[The image is courtesy of Karen Whitehill, a digital collage in which she superimposes the heads of vintage stars over the Last Supper by Juanes. Many thanks for her gracious permission.]
Jesus told a parable like this (in Luke 13:6-9): A woman had a fig tree planted in her vineyard; and she came looking for fruit on it and found none. So she said to her gardener, ‘Look here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ The gardener replied, ‘Mistress, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’
Let us pray for the times “When Seminary Messes With Your Simple Faith”:
Holy One of Old, open our eyes that we may see. Amen. (Link to audio available here.)
[NB: The RGT is my name for my translation of the scriptures, the Revised Gafney Translation. I generally translate all the lessons when I preach.]
Job ends his response to God’s interrogation by saying:
I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes. (NRSV)
I recant and relent, Being but dust and ashes. (JPS)
I disparaged myself and wasted away, and I regard myself as dust and ashes. (LXX)
I reject all of this and take comfort in dust and ashes. (RGT)
Why are all of those translations of Job 42:6 so different? And which one is right? The second question is easier. The RGT is right. The JPS is right too. They are both right even though they don’t say the same thing. The LXX is also a faithful translation – of a different Hebrew text translated to and preserved in Greek. The NRSV, RSV, KJV, ESV, Wycliffe, Geneva, Bishop and Douay Bibles are all less right, much less right because they insist on making Job repent even though the verb shuv, “turn,” “repent” isn’t actually in the text. They need Job to conform to their theology, their embedded theology, so they corrected the text to say what they thought it should say to mean what they knew it meant. As for others, the NIV just isn’t worth opening and as a paraphrase the Message isn’t even a translation of the bible. The bible was a whole lot simpler before we all got to seminary – in whatever century (ahem) we attended.
The bible was so much simpler because for most, there was only one with a single table of contents, passed down in a straight line from ancient texts written by men – and I mean men and not people – men who heard from God and wrote what “He” said. Biblical faith was bumper-sticker simple: God said it. I believe it. That settles it. At least mine was once upon a time. Now there are different bibles for Protestants and Catholics and we Episcopalians and Anglicans and, among the Orthodox there are more bibles still with the Ethiopians not bothering to print bibles anymore officially, but if they did, there’d be more books in theirs than any other under heaven – except for some of the Church’s early bibles with the Odes of Solomon and Sibylline Oracles and Epistles of Barnabus and Clement and Shepherd of Hermas. Maybe it wasn’t all so simple back then.
Now we know there are Hebrew manuscript families and Greek manuscript families and Aramaic manuscript families and, for each family sometimes hundreds, if not thousands of manuscripts for both Testaments. And if we trust that God guided canon-shapers and collectors to preserve the “right” text – if there even is such a thing – then we have to wrestle with so many translations. It was so much easier when we had the translation of our childhood faith, our youthful devotion, our pastor’s teaching, our grandmother’s sacred trust. Now we’ve learned aleph-bet and alpha-beta and how to use software and the internet to find the root of words and it’s not so simple anymore. The words of scripture are beloved and treasured and strange and slippery all at the same time while remaining authoritative and compelling.
And it’s not just bible. Seminary messes with your theology and you didn’t even know that you had a theology, let alone that it was embedded. You knew what you believed and that was just the way it was. There was no interpretation. Faith was simple, not simple-minded. We had questions. Some of us were blessed with pastors and counselors and family and friends who honored and encouraged our questions whether they understood or shared them or not or even knew where to begin to answer them. For others of us our questions marked us as different, malcontent, uppity. Neither we nor our questions were welcome in places that should have been safe for us. Now our questions beget more questions like “why do you ask that?” And when we find answers they are satisfying and unsatisfying all at the same time. As God’s mind-blowing response was for Job.
