Monday, November 30, 2015

A Reflection on Job

Recently I posted to Facebook that I felt a little too much like Job at the moment.  It is true, my life
over the last year has been filled with a great deal of pain and loss. It has reminded me of the story of Job, which of course is considered one of the premier texts on suffering and asking the question of why people suffer, particularly on why good people suffer.  I have been feeling however that the story has needed some contemporary updates, because we humans have found all sorts of ways to not actually sit with people in pain but to let them know that in some way they are responsible for all of their own pain and that if they just took these simple steps life would be grand. The assumption of course is that we can avoid pain, loss and suffering and yet that is the biggest lie of all.  Our culture lives in a deep state of denial about loss and death.  Somehow we live in a state of believing that death is optional, that loss is optional, that somehow we can protect ourselves and our loved ones, particularly our children, from bad things happening.  Now not to be a kill joy but that simply is not true.  We will all suffer loss - loss of those we love, loss of dreams, we will fail, we will have bad things happen to us and in my mind we do no service to those suffering or those we try to protect by heaping on a bunch of useless platitudes and spreading the lie that life can be lived without pain or sorrow. In fact, I think we make the pain worse, the suffering more acute when we let people believe that loss and sorrow are optional, that we can avoid them and that if they do happen than they are solely our fault and we are left alone to figure out a way through.

So let us get back to Job.  In a brief re-cap of the Biblical story which is its own book in the Hebrew Scriptures, Job is a righteous man, even making sacrifices on behalf of his wayward children. He has been blessed with a wife, many children, lots of cattle, sheep and good crops.  He is obedient to God, following the law.  In the story Satan, "the accuser," has been wandering the earth and in a gathering of the heavenly beings with God, God holds up Job as a bright shining example of faithfulness. Satan challenges God and says that Job is only so faithful because he has had such a good and easy life. God agrees to let Satan take away all his children and wealth but does not allow him to touch his person. So Job loses everything - children, crops, livestock.  Job however does not renounce or blame God. He remains faithful despite his great loss.  The heavenly gathering gets together again, God once again holds up Job as an example of faithfulness even in the midst of loss, yet Satan again challenges (this is where our term "Devil's Advocate" comes from) and says well yes but he still has health.  God agrees to let Satan test Job again but orders him to spare his life.  So Job becomes covered to head to toe in boils.  Job still does not renounce God instead crying out in suffering and pain, pleading to be allowed to die, wishing he had never been born. His wife, whose suffering is not really dealt with in the story, tells him to renounce God already and die.  Job is then visited by three friends all of whom are convinced that Job must have done something to displease God because otherwise why would all these bad things happen to him, they tell him to be patient, to repent, to examine his life and discover where he went wrong.  Job finds little comfort from his friends' words. Our story ends with God giving little explanation for God's actions and yet Job finds his health, family and wealth restored.

Now let's give a modern twist to the Job story because the questions the story of Job raises are eternal ones - are wealth and health signs of divine favor or making good choices or a result solely of our own achievement?  Why do good people suffer? Are bad things some sort of test of our faithfulness?

Let us reconsider the Job story in this way.  Job is a good guy, he has a great job, house and every material thing he could want.  He has a good wife and family even if sometimes his children act out and don't seem very grateful, Job takes steps to keep his children out of trouble and to smooth their way.  Job's life is good and he is a good man - faithful, loving and grateful!  Suddenly though Job loses his good job and cannot find a new one.  He loses his wealth, he can no longer protect his children so they end up in all sorts of trouble.  Yet even in the midst of this Job remains faithful and a good man, not allowing misfortune to make him bitter and angry.  Then on top of everything else, Job develops a chronic illness.  Now Job is living in daily pain, there seems to be no end to his pain and his suffering.  In the midst of this, Job's wife just cannot take it any more and wonders why he continues to be so faithful, so lacking in bitterness and anger - in anger she strikes out at him.  Job's friends come to see him and they barely recognize him.  They cry out in pain for their friend and for a long while they just sit with him in silence.  Job cries out wondering what has happened to him, wondering why, crying out for relief to his suffering. His first friend venturing speaks, warns him against negative thoughts.  Job's friend reminds him that if he just keeps a positive attitude, not allowing negativity in, that soon all will be well.  Job looks at his friend with a look that says "are you out of your mind?"  What do you mean have no negative thoughts? I have been a faithful and good person, I played by all the rules, I did what was expected and have accepted my fate without bitterness and yet sometimes it is just all too much.  Job's second friend offers that Job's predicament must be a result of something Job did - maybe his illness is because of his diet, an allergy to gluten and if he just tries this great new cleanse and juice diet, Job will soon be feeling better than his old self.  It worked wonders for me, this friend says and I know people have been cured of all sorts of things just by changing their diet.  Again Job looks at the friend with wonder.  A diet that can cure all that ails him? The third friend offers that Job just needs to put himself back out there, job search - there is something out there, the pain can't be that bad, just pull up your bootstraps and get out there.  He just can't sit here and feel sorry for himself.  He just needs to network, brand himself, and in terms of his health, well it is just a matter of mind over matter.  Job insists to his friends that his suffering is not due to his diet or negativity and he can't just put himself out there.  Job cries out for mercy and relief and not to feel so alone in his suffering.  So what happens to Job?  In this version, we don't know. It may be that Job's friends are actually able to help him find a new job, his doctor finally figures out what is wrong with him and is able to offer relief and remission, his children finally find their way back and his family is restored.  It may also be that Job wastes away, his friends leave him and he dies alone.

