. His wealth is no longer his, but a sign of God’s generosity.

Job’s response to God’s generosity is gratitude. How might any of us express our gratitude? By a dedication and commitment to live in turn, with greater generosity.

Job now does something unheard of – as a sign of his gratitude for all he has he rewrites his will – settling portions of his estate on his three daughters as well as his male heirs. In the time in which this story is set, this action would have been unthinkable -beyond the capacity of the ancient imagination.

Can anything be a clearer demonstration of job as a changed man?

Living amidst the uncertainties, the fear, doubts, and violence of a liminal time, we might pay greater attention to our part in the unfolding of God’s dream for the world. The flow of God’s dreaming for the world requires only two things from us. The first is a capacity to be endlessly curious in the face of doubt and fear. And the second is a willingness to be changed in the direction of becoming more fit for God’s purpose!

Can you love what you cannot control?

The Wisdom genre of writing in the O.T comprises the book of Wisdom, Ecclesiastes, and the book of Job. On the whole, the book of Wisdom presents a conventional view of: do good and you will be rewarded, do bad and you will be punished. Ecclesiastes has a more complex and nuanced view which challenges the book of Wisdom’s more simplistic conclusions. Ecclesiastes views the universe as unpredictable. Bad things happen to good people just as good things happen to bad people, and there is no clear explanation for why this is so. This more nuanced perspective raises a core conundrum: can we rely on God to be both wise, and just? It’s this conundrum that the book of Job addresses.

The author of Job is an Israelite writing at a date that is difficult to determine. However, the point here is that he is drawing on a much older non-Israelite story about a man called Job who lived in Ur –  city of the Chaldeans, which in today’s topography is located somewhere between Damascus and the Euphrates. The book’s prologue and epilogue seem to hang together, both written in Hebrew prose and at first sight offer a simplistic morality more in keeping with the Book of Wisdom. The core of the book between prologue and epilogue is written in the most exquisite Hebrew poetry; the complexity and obscurity of which has posed a serious challenge for any translator.

Job’s story begins in mythical time in the realms of the heavenly conference involving God and the more important angels. In this conference, God boasts about his servant Job, praising him for his faithfulness. The angel known as the Satan which means  accuser, questions God’s assessment of Job.  Satan basically says let me test Job and you will find out that he’s not as faithful as he pretends because once his prosperity is challenged he will curse God. God gives the Satan his wish. He can visit any disaster upon Job so long as he stops short of taking his life.

The prologue presents Job as an ancient embodiment of today’s 1%. He is rich beyond imagining.  He’s a successful market trader – having made prudent investments including making regular propitious sacrifices to God. Suddenly, his whole livelihood is devastated by a huge earthquake which not only destroys all his property but kills livestock, servants and his children. Only Job and his wife are spared. This calamity is followed by a series of physical afflictions, reducing Job to a whimpering heap of festering sores.

At first, Job continues to praise God, and even though eventually he laments the day of his birth, he refuses to believe that God has abandoned him.

From left stage there now enter a couple of Job’s good friends. They tell Job that God is just, and the world is ordered by divine justice, ergo Job must have done something wrong to be so punished by God. His friends faithfully visit Job and try to comfort him in his afflictions.

We can get a sense of how Job’s friends felt when we consider our own experience of supporting a close friend through a period of suffering. After a while, the burden of witnessing pain we are powerless to alleviate plays on our own fears. We find ourselves subtly distancing ourselves from our friend’s suffering by finding an causal explanation for their suffering. This way we can  convince ourselves that because our situation is different then their plight won’t befall us. We may even resort to: after all so-and-so has only themselves to blame, they should have exercised more, drank less and eaten more healthily.

Despite continuing to feel sympathy, it’s comforting if we can assign agency for suffering to something our friend may or may not have done. We might also need to distance ourselves from their experience for the opposite reason – that we fear that this is indeed something that could easily befall us. The reminder of this can be so frightening that we may sever all contact with a once dear friend.

