Monday, December 9, 2013

"Moonlight and Maggots" by Carl Sandburg

Moonlight and Maggots
    Carl Sandburg

The moonlight filters on the prairie.
The land takes back an old companion.
The young corn seems pleased with a visit.
In Illinois, in Iowa, this moontime is on.
A bongo looks out and talks about the look of the moon
As if always a bongo must talk somewhat so in moontime -
The moon is a milk-white love promise,
A present for the young corn to remember.
A caress for silk-brown tassels to come.
Spring moon to autumn moon measures one harvest.
All almanacs are merely so many moon numbers.
A house dizzy with decimal points and trick figures
And a belfry at the top of the world for sleep songs
And a home for lonesome goats to go to -
Iike now, like always, the bongo takes up a moon theme -
There is no end to the ancient kit-kats inhabiting the moon:
Jack and the beanstalk and Jacob’s ladder helped them up,
Cats and sheep, the albatross, the phoenix and the dodo-bird,
They are all living on the moon for the sake of the bongo -
Castles on the moon, mansions, shacks and shanties, ramshackle
Huts of tarpaper and tincans, grand real estate properties
Where magnificent rats eat tunnels in colossal cheeses,
Where the rainbow chasers take the seven prisms apart
And put them together again and are paid in moon money -
The flying dutchman, paul bunyan, saint paul, john bunyan,
The little jackass who coughs gold pieces when you say bricklebrit -
They are all there on the moon and the rent not paid
And the roof leaking and the taxes delinquent -
Like now, like always, the bongo jabbers of the moon,
Of cowsheds, railroad tracks, corn rows and cornfield corners
Finding the filter of the moon an old friend - 
Look at it - cries the bongo - have a look! have a look!

Well, what of it? comes the poohpooh -
Always the bongo isa little loony - comes the poohpooh,
The bongo is a poor fish and a long ways from home.
Be like me; be an egg, a hardboiled egg, a pachyderm
Practical as a buzzsaw and a hippopotamus put together.
Get the facts and no monkeybusiness what I mean.
The moon is a dead cinder, a ball of death, a globe of doom.
Long ago it died of lost motion, maggots masticated the surface of it
And the maggots languished, turned ice, froze on and took a free ride.
Now the sun shines on the maggots and the maggots make the moonlight.
The moon is a cadaver and a dusty mummy and a damned rotten investment.
The moon is a liability loaded up with frozen assets and worthless paper.
Only the lamb, the sucker, the come-on, the little lost boy, has time for the moon.

Well - says the bongo - you got a good argument.
I am a little lost boy and a long ways from home.
I am a sap, a pathetic fish, a nitwit and a lot more and worse you couldn’t think of.
Nevertheless and notwithstanding and letting all you say be granted and acknowledged
The moon is a silver silhouette and a singing stalactite.
The moon is a bringer of fool’s gold and fine phantoms.
On the heaving restless sea or the fixed and fastened land
The moon is a friend for the lonesome to talk with.
The moon is at once easy and costly, cheap and priceless.
The price of the moon runs beyond all adding machine numbers
Summer moonmusic drops down adagio sostenuto whathaveyou.
Winter moonmusic practices the mind of man for a long trip.
The price of the moon is an orange and a few kind words.
Nobody on the moon says, I been thrown out of better places than this.
No one on the moon has ever died of arithmetic and hard words.
No one on the moon would skin a louse to sell the hide.
The moon is a pocket luckpiece for circus riders, for acrobats on the flying rings, for wild animal tamers.
I can look up at the moon and take it or leave.
The moon coaxes me: Be at home wherever you are.
I can let the moon laugh me to sleep for nothing.
I can put a piece of the moon in my pocket for tomorrow.
I can holler my name at the moon and the moon hollers back my name.
When I get confidential with the moon and tell secrets
The moon is a sphinx and a repository under oath.

Yes Mister poohpooh
I am a poor nut, just another of God’s mistakes.
You are the tough bimbo, hard as nails, yeah.
You know enough to come in when it rains.
You know the way to the post office and I have to ask.
They fool you the first time but never the second.
Thrown into the river you always come up with a fish.
You are a diller a dollar, I am a ten o’clock scholar.
You know the portent of the axiom: Them as has gits.
You devised that abracadabra: Get all you can keep all you get.

     We shall always be interfering with each other, forever be arguing -
you for the maggots, me for the moon.
Over our bones, cleaned by the final maggots as we lie recumbent, perfectly forgetful, beautifully ignorant -
There will settle over our grave illustrious tombs
On nights when the air is clear as a bell
And the dust and fog are shovelled off on the wind -
There will sink over our empty epitaphs
a shiver of moonshafts
a line of moonslants.

Monday, December 2, 2013

For Thine is the Kingdom ...

What words may or may not mean makes all the difference.

But most words are defenseless against the imposition of meaning. They don't shout to us: "This is what I mean."

So we mostly do with them as we please … often by lifting them out of their context, and then telling them to behave, and like a dog, heel, or sit or roll over, at our pleasure.

Yet, some reflection and study can open the joy of a word beyond what we might think it means or even want for it.

So, I've been thinking about the liturgical end of the LORD's Prayer: "for Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever."

More than likely crafted as a liturgical response early on, it's been incorporated into the prayer, and now for most Christians, it's simply how the prayer ends.

And for me, it ends well.

Yet careful thought, I believe, needs to be given to what these words mean.

So let me have a go at it.

"Kingdom" is a good word when read within the context of God's Kingdom so ably expressed by Isaiah's "Peaceable Kingdom" imagery in Isaiah 11. Within the stories of Israel, kingdom often meant what it might well mean for us, and how it's often been used throughout Christian History - kingdom by the sword, with mighty kings going out to battle with storming chariots and charging horses.

But not so for Isaiah, neither for Jesus nor Paul.