Probably the most powerful thing Job's friends do for him, before they speak, they sit with him in silence.  In the original story, we are told that they sit in silence for seven days.  For many people suffering, there is nothing that can be done, nothing to be "fixed" and all we can do is sit with our friends as they ride the waves of grief.  It is not comfortable to sit there like that, we want to be able to do, to fix, to act.  Grief however does not have a fix.  As this powerful article attests, some things just have to be carried.

Sometimes though there is practical help that can be offered - networking for a job, passing along a resume or an introduction. There is a reason we bring food when there is illness or death, the thought of cooking or taking care of routine daily tasks is just too much - so bringing a meal or offering to go to the store, paying a bill if the problem is financial are practical, things that friends can do to help.

Most importantly Job's friends were least helpful when they kept insisting that Job's suffering were a result of his own actions or lack of actions. Sometimes that is true, we make mistakes and we suffer the consequences. Yet in the midst of those consequences, is it really helpful to say "well if you just had not....then you wouldn't be in this mess" or "I told you this would happen if you did this and so." Unless you have some magical way to change the past, pointing out a person's failures or mistakes is not usually helpful in moving them forward. Sometimes though things happen - jobs are lost, people get sick, people die, relationships end, dreams end.  When that happens we don't need more positive platitudes about how it will all get better, that somehow God won't give us more than we can bear. In fact to take the story of Job on its face, God doesn't come out looking very good.  Job's suffering is a test of his faithfulness, that maybe we don't have free will and we are just pawns in the great chess game of the universe.  Clearly God gave Job more than anyone could bear that fact that he didn't break may be more about his friends sitting with him in silence for seven days rather than God's care or the friends' advice.

Loss, grief, pain are a part of life along with love, joy, gratitude and happiness.  More often than not, they exist side by side in a paradoxical fashion.  In the midst of great suffering we can smile and laugh, we have better days, an unexpected gift or blessing comes our way at just the right time.  None of us does it alone.  Each of us can help one another even if it is just to look at another and say "I see you and I know you are suffering and you are not alone."

So let's stop with the platitudes and meaning making and be willing to get real, to be messy and to accept that we are not in control. The biggest lesson of Job's story may be the lesson that we are not in charge, we can't control all the events of our lives and we cannot shield ourselves from life.  Also people are fragile, they can break, so please handle with care.

So what does Job's story have to say to you?  What are your thoughts?  How would you make a modern version of Job's story? What have been the most helpful things friends have done for you? What have you done for others?

Friday, November 27, 2015

Gratitude in Hard Times - Revisited

Well this is a late Throw-Back Thursday post, making it a Fall Back Friday post!  I hope you all had a blessed Thanksgiving however you spent it.

This sermon from 2014 is still relevant today as so many are struggling in hard times.  I continue my Three Good Things practice and it does continue to help me hold on to hope when things feel very hard and that there is nothing to be thankful for.

As we enter into this season of so much expectation, may we be gentle with ourselves and others who may be suffering in so many ways.  There are those who are grieving, those who are struggling financially, those who live everyday with chronic illness and pain.  May we tone down expectation and focus instead on what is most important to us. May we be able to find gratitude even in the midst of hard times.


PS I am working on a brand new blog post I hope to have ready for Monday morning!

Gratitude in Hard Times

I preached this sermon on Sunday November 9, 2014 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks.

