Speak Clearly So I Can Understand, Pt 3

We are down to part 3, the long expected finale, the piece that ties the whole thing together. Per my typical style, I am changing direction again. Once I began to write, I discovered more to say that needed to be said! Thankfully, I have many more weeks to fill this page with my ramblings and thoughts on life and God. I hope you enjoy it!

I left off talking about Job’s questions, but before I get back to that, I believe the words of Job’s friends need a little more attention. Have you ever heard anyone be referred to as a “Job’s friend”? I haven’t heard it often. Maybe it is just church-y jargon. But I hope that I don’t ever earn the title. And, if I do, I hope that I don’t retain it. Job’s friends aren’t really friends at all. In their attempts to affirm or comfort, they do neither. They become anti-friends. We will be nice and call their words a really, really big, collective mistake. Mistakes are expected being human and all; so we can all relate with making a mistake.

Job’s friends can be lumped into categories; one friend that looks to the past and observes, one friend that surmises the present situation and assumes, and one friend who extrapolates out the future and accuses. Each of the friends has an interesting argument. The first contends it is often the case (as seen in the past) that wicked people are punished for doing wrong. The second friend follows suit- if Job did bad things in the past, or was wicked, he could be punished in the present. The last friend skips the pleasantries and accuses Job of wickedness, offering him a restored future if he would just confess.

I tried to picture how this kind of discussion would happen. I am having a bad day and a group of my friends are coming over to watch football. Attempting not to have a pity party, I set out the chips and dip and warm up the flatscreen. But the cable isn’t working. The chips are stale. The dip tastes funny. By the time the guys arrive, I am frustrated. Nothing is going right.

They stay quiet for fifteen minutes, then they try to jump in. The first guy talks about the last time this happened to him. His cable was out all day, and he couldn’t figure out why. His many attempts to unplug and reconnect the thing did nothing. It didn’t make any sense – it wasn’t like the weather was bad or the TV was old. So at the prodding of his wife, he eventually called the cable company. And, lo and behold, he had forgotten to pay the bill.

“Can’t be that,” I say, ” I just paid it yesterday and it isn’t due for another week.”

The next friend is starting to get frustrated that the game is on and all he has to show for it are bad food and an argument. He fidgets, waiting for the opportunity to speak. As soon as I finish, he declares, “You know, I heard that this one guy wanted to piss off his friends, so he invited them all over for steak and served them hamburger. He called them steak patties.”

“You mean sirloin patties?”

“Doesn’t matter,” he says. “He just did it to make them mad. Like promising to watch a game and having nothing to show for it.”

I am perplexed. Really perplexed. “Guys,” I plead, “I had an awful day at work and it seems to have followed me home. I am sorry, but I am really happy you are here with me anyway.”

Suddenly, the last friend jumps up in the air, hands flailing, and yells, “I knew you were a jerk. You are just tormenting us! Just admit it. You unplugged the cable, left the bag of chips open all night, and used an expired dip mix. What’s your problem?”

I am speechless. After a crappy day and some of the worst luck in recent memory, this is how my friends treat me? Seems deplorable, right?

This is the tiniest taste of what Job’s friends were like. All it took for then was time in the presence of a bad situation and the accusations started to fly. What about the discomfort, the pain, the tangible reality of life, could lead to accusations?

If you have to sit in the uncomfortable tension of something that makes no sense, what do you do about it? How much silence can you take before you know you have to say something? But what do you say? Aren’t you compelled to rationalize the situation, to put your brain around it and understand it. And, once you think you understand, aren’t you equally compelled to bring other people along with you, to have them see things the way you see them? It makes perfect sense.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Last night I watched a television program about two of the first paleontologists in the U.S. and their mad dash to seize all of the fossils in the American West. The program described it as war, Dinosaur Wars. It appeared that these two people had it out for each other – from slander and deception to outright cruelty and malice. Their attitudes stunk. All in the name of science!

The two men were both eager to make the next fossil discovery and show the world that American scientists were awesome. If they could back up Charles Darwin’s theories regarding biological evolution and time, they might even show an edge on that popular history book, the Bible. Their pursuit of each fossil, over time, evolved from a curiosity about the natural world to the personal right to define it.

Perhaps one of the greatest attributes of us, the people of the United States, is our determination to discover and master (in a way) the natural world. Was there anything inherently wrong with leaving our understanding of natural history well enough alone? Not really. Not to say I am against these discoveries and conclusions, because I am not. And there wasn’t anything inherently wrong with human curiosity and discovery. In this real life gem of American history, the science didn’t stink until the egos got in the way. These two men had to put the stamp of their personal understanding on the world, to transform it into the image of what they saw. And they would do this at any cost.

Job’s friends, anyone?