The Kingdom of God is one of justice and peace, wherein all have a chance at life, and no one is hungry or afraid. That's the kingdom for which we pray - thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Power demands some thought, as well. Again, not the power of the sword that brings death, but the power of God's creative energies that create life, sustaining and enlarging it … the creativity of creation, the bringing forth of light and life for the sake of a world wherein all creatures have their place, and the human creature, endowed with great capacity, is called to care for the vulnerable creatures and their habitat - for it's a matter of vulnerability. The human being, created in God's image, has the capacity to raise up or to bring down life and death. When it comes to the vulnerable, to do as God does - and that's to raise up, to protect and to save.

The last word, glory - a big word that encompasses fulfillment of purpose … a human being, fulfilling God's intended purpose in compassion and wisdom, brings glory to God, and like a glorious sunset, or a glorious piece of pumpkin pie, when something is just right, good and harmonious, it's glory.

The last word I consider is Thine - these words belong to God; they are not ours to define as we please. Rather, these words belong to God. Even the word God can mean just about anything we want it to mean; history makes that ever so clear. Yet within all of the stories and all of the history, there's been a consistent image of peace, and a constant call to live these words, not with the power of kings and armies, but in the power of faith, hope and love - that which neither takes nor demands, but gives and restores.

Measured by Jesus, who crafts the Prayer when the disciples ask how they should pray, the church rightly crafted the response to his words - a fitting end to the LORD's Prayer:

For Thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

"The Barricade" by Karen Gritter

By a good friend and theologian/poet … Karen Gritter

The Barricade
 "I stand at the door and knock"

The door is shut
The bar in place       
Rusted the lock
Lost the key
Black the blood
Upon  the ground
And on the door
Where your slave was bound  
And tortured long
Until she died
Her spirit fled
And does not haunt
The place beyond
Where hope awaits
But in the dark
A lonesome lark
With broken wing
Who cannot sing
A casualty of hate
Which did never abate
They speak of love
But it seems too late

Friday, November 22, 2013

This Day, 1963.

I was studying in the library (Calvin College, Grand Rapids), when a student came to the table and said, "The President has been shot!" I replied, "Okay, what's the punch line?" thinking it was some kind of macabre  joke. He made it clear - no joke. I quickly left the library for the Commons and a TV. A friend recalls me stepping into a classroom and saying, "The President's been shot!" (I don't recall that moment), but I remember lots of tears that day in the Commons. And then at home in the following days - no one doing anything. As if the nation was paralyzed. My parents were Republicans; I don't recall their reaction, if any, but we had TV on the entire time. Nor do I recall any specific emotion on my part, but I recall being distressed. Did I weep? I don't know. But I weep today. His death, a serious loss to our political health and vision.

Monday, October 28, 2013

I've Never Been Self-Sufficient

I've never been self-sufficient.

When I was in my mothers womb, I wasn't.

When I was born, fed and nurtured, I wasn't.

As I grew and grew up and went to school, I wasn't.

Good teachers helped me along the way, recognized my potential,
and did kindly things, challenging things, to shape my character.

In grade school, high school, college and seminary.

Great women and men, who, for whatever reason, came to my
side to help me along the way.

In all of this, I've never been self-sufficient.

The love of my life, my wife, has stood by me.
Cried and laughed with me.
Walked with me, run with me.

I've never been self-sufficient.

In ministry, every paycheck came with the hope, faith and love
of so many Presbyterians who shared a vision of Christ and
gave enough to support me and my family, as well as the church
and its mission.

Now in retirement, I enjoy Social Security and my pension: both
of which are mutual along with many others who've made the
journey of life and reached these years.

Have I ever been self-sufficient? Never.
And never will be either.

In the end, it's likely that some kindly nurses and doctors
will see to my needs.

Family and friends will tell me of their love.
And help me along the way to the end.

And when I die, others will handle my body
and dispose of my material remains.

I will live on for awhile in memories.

My breath will return to the sky.
My body to the earth.

And the earth and sky will hold it all.
All that I've been.
And will hold it with love.

I've never been self-sufficient.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

How One Looks at Poverty

One can look at poverty in the United States and blame the poor as victims of their own failures, inadequacies or general lack of "get-up-and-go." 

It's handy to do this, because the observer is conveniently slipping off the hook of responsibility - the kind of human, humane, responsibility that sees the deep connections between the poverty of many and the systems of the few. And that's the rub. Even a marginally successful person, if telling the truth, will have to admit to many "lucky breaks" and "free lunches" all along the way, as the system tilted favorably toward them. 

To understand poverty, from the inside, is to see how profoundly the system fails millions of Americans; not only failing them, but fighting them. And if one is on the wrong side of the system, all the spunk in the world won't work. All the drive that human beings possess naturally to make something of life will fail, and in the end, the system we presently have condemns millions to poverty. 

Some blame the poor, wash their hands of it, and walk away with a peaceful soul, thanking God for their blessings and quietly patting themselves on the back for their "success." 

Others look at the system and see how irrational and hateful it is. How evil it is, and work to transform it - transform the system, yes; but transform the soul of the nation, and the soul of those who wash their hands and congratulate themselves for what they have. 

To be devoted to this transformative work brings great satisfaction, but also the disapproval of many. 

How people look at poverty is the great divide in human history.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Cunning Tricks and the Privatization of Our Schools

This morning, I turned, happenstance, to Mark 14.1-2:

It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened BreadThe chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill himfor they said, “Not during the festivalor there may be a riot among the people.” [NRSV]

The Common English Bible has a bit more bite to it:

It was two days before Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and legal experts through cunning tricks were searching for a way to arrest Jesus and kill him. But they agreed that it shouldn’t happen during the festival; otherwise, there would be an uproar among the people.

As I read through the passage, given what I heard last evening from Diane Ravitch about American Education and the full-tilt effort of "reformers" (read corporate interests) to take over education, I found myself considering "the rich and the powerful" of Jerusalem and how they hated Jesus, and did everything they could to undo him, because the message of Jesus was for The People and their children.

