Michael's 'Deep Thoughts'

Poetry rants sermons and essays by a Friend learning to live with Jesus

Peace Part 1: Personal reflection

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The peace testimony has been one of the more challenging testimonies for me to grasp emotionally. People talk about how a devotion to simplicity cuts across the grain of consumerist culture, but peace is even more counter cultural.

My father served alternative service before he was married. Like several others (mostly Mennonites) who disagreed with the Vietnam war, he was assigned to work in a mental hospital. I’ve learned, mostly from other people, that these people who viewed the war as immoral were seen as communist sympathizers, and faced violent attacks. As far as I know, the worst that my dad suffered was somebody setting his motorcycle on fire while he was at work.

Because my father saw it important to put faith above the expectations, or belief systems of our wider culture — it has not been difficult for me to learn good reasons to oppose war. Where there is war, the innocent suffer. Anything that can be called war largely hurts those who have no power to change anything, and leaves those who the war is about untouched. One might argue that war is a necessary evil, but it remains a great evil.

This is where the challenge for me comes: I am a person who responds to stories. Whenever we see stories that speak of war, or violence in general, the narrative tends to divide between heroes and villains. There is a way of transferring all the guilt to the villains, and leaving the heroes clean. The idea becomes not that violence caused the evil, but the violence stopped the evil. When I look to the stories that have currency in my culture, I see champions of violence who ‘defend’ the people who are suffering, but I don’t see champions of peace, nor do I see champions of consensus. It seems that those who broker peace are even seen as weak.

The only way that I’ve been able to reconcile these competing ideas is to admit that I feel all war is evil — but I am not a pacifist. I embrace a rather strict interpretation of Augustine’s Just war theory. The way I understand Just war is that force should be limited to as little as possible, and collateral damage is unacceptable. In addition, suicide missions are unacceptable — those who wage this ‘just war’ need to be reasonably sure of victory, and accountable for every excess of force beyond what is strictly necessary. Augustine’s just war theory is what our police departments follow when they live up to the high standards that they set for themselves. Nothing that has been called war follows these standards.

The bigger problem is how do we live at peace in our own lives? When people talk about the ‘peace testimony’, it is largely a political testimony — but, for the most part, a political opinion makes no difference in daily life. For something as counter cultural as peace, most years when it comes time to vote one must admit that there is not any peace candidates on the ballots.

For me, peace with the people around me is largely a matter of giving up the need to be right, or ‘important’ to the group. In my daily life peace means doing my best to stay out of self serving and dirty politics. The worst thing I can do to my opponents is attack their reputation — in order to live at peace with myself and others, the best I can do is pray for God’s blessing on those who are recognized before me.

Written by michaeldavidjay

© October 16, 2014 at 1:46 pm

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Meditations on Job: Table of Contents

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Written by michaeldavidjay

© October 9, 2014 at 6:25 pm

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Job 38-42– God speaks and restores Job

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Reading: Job 38-42

God’s speech, at first glance, seems to be accusing Job of speaking without knowing anything.  The whole speech is not any more applicable to Job than it is to Job’s friends.  This speech is also no more applicable to Job than it is to anybody who discusses Theology.  God is much more than any of us can know.

Those of us who read Job have an advantage over Job and Job’s friends.  Job’s friends assumed that God called disaster on Job to punish Job — the narrative tells us that Job’s suffering was intended to test whether Job was truly faithful to God, or merely comfortable in is position.  In God’s speech, God does not even address the question of why Job is suffering, simply that us human’s don’t know a lot of things about the universe that we live in.

We don’t know what Leviathan or Behemoth are, there have been many attempts to name animals that never quite fit their descriptions.  One of my favorite explanations is that they are not literal creatures, but metaphors.  For many pre-modern commentators, Leviathan was a sea monster, and Behemoth was a land-monster.  By extension, they are destructive, they kill and destroy completely at random.  When a ship sinks, whatever force of nature does not ask whether the sailors deserve to be sent to the bottom of the ocean.   When a tornado destroys homes or in rare cases an entire town, the storm does not consider whether the people in its path are good or evil.

For Job’s friends, Job was guilty because he suffered a disaster.  God mentioned several things that are outside of human control, some of these things are the cause of disasters.  We don’t understand why suffering comes, and we don’t know what motives God has for allowing suffering.  We do know that we live in a world that includes suffering.

For those of us who hear news of earthquakes, or tornadoes, or any other disaster, and feel that we can interpret these as signs of God’s anger:  We sit with Job’s friends.  We know nothing, and if we speak we speak out of our ignorance.  For those of us who are suffering, and who ask why:  When God appears to Job, why is not answered.