I know, you are probably thinking that this analogy is a stretch. Follow me here – Job’s friends came to console him, probably with a slight curiosity about what happened to him. Everything in Job’s situation was fundamentally wrong. They knew Job was a great guy, yet they found him destitute. Like any sensible person from that culture, they knew better than to start talking right away. So they sat silent for days.

But what was churning in their heads? Was it thoughts of further ways to show Job compassion? Perhaps, at least for a little while. But I suspect that deeper thoughts were floating around their minds. Thoughts trying to explain why such horrible things would happen to such a good man. And when they started talking, their tongues carried forth their own theory and speculation – that Job deserved what he got.

Yet Job denied wrongdoing. He had done nothing to merit his horrible lot. And Job also did not understand why he was suffering. He had no personal theory, only pain, and therefore turned to God for answers.

If the theories of Job’s friends were only a matter of curiosity, I suspect that they would have gone away at Job’s rebuttal. But they didn’t. Job was repeatedly blamed for his suffering by four different people. And as you read the book, the words get stronger, the tone more adamant, the wounding deeper.

Of course Job was wrong! We the friends are right! And we won’t stop until we break Job of his silly attempt to rebuff our theory! The truth cannot be stopped!

Looking at it that way, I almost want to burst on the scene and slap those friends. Who gave them the right to force their interpretation of the world on someone else, let alone someone in so much pain? I’d show them! I’d line up my theories and pull out the book of Job to validate them. “See that part about the devil,” I’d say, “Ha! I am right and you are wrong! I have the book!”

Ridiculous, I know. But tempting. All it takes is to first simplify a situation so I can understand it, then second, couple that understanding with my desire to be on the side of right. BOOM! We have an explosion of often negative consequences.

That first part, though, that curiosity or desire for simplification, for understanding, seems to be part of our human makeup. Can it be wrong?

.. . . . . . . . .

Sometimes I sketch in the margins of the pages in my journal. Squiggles and swirls and dashes flow from the ink far easier than the words do. And occasionally I am bold enough to try and copy reality. So I draw a tree form, or a vine, little puffy stylized clouds with flat bottoms, and rolling hills. They are merely lines of dark on a field of white, representations of what I see, free to be distorted and exaggerated, black and white instead of full color. Why is it in my nature to do this? To mimic something in my own eye – to interpret it into simplicity? I don’t know, I just do. And it doesn’t ever hurt anyone.

We all do this sort of thing. And it’s our go-to approach to the known and the unknown. That isn’t what leads to hurt and misunderstanding.

Instead, our desire to be correct, to have authority, and to really understand and know that we are in line with something greater than ourselves and others – that is where trouble likes to grow. For the paleontologists, it found its home in position. With Job’s friends, it found expression in theories becoming words.

I must understand where every ship is sailing, and why!

Is it even possible to have the other side of our need met, that need to have mastery over the uncomfortable unknown? Well, to learn about that we will have to finish Job’s story and go back out on the pontoon boat.

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Speak Clearly So I Can Understand, Pt 2

Over the last month I have been reading the story of Job. Some of you may be familiar with it, others not so much. Not so long ago, I didn’t have a clue what it was. Until college, I thought that the name of the book was “job”, as in, ‘I am applying for a new job.’ But it isn’t. It’s ‘Jo’ with a ‘b’ slapped on the end of it. I only stumbled upon the book when I first tried to read through the entire Bible.

Before I talk much more about it, though, I have a confession. I am smitten with poetry. And Job is a book of the Bible that contains page after page of poetry. The rhythm of the words, the flow, the allegorical language – I want to read them out loud every time. Somehow putting voice to poetry lends it experience and context and emotion. When I first read Job, that is exactly how I felt; raw, human emotion.

All that said, I can understand why most people would look over this book of the Bible. Most are not accustomed to thirty-something chapters of seemingly redundant conversation expressed via Hebrew prose. If you fall into that category (or simply have never read it), here is a short synopsis. Please don’t get upset by the lack of iambic pentameter.

So one day in heaven, the devil (Satan, Lucifer, that red dude) comes with a bunch of angels to the court of God. I picture it like a medieval movie – a majestic and smoky chamber, huge and filled with all sorts of mysterious people and objects. Perhaps similar to a Gothic cathedral. God is the king, so he is obviously front and center. At this moment he is talking to various members of his own court -friends.

In swaggers the devil – a brooding and handsome knight clad in layers of the finest silk, with a mischievous smile across his face and powerful charm to match it. The King notices his presence immediately, as does the rest of the court. He ceases his own conversation and engages the knight from across the room.

“What have you been up to,” asks the King as the knight proudly approaches. The authority behind the King’s words gently state, “what are you doing here?”

The devil smirks (since he knows he is getting the audience he wants), “oh, I have been here and there, roaming the earth.” His answer is coy and belies the destructive intent of this visit.

