My family was here for Christmas. My mother and father and brother joined my husband and sons and I in the cold turning of the year. Puzzles were solved. Puddings flamed. And even in the cold of New England winter, my mother and brother would put on their coats and boots and go for a walk.
I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed the walking and talking. We took long turns around the Lindenwood Graveyard, where I walked when I labored with my youngest son. In between pointing out my favorite gravestones (Yes, I know it’s weird that I have favorite gravestones. Whatever.) we talked. We talked about family history and lore. We talked about my brother’s new call and pastorate in Denver. We talked about the boys and how they were growing. We talked about my sister and her family and how we missed them.
“You know,” my brother said “Some people think I must not care much about my family, to be willing to move so far away from them.” We laughed.
“Well,” I pointed out, “We four families do now live in all four continental US time zones.” I can see where someone who counts on proximity and constant familiarity would look at the facts of our family and think us unloving and unconcerned. Nothing could be further from the truth.
And then we turned to Job. I’m reading the Old Testament in my Humanities Book Club. This is the club that brought me Herodotus and Thucydides. We’re on year five and semester three. Semester three includes selections from the Old and New Testaments. It doesn’t say, in it’s lovely calligraphy, just what the selections are.
So as the resident Christian, I was nominated for the picks. What do you select? If you need to give a cultural grounding in Christianity based on readings of the Bible, what do choose? What do you leave out? Do you follow the lectionary and disavow all knowledge of Chronicles? That’s where the really good stories are! You must read Genesis, of course, but can you understand modern conservative Christianity without Leviticus? Of course there have to be the Psalms. And if you don’t read Isaiah, the New Testament will feel more random than ordained.
For the first session, I decided to stick to the Pentateuch. That led to a long discussion on whether God was in fact cruel for hardening Pharoah’s heart. It is an interesting thing, as a born and bred Biblically-saturated Christian, to start from scratch in explaining the God of Jacob to someone who has never read the Bible, and is starting at the beginning. The Old Testament God is much harder than we remember in our Sunday School lessons.
So after that, I had to tackle propose that we tackle Job and Ruth. Ruth because Ruth is the very definition of faithful love, in my book. Job because I love Job, and I think that Job speaks to one of the great questions religion must answer: why do good people suffer and bad guys do well?
That’s what I talked to my pastor mom and pastor brother about there on the hill between the tombstones. Job, and what Job tells us in his hard but beautiful poetry.
Oh that my words were written down!
Oh, that they were inscribed in a book!
O that with an iron pen and with lead
they were engraved on a rock forever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
then in my flesh I shall see God
whom I shall see on my side.
As I explained to my mother and brother, what I love so much about Job (in addition to the words which are some of the best poetry in the Bible) is that it takes that great problem of understanding WHY God chooses to do what He does, or why there is suffering… and basically replies that the answers are beyond our understanding. Thane said to me the other day, “I wish no plants would ever die, mom.” I look at the glory of a flower, and I understand it. Isn’t it sad that the daffodils fade in the matter of days? That the glory of the spring lilacs is so fleeting? But do you not, fellow grownup who has studied any part of biology, understand that if no plant ever died… the entire planet would cease to function and we along with it? Well, perhaps so does God look at his creation and understanding it in a way we cannot, and sets it upon courses that we, with all our wisdom, cannot understand.
Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind: …
“Has the rain a father,
or who has begotten the drops of dew?
From whose womb did the ice come forth,
and who has given birth to the hoarfrost of heaven?
The waters become hard like stone,
and the face of the deep is frozen.”
In other words, “What do you know about any of it? Nothing!” I find that liberating. I don’t understand because I can’t understand because I am not actually God.
Grey and I were recently watching NOVA (again – the third episode) and it showed how the universe was at its most orderly at the moment of the Big Bang, and with entropy comes increasing chaos and unpredictability. I found myself struck by the thought of an omniscient, omnipresent, immortal presence. After a certain amount of order, the first few eternities, wouldn’t you be tempted to create a moment of chaos – of free will and chance – out of your order just to be delighted for a moment by the joyful and chaotic complexity? It does not mean you do not rejoice in the daffodil’s bloom – to the contrary – but autumn is a marvel too.
So this I explain to my kinfolk.
“Well,” pronounces my brother, “I always thought of Job as the ultimate book of messianic prophecy.” (This earned him a say-whaaaa? My earlier snippet aside, there’s not a whole lot of Messiah going on.) “Job,” expands my brother, “when he accuses God of being an unfair judge, wishes that there was someone who could argue his side against God. “There is no umpire between us, who might lay his hand on us both. If he would take his rod away from me, and not let dread of him terrify me, then I would speak without fear of him.” (Job:9:33-35) “That right there is what Jesus does for us, and what grace is for us. Jesus is the umpire, and grace is the taking away of the rod of judgement.”
Huh. Ok. Cool!
“You know,” says my mom, “Job was never my favorite book.” And we talked instead of the New Testament, and the calling of Christ, and how hard it is to pick hymns when you need to get the bulletin done.
We walked together, hands in our pockets and breath glimmering in the moonlight, and were a family headed down the hill and back towards home.