In all of this, God finally commends Job.  He says of Job that Job spoke rightly, while Job’s friends did not.  Job asks God to forgive his friends, because God will not hear their prayers.  The book concludes with Job having more children, and more wealth than he did before.

Table of Contents

Written by michaeldavidjay

© October 9, 2014 at 1:03 pm

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Job 32-37: Elihu the kibitzer

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Reading: Job 32-37

Elihu’s speech is one of the most challenging parts of Job for me — he comes out of nowhere, and then he after making his comments he is no longer there. Nobody answers him, nobody responds to him, and nobody corrects him. I don’t even know if Job or Job’s friends heard Elihu’s rant. When God answers, God answers Job. When God condemns Job’s friends, God has nothing to say to Elihu.

Whatever we think of Job’s friends, they chose to engage Job in a philosophical debate, hoping that they could convince him to change his mind, repent of whatever sin he might have embraced, and somehow move on with his life. Job engaged them in this, arguing his innocence. This debate ended in a stalemate.

When I read about this, I see Elihu getting involved in a debate that did not concern him. He was passionate about being right, even though all evidence points to him being completely outside of this discussion. God does not evaluate Elihu’s rant, so we cannot know whether it was the correct solution or not.

What I think of when reading this is what happens when there are three chess players in a room. Two of the chess players pay a game, and the third player watches. The person who watches is able to look for mistakes in both people’s game, and consider what might be better moves. Now, for chess players, if that third player Kibitz on the chess game, it is quite rude. It is almost as if Elihu offered uninvited commentary on the debate.

Elihu was by far the worst of the comforters. He was not one who sat in the dirt with Job. Job did not ask him any questions, so Job did not invite answers from him. Elihu heard a discussion between people who did not understand, and he was angry when he heard ignorance in the face of loss and suffering. It is no wonder that Elihu was ignored, I hope for Job’s sake that he was also unheard.

Elihu correctly observes that Job’s friends do not answer Job’s questions. The most important question Job asks is “what sin should I repent of? I’m innocent!” Elihu accuses Job of being self centered, and of painting God too distantly. Elihu points out that God speaks to humanity in various ways, such as through dreams and through suffering. Suffering might be a way of bringing the self-reliant to God, rather than a punishment for a crime.

Elihu also condemns Job as behaving rebelliously, rather than properly seeking God. He, like Job’s friends see Job’s complaints as a condemnation of God’s justice. He condemns Job of trying to second guess God, as Job defends himself pointing out how God does not punish the wicked in a timely manner. Elihu suggests that Job repent of his foolish rebellion.

Elihu might claim to speak for God, but when God comes, Elihu’s right to speak for God falls into question. When I read Elihu, I read somebody who stepped into a conversation that he was not part of, who judged someone without compassion, and who was gone without offering any comfort or companionship. The only authority his words have is the authority of offering the last words on the subject. We know his opinion, but we don’t know how the debate would have played out if he were the one in conversation with Job.

In the end, I don’t care if Elihu was right, nor do I care if Job was wrong. What matters the most is that Job was suffering. When I read scripture, I read about a God who gives humans permission to suffer, and to call out in suffering. I read passages such as Psalm 22 which begins: “My God My God why have you forsaken me…” I read the prayer of Elijah where he asks God to let him die (1 Kings 19:4), and I read some of the prayers of Jesus in the last days of his life. I see in all of this that God is not offended by what people say when they are suffering. God accepts this part of our humanity. Elihu was wrong, Job was not rebellious, Job was human.

Continued: Job 38-42 God speaks and restores Job

Written by michaeldavidjay

© October 6, 2014 at 3:29 am

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Job 15-31: Beating the dead horse

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Reading: Job 15-31

If we read the argument between Job and his three friends, it takes over an hour.  The friends maintain their point, that Job should talk talking because he’s saying stupid things, and of course he’s guilty — if he were not guilty then he would not be punished.

Job’s counter argument includes: does the punishment fit the crime? Is it fair that I can be punished without a trial? I am not only innocent, but I make an effort to help out those who are in need, and my favorite, Job observes that others do well in spite of their sinfulness, or struggle in spite of their innocence.

Eventually, the argument stops, because everybody seems to realize that it is going nowhere.  No matter how much Job’s friends make their case, Job will not accept their conclusion nor their council.  Job 32:1 says that they stopped answering Job because Job was righteous in his own eyes.

After the first 10 minutes there is very little new content, just 50 minutes that restates the same reasons again and again.  The thing is, even if Job’s friends were right, there really is no reason to expect them to convince Job of anything.

