Friday, December 13, 2013
I've bristled at the story of Job ever since I studied the book in my sophomore English class at USC. When my professor announced that we would be studying Job, as in the from-the-bible book of Job, the one wedged in between Esther and Psalms that I'd heard countless sermons on over the years, I just assumed he would turn out to be like half of the teachers from my bible belt upbringing, who would sneak in Christian content whenever they could get away with it. I certainly was not prepared for his unemotional bible-as-literature approach or his scholarly arguments about how Job could not possibly have been written by a single author.
Up to that point in my life, the bible had always been treated as a sacred thing, and the most outspoken doubts I had heard about its accuracy or relevance came from my own brain and were smashed down as quickly as they came up. But that semester, I read through the book of Job and tried to absorb it simply as ancient literature, as I had the Iliad. For all my professor's animated arguments about dual authorship, I can't for the life of me remember why he was so convinced the book must have been written by more than one person. Even at the time I wasn't particularly swayed by or even concerned with his argument.
What stuck with me, though, was a comment by a classmate who sat near me. She said that was the first of the bible she had ever read, and she couldn't get past the fact that God gave Satan permission to basically torture his most faithful servant. She wanted to know if that's how Christians thought it worked: when bad things happen to you, it's because God gave Satan permission to strike you down.
"Oh no," I told her, "I think that was just a one time thing. Besides, God gave him back everything he lost and more in the end."
But, she pointed out, that's not exactly how it was. Poor Job didn't get back the same family. He got a new family, which would be better than nothing, but he still had to live with the loss of his ten kids and probably at least one wife (they did like to take more than one wife back then). I mean, sure, it was decent of God to make him rich again and give him the exact same number of kids, even with the same gender breakdown of three daughters and seven sons, but that still wouldn't undo the grief of losing the first family.
When I go back to Job now, I always think about that conversation. But, over the years, I've realized there's something else about the book that gets under my skin: I am no Job. My default response to suffering is to shake a fist at the sky. I cannot even imagine reacting to the news of the death of all ten of my children by falling to the ground and announcing "may the name of the Lord be praised."
One year ago, I absorbed the news about the shootings in Newtown as if I had been dealt a physical blow. Never has a news story affected me in that way, and I think about that town and those families more often than I think about many people I actually know in real life. I am not connected to their stories in any way, and yet I feel bound in grief to them.
When I heard on the radio the other day that the families of the slain planned to honor the anniversary of their deaths by asking everyone to perform an act of kindness in their honor, I felt momentarily in shock at the grace and hope and beauty of the request. I felt, too, a swell of confusion at how any parent whose son or daughter had been gunned down could still believe in the goodness of people, could still retain enough innocence to suggest kindness as a response to what seems to me like the overwhelming evidence of evil.
I am no Job. When I sit in the ashes of grief, tending my wounds, I find that it is so hard to see past myself. What does it take, I wonder today, to be willing to praise the name of the Lord in all things, in the deepest dark hole of despair? What does it take for the parents of murdered children to advocate kindness? How do I begin to learn to give thanks for what is, even when it is so far from what I wish it would be?
I have spent so many days wondering what the holidays will be like now for the families of Sandy Hook. I have imagined them unwilling to put up Christmas trees or gutted right through by the sight of twinkling lights. Not once did I imagine them thinking of the rest of us, able to see past themselves and wondering how to use their unwanted spot in the limelight to fight off the darkness.
Perhaps that's why we were given the story of Job, because it is so hard for many of us to see past ourselves when we find ourselves in the ashes. Perhaps we need to see that healing comes when we turn our eyes away from our own wounds and see that, even in grief, our lives are a strange, aching, haunting, beautiful gift. Whether we take one breath or seven hundred million, the experience of living itself is still a gift, something that should fill us with wonder and make us fall to our knees in praise.
The gift of our existence is not a life of ease, not a promise of prosperity. The gift of our existence is being wrestled from the womb of an imperfect woman into an imperfect world, coming in and going out wailing and covered in grime, and in between never quite getting the balance of the long, slow days and the short bursts of moments that can only be described as wondrous. The gift is living in a machine so mystifying, the sparks of neurotransmitters firing in our brains can feel like a glow in our chests when our eyes detect the familiar shape of a person we love. The gift is knowing love, even though we may lose it, and the gift is also knowing we may lose it but wanting it anyway.
I may not be any kind of Job, but I am learning, bit by bit, that words of praise can come even to a mouth caked in ash. I still mourn, and I still stand with those who mourn, but I am beginning to glimpse the wondrous flare of choosing to kneel in praise, right there in the ashes, kneeling to praise the gift of this life I have been given, and to praise the gifts of life that were given and were also taken from us. I am no Job, but I have been tempered by the fire of pain, too, and I am learning to be thankful, even for that.
Image Credit, used under Creative Commons License.