Story: An adapted excerpt from The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom - this link takes you to the full passage but I did shorter adapted version
Poem: "Be Thankful" Author Unknown

Gratitude in Hard Times

I know that many of us are struggling this week with hope and gratitude following the elections this week.  Not all of us and some may be pleased with some if not all of the results.  If my Facebook newsfeed is any indication there was a great deal more disappointment than exuberance following Tuesday.  Others of us are struggling with illness or family members with illness, are struggling financially, battle depression, are worried about loved ones who are struggling and all the other things that can make it hard to be grateful.  Around the world there are people living in a poverty we cannot imagine, live in fear of bombs and war, are in prison, are facing death, are alone. Finding things to be grateful for is not always easy. 

In our story from Corrie ten Boom it would be hard to imagine a more dismissal picture…Corrie and Betsy are in a concentration camp, they are starving, they are in a confined space, it is filthy and there are fleas.  They don’t actually talk about being bitten by the fleas but we can imagine that we can add itchy bites to the whole situation. Yet in that situation Betsy tells them to give thanks for the fleas and it turns out it was the fleas that kept the guards from checking too closely on what was going on in the barracks so the Bible remains safe and the reading of it goes on.  Corrie is skeptical as I would imagine most of us would be at giving thanks for the fleas.  Yet what might it mean for us to give thanks for everything, including the challenges in our lives?

I am reminded of Parker Palmer who is an author and educator who also shared in his book Let Your Life Speak about his battle with depression. Parker, over time and it took a long time, came to see his depression as part of his spiritual journey, as leading him to his truth self and true vocation.   In the midst of his journey through depression Parker finally found a therapist who would also treat his depression as part of an inner journey.  In one session, she suggested that rather than see his depression as the hand of a friend pushing him down to the ground where it is safe to stand rather than as an enemy seeking to crush him.  Parker, like Corrie, was at first incredulous at this image.  In time however this image of depression as a friend who pushed him down where it is safe to stand slowly healed him as began to live a more grounded, authentic life.  He could see how fear, ego, and a series of what his life “should” be had led him to living an ungrounded, inauthentic life and his journey down into the depression and facing the demons there led him to a deep healing; to authenticity. 

Not everyone can make that journey; not everyone makes it through.  We can name far too many who do not, many our own family members, friends, celebrities like Robin Williams who finally lose their battle with depression.  It is critical that we not reduce hard times, debilitating times, to Pollyannaish opportunities for silver linings and gratitude.  It takes great strength to see good in the midst of suffering. It should never be a demand, only a possible way forward.  Yes many have shown us that it is possible and we must also acknowledge that hard times do break people, people are fragile, and not everyone comes out stronger – it is not true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It may be true for some and our care, love and prayers are needed for those for whom life is filled with too much grief and suffering.

In my own life I can see things that at the time felt like the end of the world that became pathways to new places.  Like so many others I was once fired from a job and I can honestly say it was a gift.  I was blessed with enough income from unemployment to figure out what to do next and it led to my decision to enter Wesley Theological Seminary.  Being fired removed me from a highly toxic work environment and allowed me to embark on a new direction.  I remember at the time though part of me felt like the world had ended. I was ashamed and embarrassed.  I was relieved. I was scared.  It took time to see it as a gift; as a blessing. 

Lately I have embarked a on new practice, learned from the Science of Happiness class that I have been taking through edX and UC Berkeley.  It is the practice of Three Good Things.  Each night I write down three good things from the day.  For me, even on the hardest days, this practice helps me see the good.  They may be small simple things, like cuddling or playing with our kittens, a delicious meal or a hot shower but remembering that it was not all bad, that there was good in the midst of it all restores hope and gives strength to put the day to rest and begin again the next day.  For me this has been a life giving practice and helped me to deal with some of my current struggles. For others it may be impossible to see even three good things in their day.  I offer it as a practice that I have found helpful and healing.

Part of what is so broken in our American culture and in particular American politics is that we don’t stop to reflect on what is working, on that which we can be grateful for.  How many positive political ads were run that said hey this is really working and I pledge to support policies that will help keep this working or expand it so even more people can have access?  We don’t run our campaigns this way, our campaigns feed on what is broken, what is lacking and then promising to fix it.   This is true of our political system and it is also true of our consumer culture.  Our consumer culture thrives on our sense of scarcity.  It thrives on making us believe that happiness can be purchased and packaged.  It requires us to be always hungry and never satisfied.

Our poem this morning invites us to give thanks for hard things, for opportunities to grow.  It offers a practice, like the Three Good Things, to re-frame the story we tell ourselves. Just like the ten Boom’s their prayers and practice did not change the situation which was horrible and evil, it did however change them.  Finding gratitude in the midst of hard times does not always change the conditions but it can change us, it can give us the opportunity to see a new way through.  It can give us strength to persevere or maybe to let go.

