Something pretty funny happened at yesterday’s 8:30 service.
I think I was the only one who got it, though.
I was giving a message called Life After Loss. It was one of those messages about which I felt especially good — good theology, good bible study, and an unexpected application to life.
About 3/4 of the way through, during a riff on the sovereignty of God — the reality, according to Job 1:21, that God gives and he takes — I made this comment:
Methodists aren’t as comfortable with this as are our Presbyterian friends, but the Presbyterians have something to show us. God is sovereign and in control, even of loss, even of chaos. He gives and he takes.
(In case you didn’t know, Methodists are much more likely to talk about how God is in love with the world while Presbyterians will talk about how he is in control of it.)
Anway, back to the sermon, so far, so good. A little jab at the home team and some love for our more Calvinist brethren.
Except just after those words came out of my mouth I looked out in the congregation and finally figured the identity of that distinguished looking couple sitting several rows back.
My boss and his wife. My United Methodist District Superintendent. The most Metho-centric man I know! I’ve just thrown my own team under the bus and that’s the one Sunday of the year he shows up!
As he and I spoke in the lobby afterwards, he made no mention of rescinding my ordination.
So I’m safe. For now.
Here’s what the sermon was like. When you read REFRAIN, remember that’s “God would rather you be mad at him than ignore him.”
Can I tell you something that people have just gotten SO wrong in the bible? They’ve actually used a wrong reading of a biblical story to come up with a phrase almost everyone knows and uses? I phrase I know and have used? You ready? Here it is: the patience of Job. We see someone endure difficult people or situations with a great attitude and what do we say about them? He has the patience of Job. She’s just like Job.
What baloney! Now Job in the bible was many things: angry, frustrated, grieving, nervy, long-winded, more long-winded, but patient is not one of them. That phrase is simply a great misunderstanding of the man and his book and we do a dis-service to propogate it.
Because Job is actually much more interesting and complex than merely being a “patient” man. Starting with his name. “Job” is not a Jewish name; in fact, it’s hard to identify it by any nationality of the time. Which is the bible’s way of saying that what’s fixin to happen to him could happen to anyone. His story is not a Jewish story; it’s a human story. In chapter 1, God and Satan (the accuser) reach a deal that the reader of the story knows about but Job doesn’t. The audience knows but the character is ignorant. And in this deal, as some of you know, the accuser is given free reign to test Job. As a result, in short order, he loses his servants, his livestock, his property, and then, most cruelly, his sons and daughters. It’s just rapid fire loss, some at the hands of bandits and others at the hands of natural disasters. “Acts of God,” if you will.
Losing all that stuff and much more critically all those people in such a short span of time – those really are losses that defy measurement. Job is a lot less about “patience” than it is about “loss.” Losses you cannot measure.
Of all the “life afters,” this one is the most acute. And it’s the one I see most often in ministry, in community, and in this church. When you had that thing, that value, that status, that relationship . . . and then GONE. How do you survive? How do you persevere? How can you be resilient when those things or people you hold most dear end up most gone?
There are all kinds of loss. Even around this room. Like as a preacher, I hate to lose an audience. To be speaking and know you’re not connecting, to think to yourself “I’m dying up here” – that’s a tough loss. Which I guess is why that university professor I heard of would come to lecture every day and pull a tennis ball out of his jacket. And he’d place that tennis ball on the podium as he lectured. No one ever knew why. Until one day a student fell asleep in class. So the prof didn’t miss a word of his lecture while he walked back to the podium, picked up the tennis ball and WHOMP! Threw it, nailing the guy on his sleepy head. Wow!
The next day, the professor walked into the room, reached into his jacket, and pulled out a baseball . . . and no one ever fell asleep in his class again. That’s loss prevention!
But there’s more than losing an audience. There are also people here who’ve lost jobs. How are you going to live not only w/o that income but also w/o the sense of self that gets wrapped up in your job? I suspect there are people here who’ve lost valuables – I’ve been there a couple of times watching a house burn while standing next to church people. How do you recover from the loss of that stuff and those memories?
Someone else here has lost a marriage – a marriage you thought you’d have literally until death did you part. And I know some folks here a long time ago lost innocence. It was taken from you by force perhaps and the wounds are deep. And then, how well do I know that there are those here who’ve lost parents, spouses, and children. How in the world can you live life “after” a loss of that depth? Job’s story really is our story – losss that defy measurement.
Since his story is our story, we’ll come back to it. Look at how he responds to the pile-on of bad news:
20 At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship 21 and said:
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
and naked I will depart.[a]
The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away;
may the name of the LORD be praised.”
And as marvelous as those words are – we’ll get to them in a bit – the actions speak louder to me. It may seem odd – tear a robe and shave a head – like, what’s that all about? Well, those are ancient Jewish customs of showing grief. Of giving physical, tangible expression to the rage you feel at the world AND to the frustration you feel with God. It’s a vivid, dramatic way to say to God: “I’ve had enough of this!” Job doesn’t deny, doesn’t act strong, doesn’t keep a stiff upper lip, he gives expression to what he feels but can’t articulate.
And you know what I get from that vivid, impatient demonstration for those of us wrestling with life after loss? This: God would rather you be mad at him than ignore him. Sometimes, when we are faced with life’s unfairness & the reality of our losses, the healthiest thing you can do is vent, tear your clothes and be honest with God about your anger with him.
Why would I say such a thing? Cuz being “angry” with God is a radical thing to hear in church, much less coming out of the mouth of a preacher. So why? Ah, because it’s throughout the OT — look at these words from Psalm 44:
You have made us a reproach to our neighbors,
the scorn and derision of those around us.
