Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Listeners that bridge the way to prayer

The image in my mind as I begin is of that ladder Jacob saw in his dream, the one that served as a bridge between heaven and earth. We see in that bridge a picture of Jesus, of how His incarnation, death and resurrection open a way for us to move between this life and eternity. Today I think, too, of the one who listens in the power of the indwelling Spirit, as one who serves the speaker as a bridge to prayer, whose role is to keep the way between the speaker and the Lord clear.

Once again it is Job and his friends who drew this to my attention. Earlier in this series, I wrote about Job’s friends and their “listening.” Three men who came to accompany Job, who stayed with him, who sat in silence in the ash heap, and then, when they finally opened their mouths in response to what they saw, were unwilling and perhaps unable to integrate Job’s story with their theology. Despite what they knew of Job and his life of generous integrity, they put their suffering friend in the “must have sinned” box. No compassion, no pity, no patience. No trust in Job’s integrity, in the faithfulness of Job’s walk with God. Preachy, accusatory responses loaded with falsehood and bad theology. God Himself would say to them (Job 42:7), “My anger burns against you…, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” Only by Job’s prayer, would God withhold due penalty for their folly.

But how did their “listening,” which includes their responses to what Job said, impact Job? Specifically, did they, as listening, attending, responsive friends help Job to stay with his own prayer, to continue to pursue God? For that is the purpose of the discipline of spiritual listening. The listener attends to the speaker and to the Spirit so as to hold the way open, to support the ladder, if you will, so that the speaker finds whatever it is he or she needs to stay with the Lord. The listener is a companion, a helper, a supporter in the pilgrimage of another.

The Book of Job is far too long to work through in detail, but here is what strikes me about the impact of Job’s friends on his prayer, especially when I read through the dialogue between Job and the three quickly:

·      When Job first opens his mouth after seven days of silent mourning with his three friends (Job 3), he pours out raw pain and emotion, and deep confusion that God would have so “hedged him in.” Job’s words. It is not direct prayer, but it is honest, messy, unfiltered, vulnerable sharing. Countered, from the first response, with instruction rather than empathy, heavy spiritual-ese, and bad theology in the suggestion that Job must be hiding some secret sin.

·      In Job’s second speech (Job 6-7) he continues to complain against God and to pray for death, an end to his suffering. He even adds his unkind friends to his list of woes. He argues with them a bit, and invites debate in 6:24-30, and in chapter 7 mixes debate and justification of his complaints with prayer.

·      Job’s third speech (Job 9-10) mulls the vast difference between humanity and God, and his inability to touch God’s purity. He holds, however, to his blamelessness.  Job 9:25-10:22 is direct prayer wherein Job is tormented by confusion, and oppressed by God’s might and His silence. “WHY?” is his cry to God.

·      Still arguing, and now heckling his friends, Job’s fourth speech (Job 12-13) resounds with logic and observation of God’s character and ways revealed in nature and life. From 13:13 onwards, his argument melds back into prayer, this time a prayer to confront God in person, to argue his case, even as he continues to plead for death and the peace of oblivion.

·      In Job 16, Job takes a fifth run, crying out against his miserable friends. He speaks yet again of his pain, his horrific story. He does not pray.

·      In fact, we don’t see Job pray again as long as the conversation with his friends continues. He argues, he reasons, he begs these men for mercy. He cries his understanding of God: “I know my Redeemer lives….” But in the sixth through the ninth and final response to their reasoning, he speaks little of his personal misery and desire. His friends, he has learned, don’t want to know, don’t want to look at what is. And he only talks about God, never to Him.

What has happened? These friends, these men who chose to come alongside Job in his story, set up barriers to prayer. All genuine listening truncated by their revulsion and their bad theology, they worked to sort Job out, to set him straight, to teach and push him into what they felt so sure he needed to do.

In doing so, they failed on so many levels.
·      They failed to look closely at reality that contradicted what they wanted God to be like.
·      They failed to keep to what they knew of Job’s life and character.
·      They failed to give Job dignity, to approach him with humility.
·      They failed to realize that God does not need protecting from human anger and confusion.
·      They looked for pious prayer rather than real prayer.
·      They failed to believe that God knew what He was doing.

Their failure in all of these things made a failure to truly listen inevitable, inescapable. They came to help Job. I believe that. We who desire to practice the discipline of spiritual listening want to do the same.

Lots of failure in this story. At the heart of it, for me, is the failure to understand that our best role as listeners is to simply support the ladder, hold the bridge open, and then do our best to stay out of the way and let God speak and do as He purposes and pleases.

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