Thursday, February 11, 2016

To listen without boxes...

There’s Job, sitting in the ashes, face swollen, red sores and scabs from scalp to the naked soles of his feet, pus oozing, rot hanging on the air about him, muttering curses. The guy who had it all, whose life was permeated with blessing and joy, wisdom and attentive generosity has been left unshielded from Satan’s worst.

Look! Here come his friends. When word reached each in his distant home, they made a plan, and now they arrive together to be with this suffering companion. They come “to show him sympathy and comfort him” Job 2:11 (ESV). They come with pure hearts, I think. They come to sit alongside, to share the pain, perhaps to pray, to do what they can.

When they draw near, when they see Job, they are shocked. How can this be? The reality is grit, stench, and moans of misery. There's Job. If he sits, all is pain. If he lies down, more pain. If he stands, he staggers and falls. Exhausted with relentless suffering, he now cries out, later mumbles incoherence, jerks awake from stolen slumber.

They come in compassion. They start well. No one flees. All three join him on the ground, partake in the weeping. They look like they enter into Job’s suffering.

For seven days and seven nights they sit in silence. No words. They wait. They watch. They give Job attention, and they give him space.

Seven days. Who does that? We admire their tenacity. We wonder how they stood it. We consider all the things they could have been doing. We suppose their love to be deep. We laud their refusal to rush in with answers.

Seven days. Silence. A lot of time to, well…, to what? To pray? To identify in empathy and compassion? To listen? To analyze? To consider the nature of a God who would do this?

At last Job breaks the silence. Oh, for the discipline to wait until the one who needs to be heard breaks the silence! Oh, for the patience that refuses to put words into the sufferer’s mouth! Oh, for the courage to allow silence to do its work!

Seven days. These “friends” have had a lot of time to wonder what Job will say, what they want to hear from him.

“Curse on the day I was born!” A cry of self-pitying despair. After seven days, is this all Job has to say?

The dialogue of the Book of Job is underway. It will bounce back and forth, progress and evolve, but the tone is set from the beginning. The first reply of his friend Eliphaz (Job 4-5) is seeded with all the elements. Job cries misery, confusion, anger, injustice. His friends, who sat silent in what looked like empathy and love, reply with... what? After seven days of apparent attending to this suffering friend, they open their mouths to spew...uhmmm... patronizing condemnation and spiritual-sounding theological nonsense.

Patronizing and condemning? Here's Eliphaz:

·      “Your words have upheld him who was stumbling, and you have made firm the feeble knees. But now it has come to you, and you are impatient; it touches you and you are dismayed.” Job 4: 4-5. He says, in effect, “What’s with you, Job? You have all this empathy for others, but when the suffering touches you, you can’t take it!”

·      “I have seen the fool taking root, but suddenly I cursed his dwelling. His children are far from safety; they are crushed in the gate, and there is no one to deliver them. The hungry eat his harvest, … and the thirsty pant after his wealth…. As for me, I would seek God, and to God would I commit my way. Behold, blessed is the one whom God reproves; therefore despise not the discipline of the Almighty” Job 5:1-17 (excerpts). He makes it oblique, but his point is clear: “You’re a fool, Job. You must be, because God took your stuff and your kids. But me? Look! I’m doing okay. I suggest you seek God, friend. You’ve messed up, and this is your discipline. Embrace it!”

Theological nonsense? Really? It sounds so spiritual! Here's Eliphaz again:

·      “Remember: who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same” Job 4:7-8. “You, Job? Those kids of yours? Whatever has happened, it must be deserved!”

·      “Now a word was brought to me stealthily; my ear received the whisper of it. Amid thoughts from visions of the night, when deep sleep falls on men, dread came upon me, and trembling, which made all my bones shake. A spirit glided past my face; the hair of my flesh stood up. It stood still, but I could not discern its appearance. A form was before my eyes; there was silence, then I heard a voice: ‘Can mortal man be in the right before God? Can a man be pure before his Maker?’” Job 4:12-17. You hear it, don’t you? Visions and dreams, voices: “The Spirit told me…!”