14 You have made us a byword among the nations;
the peoples shake their heads at us.
15 I live in disgrace all day long,
and my face is covered with shame
16 at the taunts of those who reproach and revile me,
because of the enemy, who is bent on revenge
23Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.
But more than that, I want you to know that God can take your anger and frustration. He’s not intimidated or offended by it. On the other hand, when we ignore him, turn our back on him, that breaks his heart. And many folks do that in the wake of a major loss. They decide God doesn’t exist. Or live as if they have decided he doesn’t exist. I’ve seen it. You’ve seen it. Some of you have even lived it. And I wonder if the hollowness of that response comes in part because people have never had the freedom and the intimacy with God to tear their clothes, admit their anger and really let God know how they feel. He can handle it. REF
Because here’s the theological truth that’s behind that: when you vent anger with God, you are acknowledging that he is in charge. He is sovereign. Look at 1:21: READ. Now this is really, really hard to wrap your mind around. But God is not powerless and helpless in the face of evil & chaos. He is sovereign over pain and loss. He gives. AND HE TAKES. We want to excuse God from that since it’s easier to minimize God than it is to enlarge our hearts. But Job and his words move us to a different place. What he asks all of us wrestling with loss is this: can you radically trust the same God who could have prevented it? Can you? He could have prevented that divorce, that death, that illness, that job loss. Can you trust him even though he didn’t?
So why didn’t he? Why didn’t he prevent the loss that stays with you; the loss that brought you here this morning? I can’t say for sure . . . perhaps by allowing disappointment into your life it’s his way of diminishing the glamour and bright lights of the world – and so expanding our trust in him. Or by allowing loss it’s a way of reminding us that we’ve got idols to deal with and anything we make into an idol can be taken away.
With me, I KNOW he’s give me frustration in ministry or a sense of plateau in order to drive me to my knees in prayer. I don’t think I’ve lost anything more serious than momentum but it was to get me to recover my first love. He keeps turning me into the widow from Luke 18 who would not stop badgering the judge til she got what she wanted. God wants me that persistent in prayer. It’s almost his way of saying, “why don’t you pray like you used to?”
There is even value in the pain that we go through in loss. Some of you may have heard of congenital analgia which is a rare condition that leaves children w/ no sensitivity for pain. But because they don’t feel pain, they injure themselves with extraordinary frequency: they bite off the tips of their fingers, they burn their hands severely, they even break bones. Pain now prevents greater trouble then. That could be why loss exists.
And here’s what’s great and it’s something you probably didn’t know before. In other religions of the time (ancient Judaism), they would portray the forces of chaos such as storms, death, beasts, and the deep, as enemies of the gods. Almost like there were two great, almost equal forces at work. God or the gods and chaose. Well not so with the bible in general and Job in particular. All pieces of creation are subject to the Lord. The chaotic forces are ultimately under the authority of God; the act only by his permission. It’s a completely different understanding. Methodists aren’t as comfortable with this as are our Presby friends, but the Pres have something to show us. God is sovereign and in control, even of loss, even and chaos. He gives and he takes. REFRAIN.
By they way, some of you today might not be in the middle of major loss. You may not even be able to look back upon such a season. A few of you may make it through life in such a way that Job’s story is only hypothetical – you’ll never know traumatic loss. But even if that’s you, know this – virtually all of us will KNOW someone going through a loss you can’t measure. Death, divorce, depression. If that’s you and you wonder what to do and what to say, remember Job’s three friends. He has three friends who rush to his side – probably w/ Tupperware in tow – when they hear of the calamity in chapter 1. And as far as 2:13:
13 Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.
they’re “doing good.” But Job doesn’t end at 2:13; it’s got like 40 more chapters to go. And most of those chapters are full of the talking of the three friends, usually trying to explain to Job why suffering has come. And that’s when the three friends transition from being ministers to being windbags. Don’t repeat the same mistake. When you’re trying to help someone w/ loss, the ministry of silent presence is the way to go. Don’t blow it by trying to explain the inexplicable.
Now I could end this message with a tidy bow. I could tell you the story of someone who underwent great loss and then vented their anger at God and came out on the other side with great restoration. Because that happens. I pray it happens to you. But it’s also just a little too easy, a little too facile. And as often as life works out that way, it also works the other way.
Instead, look at the last phrase of 1:21: “blessed be the name of the Lord.” Ah, worship. Anger at God ultimately gives way to worship of God. I will praise the one who could have prevented this loss because there is no other in whom I can believe. I will praise the one who could have prevented precisely because he is strong enough and sovereign enough to prevent anything but chooses not to prevent everything. His ways and decisions may be inscrutable, but using my lungs and my hands to praise him is well within my ability.
See, moving from anger back to worship is a little like that time I went to Abilene, TX. I was 9 and we drove from Dallas to Abilene for a big tennis tournament. Have you ever driven to Abilene? It’s not in the middle of nowhere; it is nowhere. It took forever. Long, flat, feature-less landscape that seem to my 9 year old brain to be endless. It took forever.
A few days later, we drove back. And what? It was done SNAP like that! Isn’t it true? That it always takes a lot shorter time to come back than it does to get there?
And so it is w/ coming back to worship God after you’ve either vented your anger or even turned away from him. Because God – big, vast, sovereign – is also intimate, warm, inviting, and is always more eager to receive us home than we are to return. When you’re dealing w/ loss, let that anger give way to worship now.