Yet the King sees through the deception and smiles as well. He knows that this knight has been looking for the weakest town to pillage, the most ignorant man to steal from, and the most honest man to betray. And his success at doing such things has lead him to conceit, so much so that he dares to enter the throne room of the most just King. But God, the King, knows how to knock the devil from his self-exaltation.

“Have you considered my servant Job?” God said. “There is no one like him in all the land. He is faithful to me.”

The knight smiles a most wicked grin; Job had already caught his notice. From afar the knight watched Job doing good – serving the poor, living honestly, even offering sacrifices and praying for his children. And he knew that however faithful Job seemed to be to the King, Job was also rich beyond compare. Who better to lose it all?

Quickly turning on the words of God, the knight crept even closer to the throne. “Of course Job is faithful to you,” he stated, turning to lecture the other members of the court. “You have given him all that a man could ask for; he is rich in every way at your hand. But take all of his wealth away, and he would turn from you.”

The King contemplated this in his heart. “Job is loyal and kind, generous and righteous,” he thought, “and most of all, a close friend.” Certain that he knew Job far better than the devil could imagine, the King realized how he would respond.

“You may take away all that Job has, but do not touch him.”

So the knight fled the court immediately, flooded with thoughts of greed and malice, lust and conceit. With a group of his men, he marauded Job, stealing all of the wealth he had and killing all of his children. Word of the horror reached Job, one servant at a time, while he was at his home. In anguish Job tore his fine robes and mourning loudly. Yet he did not turn from the King. In fact, he made an outrageous statement –

“The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

The evil knight was appalled when he heard this – how could Job be absolutely set on his loyalty to the King? Then he had a realization. If wealth was not where Job’s heart lay, it must be in another thing. He knew what Job’s weakness must be – so he fled back to the King’s court and made another appearance.

Seeing him from afar, the King sensed the devil’s anger. “Coming back from lurking the countryside again? Have you considered my faithful servant Job?”

Fuming, the knight charged up to the throne, his accusing finger leading the way. “You knew this would happen! But I know far better! Take away from Job his health and he will certainly curse you! What else has he to live for?”

The King knew the great cost this would have for Job, and He loved Job very much. But the King also knew that nothing would sway Job from his faithfulness, so he granted the devil his request.

Within hours Job is covered in boils that fill with worms, and he is thrown out of his own household because of the disease. Outside of his city, surrounded by trash, he has almost nothing left. Then his wife comes to tell him, “curse the king and die.” And Job is left to mourn.

The next thirty chapters are the words that Job shared with his friends while sitting in the trash heap, and they are not pretty. Job’s friends sit quietly for a week, and then they start to hurtle accusations at Job. In their eyes, only a really, really bad person would deserve this much punishment. Therefore Job must be hiding his evil behavior. Job tries to defend himself and ends up overwhelmed and appealing to God to speak on his behalf. Job also wishes that he wasn’t born. If only God would explain why all of this suffering has occurred.

And that leads me right back to where I began. Job is asking God questions because he doesn’t understand what is going on. What has happened is painfully outside of his life experience, and he is lonely, desperate, and perhaps even a little afraid. Job knows he deserves none of these tragedies. Is it too much to ask for some help from the King to clear it all up?

(part 3 coming next week, if not sooner)

Speak Clearly So I Can Understand, Pt 1

When I was growing up, my sister, mother, and I all had a problem communicating with one person – my Dad. Although it wasn’t so much an issue communicating to him, it was more trying to get a response. It seemed that though, try as we might, there were times when nothing was getting through. A little bizarre, right? How can you be talking directly to someone and not get a response? Unfortunately for us, it is just the way that my Dad is wired.

Over time this has played out in very different and often frustrating scenarios. But when I think about them, I laugh. I love my Dad despite his quirks.

The majority of memories have to do with traveling. My family liked to travel within the United States, so, by the time I was twelve, I had seen much of the West, and even made it to Florida and Hawaii. My Dad’s silence always equated adventure, and many, many opportunities to not have questions answered.

One particular spring we traveled to Florida. We did the typical family things to do in Florida; Disney World, a cruise from Miami to the Bahamas, and eventually the Florida Keys. My parents both love to snorkel, and have made many trips to Hawaii to prove it. While in the keys, my Dad decided that it was a perfect opportunity to take the entire family out for snorkeling. I don’t remember paying much attention to that detail of our trip (Disney World trumped all other thoughts) until we arrived and I was reminded of what we were doing.

We turned into the Coral Reef State park for a trip out to see the beautiful fish and coral. As an inquisitive youngster, I was excited to see fantastical things in the water, like clown fish. To match that curiosity, I was equally fearful of jumping into any water that contained a threatening sea monster. And by that I mean sharks, squid, jellyfish, and any other slimy, ugly, violent, or poisonous thing that would want to touch me.