In similar fashion, the rich and the powerful of our day are doing everything they can to undo American Public Education - with a cunning strategy -  spinning endless hoaxes about "just how bad things are," and telling American "we can rescue our children if you will only turn them over to us and our corporations."  

The large audience last evening [October 2, 013] at CalState Northridge was huge and enthusiastic, and gave me hope for the future, that maybe, just maybe, there might be a coming revolution in America, when The People finally realize what "cunning tricks" have been used by the rich and the powerful (read chief priest and legal experts) to destroy American Education - to turn our children into nothing more than worker-bees to compete in international markets.

But worker-bees are not we need or want - we want American Citizens who can think critically and be an informed electorate, and serve wisely on school boards and town councils (the last thing the rich and the powerful want).

And, btw, good citizens will always be good workers, able to compete in the international markets. But good citizens will also be able to see cunning tricks for what they are, and with sound legislation and wise politicians, craft laws that serve all the people all the time, with fairness and dignity for all.

Let's not forget that the rich and the powerful of Jerusalem made headway in their cunning and succeeded in destroying Jesus, at least for three days. And to this very day, the rich and the powerful plot his death again and again, because they hate him and his populist message.

The rich and the powerful always behave in this manner - nothing new here. 

Because the message of faith, hope and love, is always a threat to them, and though, for a time, the message may be killed and buried beneath a heavy stone sealed by the powers-that-be and guarded by their armies, those stones are always rolled away, and the message of hope rises again from the dead, to bring liberty to the oppressed and sight to the blind [Luke 4].


Diane Ravitch's latest book: The Reign of Error

Click Here for her Blog.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Voting Rights Act - Where It Failed!

Lyndon Johnson addressed Congress after a group of civil rights workers were attacked in Selma. For Johnson, all of this had to end, and the South needed a new beginning, and what better beginning that to open wide the doors of voting rights - something so essentially American, so right and so very good for the whole of the nation.

He said, among other things:

 "I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy. The command of the Constitution is plain. There is no moral issue. It is wrong to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote ... it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome."

Later in the year, August 6, 1965, the Voting Rights Act became the law of the land.

It's evident that an enlargement of voting rights brought into the political process many who were previously denied the right.

And changes have been made.

But with the SCOTUS challenging the central tenet of the law, we've seen Southern States enacting all kinds of restrictive laws to shrink the voting roles once again.

What we see in all of this is a failure, a sad failure, of the South and its White Elites, to change their attitudes. For many of them, white supremacy is still the dream, the goal, the right of the White Race. The Civil War is still being fought, and the humiliation of loss and defeat stings the Southern Soul.

Granted, the Southern Soul is found in lots of places - like the Central Valley in CA and parts of PA - but if migration patterns are noted, what we find in other parts of the nation is often rooted in Southern Migrants who took with them their racial views and religious sentiments.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Beginning in West Virginia

Ever since my first pastorate (1970-71) in the coal fields of Southern West Virginia, I realized that Christianity and justice belong together, that Christianity has the wherewithal to deal with economic questions and the power to challenge the powers-that-be.

Yet, I also learned, that American Christianity, under the Reformation notion of "salvation for eternal life," has been used to quiet people's unrest in the present order by offering them a sop for some future joy.

For those who lived in the powerful regions of the nation, with large homes and shiny cars, enjoying fine choirs and eloquent preachers, this was a convenient kind of Christianity. They, too, would be going to heaven, but, in the meantime, they were at liberty to enjoy the fruits of their labors - that such fruit was plucked out of the mouths of babes and out of the hands of sweat-drenched workers was of no account to them. Perhaps this is what God ordained.

These experience and observations have been the energy of my theology and sociology throughout my ministry. A Christianity that has the power to do something and chooses not to, opting for some sort of "inner peace with eternal hope" is no Christianity at all. And it's no wonder that most of the Western World, where this kind of Christianity has had the greatest influence, is rejecting it. And it can't happen soon enough.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Exposing the Demon

Perhaps I'm unusual, as many have said, or just plain odd, or slightly out of kilter, or full of myself and taken with my own nonsense.

But I find myself profoundly disturbed by the old demon of racism. It still floats around in my life, in spite of my conversion many years ago while at Calvin College, when this little white-bread boy suddenly had the Spirit of God break into my disheveled world to reveal the heart of darkness plaguing me - a heart inherited from family and culture and a religion that did nothing about it. Blacks in America didn't exist for me, except as stranger and threat, and in the church, existed only as "natives" in missionary churches across the seas.

Racism is as America as apple pie and motherhood - it shapes our gut reactions in ways we can hardly discern.

A less-than-perceptive-soul suggested that I was feeling white guilt. No, just honesty about the way I was reared, and the journey away from it.

I thank God for two of my professors who opened windows of understanding for me, and throughout the years, so many good people who have opened up the deeps of faith for me.

Maybe I'm nuts ... could be ... but my heart breaks for this nation, and right now, given the sensible and faithful who strive for a better world, and the horrible reactions of the far-right, i don't know the outcome.

While I might hope and pray for something better, history doesn't offer a great deal of hope for nations drunk on the wine of Empire - Revelation 18 says it well. Yet there are miracles, and things happen. Britain ended the slave trade and American ended slavery and women got the vote. But it's the soul that counts, and in some places of this nation, the values of the Old South remain intact, firmly rooted in culture and religion. The Southern Strategy of the GOP is all about distraction and obstruction. If they can't their way, they'll at least see to it that no one else can get anything either.

The demon of racism is alive and well in our culture ... and why wouldn't it be? It's been our traveling companion since the first white folk step ashore and claimed this land as their own. Denial only gives it strength and adds to the delusion.

Repentance and prayer weaken it ... honest reflection and historical knowledge expose it.