Another troubling aspect to our culture is the assumption that there is a way through or things can be fixed and yet there are some things that cannot be fixed or cured, they can only be accepted.  Death is one of those things.  All of us will die and all of us will lose those we love to death.  There is nothing we can do to change this, we can only accept it.  In the midst of grief, often people will offer words that time will heal and yet that is not always a comfort.  Sometimes in the midst of grief healing is the last thing we want.  I also think it is not true.  Grief does not truly heal, the loss remains.  With time, love helps fill the cracks and crevices. Much like the Japanese art of filling a cracked bowl with gold which I find a more helpful image; the bowl is cracked and remains so but with care and time the cracked places become beautiful.  Those who live with chronic illness, including my wife, struggle to have people understand including medical and other professionals, that there is no healing in the sense we usually think of it.  This is not a cold or the flu where we are sick for a while and then get better.  With chronic illness, terminal illness, what we consider healing has to look different.  It may look like more good days, less pain, sometimes just allowing oneself to be with the pain or may even look like letting go as in the case of Brittany Maynard for whom there was no cure for her brain cancer. Her healing was about accepting that she was dying.  In our death denying, everything can be fixed culture, acceptance and letting go are not easily done.  Yet we can also be grateful in the midst of letting go. We can be grateful that a loved one is no longer suffering; grateful that in the midst of our own pain another’s has ended; grateful for the life lived.  

All of the world’s philosophies and religions seek to make sense of suffering, grief, illness and death.  Each tries to offer a why, to offer a way through.  Gratitude in the midst is one way, one practice we can embrace to make hard times easier, to shift our perspective.  We do not have control of all of the circumstances of our life, we can choose how to respond and the story we choose to tell.  It may take years for us to find gratitude in the midst of hard times, in the midst of grief, illness, death. We can cultivate gratitude as a practice, as a habit that we develop.  We can take to the heart the words of Meister Eckhart “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”

May it be enough!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

We Who Are Weary Revisited

I wrote this post in August 2014. I wish I could say that a year plus later that things are better but I can't.  Even in our world, now it is Syrian refugees, those fleeing the very same extremists and terrorists that we do.  Our best response is to open a place for them, not to close down and hide behind our borders thinking that will keep us safe. Think how weary those families are waiting to find a safe place for themselves and their children.  I think these pictures speak to the weariness of these children and their families.

I have struggled to write and post here since my father's death. Grief has a way of making it hard to find words and put them down.  I have many ideas but I am not quite ready to write so please bear with me as I walk through this deep valley of grief and worry.

I still hope that this will be a place to share our stories, to offer hope and support.


We Who Are Weary

"Come to me all who are weary and I will give you rest" Matthew 11:28
"My soul is weary with sorrow;  strengthen me according to your word." Psalm 119: 28

I sense a great weariness in our culture that is manifested in fear and scarcity.  It lashes out in anger.  It hunkers down and closes our borders. It cultivates an unhealthy, over the top individualism that is not concerned with the common good.

What is weariness?  Weariness is a tired that goes well beyond being physically tired.  It is a tired that is in your bones, in your heart, in your soul.  It is not new. It is not a recent phenomenon tied to our high rate of inequality or modern living. Ancient people knew about weariness.  There are at least 40 references to being weary in the King James Bible in both the Hebrew and Christian books; anothersite listed 100.  In some cases the writer tells the listeners/reader to not give up, do not grow weary.  In other cases, the writer promises rest and renewal for those who are weary and heavy burdened.  

We don't talk about being weary.  We hide it away, barely acknowledging to ourselves how worn down we actually are.  We somehow believe we are alone, that it is our own fault.  We know others don't want to hear about how weary we are because if I am your friend and I hear you are weary it might call attention to my own pain, my own despair.  We also live in a culture that discourages talking about it.  All the self help books talk about positive thinking, banishing negativity, remaining positive, facing our fear.  Some of that is helpful, a reminder that we have more strength than we might imagine.  On the other hand, it reinforces the belief that if we could just be more positive we would not be so weary.  