Job’s friends need to find an explanation for Job’s life falling apart. The most obvious one for them is provided by their conventional morality of divine justice – God does not punish the innocent, only the guilty They work hard to get Job to admit his sin. Job vehemently protests his innocence, not only to his friends but also to the Almighty.

As the first two friends are about to give up on Job as a lost cause a new friend arrives. He’s a younger man, full of the untested confidence of youth. He advances a new and novel idea. God is not punishing Job for sin but testing his faithfulness by purging him of ego – God does not regard any who are wise in their own conceit[1].

He continues to persuade Job for the next several chapters and finally, not only has Job had enough, but it seems, God has as well. Dismissing the arguments of the young friend God demands: Who is this who darkens counsel without words of knowledge?[2]

Now, God finally addresses Job directly. Job’s complaint all along has been -how can a just God act so unjustly towards him? God counters with shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty[3], pushing Job back on the defensive.

God now addresses Job from within a whirlwind saying: gird up your loins like a man for I now wish to question you[4].

God takes Job on a virtual tour of the universe asking him: were you present at the birth of creation? Did you bring order to the universe, have you seen this, been there, done that, and do you know how it all works? Do you claim to understand the complexity of the universe as if you are able to keep it all in good working order?

It’s curious that God does not defend the idea of divine justice but asserts divine sovereignty in the face of Job’s accusations.

The upshot of God’s response to Job is that Job cannot claim to understand anything God does, including the inexplicability of suffering. What may look like an injustice to Job, is from God’s wider perspective simply part of a larger and richer whole encompassed within divine wisdom, something beyond Job’s capacity to understand. And thus, we arrive at the final chapter of the book with Job acknowledging the foolishness of his demands to know all that God knows.

When we are faced with something beyond our understanding, we have alternative choices to make. we can pull back, stay safe, and simply resign ourselves to the inexplicability of God’s will. Or we can reject such a God who would do this thing abandoning ourselves to the meaninglessness of the universe. Or we can treat that which is presently beyond our understanding as an invitation to arouse our curiosity and allow ourselves to be subtly changed not by the answers we receive but by the questions we ask.

Something has shifted for Job and he now embraces that which seems beyond his understanding with curiosity. A new perspective opens for Job from which to view his experience of suffering. Throughout this whole terrible experience, Job has been so fixated on protesting his innocence and calling God to account, he has failed to notice that the experience of suffering has been slowly changing him. Having his whole world blown to smithereens transforms Job so that faced with God’s sovereignty he is able to now confess:

I had heard of you by hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you: therefore, I recant – give up my demand – for I am only a creature that lives among dust and ashes.

Job’s experience is now reframed by his knowing that he is both at the center of God’s concern, yet, at the same time, only one speck of dust within the enormous complexity of God’s perspective. He may be no wiser as to why he has had to suffer but he knows that God has never abandoned him.

The lethal development for any of us is to conclude that because we don’t get an instant alleviation of our suffering – we are not given the miracle we demand, we cease to matter to God.

For Job, and for us also, this is both a thrilling and terrifying discovery. Like Job, it’s hard for us to sit in the tension between knowing that God loves us, utterly, and the recognition that we are powerless to control so much that happens in our lives and our world. The book of Job raises many theological and existential questions to which God in the end gives no where near an adequate account. In the Tanakh – the Jewish canon of scripture equivalent to the Christian Old Testament, God’s address to Job is the last time God speaks. In the books that follow Job, God is forever silent. The rabbis conclude that it is not God who has silenced Job, but after eliciting God’s blazing self-defense it is Job who has finally silenced God.

We now come to what appears to be a happy-ever-after ending as God restores all Job’s losses tenfold. This is a jarring conclusion to what otherwise is the most profound exploration of the relationship between human suffering and God’s justice. It’s seeming simplistic message and the return to the prose style of the prologue has led commentators to see this as an ending tacked on to the original story because, after all, don’t we all like happy endings?