We can confront the monster; it'll never fully go away, but we can seriously weaken it, with resolve and a personal promise to confront it within our own lives.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Other Guy's Racism

Millions of White Americas continue to deny the reality of their own racism, quickly turning to the fact that "blacks are racist, too." No one disputes that. Racism is inherent in human DNA - original tribal loyalties, and all that.

The question here is bigger and more serious - that of power. Where's the power? And it's always been with the White Establishment. It's not directly about racism, although it is, but about the power, and who has it, and who doesn't.

African-Americans have lived for centuries with limited social power - the city of Detroit, how it redlined neighborhoods, made it impossible for Blacks to secure loans; the post office routinely aided whites to secure jobs and made it virtually impossible for Blacks; and then rammed freeways through Black Neighborhoods. Is there a Black Family anywhere in the South who doesn't have a lynching in their family story?

When Whites get preachy about "the other guy's racism," and that "the media isn't fair," then I know, absolutely, that I'm reading a racist.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Book of Job, Session Four

Bible Study @ Calvary Presbyterian Church, Hawthorne, CA
Winter Semester … The Sorrow and Hope of Job

Tuesday Jan 15
Saturday Jan 19
Job 1-7
Jan 22
Jan 26
Job 8-14
Jan 29
Feb 2
Job 15-21
Feb 5
Feb 9
Job 22-28
Feb 12
Feb 16
Job 29-35
Feb 19
Feb 23
Job 36-42

There are some serious textual issues in this section, the third cycle. Though I am cautious about “reconstructing” the text, I think we’re on safe ground with Robert Gordis
, an acclaimed rabbi, who suggests the following reconstruction. Rabbi Gordis is a conservative commentator who doesn’t jump to such conclusions easily:

“Thus, only the opening speeches of Elliphaz (chap. 22) and of Job (chaps. 23-24) are in order. Moreover, the closing section of Job’s reply (chap. 24) raises grave difficulties with regard to its interpretation and relevance.
Fortunately, much of the third cycle can be restored, especially when the stylistic traits of the book are taken into account. Chapter 25 is much too short for Bildad. Most of chapter 26, on the other hand, which is assigned to Job in our received text, is inappropriate to his position but highly congenial to Bildad’s. Similarly, the latter part of chapter 27,which is also attributed to Job, stands in direct antithesis to all he has maintained. It is, however, thoroughly appropriate for Zophar, to whom no speech at all is assigned in our present text.
Chapter 28 is a ‘Hymn to Wisdom,’ differing radically in its lyrical form from the dialogic structure of the debate. It reflects in brief compass the basic outlook of the poet, which is elaborated upon in the God speeches that constitute the climax of the book. Chapter 28 is therefore best regarded as an independent poem by the author of Job or by a member of his school.
By allocating the appropriate portions of chapters 26 and 27 to Bildad and Zophar, respectively, and by recognizing the independent character of the ‘Hymn to Wisdom’ (chap. 28), we gain an additional advantage. We are able to reduce the dimensions of Job’s reply, which is much too long, occupying six chapters in the received text (chaps. 26-31).
While the evidence of injury sustained by the text is clear, all proposed restorations of which there have been many, are necessarily tentative and uncertain. The reconstruction proposed here requires a minimal change of order in the Masoretic

The conflict worsens. Eliphaz is all the more convinced that Job is an evildoer, and to make his case, Eliphaz lays out a litany of Job’s misdeeds, and there is no escape from God on any of this. Period!

Up to this point, his friends have conceded to Job’s claim to be a good man. Good, but faulted; good, but sinful. Now, Job is painted as the worst man who ever lived! The rhetoric is amped up to its final level - Job is utterly wicked, totally evil. There is no good in him at all.

5      Is not your wickedness great?
      There is no end to your iniquities.
6      For you have exacted pledges from your family for no reason,
      and stripped the naked of their clothing.
7      You have given no water to the weary to drink,
      and you have withheld bread from the hungry.
8      The powerful possess the land,
      and the favored live in it.
9      You have sent widows away empty-handed,
      and the arms of the orphans you have crushed. 
10      Therefore snares are around you,
      and sudden terror overwhelms you,
11      or darkness so that you cannot see;
      a flood of water covers you.

But hope remains for Eliphaz. All Job needs to do is repent sincerely and he will be restored, and more than that, Job will become a source of help and inspiration to others.

The friends have invoked tradition and the widely held consensus that God is great, that God knows us better than we know ourselves, and that He punishes only when He has a reason to punish. [Kushner, The Book of Job (Kindle Edition), p.88]

21      “Agree with God, and be at peace;
      in this way good will come to you.
22      Receive instruction from his mouth,
      and lay up his words in your heart.
23      If you return to the Almighty, you will be restored,
      if you remove unrighteousness from your tents,
24      if you treat gold like dust,
      and gold of Ophir like the stones of the torrent-bed,
25      and if the Almighty is your gold
      and your precious silver,
26      then you will delight yourself in the Almighty,
      and lift up your face to God.
27      You will pray to him, and he will hear you,
      and you will pay your vows.
28      You will decide on a matter, and it will be established for you,
      and light will shine on your ways.
29      When others are humiliated, you say it is pride;
      for he saves the humble.
30      He will deliver even those who are guilty;
      they will escape because of the cleanness of your hands.” 

Sounds good … but Job will have none of it. Job is not going to deny his own conscience in order to gain what Eliphaz promises - peace and healing with God. A bad deal is no deal at all. Sort of a like a forced police confession!

So Job ignores the specific charges leveled against him by Eliphaz and reiterates his claim - that if he could have a hearing with God, God would recognize the legitimacy of Job’s complaints.

Let me suggest that at the core of Jewish God-talk is the unshakable conviction that God’s most dominant attribute is His commitment to justice rather than power.

Other nations worshipped a powerful god, the most powerful they could find. Israel served a God who was both powerful and just, and they would spend the next 2,500 years trying to reconcile those two attributes with each other and with the collective suffering of the Jewish people and the anguish of so many individual Jews.

