We’ve been meditating all summer on finding the Divine in nature. We’ve talked about fire, wind, water, earth. We’ve held worship outside. We’ve practiced noticing and awe.
But sometimes nature is not benign. The avalanche sweeps skiers to their death, or the tsunami wipes out thousands of lives at once, or the earthquake, the wildfire, the flood, the hurricane, the tornado….
Or the disease. Measles, mumps, tuberculosis, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, ALS, cancer, arthritis, diabetes, bulimia, anorexia, addiction. A century ago the pandemic was influenza. Today it is COVID-19.
We may think that if we follow certain rules for living, we will be guaranteed a happy-ever-after. And there are certainly passages throughout the Bible that espouse this theology. Follow God’s rules and you will live long in the land of milk and honey that God will give to you. The rain will fall at just the right times to make your crops abundant. Your children will thrive and will rise up to call you blessed.
The problem is, that doesn’t always work. And if your theology says “Do ABC and God will always bless you,” and then your life falls apart, you are left to conclude that it must be your own fault. You have sinned, and God is punishing you with a job layoff or a divorce or a disease or other tragedy.
Children may think this way. If I had been a better son, my parents would still be together. If I had been the perfect daughter, my dad would stop drinking. We want to think we have more control than we do. So if our behavior had been better, this tragedy could have been averted.
What a guilt trip!
Of course, sometimes it’s true. If I had studied, I would have passed the test. If they had gotten to the station on time, they would have made the train. If I had fenced in my garden, the deer would not have trampled the tomatoes. We do have some control, some agency to create the outcomes we want.
But sometimes life just hands us rotten tomatoes. Sometimes there just is a plague of locusts or a pandemic and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a good person or not. It just is.
People say, “I can’t believe in a god that would let this tragic thing happen to good people.” Well, let me introduce them to the story of Job.
Job is presented from the outset as good, upright, righteous. This book of the Bible is never written as if it actually happened. It begins very “Once upon a time.” “There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). Do you hear how “once upon a time” that is? It continues:
There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east. His sons used to go and hold feasts in one another’s houses in turn; and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. And when the feast days had run their course, Job would send and sanctify them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said, “It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.” This is what Job always did. (Job 1:2-5 NRSV.)
Job has a great life—a reward, apparently, for being such a good person. Then Satan lures God into a bet: Let me take away all Job’s blessings, Satan says, and see if Job will still bless God. So all the children die. All the flocks are taken away. All the abundance vanishes. Even Job’s health: his body is covered with terrible sores.
Job grieves. His three friends come and sit with him. Eventually they say, “What might you have done to sin against God that you would deserve such a fate?” And we know and Job knows he is upright and blameless. So he can’t figure this out. But he dares to question God. Why, God, why am I suffering so?
Finally, after 38 chapters of this, God responds. The answer strikes me as high and mighty. Were you there when I created the heavens and earth, told the seas where to lie, raised up the mountains? You, little human, are an atom in a nanosecond of time.
Right. Which doesn’t really answer Job’s questions.
Or … maybe it does.
What I hear in this response is that my own place in this great creation is a blip in the grand scheme of things. So when I think the world revolves around my personal problems, I might want to step back and put things in perspective a bit.
And when we’re ticked off at God or want to ask Why? We can say so. God can take it. Because the other thing that is true is that the God of all this vast creation seeks relationship with every part of it—including relationship with Job, and with you, and with me. It is all about the relationships.
The book of Job raises more theological questions than it answers, and we could be here for months unpacking them all. But the overarching message that I take from this story is that sometimes tragedies just happen in our lives, even if we’ve done everything according to the rules, even if we are good people. And God is there with us through all of it, in relationship, helping us wrestle with the deep questions and the immense griefs we have to face.
There have been times in my life when all my plans fell apart. When I had to reexamine everything I thought I knew and build my life again. Those were the times when my prayers were most fervent, when my desire for relationship with God was most profound, and when my need for guidance was most urgent. No doubt most of you have endured such challenging times, when you don’t know how you will get through, how to pick up the pieces and rebuild your life. God is there. You can rail against God. Go ahead. You can ask questions. You can ask for help.
Where is God when life falls apart? God is not in the judgment saying you messed up and are a bad person. God is the one holding you, even if you don’t see it until you look back later.
William Sloan Coffin, a great social justice activist and at one point the senior minister at Riverside Church in New York City, experienced the tragedy of losing a son in a car accident. One icy January night, the son was driving, missed a curve, the car went in the water, and he drowned. People tried to say comforting things. Someone made the mistake of saying that the accident was God’s will. You know: God must have needed another angel. And Coffin said no: God didn’t cause this accident. When the son missed the curve and died in the water, Coffin said God’s heart was the first to break.
God is right here with us. Always. We may experience that divine presence by connecting with nature and experiencing awe, love, wonder. Or we may experience God’s presence when we gather in person in a church building, sit together in the pews, pray together, sing together. These are holy ways to practice experiencing the divine presence in our midst. I have never been so acutely aware of the power of gathering people in person than in these past 19 months, when we have done our best to recreate that experience here on Zoom. Not the same thing as gathering in person, is it? Pluses and minuses to both. But what is true is that, however we gather, God is with us. When life is humming along and everything is great, God is with us. When life falls apart, God is with us then, too. Thanks be to God. Amen.