The past few months have been a crash course in mass trauma, if we didn’t know already. It’s one thing after another, one horrific event piled on another, until The Onion (America’s best pastoral-care-through-satire) ran this headline today: “Americans dredge up last remaining reserves of grief”
And they were only halfway kidding.
After two elementary schools collapsed outside of Oklahoma City yesterday afternoon, initial reports were that over 50 people had died. Most of the initial reports I read, from news anchors on NPR, to average folks on the street, to the frenzy of Twitter, were all breathless disbelief and shock.
When that report was revised downward to around 20, Twitter threw a freaking party, the likes of which haven’t been seen since a baby kitten fell asleep in the hand of a sloth.
Except for John Piper.
John Piper is an (in)famous megachurch pastor, well-known throughout the evangelical and Calvinist Christian world. He also has a Twitter account.
Right in the middle of the initial reports of collapsing schools coming out of Oklahoma, he tweeted this
: “Your sons and your daughters were eating, and a great wind struck the house, and it fell on them, and they are dead.” Job 1:19
I’ll give you a minute to process.
The only way I can process someone responding this way, is by imagining that Rev. Piper fancied himself in some elaborate game of Bible Verse Trivia, wherein he had to match a Bible verse to the current circumstances, without regard for context, or, y’know, actual people being affected. If such was the case (and that would be a HUGE STRETCH) then, hooray, he wins whatever imaginary prize he was competing for inside of his head.
However, the Rev. Piper missed something in his elaborate, imaginary game of Pin-the-Verse-On-The-Catastrophe.
The Book of Job actually continues.
It continues for quite a while, in fact.
Because, in the book of Job, after all these catastrophes happen, his three ‘friends’ attempt to comfort Job, in much the manner of Rev. Piper’s tweeting.
They show up, and they offer all the platitudes under the sun: you’re just being tested! God is doing this because he loves you so much! You must have done something wrong to deserve this, because a good God wouldn’t let all this happen to someone who didn’t secretly deserve it! (take note, Calvinists.) If ever you’ve read something trite in a Hallmark sympathy card, rest assured that one of Job’s ‘friends’ uttered it first.
And then, Job just tells them that they’re full of crap.
Actually, he does more than that. He informs them that not only are they full of crap, but that he is pretty convinced that God is also full of crap, and if God would like to show up down here hisownself, he will inform God of this fact, right to his face. Job gets sarcastic. He gets maudlin. He accuses God of stalking him. He accuses God of being a giant, omnipotent whimsical bully who should go pick on someone his own, overgrown size. At one point, he even gets vaguely poetic, and rewrites Psalm 8 to fully detail his great anger and annoyance at God, for letting all this crap happen to him for absolutely no reason.
Seriously, if you need a Masters Class on how to be angry at God, read Job’s soliloquies.
And all this yelling, all this stomping around on a dustheap, and the elaborate poetry, and the biblical snark, is so God will show up and answer Job, somehow, and vindicate him. Prove to him that he’s not nuts, and that he didn’t deserve all this misery, and then, somehow, Job will be comforted.
All Job wants is for someone to comfort him. Because his ‘friends’ aren’t cutting it.
At the end of 32 chapters of this shouting, after Job’s ‘friends’ have run out of sympathy-card-schlock, and after Job has run out of things to yell at them, and at the sky, this interesting thing happens. Possibly the most interesting thing in a book full of them. (This is why you always read to the end of things, Rev. Piper.)
Job shuts up. As do his ‘comforters.’* For a moment, for a beat, in a story that is chock-full of people monologuing, they sit in silence.
And when Job is quiet, God shows up.
In a freakin’ whirlwind, making the best entrance in all the Bible, God shows up, and points out that God created all that is-so this battle of wits Job wants to set up is slightly unfair.
Job responds “I have heard you by the hearing of an ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I relent, and am consoled of dust and ashes.”**
So, something about God’s speech, and the showing up, and the talking to Job helped him.
Nothing the ‘friends’ said. None of that relentless talking. None of those platitudes.
What helped Job was the silence.
And getting to yell long and loud at God.
And God responding, in some weird, whirlwind-y fashion, even if it was not at all the answer Job said he wanted.
And when God did show up, he promptly reprimands the ‘friends’, for lying about God, and not speaking the truth, the way Job had done.
So if we’re actually going to take the book of Job as a pastoral care 101, our first move after a disaster shouldn’t be explanations, or defenses of God, or well-meaning speeches.
We should probably just sit quietly for a while in the dust. And yell angrily for a while if we feel like it. And cry a bit, if we feel like it.
Because the silence, the anger, the pain, the suffering, the fear– that’s where God shows up.
So that’s where we should be, too.
*I should pause to note that there has now entered into the story a fourth guy, Elihu, but I’m ignoring him because the text itself does, and he doesn’t add anything to the narrative, except for making it more theologically acceptable to whichever scribe it was who inserted him in the first place.
** Job 42: 5-6 That’s not exactly how the NRSV translates it, but read the footnote–the committee screwed up here. The Hebrew here translated as “despise myself” can also be read as relent or recant, and the Hebrew translated ‘repent’ should be translated console. Basically, Job now feels comforted about being a transient mortal (‘dust and ashes’). Which makes more sense, given what God does next.