Sunday afternoon, my wife and I went to a memorial for a friend’s grandmother. It was the first memorial service that either of us had been to in years; they are far less common when you are in your late twenties and early thirties. I always get contemplative around the time of a funeral, like I have reached the end of a long trail and need to look back over where I’ve come from. Albeit a rare experience, and often a difficult one, we gladly went to show support for our friend.
In the sunny upstairs meeting room of the retirement home, lined with gold damask wallpaper and littered with a life’s worth of pictures, we met our friend. She was smiling and friendly, though the loss showed in the lines on her face as if years of experience had suddenly come into her life. We gathered with a potpourri of people; most, it seemed, did not know her grandmother well. It was somewhat expected, I guess, being that our friend’s family is scattered across the country. Her friends from the retirement home, for the most part, also did not show up – they were not eager to face their own mortality in the death of a friend. Despite the small group, there was a poetry about the service, a quiet beauty and hidden strength, and, somehow, a hope-filled security.
I have heard my Dad say on a number of occasions, “live in such a way that many people will come and celebrate your life at your funeral.” If the size of the crowd at this memorial were an indication of this grandmother’s life, it would seem like she affected few people in her many years. But I intrinsically knew that wasn’t true. Her life of humble servitude, living alongside a pastor and church leader, touched so many. Yet she didn’t leave behind fame and popularity. If, at the end of my life, all I have to show for it is that people liked me, I am not certain I would be satisfied. From afar the idea seems great – I mean, who doesn’t want to be liked – but there is a hollow ring to it. Where is the concept of legacy or intentionality, of positive effect on the world, of a greater purpose beyond changing the way other people perceive you?
I was reminded by the gentle and loving words shared, however few, that there is much more to the Christian life than is popularly sold. The best thing that this woman had to show for her life of faith was a room of people at peace, unashamed to cry, but not living in the hopeful somedays and mystical visions of a greater beyond. I have been to many funerals where nice things are said and we are comforted with pastoral images of clouds and angels. Despite the beautiful language, no one really knows for sure what happened. Instead, they imagine and hope for an answer to their despair. Suddenly a person who had no interest in God is going to be in heaven, and they are waiting for the rest of us in the place beyond imagination called someday. But this memorial was different. This room of people did not talk about the somedays, the places beyond our understanding. They simply said that she is with God, and that that place is where she wanted to be.
So what was it that assured all of us, from her closest relatives to those that hardly even met her? I don’t think it was the charisma of the pastor, or the pleasant warmness of the room, or even the stories. She, like all of us, could rest in security and peace. Nothing more could be said. We were experiencing the presence of God.
I can hear a few of you. You just said, “what?”
All of this time I have been talking about the life story of Job, tip-toeing around the destination, hoping to warm you all to the answer at the end of suffering: God. The book of Job does not allow for any warm-and-fuzzy formulas or any pat answers. There are not clouds and halos. For months, Job was left destitute. His wealth is gone, his children are dead, his wife despises him, and his friends turn on him. He sits in a dump, covered in sores, left to make a defense for his great suffering.
That is why I started my story out on the pontoon boat, waiting for resolution, waiting for my Dad to give an answer, an explanation, something – I relate with Job. One lesson that I have had to repeatedly learn in my life is to wait, expecting an answer that may never come. Out on that little pontoon boat in the midst of a big and scary ocean, I let my fear get the best of me. I approached the situation colored by the little life experience I had – limited and debilitated by a lack of information to work with. And in the thirty minutes it took us to roll out to sea, I lost track of the most important fact of all; my Dad was controlling the boat. Would he ever intentionally hurt me or put me in grave danger just for his own pleasure? Doesn’t he love me? Isn’t that in his very nature?
I wonder – was Job in the same situation I was on that pontoon boat? After many rounds of discussion with his friends, his soul is nearly worn away to nothing. He sees no point in being alive – all that is his existence bleeds torment, and he is the reproach of all living people. Desperate to be free of scrutiny, Job pleads for some answer, some reason, some security that shows his life was meant for more than his current situation. I think he is afraid – not for his own reputation, or for the possibility of death, but afraid that no one was going to understand. If God did not speak up then Job would be condemned by theology, by the worldview of those closest to him. There was no security for him; the world and everything in it was controlled by the dictates of man, the cruelty of nature, the majority understanding at the moment. The greatness of God would be hidden by injustice and slander. Job doesn’t plead; he demands that God answer, not for healing or restoration, but that God would bear witness to his innocence and admit He allowed this suffering for apparently no reason.
I suppose you could say that Job became proud at that moment, in the end, when he stood up to his friends. I give him credit for at least keeping his integrity and human dignity. And He never made a negative statement about God, whether or not He allowed suffering. In the end, Job had to endure one more round of questioning before God appeared. But when He did, everything changed.