I am weary.  I have a wife in pain, in pain everyday and we don't have the financial resources to get her fully diagnosed or even have her on all her medications. I need to earn more income because I am only working half time and I need a full time salary. And I don't even know that I "should" post this post because most people would rather talk about anything other than money, or financial hardship. We are more silent about money than sex. You see in this country if you are anything else other than making it, you are a failure and it is all your fault.  I am not poor, I don't qualify for public assistance. I am a minister, what used to be a solid middle class job, sure clergy complained that they would never make any money doing what they are doing but they did make it. They bought homes, they did take vacations, they had retirement and health care.  They worked full time. Now increasingly salaries are lower, full time jobs are fewer and farther between and student loan debt for those in ministry is sky rocketing.  Yet we don't want to talk about this.  It is too scary for others in similar positions or just a paycheck away from it because if I am struggling, if my family isn't making it then maybe they are only an illness or job loss away from it as well.  We are afraid - afraid of what little we have will vanish. So we are further isolating. We don't talk to each other. We don't join faith communities and when we do, those faith communities all too often offer prosperity gospel or speak not at all to the deep pain and suffering.  As a minister I am not supposed to share how I may be hurting or stressed. Recently, the loss of a colleague has made me re-think how important it may be to open up even when it is scary or others may feel uncomfortable.

I know I am not alone. I think too many people are weary and longing for rest. People are scared and you can hear it on-line, in person.  People are isolating because they are afraid, they are tired and for too long they have been asked to keep going on their own.  Because in our American individualistic culture, you cannot be tired and if you are not making it is your fault. You must not be working hard enough; you must be lazy.

So we yell at immigrant children arriving here alone and scared, fleeing the violence of drug cartels in oppressive regimes that our U.S. government has supported. We have judges and lawmakers seeking to take away affordable health insurance from hard working people.  We have people hurling unspeakable vile at our President because he is a person of color and yet we live in a "post-racial society"... whatever that means.  We have religious folks caring more about who gets to legally marry who than about why our young people are delaying marriage because they can't afford it.  We have religious folk caring more about unborn fetuses and fertilized eggs than living, breathing babies whose parents struggle to feed them, to house them, and then they get blamed for not being more involved at their child's school.  We tend want to scrutinize every purchase of the poor under the guise of helping them become financially stable but when the rich crash our economy all while collecting their multi-million dollar salaries and bonuses, we bale them out without question. Apparently banks are "too big to fail" and yet my family, and thousands, maybe millions of families are expendable. Yet we blame the poor and the undocumented for the state of our economy instead of laying at the feet of the very wealthy who have made life harder and the American dream more elusive for more and more of us. No wonder so many are weary.

Yes I am weary and I long for rest. I long for this peace that Hebrew and Christian scriptures promise us. The promise that we are not alone. The promise we have not been forgotten that there is a love that holds us and will not let us go.  A love that tells us yes we can go one more day, that it will get better. That there is a better place, a promised land and the only way we will get there is together. Yet to get there together we must be willing to speak the truth of our lives. That truth includes our financial truth.  As long as people like me stay silent, make it look like everything is ok then nothing will change. As a white educated woman I am not supposed to be here. I am supposed to be doing ok.  My family and I are not ok and I know that there are many other families out there losing sleep, weary, worried and feeling very much alone.  We don't want to talk about it.  We are not supposed to talk about it as if our silence will make it less real.  Yet Audre Lorde reminds us that "your silence will not protect you."  

So today I break the silence.  Today I tell you I am weary - weary of not having enough, weary of worrying about how to pay the bills, how to keep food on the table, how to help my partner get the health care she needs. Weary of there never being enough money. Even more weary because this situation has gone on for a long time and seems to be all I think about or talk about with close friends. The long lasting weariness zaps my creativity to make change, jeopardizes health even more and shuts down hope. There I have said it.  There I have spoken it.  Will you think less of me now?  Am I less worthy in your eyes because not only do I not have it, I said it out loud?  I have "come out" as struggling financially, of not knowing how my family is supposed to make it. 

I am weary and I know I am not alone. Maybe all of us who are weary need to come together. Maybe we need to start speaking the truth of how weary we are. Maybe we need to stop pretending, stop hiding, stop thinking we are alone.  Maybe your weariness comes from a chronic illness, a child dealing with addiction, a job that is burning you out, a betrayal in your marriage ... or like me, some combination of things. Maybe the most powerful thing we who are weary can do is to stop the hard work of pretending, of staying silent.  Maybe the most powerful thing we can do is speak the truth.

So, I offer an invitation to we who are weary, please share your story.  Please let this be a place where we can break the silence and shame that often surround our weariness. Perhaps, the ministry I wish to be engaged in makes room for being honest about my own life in an effort to allow others to share their stories as they really are. Maybe then we will find the resources, to use the words of James Luther Adams, both human and divine to achieve meaningful change.