[the above two quotes are from Harold Kushner, The Book of Job, Kindle edition, pp. 82-83]

By the way, Job’s style reveals an excellent insight into how to deal with unjust accusations hurled at us … Job is not sidetracked by them, but remains focused on his own position, restating it consistently. In other words, don’t bother trying to answer the accuser - no answer will satisfy anyway. Just stick with your story and restate it. 

Job introduces a new element: The Absent God. Job has looked for God, but hasn’t been able to find God.

  “If I go forward, he is not there;
      or backward, I cannot perceive him;
9      on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
      I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.
10      But he knows the way that I take;
      when he has tested me, I shall come out like gold.
11      My foot has held fast to his steps;
      I have kept his way and have not turned aside.
12      I have not departed from the commandment of his lips;
      I have treasured in my bosom the words of his mouth.
13      But he stands alone and who can dissuade him?
      What he desires, that he does.
14      For he will complete what he appoints for me;
      and many such things are in his mind.
15      Therefore I am terrified at his presence;
      when I consider, I am in dread of him.
16      God has made my heart faint;
      the Almighty has terrified me;
17      If only I could vanish in darkness,
      and thick darkness would cover my face! 

Throughout the history of faith, “the absent god” has been the subject of much writing, such as St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) and his “Dark Night of the Soul,” written for young monks who enter the monastery with much joy and spiritual conviction, often relating profound experiences of the divine.

But in time, many of these young monks found their joy dissipating and their sense of the divine decreasing, creating a crisis for many, wondering if they’ve done something wrong and thus destroyed their spiritual life, and rightly calling it, “a dark night.”

John writes to them words of encouragement.

God is “absent” only because their initial spiritual experience was immature, and like a child suckling on its mother’s breast, was very much a matter of need, and God was kind enough to meet that need.

But now it’s time for something else; it’s time to grow up.

In God’s “absence,” some of God’s best work is being done. But like a sculptor who veils her work from the public eye, God must veil God’s work from our prying eyes, lest we rush in and muck it all up with our suggestions. 

Only when the work is done will the veil be removed, and will we be able to see the new work God has wrought in our life, without our help. Though, at the time, it seemed as if God were absent, God was doing some of God’s most important work.

Job experiences the absence of God!

Chapter 24

And now, in Chapter 24, Job goes into a full-bodied description of how sinners get away with it, time and again.

Job clearly wonders if there is any justice whatsoever in the world.

As I read through Chapter 24, it became an ever-more painful portrait of injustice … again and again, Job reiterates what is found throughout the Prophets - the powerful get away with horrendous crimes against the poor; the powerful enjoy their privilege while the poor struggle to make ends meet, often driven to the very brink of death by starvation and disease. 

As for the prophets, this is no accident, but the result of an unjust social system wherein, by the luck of the draw, if you will, certain people rise to the top of the food chain, and unless they’re profoundly conscious of just how lucky they are, they continue to feed off the poor, as Jesus notes, “devouring the houses of widows.”

Who are the poor here in Job?

Migrant farmers … perhaps they once were tenant farmers, or even owned their own land, but in the course of time, they’re now reduced to migrancy.

 5      Like wild asses in the desert
      they go out to their toil,
      scavenging in the wasteland
      food for their young.
6      They reap in a field not their own
      and they glean in the vineyard of the wicked.
7      They lie all night naked, without clothing,
      and have no covering in the cold.
8      They are wet with the rain of the mountains,
      and cling to the rock for want of shelter.

The crimes against the poor intensify in this chapter … it would seem that the author wants the reader to be painfully clear that the world is ruled by injustice, that the powerful get away with crimes, and there is no one to bring them to trial. 

Psalm 37
21      The wicked borrow, and do not pay back,
      but the righteous are generous and keep giving;

9      “There are those who snatch the orphan child from the breast,
      and take as a pledge the infant of the poor.
10      They go about naked, without clothing;
      though hungry, they carry the sheaves;
11      between their terraces they press out oil;
      they tread the wine presses, but suffer thirst.
12      From the city the dying groan,
      and the throat of the wounded cries for help;
      yet God pays no attention to their prayer.

In vs. 12, blunt and without any hint of compromise, it is said, God pays no attention! The author pulls no punches here in trying to capture how it must feel and how the world must look to the poor and the oppressed who have so little to show for a day’s labor and years of hard work.

Monday morning, I read a piece by Frederick Buechner, one of my all-time favorite writers and Presbyterian minister, who recounted his student years under some very famous theologians, one of whom was James Muilenburg, an Old Testament scholar at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. 

Buechner recounts what Muilenburg said about faith and confession:

“Every morning when you wake up, before you reaffirm your faith in the majesty of a loving God, before you say I believe for another day, read the Daily News with its record of the latest crimes and tragedies of mankind and then see if you can honestly say it again.” 

Buechner than adds:

“He … didn’t or couldn’t or wouldn’t resolve, intellectualize, evade, the tensions of his faith but lived those tensions out, torn almost in two by them at times. His faith was not a seamless garment but a ragged garment with the seams showing, the tears showing, a garment that he clutched about him like a man in a storm.” [from Listening to Your Life, February 4 reading].

If nothing else, we might be very careful in how we look at the poor. In our time, we heard a lot of talk about “takers and makers” - where the powerful condemn the poor for being poor, “takers,” and congratulate themselves for being so resourceful, being “makers.”

Job was one of those “makers,” and now he’s lost it all. Was Job ever proud and arrogant about his place in life? We don’t know that. Job himself make it clear that he wasn’t; that he was a kindly and generous man. 

At this point in chapter 24, we encounter a textual issue; it is suggested that vss. 18-24 are not Job’s words, but Job’s quotation of what his friends have said to him. 

In fact, Job contends that the wicked, the powerful (here and elsewhere in the Bible, the wicked are most of the powerful) are rewarded in this life, without any punishment coming to them for their crimes against the poor.