The book of Job is the story of a man who has questions for God; he seeks to face God face to face and so he summons God, he subpoenas God, he sues God. Job’s questions are the questions of all the world: Why is there evil? Why is there suffering? Why did my children have to die? His friends have answers but they don’t answer the questions in his soul. His friends’ theology is the theology of good religious folk. It is simple theology. It is that he must have done something wrong because God’s folk are blessed and highly favored and favor ain’t fair. Their understanding of God has been shaped by their cultural contexts, social locations and families of origin, shaped and limited, like our understanding of God. Because God is more. Job is hungry for that more. He needs God to be more.
So Job goes in search of that more. He goes in search of God, to serve his papers; his complaint – the text describes Job’s beef with God in the language of litigation, his legal pleading is based on his belief in a God who is fundamentally just and imposes order on chaos. He knows that if he can just get to God, all the horror he has experienced will somehow make sense. He is certain that there is justice with God, but he’s going to need a little help; he’s going to need an advocate to take his case, and if necessary, to bail him out from under the jail that the God in the whirlwind might just drop on him like Dorothy’s house. That’s what a goel, a redeeming relative is, the kin who will help you save your skin, the relative whom the Torah would say was required to come to your rescue. Job was looking for someone to stand with him as he stood up to God in that famous verse that everybody makes about Jesus. But Job’s redeemer wasn’t Jesus. (At least not yet.) I know that messes with somebody’s simple faith. Whether or not anyone else went with him, Job was going to find God.
And while he was on his way, God found him. I like to think of that whirlwind as seminary – you all are looking less blown away than when you first got here; your hair isn’t all standing up on end, there are no leaves stuck to you but you are in the whirlwind. However, unlike you all, Job didn’t know he was enrolling. Seminary isn’t just an academic program. It is from its Latin epistemological roots a place of formation and transformation. It’s a place where seeds are nurtured and cultivated, seeds of faith, seeds of self-expression, seeds of vocation, seeds of public theology, seeds of squiggles that will yield a harvest of biblical literacy and a place where critical seed questions sprout, blossom and bloom. Job took his precious handful of seeds to God and God – there’s no delicate way to say this – God shits on him. Yes, that’s what the gospel teaches us. Only Jesus calls it manure in the parable of the fig tree. It was as I said once in a children’s sermon, a “stinky and sticky mess.” But Job’s life isn’t a parable to him and the crap that’s raining down on him isn’t manure to him; it’s not obvious to him that his faith and theology are being fertilized. Because the God he encounters is not the God he expects, the God of his once simple but now questioning faith.
Job encounters God in expected and unexpected ways. He encounters God in the soaring rhetoric of creation language:
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Don’t you know that I am the mother of ice and snow,
birthing them out of my own womb?
Job encounters God in explicitly feminine God-language, not just on the tongues of lefty-liberal, feminist and womanist faculty – of both genders – but from the mouth of God and for us, in the pages of scripture, hidden by generations of male translators but accessible to students of biblical languages and to software supported exegetes. God is more than Job thought or expected, but not necessarily the more that he was looking for.
Job seeks answers to his questions from the source of his questions and in return he gets more questions because God takes Job to school in a whirlwind intensive using Socratic pedagogy – teaching through questioning. God questions Job from chapter 38 to chapter 41, for one hundred and twenty nine verses. Now that Job has met God, his previous simple faith is still real but it is inadequate for the mystery he has experienced living his not-so-simple life. Job is learning about God in this stormy weather seminary but it doesn’t look or feel like what he thought it would.
And, as Job prepares to graduate, he finds all of his questions have not been answered. His most burning question is still with him: Why? But God doesn’t answer the question. And so Job utters perhaps the most enigmatic line credited to him. Job’s embedded theology is that even God is constrained by justice. So now Job looks into the face of the whirlwind that could have stripped the flesh off his bones but didn’t and says: I reject all of this and take comfort in dust and ashes.