After we parked at a little hut with a dock, I drifted down to the water’s edge as my parent’s negotiated renting a boat. Peering into the clear water, I noticed many small brown plants growing all over its sandy bottom. It was an exciting enough discovery that I called my sister over. As she came to the water’s edge, a leaf from the tree cover above fell onto the water’s surface. And I freaked out.

What I thought were little plants were not plants at all. As the leaf hit the water, three or four small jellyfish popped up from the bottom, fluttering in the water before they fell back to their places. I did not like jellyfish. And this place had a shore covered in them. I quickly found my parents.

Unfortunately my protests were ignored. The deal was done and we were going out in a pontoon boat. This little pontoon boat felt like an aluminum cage on floaties, hardly enough to protect us from the dangers of the harbor. Rest assured that the beach jellyfish were not going to be in the water once we got away from dock.

Somehow I didn’t believe it, so, like any ten year old, I started asking my Dad questions.

“Where are we going?”

The first few attempts merited the silent treatment, but as we cruised by green banks of mangroves with no coral reef in sight, my Mom chimed in too. Where were we going? Apparently the Florida keys were nothing like Hawaii.

“We are going to go snorkeling,” my Dad finally replied.

Of course we were going snorkeling, but where? We kept going down the inlet for what seemed like a half hour, before we started to see it opening up and the open sea beyond. But we were in a pontoon boat. Floaties were hardly good enough for me in a swimming pool at four; I had no confidence in the ship we set sail in.

My Mom was getting nervous and therefore began to overreact.

“Watch out for that marker. Look out for that buoy. Is it too shallow? Where are we going?” She tended to ask more questions when she was nervous, and coupled them with scowls when she didn’t get a reply. My Dad was calm and attentive as ever, putting forth his best effort to control the boat. While steering, he double checked his maps and charts, which made it appear that he knew where he was going, and frustrated us all the more. Although, I am not sure what answer would have satisfied us.

As we left the muddy swamps of the inlet, the waves started rolling in. At first they were not very large – but they started to grow. And by grow, I mean not more than the height of a small child. Like me. When you are in a small, flat-bottomed pontoon boat being driven by a man who is not currently answering questions, you start to get nervous. My sister and I began to complain.

“We want to go back,” we pleaded. “These waves are going to knock us over. They’re crashing into the boat!”

My Dad chuckled. “Those waves aren’t more than two or three feet. We are fine.”

“Where are we going? I thought you wanted to snorkel?” I asked.

“I do,”  he replied.

The farther that we moved away from the coast, the larger the waves became. They began to splash so far over the bow that my sister and I were soaked. Then we loudly protested. And my parents laughed.

And so we continued on the open sea towards a cluster of boats off in the cloudy distance; large yachts and motor boats, all assumedly anchored at the same location. That must be the reef! In my mind, though, there was no such thing. My Dad was taking us on a mad dash to middle of the ocean, where either we would capsize and get eaten by sharks, or he would give us over to pirates.

Alright, none of that was real. But both my sister and I were crying, and we didn’t get any answers.

Eventually we passed the cluster of boats and my Dad, while scouring the map, seemed to be lost. My Mom was nervous, and my sister and I didn’t need to find a shipwreck to act like one. Even though my Dad was still convinced that great snorkeling lay ahead, the open sea did not hold many opportunities. At that moment, though, we started to notice some bright orange flags scattered about the rolling water’s surface.

My Dad, triumphant, carefully gathered the anchor as the ship bobbed, and dropped it off the front of the boat. The line fell farther than he expected, but he was set on going.

“Anyone coming with me?” He quickly removed his shirt and shoes, and put on the face mask and snorkel. By that time the open sea was knocking us around like bowling pins. Was my Dad leaving us? Was he kidding?

Before we could say much more, he was in the water. I remember being very afraid. I didn’t really know where I was, the water looked ominous and dark, and it all felt, well, out of control.

Then my Dad dove under water.

It seemed too long to be a dive, and again my sister and I got upset. My Mom started fuming.

But he came back up and soon was back in the boat, soaking wet.

“Did you see anything,” we all asked.

There was a short pause as he dried himself off and restarted the boat.

“Kind of rough,” he responded, “and the reef was at least twenty feet down there.”

So we turned back around and went back in.

That little adventure made us all skeptical of riding with my Dad in a boat. His actions didn’t seem to add up for us nautical novices, and his lack of reply made us nervous. Had the boating adventure brought us to new realms of experience, perhaps we would have trusted him in the future. Looking back at it from today, there never really was any danger. My Dad had control over that boat, and the many others he took us out in while I was growing up. Was the flaw his lack of communication or our lack of trust in him? What are you supposed to do when you don’t get answers to your questions?