Hence, vss. 18-24: Job repeats what his friends suggest: the powerful/wicked will always pay a great price for their crimes against humanity. That’s what the friends contend; Job, on the other hand, says No!

Vs. 25, then, belongs to Job: he challenges his friends - Prove me wrong!”

Chapter 25 & 26.5-14 - Bildad

Bildad refuses to deal directly with Job’s challenge on injustice in the universe and rather exults the glory and power of God, and, once again makes clear, in his own mind at least, that no one can stand before God and claim innocence. Nothing and no one can stand against God. 

If Job has challenged his friends to refute his contentions about injustice, Bildad ends with a challenge to Job (vs.14): Who can understand God’s power?

Chapter 26.1-4 & 27.1-12 - Job

Job replies with biting sarcasm - Oh my, how you have helped!

Job is clear: he can expect no help from his friends. Therefore he stands alone, and stand he does. He will never concede to their claims that he’s in the wrong, that he’s guilty before God.

Job reiterates his faith in God’s justice and begs his friends to lay off.

Chapter 27.13-23 - Zophar

My trusted commentator attributes Chapter 27.13-23 to Zophar, who is not mentioned in the text; it would seem that the text is rather tangled at this point, having experienced some loss in the transmission.

I’m content with this “reconstruction” of the text, in spite of the fact that portions are simply missing and not likely to be recovered. Other commentators offer alternatives; Gordis’ is rather simple and gives clarity to what otherwise seems confused.

Zophar’s speech, then, adds nothing new here; he reiterates the conventional ideas of the day - the wicked who gather wealth will ultimately lose it and will be swept away.

Chapter 28

Again, let me quote from my trusted commentator:

“While the beautiful ‘Hymn to Wisdom’ is not an integral part of the book of Job, it is a highly welcome product of the poet’s pen. In view of the vast dislocations sustained in the third cycle of the dialogue, it is easy to understand how this poem found its way into the text here. In its present position after the conclusion of the third cycle, the ‘Hymn to Wisdom’ is a well described as a ‘musical interlude’ between the debate and Job’s final soliloquy.” [Gordis, p.278]

In the finest of the Wisdom tradition, chapter 28 reminds the reader that wisdom is not to be found in this world, but only in God. Though humankind may know a great deal about life and even have religion and morality, knowing something about good and evil, the final abode of wisdom is in the heart of God.

Though final wisdom is not to be ours, the author reminds us that we know enough to be in awe of God - that’s wisdom (see Proverbs 1.7) and to avoid evil - that’s understanding (Proverbs 1.10).

And, as is found in the Book of Proverbs, wisdom is cast as a female.

Once again, we have covered a lot of material, but Job and his friends have not found a way through their arguments. Job’s friends remain adamant about his sinfulness, even as Job remains firm about his integrity and faithfulness to God.

Chapter 28 is almost a preview of what is to come.

But for that, we’ll have to wait.

As always, to be continued!

From Wikipedia ...

The Masoretic Text is the authoritative Hebrew text of the Jewish Bible. While the Masoretic Text defines the books of the Jewish canon, it also defines the precise letter-text of these biblical books, with their vocalization and accentuation known as the Masorah. The MT is also widely used as the basis for translations of the Old Testament in Protestant Bibles, and in recent years (since 1943) also for some Catholic Bibles, although the Eastern Orthodox continue to use the Septuagint, as they hold it to be divinely inspired.[1] In modern times the Dead Sea Scrolls have shown the MT to be nearly identical to some texts of the Tanakh dating from 200 BCE but different from others.
The MT was primarily copied, edited and distributed by a group of Jews known as the Masoretes between the 7th and 10th centuries CE. Though the consonants differ little from the text generally accepted in the early 2nd century (and also differ little from some Qumran texts that are even older), it has numerous differences of both greater and lesser significance when compared to (extant 4th century) manuscripts of the Septuagint, a Greek translation (made in the 3rd to 2nd centuries BCE) of the Hebrew Scriptures that was in popular use in Egypt and Israel (and that is often quoted in theNew Testament, especially by the Apostle Paul).[2]
The Hebrew word mesorah (מסורה, alt. מסורת) refers to the transmission of a tradition. In a very broad sense it can refer to the entire chain of Jewish tradition (see Oral law), but in reference to the Masoretic Text the word mesorah has a very specific meaning: the diacritic markings of the text of the Hebrew Bible and concise marginal notes in manuscripts (and later printings) of the Hebrew Bible which note textual details, usually about the precise spelling of words.
The oldest extant manuscripts of the Masoretic Text date from approximately the 9th century CE,[3] and the Aleppo Codex (once the oldest complete copy of the Masoretic Text, but now missing its Torah section) dates from the 10th century.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Book of Job, Session Three

Bible Study @ Calvary Presbyterian Church, Hawthorne, CA
Winter Semester … The Sorrow and Hope of Job

Tuesday Jan 15
Saturday Jan 19
Job 1-7
Jan 22
Jan 26
Job 8-14
Jan 29
Feb 2
Job 15-21
Feb 5
Feb 9
Job 22-28
Feb 12
Feb 16
Job 29-35
Feb 19
Feb 23
Job 36-42

Job is a study in suffering, and how the sufferer responds - no punches are pulled in the description of Job’s losses and ailments. It’s a terrible thing that has happened to him, and Job descends into the pit of despair and anger. He comes to the end of his rope. There is nothing more to lose for Job, and his bitterness grows.

Job is a study in relationships - Job’s friends come to comfort him, and do so with considerable respect, waiting just the right time, seven days, in complete silence, offering Job their presence and not burdening him with words, at least, not yet.

We learn a lot about human nature, not only from the portrait painted of Job, but that of his comfortable friends, comfortable in their material status and spiritual understanding. Ultimately, they believe comfort will come to Job if Job accepts their world-view of divine reward and punishment, a world of retribution, a world of easy answers.

