Hemingway defined courage as “grace under fire.” Leading Houston author and change-maker, Brene Brown, defines courage as “whole-heartedness.” In Hebrew, when we wish someone courage, we say “Chazak v’amatz!” – “Strength and fortitude!” Over these past few weeks here in Houston, many of us inside and outside the Jewish community, have been and continue to be put to a series of tests of our courage and frankly, to use the scientific term, life has been pretty “sucky” of late.
BUT, I want to make something clear for now and forever. When I use the word, “test,” please do not imagine that I believe that these tests have an “author.” And to all those who have found themselves the victim of their own fears and trepidations inspired the misfortunes of others, I would argue that it is better to err on the side of saying nothing at all than to offer up a rationale that seeks to explain why something terrible has happened.
See, we humans have this evolutionarily developed (and often quite useful but sometimes awful) need to categorize. In the context of building healthy families and communities, organizational tasks and just getting the chores done, our phenomenal brains’ ability to compartmentalize much of the world and our lives is quite helpful. However, taken too far, it does have a downside. We also too often find ourselves categorizing and compartmentalizing coincidental and untimely events that happen to other people. “What goes around comes around,” is a phrase oft mentioned as a hopeful rationalization for our inability to have controlled the negative actions of another. “This must be punishment (or reward) for deeds of a past life,” some might ponder when attempting to discern a rationale for why something negative (or positive) happened to someone who seemingly deserved the opposite.
This penchant for compartmentalizing our world is, I believe, what led one author thousands of years ago to pen the Biblical Book of Job. Many readers of the Book of Job focus much of their attention and energy on its opening and closing chapters (perhaps because its quite long!) Moreover, I imagine it is because we like drama and then we like resolution. Here’s the gist: God and Satan (pronounced in pre-Christian Hebrew literature, “Saw-tan” – meaning the “adversary” in Aramaic) argue over the essential purity of action of human beings with Job serving as God’s primary example. Satan however challenges God’s insistence and strongly suggests that if the blessings which God has so loyally bestowed upon Job (Job = “Teacher’s Pet”) were taken away and replaced by curses, that Job’s motivation for praising God and living an utterly righteous life would disappear as well. God “takes the bet” and allows Satan to strike Job – first his possessions and his business, then his children and family and finally his own health. With each tragic plague, however, Job remains consistently righteous. To the point that Job sits in sackcloth and ashes as he scrapes away skin from his leprous body, Job will not curse God. Job’s wife (sorry, no name given – this was of course from a different time in the history of suffrage) in a plea that he should just curse God and die, Job retorts (my words), “I have blessed God my entire life in the face of all my blessing. Shall I not bless God in this moment as well?”
Now it wouldn’t be odd if our story ended here. After all, the Book of Jonah (a neighbor of the Book of Job) concludes mid-sentence! But, no, this is not the end of our story at all. What follows is close to 50 chapters of what many commentators call the world of Job’s friends.
Now don’t get me wrong. At the outset, when, upon hearing of the terrible news, Job’s friends come from far and wide and sit for a week in pure silence. (This by the way is the BEST advice of all!) But, never fear, silence is often never enough, at least for the comforters who eventually confess their true needs, and that is to in turn to be comforted by the one suffering the most. This is a strange occurrence that is so beautifully depicted in this biblical tale of crime and punishment. If only Job would just admit that this horrific set of events is not random. Rather, they beg, they plead, they turn themselves inside-out so in turn Job will plead “state’s witness.” “Yes, it is true, I, Job, the most righteous of all, have been, in the wee hours of morning cavorting with infidels, soliciting inappropriate favor and dare I say it (“Say it! Say it!”) worshipping earth and stone” is what Job’s friends are dying to hear him say! But alas, not even the shedding of giant patches of scaly skin will entice Job to offer false witness.
Instead, Job declares to the Heavens that while he cannot deny that he lives and dies by the will of God, he will not accept that he has done something for which this profound and heart breaking rupture is proper punishment. And he rails against Heaven, against God Himself, and DEMANDS an audience with the Lord of the Universe. He will accept this plague until his eyes no longer open but not the rationale that would suggest any kind of quid pro quo is at hand.
And boy does he get what he asks for. An audience with the Lord of the Universe, the likes of which not Cain nor Pharaoh nor Amalek could have claimed to have been terrorized by. No, from out of the whirlwind, “The Lord is in the House!” Berating Job for daring to even speak to His Majesty, let alone demand justice. Justice? God asks – “Were you there when I laid the foundations of the world? [you puny, human pipsqueak?!!} But then, as if God’s tantrum comes to an end, God grants Job an answer and the answer is that Job is right. That indeed he does not deserve any and all of what has come to him. That it was a test. And with one fell swoop, all is returned. But here is the punch line. God instructs Job to now go and build an altar and to prepare the sacrifice as an offering for forgiveness. One begins to imagine that indeed there is a price for calling God to the mat! However, as God explains, it is Job’s friends for whom Job will offer these sacrifices. Not Job. Their crime? Insisting that they KNOW the way of God and the way of human beings beyond a shadow of a doubt!
Job’s friends do not stand in the light of the Lord, not because they are not faithful but because they are too faithful. Too committed to a literal understanding of the Divine, the ability to place God in a box and KNOW what the misfortunes and miracles necessarily portend for those who are their recipients. This is the key, friends. The greatest blasphemy, as told by Job, is the dug-in heals, strong as an Oak Tree, forever and always mentality, kind of faith in God. God’s essence is beyond word and gesture, deed, sign and symbol – for God is infinite. The best we can do is think and talk and pray and love and live and hope that when WE strive to be like God, we make God real for ourselves and those around us. But we must be careful – for to be like God is not channeled through judgment, fear, exclusion or manipulation. None of these attributes affirm God’s expansive and infinite love. This is what it means to be eternal – to be patient enough not to jump to conclusions but to allow life to unfold, to be loving enough to sit still with someone with whom you disagree without running away, to be imaginative enough to be able to abide someone whose very life experiences reflect nothing of your own and yet be willing to wonder what it would be like to walk in their shoes. Fo all that divides us are infinitesimally small differences in our DNA – no matter how we pray, the color of our skin or whom we love. We are in essence, all of us, the same.
God is not in the punishment and revenge business. That would make no sense for the One who has all the time in the universe. What’s the rush? But for us, we don’t have all the time we’d ever want. Here’s a hint for moving forward the process of growth and self-discovery. Precisely when you hear a voice from another that makes so little sense to you, when you have an experience that rocks your world and that causes your very foundation to shift, DO NOT RUN! This, in God’s ever-expansive way, may be your moment from out of the whirlwind. For as painful as this kind of moment an be, if we learn to stay with the pain, the promise of redemption will be at hand. God tried to promise us a rose garden once. And that only lasted about a day. Truth is, even with all the pain and suffering and angst, nobody really ever wants to go back to the Garden of Eden.