Literary analysis shows that the prose style of the opening and closing scenes in the book of Job belong to a separate more simplistic story. The core of the book – written not in prose style but complex Hebrew poetry is a later insertion – an attempt to deal in a more complex way with the meaning of suffering.

That being so, what appears to be a happy ending gloss-over nevertheless raises some profound questions. It strikes me rather like a reboot of the story. Using the analogy of downloads on our computers, the more significant downloads, the ones that reconfigure aspects of the operating system require a complete machine reboot to take effect.

This traumatic destruction of Job’s whole life and all he thought he could take for granted has changed him and now requires a reboot to take effect. Job is newly restored to even more good fortune. But Job in the epilogue is not the same as Job in the prologue. He is a man who now understands the nature of abundance as a the generosity of God and not simply his reward for good behavior and the offering of propitious sacrifices.

It’s a common human experience that only after we lose something do we come to understand its true value. In short, for the first time Job now understands that God’s generosity is given not earned. If we apply this insight to our own lives we can appreciate the significant shift in self-understanding involved.

This takeaway has a particular meaning for us on the day we are also gathering to give thanks for the success of our recent capital campaign. It’s also a reminder as we look ahead to the launch of our annual stewardship drive in two week’s time. God’s renewal of Job’s prosperity is an unearned gift, for which Job feels a new intensity of gratitude towards God. In response, Job commits to live with greater generosity in the way he uses his wealth. So also must we.

In his reboot, Job now comes to mirror God’s expression of generosity.  He gives his three new daughters evocative names which translate roughly as Dove, Cinnamon, and Rouge-Pot. He settles on them the same inheritance as he settles on his sons; something completely unheard of in ancient Israel.

The central question that arises for us today from the book of Job is this: Can you love what you do not control and still risk living with a spirit of generosity? It is a question worth pondering. Perhaps you have only to think about your children to know what your answer is.

[1] V37:24

[2] V38:2

[3] V40:1-2

[4] V40:6

Jesus: Less Hero than Human

reflections on Christ - crucifixionMeditation for Good Friday. 

Some say love it is a river that drowns the tender reed, some say love it is a razer that leaves your soul to bleed, some say love it is a hunger an endless aching need … 

We are required to go deeper, beyond being spectators recalling Jesus’ suffering on his way to the Cross. The human heart has an affinity with suffering, nevertheless if we go deeper we begin to realize that Good Friday is not about Jesus the noble victim sacrificing his life for the sins of the world. If we just stop there, no matter how thankful we might feel, we fail to see that the way of the Cross is God’s invitation to become transformed not by suffering, but by the power of love.

I say love, it is a flower, and you its only seed. ….

The Cross requires of us nothing short of a transformation in our moral, emotional, and spiritual way of being. God invites us to enter into the way of love not by standing back and beckoning us from a distance. In Jesus, God takes the initiative and leads us through example. Our acceptance, our entry into the way of love involves risking as Jesus risked. Risk is the raw material for transformation, for it is 

the soul afraid of dying that never learns to live. ….

Entering into the way of love leads us to challenge the status quo and risking the consequences. As a community, it means uncovering and challenging the cosmic forces of dehumanization woven into the very DNA of our culture. It means risking loving without expecting acknowledgment. Yet, above all else it means accepting an invitation to become transformed into a new way of being, one step at a time. In this transformation we are God’s collaborators and not merely, grateful children.

When the night has been too lonely, and the road has been too long and you think that love is only for the lucky and the strong just remember in the winter far beneath the bitter snows lies the seed that with the sun’s love in the spring becomes the rose. ….

The meaning of Good Friday lies in accepting entry into the way of the Cross of Christ. This is the way of love, which leads through risking into believing, hoping and loving. This is not a hero’s path, Jesus shows us that it is a very human path. On Good Friday, God shows us the way of love, motivated not by an abhorrence of sin, but by the impossibility for God, of not loving.

The italicized text comes from The Rose by Bette Midler


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