Job’s discomfort becomes their discomfort, and the friends are determined, so we learn, to lay it all out for Job, to explain to Job why he’s suffering, and, in a nutshell, he’s suffering because he’s a sinner - evidently he or his children, or both, have failed God and so must suffer the consequences.

Job stands firm on his righteousness … he’s been a good man, and he’s been faithful to God. He’s been an outstanding member of the community, he’s helped friend and neighbor. He’s done well materially and didn’t forget God.

Job readily admits that he’s not perfect, but contends that his punishment is over the top, way beyond whatever sins he may have committed. In other words, the punishment doesn’t fit the crime, and that’s the issue for Job.

Job questions the character of God - Job understands that God is powerful; no doubt about that. But what Job DOES question is God’s decency, God’s justice, kindness and love. 
At this point in the Book of Job, it’s a wrestling match … Job’s three friends laying out their case and pressing Job to admit his error.

And Job, even in his despair and sorrow, remaining steadfast in his contention that something is wrong with God. The God of power, if that’s what it is, has laid waste to Job’s life for no reason whatsoever. And if Job can find the God of righteousness, Job will be vindicated.

Job’s friends, and Job himself, become increasingly irritated with one another. The relationship, if you will, goes nowhere fast.

In chapter 15, Eliphaz weighs in again and goes after Job with a vengeance - his patience with Job is wearing thin in the face of Job’s determined self-defense. As far as Eliphaz is concerned, Job’s refusal to learn from others who are older and wiser is absolute folly. 

1Then Eliphaz the Temanite answered:
2      “Should the wise answer with windy knowledge,     
      and fill themselves with the east wind?
3      Should they argue in unprofitable talk,
      or in words with which they can do no good?
4      But you are doing away with the fear of God,
      and hindering meditation before God.
5      For your iniquity teaches your mouth,
      and you choose the tongue of the crafty.

Having dismissed Job’s contentions as nothing more than hot air, Eliphaz continues with the attack:

 17      “I will show you; listen to me;
      what I have seen I will declare—
18      what sages have told,
      and their ancestors have not hidden,
19      to whom alone the land was given,
      and no stranger passed among them.
20      The wicked writhe in pain all their days,
      through all the years that are laid up for the ruthless.

The author lays out for us one of the great challenges of religion - going with an idea and using that idea against another person when that person, for whatever reason, can’t abide by the answer. 

The author wants the reader to understand that the 3 friends who come to "comfort" Job in his distress have a theological agenda to lay out for Job, and as the story unfolds, their determination to impose on Job their theological take grows increasingly bitter, as Job, on the other hand, refuses their simple answers and conventional wisdom.

Simple answers have done great damage, and all the religions of the world are tempted by the simple answer. Christianity, as well, has been crippled by the desire for simple answers, which provide the "comfortable" with an artificial sense of security. But such answers always fail huge numbers of people, and when people refuse the answer, those with the answers grow increasingly agitated and aggressive. Their comfort zone is threatened by those who refuse the simple answer they offer.

Fundamentalist/Evangelical religion is rife with this: “Believe as we tell you, and you will be saved. Raise a question about it, and you’ll end up in hell. Pure, plain and simple.” Remember what was offered last week: There is cruelty in simple answers. There is humility in complexity. In humility, there is compassion.

The wicked suffer, so if Job is suffering, he must be wicked … such is the logic of the three friends. As logic goes, it fails; A never implies B. Job is suffering (A), sinners suffer (the idea), so Job must be a sinner (B).

Job replies (16-17) … 

He, too, could offer this kind of empty advice:
1      Then Job answered:
2      “I have heard many such things;
      miserable comforters are you all.
3      Have windy words no limit?
      Or what provokes you that you keep on talking?
4      I also could talk as you do,
      if you were in my place;
      I could join words together against you,
      and shake my head at you.
5      I could encourage you with my mouth,
      and the solace of my lips would assuage your pain.

Vs. 5 is dripping with sarcasm: I could encourage you just like you’re encouraging me, and the solace of my lips would assuage your pain just like your words are easing mine - NOT!

They each call one another windbags - going on and on, without saying anything of value, as far as the other is concerned. In Job’s eyes, his friends are cruel; in their eyes, Job is stubborn and vain.

Job goes on: God has utterly laid waste to his life … God, in some act of wanton cruelty, has stripped away everything and left Job suffering in body and soul. 

Job has lost everything:

7      Surely now God has worn me out;
      he has made desolate all my company.
8      And he has shriveled me up,
      which is a witness against me;
      my leanness has risen up against me,
      and it testifies to my face.
9      He has torn me in his wrath, and hated me;
      he has gnashed his teeth at me;
      my adversary sharpens his eyes against me.
10      They have gaped at me with their mouths;
      they have struck me insolently on the cheek;
      they mass themselves together against me.
11      God gives me up to the ungodly,
      and casts me into the hands of the wicked.
12      I was at ease, and he broke me in two;
      he seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces;
      he set me up as his target;

But in spite of his agony, Job reaffirms his righteousness, and contends that there must yet be justice in the world. There is, there must be, a God of righteousness, as strong as the God of might, and while the God of might has proved his mightiness against Job, Job will as of yet be proved right, if only he can gain a hearing from the God of righteousness.

16      My face is red with weeping,
      and deep darkness is on my eyelids,
17      though there is no violence in my hands,
      and my prayer is pure.
18      “O earth, do not cover my blood;
      let my outcry find no resting place.
19      Even now, in fact, my witness is in heaven,
      and he that vouches for me is on high.
20      My friends scorn me;
      my eye pours out tears to God,
21      that he would maintain the right of a mortal with God,
      as one does for a neighbor.
22      For when a few years have come,
      I shall go the way from which I shall not return.

Chapter 17 …

Job is broken, and has no regard for his friends whom he calls “mockers,” and warms them - their betrayal of Job will leave a terrible legacy for their children. Their hardness of heart, harshness of spirit - they denounce for reward - could that reward be some anticipated “moral victory” - not financial gain, but the pleasure of trouncing someone, proving them wrong, embarrassing and discrediting them?