There was a moment while talking to my wife this weekend that I had a mini-freak out. I noticed inflation in the form of higher prices at the grocery store. That was to be expected since gas prices had risen recently. But I was afraid. There was a theory tossed around by several political figures and hopefuls during the last year, people I didn’t like and didn’t want to believe- and I hoped that what they were saying never came true. They pronounced doom at the hands of inflation, the mechanism they believed our current government was relying on to lower the national debt. It sounded absurd when I first heard it. And yet I felt like here we were, on the cusp of their fear-mongering becoming a reality, and it started getting to me.
If life gets more expensive, how am I going to afford to live? If inflation starts to limit people’s spending, then does that mean no one will need new buildings? And if there aren’t any new building projects, I am at risk for losing my job. If I don’t have a job, then I can’t pay my mortgage, I can’t take care of my wife, and I become, well, a failure. How could I raise kids? Would my wife and I stay together or would the pain of failure break us apart? If I lose it all, what do I fall back on? The questions began to spiral out of control as I raised my voice.
My wife, the voice of reason said, “we don’t know what is going to happen. We will deal with whatever happens when it happens.” And I apologized for my irrational fear, for my expectation of future doom in the present. Whether or not it was a stupid prediction, it highlighted how I would react to losing everything, or at least everything I perceived to be anything. I became that little kid on the pontoon boat, overwhelmed and under-informed. What is the remedy for that? How could I receive a verbal answer that would satisfy my overwhelming fear, pain, and ignorance all at once?
Let’s go back to Job, sitting in a trash heap, at the lowest place he could ever be. Then a storm starts to gather around him. In fact, in many translations, it is a whirlwind or tornado. By his recent, seemingly suicidal, monologue, I am pretty sure he was hoping this great storm would just put him out of his misery. Perhaps God heard that request, because he was about to answer it.
God speaks out of this storm, and it is clearly an awesome display of power. He says to Job,
“Who is this who seeks my counsel with words without knowledge? Now brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you will answer me!”
God proceeds to ask Job question after question, rhetorically pounding into Job’s mind how relatively little he knows. He asks him about the foundations of the world, the great systems of the oceans and the skies, the stars and the universe, and the created beings. God wants Job to explain how all the world works together, the mechanisms that control it, and the rules it runs by. For our contemporary worldview’s great knowledge of science, I think we could hardly even answer God’s questions – they are far beyond the scope of human understanding. They illustrate that we human beings know and understand so little, and that God, God is so much greater.
Some might say that God never answers Job’s question; He neither vindicates him or gives a reason for suffering. He doesn’t explain out the complexities that led to Job’s suffering, nor does God point a finger at the devil. Nope, none of that. But God reveals himself, His very nature, and the vast expanse of how far above humanity He is. And I realized; that is the answer to it all.
At the end of a church service I went to recently, things got messy in the best kind of way. The woman leading worship stopped the whole production, sent the other musicians off of the stage, and demanded that the puppet-masters of the sound booth leave in order to join the congregation. She said that she was convicted; why do we all approach God with the statement: “I worship God when…”? The dot-dot-dot tormented her, it convicted her and how she chose to lead. So she told us all to do whatever, that there wasn’t going to be a screen or words. The songs were going to be up in the air, and the style was not going to be the same. So we dove into it. And the Holy Spirit started to talk to me.
God told me to lay down. I protested that the chairs at our church were not made to lay down on. He told me to get on the ground. I hesitated, then obeyed. ‘Whatever,’ I thought, ‘if this is what the Holy Spirit wants, then I can’t argue.’ But I sat on the ground for a while (because I am stubborn, and it looked weird). Then I stopped my petty argument, and lay flat, my eyes to the ceiling. And God spoke to me.
He reminded me of a time back in college, when I used to pray for a worship band. They would be practicing, and I would lay back on a pew, and pray, and look into the ceiling. I would ponder the greatness of God. I would see through that ceiling to the universe beyond, the planets and stars, the dust and emptiness. I would contemplate our planet, and all the people, and the great love of God. One time I even asked God to show what he meant by the greatness of his love. And He did. And I cried.
There I was on a gym floor, looking at the ceiling, and God was telling me to remember how great He is, like a vision out of a storm. He told me that I cannot fathom what He is going to do with me, and that there are far greater things ahead than I can ask for or imagine. And then something else came up again – security.
I predicted my future earlier that day, and I was afraid. My future was insecure, uneven, filled with loss. And God wanted my idea of security to come up against His character. If I lost everything, all sense of value that the world could bestow on me, would I really be lost? Would I really have nothing? What if I lost it all and was in the middle of a storm? My soul would find no rest in cute answers, a pat on the back, or a human explanation. The only answer would be the very God I had almost forgotten – and I would be on the ground, staring up in wonder, silenced and convicted that I ever doubted, ever feared, or ever spoke.