This whole discussion is rather philosophical.  Job’s friends are dealing with the nature of God, and what it means for God to be both just and God.  Unfortunately, the very thing that challenges the theological views of Job’s friends completely ruins their friend.  Job is in shock, it is unlikely that he has figured out how to live without his family, servants, and wealth.  Job is not yet questioning what he believes, he is questioning how he can survive.

Job’s friends are miserable comforters, because they try to convince Job to have the same world outlook as they do.  They act as if a world-view is enough to take away the pain of mourning, and as if God’s “restoration” could ever make up for the loss of so many people.  Even if Job was convinced, and found something to confess, this loss would still be a crippling loss.

Having listened to these 4 arguing, I see that there is no satisfactory answer.  The three friends have a pretty nice and neat system which does not seem to fit the facts.  Job is able to show that their system is broken not only by his own example, but by the examples of people who deserve punishment instead of prosperity.  Job shows that reality is messy, but this messiness does not offer a final answer.  If anybody has an alternative view, there is room for more discussion.

Continued: Job 32-37 Elihu the Kibitzer 

Written by michaeldavidjay

© October 3, 2014 at 7:25 pm

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Job 11-14: Job and Zophar

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Reading: Job 11-14

Zophar, again, has very little to add. Basically, he tells Job to stop talking before he makes things worse for himself. Like the other friends, Job’s suffering challenges their faith, and they are unwilling to hear anything that might suggest that they misunderstand God. Strangely enough, Zophar builds on Job’s earlier theme of transcendence, but even while calling God too big to understand he assumes that he understands what will happen in the end.

Job answers back: “all of you are worthless physicians, if only you would keep silent that would be your wisdom.” (Job 13:4-5 NRSV) Job goes on to suggest that his friends are not speaking for God, but that they are truly speaking for themselves. Job is, strangely, wise enough to see through them, even while he suffers.

Job then goes on to pray to God, asking simply that God will show up and answer his questions: What are my sins? Why do you hide your face? Why am I your enemy? Why are you so hard on those who are far weaker? Is this you at all?

Again, if we skip forward to chapter 41, in all that Job says, Job does not sin against God. While suffering, Job questions God’s justice and God’s mercy. Job complains that what happens is not fair, and God eventually validates Job’s right to speak. Zophar is wrong: The person who suffers is allowed to speak, and should not be silenced.

Continued:  Job 15-31: Beating the dead horse

Written by michaeldavidjay

© September 30, 2014 at 4:56 pm

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Job 8-10: Job and Bildad exchange words

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Reading:  Job 8-10

Bildad offers very little other than arguing with Job. After Job defends himself, Bildad reiterates what was already said — if there were no sin, there would be no punishment, repent. He did offer the suggestion that perhaps the punishment was not for Job’s personal sins, but sins that were within the household. In terms of debate, Bildad left unanswered Job’s protest that the punishment was too great for whatever the crime might be.

Like Eliphaz before, Bildad associates God’s blessings with material wealth, and God’s punishment with loss. If Job is personally right with God, God will restore him to where he was before. Like Eliphaz, Bildad finds it necessary to defend God, and Job’s suffering accuses God.

Job observes another difficulty that he has — God is transcendent. Job and his friends can see what God has done, but God is not visibly there. Job does not experience God answering his prayers in any helpful way. Job wants to know what he did to deserve this, and what he can do to gain forgiveness, but God remains silent.

At this point, Job doubts that God has compassion, or understands what it means to live as flesh. We might say that at this point, Job accuses God of being distant and uncaring. He points out that as he cannot face God, it does not matter whether he is innocent or guilty — he cannot be acquitted if there is nobody capable of offering a trial.

Job is calling for a God who sees through human eyes, a God who walks a few miles in human feet, and knows what it is like to ache after walking all day. Job says that God, being transcendent cannot judge, just as humanity cannot live according to the standards of a God who does not see through human lives. Job wants God to spend some time in human flesh.

The Christian can point to the incarnation of Jesus as the best answer to Job’s complaint. Jesus is able to judge, yet we see that Jesus is most often merciful. The thing we see about Jesus is that Jesus lived the life of a poor person in an conquered minority. Jesus was described as a man of sorrows. Jesus died a torturous death, and he suffered unjustly under a system of injustice. Jesus was the one that suffered with those who were innocent and suffering.

Jesus also turned the assumptions of Job’s friends right on its head. While Job’s friends insist that suffering is God’s punishment for sin, and that those who are good people are rewarded, Jesus told his disciples that they would suffer for their obedience to God. We know that God faced the same injustice we do, and chose to suffer with us.

Continued: Job 11-14 Job and Zophar

Written by michaeldavidjay

© September 28, 2014 at 5:07 pm

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