·      “He frustrates the devices of the crafty, so that their hands achieve no success. …[T]he schemes of the wily are brought to a quick end…. But he saves the needy from the sword of their mouth and from the hand of the mighty” Job 5:12-15. God is just, posits Eliphaz, and then he tells Job what that looks like: “God doesn’t let bad people succeed, and won’t allow them hurt the needy.” Again, sounds spiritual, but is it true? Does it meet with what goes on in this fallen world?

So what just happened? These friends were well-intentioned. They listened and pondered. They want to speak truth, to help Job. At least that’s my impression. And yet Job reels from the blows of their words.

Here’s what I think happened. Here’s what I think happens so easily when we set ourselves to “listen” to another.

·      They listened with their heads rather than with their hearts. That is, they felt it was their role to listen in order to analyze the problem and propose solutions.

·      They knew things were bad before they entered into Job’s suffering, but as they sat in silence those seven long days they were repulsed by what they saw. They gave in to the felt need to differentiate themselves. They didn’t want a God who would do such things to men like them, so they decided Job must be different. Perhaps there was secret sin. Perhaps he simply didn’t have enough faith.

·      They looked on Job’s woes, which they did not experience, and felt superior. They reasoned, probably without realizing they were doing it, that they must be smarter, or holier, that God must love them more.

·      They reshaped the facts to fit their theology, and they couched their conclusion in spiritual-sounding language. Their argument is permeated with claims that God does not let good people suffer, or bad people thrive. Job is suffering. His children were dramatically destroyed. His stuff, too. Therefore, goes their logic, despite whatever they had previously observed and believed about Job’s character, Job and his kids must be terrible sinners.

·      They didn’t know God very well, nor were they keen observers of the human condition. That is, they had bad theology. God does allow people to suffer and even to be killed. Evil people do thrive, and they exploit the poor and the powerless. It is part of life in this fallen world. And mortals can, by means of faith in the power and the love of God, be blameless before God. Mortals like Abraham, Shem, Enoch, Noah and Job. And you and me.

I titled this piece “listening without boxes.” Job’s friends sat and watched. As they did, the need arose in them to make sense of, or, if you will, to solve, the problem. To manage this, they had to put both Job and God in little boxes. Job had to go to the sinner box; God had to go to the “our sense of justice" box.

I use the term “box” because I see their listening truncated by the need for enclosure, for manageable explanations and solutions. That’s normal for us humans. We like the sense that things are enclosed, manageable, explainable, solvable, in control.

Job’s story is full of stuff we who listen need to know. Big stuff about God’s nature, prayer, suffering. But today I notice other things, things Job teaches about listening as a spiritual discipline:

·      It takes time.

·      Part of real listening is the will to wait in silence until the speaker is ready to speak, to be unafraid of silence.

·      The listener will sometimes be repelled by the story. This needs to be noticed and set aside or she may distance herself from the speaker and the story.

·      The listener must know the Lord, His character and nature, and, by inference, the Scriptures, well. This includes acknowledging that God often acts outside the realm of our human knowledge or understanding. It also includes observation of real conditions in this fallen world.

·      A good listener notices and resists the temptation to assume facts for which there is no testimony or evidence. This does not mean that the listener takes all at face value, but her response, when there is reason to suspect the facts are otherwise, will be to invite the speaker to consider whether he or she is overlooking or minimizing something.

·      A spiritual listener will avoid language that suggests that she has superior access to God’s plan or will, for this language crosses easily into spiritual abuse.

·      A listener remains open to ambiguity, to mystery, to continued suffering, to the truth that not all problems have solutions and not all facts can be made to fit our fallen, limited understanding of God.

·      A listener listens in order to enter into the journey of another, to empathize, to walk alongside, to bring comfort and help that is compassionate and full of truth. All this in the context of holding the speaker in trust before the Lord.

Thanks, Job, for living so candidly before us all. That we would not do to another, with all good intentions, what your “friends” did to you.

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