Job doesn’t drop out of seminary because he learns stuff he whishes he never knew, ideas and concepts that make it difficult to hold on to his simple faith from a much simpler time. He rejects something but what? God? No. They continue in their relationship after this lesson. Does he reject his questions, his theological awakening and try to go back to the time before his critical thinking and religious experience clashed? I don’t think so. So what does Job reject? Perhaps he rejects the expectation that God will answer all of his questions, that everything will make sense and will fit together in an orderly, systematic paradigm or flowchart. Maybe he rejects the notion that God has to make sense to his finite, limited, human understanding.
So Job takes a seat. More than that, he takes comfort in where he is, on, al (preposition), aphar v’epher (conjunction junction, what’s your function), dust and ashes. Dust and ashes is his immediate context, that’s the place of his public theology, field site and internship. Dust and ashes is the place of our ministry. It’s the place where hurting people gather and signal their pain with a formal liturgy of mourning. It is a place of embodied tweeting, ashen-faced rather than face-booked. The ash heap is where you let go trying to capture your God experience in the perfect theological formulation. Job takes a seat and takes comfort in the God of his scandalous theology.
The theology of Job is scandalous for many reasons: Job, a mere human being is blameless in the sight of God. And by the way, Job wasn’t even an Israelite. Then when he loses every thing he has including the skin he is in, it is because God gambles with his life and the lives of his children, consigning them to death to prove a point and win a bet with a character who is a satan but not the devil, (yet). And Job has the – I have to say it because the text calls for it – Job has the balls to sue God over what he knows was an injustice done to him, (the very ones God told him to gird up, tie down, like a man because God had a few questions for him and God was going to get all up in his face and his personal space and it was going to get rough). And if that were not scandalous enough, Job, who is not patient – James must have been reading the Testament of Job or one of the other extra-biblical Job stories – this impatient Job demands answers from God, holds God accountable to a standard of righteousness and sues God to answer to his questions. Job sued God. Shouted at God. And lived to tell about it. God even said he, Job, was right.
At the end of the story, Job takes comfort in his scandalous theology and the questions it generates because he has encountered a God who is big enough to be questioned, one who doesn’t wilt or fade under scrutiny, one who is not so insecure as to demand mindless, unthinking, unquestioning faith.
I found in seminary a safe and challenging place to examine and challenge my own faith and I discovered that the God of my faith, my simple, sincere, honest, faithful faith, was not God. Or rather, I like Job, encountered a God who was more than I imagined. I received a religious education that included, multiple perspectives, unanswered questions, doubt, uncertainty, ambiguity and conflicting text traditions which left me with a supple, flexible faith rather than a brittle, unyielding one. And I left with questions, more questions, different questions that frame an on-going conversation. I learned to take comfort in my questions and in the God who hears and honors them, welcomes them even, just as Job took comfort in dust and ashes.
So go to the ash heap and live your theology there. Take comfort there when prayer and liturgy and scripture and theology and history conflict with what you think you know about God. Be fulfilled in service to those still wounded on their ash heaps; engage their questions with more than the theological platitudes that failed to satisfy you. And when you rise from your ash heap, pray for those who tried to force you to fit in their simple theological paradigms. Job’s seminary experience was healing and transformational. And when Job died old, contented and full of days, he had a rich, complex, questioning faith and he was still unrepentant and God was still alright with that. Amen.
We pray not because we believe it is magic, not because we are certain that God will do what we ask, but because we can and we must. The world’s burdens are too great and too many for any of us to bear, its problems impossible in our strength, knowledge and capacity. We pray knowing there is a God who hears, loves, aches and moves. We pray knowing our ancestors prayed for freedom until they died, not receiving it in their lifetimes, passing the mantle of prayer down through the generations. We don the ancestral mantle of prayer because it is our time. And we pray knowing that we may die before we see peace in the world. But we pray because we know the world will see peace whether we, our children or our children’s children live to see it. We take up the garments of prayer passed down through the centuries until the time comes to exchange it for a burial shroud and pass it on to the next generation.