The friends have, indeed, declared war against Job. But Job fights back, declaring that God must have closed their minds to understanding, so God will not let them triumph.

 1      My spirit is broken, my days are extinct,
      the grave is ready for me.
2      Surely there are mockers around me,
      and my eye dwells on their provocation.
3      “Lay down a pledge for me with yourself;
      who is there that will give surety for me?
4      Since you have closed their minds to understanding,
      therefore you will not let them triumph.
5      Those who denounce friends for reward—
      the eyes of their children will fail.

It’s all done for Job - he’s more than eager to die:

11      My days are past, my plans are broken off,
      the desires of my heart.
12      They make night into day;
      ‘The light,’ they say, ‘is near to the darkness.’ 
13      If I look for Sheol as my house,
      if I spread my couch in darkness,
14      if I say to the Pit, ‘You are my father,’
      and to the worm, ‘My mother,’ or ‘My sister,’
15      where then is my hope?
      Who will see my hope?
16      Will it go down to the bars of Sheol?
      Shall we descend together into the dust?”

Chapter 18, Bildad, round two.

Bildad keenly feels that he and his friends have been insulted by Job. In an effort to demolish Job’s argument, Bildad describes most eloquently the fate of the sinner - everything they cherish will be destroyed. For Bildad and the friends, there’s no listening to Job’s sorrow and agony. They have a point to make, and by God, they’re going to do it, no matter what.

Chapter 19, Job’s response.

Bitterly, Job expresses his contempt for the friends who have scorned him and ignore his misery.

If Job has sinned, yes, it’s his sin, but it would seem that God is the one who has brought all of this calamity upon Job:

1      Then Job answered:
2      “How long will you torment me,
      and break me in pieces with words?
3      These ten times you have cast reproach upon me;
      are you not ashamed to wrong me?
4      And even if it is true that I have erred,
      my error remains with me.
5      If indeed you magnify yourselves against me,
      and make my humiliation an argument against me,
6      know then that God has put me in the wrong,
      and closed his net around me.

Yet Job stands firm and wants his words inscribed in stone:

23      “O that my words were written down!
      O that they were inscribed in a book!
24      O that with an iron pen and with lead
      they were engraved on a rock forever!

But is there still some shred of hope in Job?

 25      For I know that my Redeemer lives,
      and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; 
26      and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
      then in my flesh I shall see God,
27      whom I shall see on my side, 
      and my eyes shall behold, and not another.

With a reminder to his friends: be very careful in the ease with which you condemn me.

      My heart faints within me!
28      If you say, ‘How we will persecute him!’
      and, ‘The root of the matter is found in him’;
29      be afraid of the sword,
      for wrath brings the punishment of the sword,
      so that you may know there is a judgment.”

Chapter 20 - Zophar.

A few more hammer-blows against Job.

All of the friends are now fully incensed: Job is not only wrong, but he ignores the wise counsel of his friends. Zophar describes the short-lived prosperity of the wicked.

How easily the friends indulge in descriptions of human suffering … 

I am reminded of an incident that occurred in my first or second year of seminary - I was assigned to teach a Bible Class on Wednesday evenings. At one point, I raised doubts about hell - at least about hell being co-eternal with heaven. I think we were studying the Gospel of Mark. A gentleman stood up and began to expostulate on the gory details of hell and the suffering of the wicked therein. The man turned red and grew increasingly vehement as he described the fire and pain, in lurid detail, of hell. 

I’ve never forgotten that moment. To this day, I believe the man loved hell more than he did heaven, convinced that others would be there, of course, and he would escape because he believed in Jesus, or something like that.

Job’s friends loved Job’s suffering, for it proved to them what they believed, and their beliefs were of greater importance than Job’s suffering.

Which reminds me of another incident related to me, with tears, by a widow. Her husband was stricken cancer at a time when they were members of a very conservative church and prayer group, with Pentecostal leanings. They prayed for his healing, and “claimed” the healing, “in Jesus’ name.” The man died suddenly one night, and an autopsy indicated a hemorrhage.

A friend called to offer consolation, and when told that it was a hemorrhage that ended his life, the friend exclaimed, “O good, he was healed of the cancer. The cancer didn’t take him.”

The woman left the church and the prayer group and for years remained away from the church. The cruelty of simple answers was more than she could handle.

For her friends in the prayer group, their beliefs about healing were more important than offering consolation to a grieving widow. It was more important that their “powerful prayers” indeed had led to the man’s healing from the cancer (which wasn’t the case) and that his death was caused by another matter.

Chapter 21 - The wicked often go unpunished.

Job lays into his friends and demolishes their arguments. There is not an even sense of justice in this world. Plenty of evildoers get away with it, and live happy lives, going to their grave quite content, and given a funeral full of pomp and praise.

28      For you say, ‘Where is the house of the prince?
      Where is the tent in which the wicked lived?’
29      Have you not asked those who travel the roads,
      and do you not accept their testimony,
30      that the wicked are spared in the day of calamity,
      and are rescued in the day of wrath?
31      Who declares their way to their face,
      and who repays them for what they have done?
32      When they are carried to the grave,
      a watch is kept over their tomb.
33      The clods of the valley are sweet to them;
      everyone will follow after,
      and those who went before are innumerable.
34      How then will you comfort me with empty nothings?
      There is nothing left of your answers but falsehood.”

So where are we?

Pretty much a draw so far.

The battle goes on, between Job and his friends.

The friends contend that Job deserves his suffering; the punishment fits the crime. If only Job would admit the crime, God would relieve his suffering.

Job defends his integrity. Sure, who isn’t a sinner, but this punishment doesn’t fit the crime at all. If I’ve done something to deserve THIS, please, someone, anyone, God, tell me what it is.

How will this be resolved?

To be continued ...