View print-optimized version | View pdf of bulletin
Sunday, October 14, 2018 | 8:00 a.m.
Judith L. Watt
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Job 23:1–9, 16–17
Lord, open unto me
Open unto me—light for my darkness.
Open unto me—courage for my fear.
Open unto me—hope for my despair.
Open unto me—peace for my turmoil.
Open unto me—joy for my sorrow.
Open unto me—strength for my weakness.
Open unto me—wisdom for my confusion.
Open unto me—forgiveness for my sins.
Open unto me—love for my hates.
Open unto me—thy Self for my self.
Lord, Lord, open unto me! Amen.
In my twenty-four years of ordained ministry, I’ve been privileged to hear powerful and profound, poignant and promising stories from the people I’ve known in three churches, including this one. These people are “ordinary saints.” Ordinary people whose stories and whose wrestling with God have inspired me. Emma was one of those. Emma died in 2012 at the age of 103, but when I first knew her, she was a young 85 years of age.
Emma had had four children, the first a daughter and three boys after that. By the time I heard about the details of Emma’s family, she was a widow. Her husband had died several years before. And her children were in their sixties with families of their own—except for her firstborn child, the only girl. Roberta, or Bobbie, had been hit by a car when she was ten years old. Hit by a car right in front of her house. The accident killed Bobbie. So for sixty some years of Emma’s life before I met her, there had been a gaping hole, a grief that had been with her and a wrestling with the God she knew as her creator.
Emma and her husband had enjoyed their sons and had provided a good and happy home. But the loss of their first child and all of the questions that came with that tragic death never left them. The day she told me the story, as I was leaving her home, Emma said, “And when I get to heaven, the first question I’m going to ask God is why Bobbie was taken from us.”
In a sermon given by Amy Butler, Senior Pastor of Riverside Church in New York, she mentions a book written by Martin Marty, emeritus professor at the University of Chicago, theologian, Lutheran pastor, and, by the way, father of our very own Micah Marty here on staff at Fourth Church. After the death of Martin Marty’s first wife in the 1980s, he wrote a book titled A Cry of Absence: Reflections for the Winter of the Heart. Throughout the book, he works with the metaphor of “the winter of the heart”—those periods of a wintry spirituality that deal with suffering and evil, loss and pain, questions that are unanswerable; times when God seems absolutely silent.
Job experienced this silence, this wintry spirituality. Whether you’ve read the book of Job or not, you likely know that Job lost everything. Absolutely everything. Wife, children, home, status, livelihood. The majority of the chapters in Job recount his search for answers from a God he can’t even find. A God who appears to be absent because this God for whom Job is searching is so silent. Job can’t find any answers to his predicament, and he can’t even access God to “make his case.” He wants to ask, just like Emma said she wanted to ask, “Why?” “Why did I deserve this?” And he wanted to make his case, just like Emma would have made her case, “I didn’t deserve this.” Throughout the book of Job, all Job seeks is the chance to express himself to God—and he can’t even do that, because God is so silent. As if absent. That’s a wintry spirituality. A dark night of the soul. A winter of the heart.
Those of us raised with any kind of religious sensibilities and nurtured in the tradition of the Bible have been taught that God is both a champion of justice and also a protector of the vulnerable. The Exodus is God’s response to an oppressed and suffering people. “I have heard the cry of my people. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians.” We believe in a God that the psalmist proclaims in Psalm 99: a “lover of justice” who established equity. A God like the one proclaimed by Amos, who “roars” in anger at war crimes and social abuses. So if we take seriously what the Bible proclaims we take seriously the sense that God is active in preserving justice and is also protector of the vulnerable. But then there are the things we see and don’t understand, like the death of a ten-year-old child, hit by a car, for no apparent reason. Or the things we hear and see each day in the news: Atrocities in Syria and elsewhere. Natural disasters that cause tremendous human suffering. The events we have known about: Auschwitz, Dachau. How do we claim that God is a God of justice when bad things happen to good people, when suffering comes out of nowhere? When the chaos of the world around us seems to be increasing? When we enter those times in our lives of wintry spirituality?
It is hard to hold this contradiction. It is hard to hold together a God who is the preserver and establisher of justice with a God who seems absent in the face of tragedy and atrocities. Martin Buber called this terrible contradiction “the rent in the heart of the world,” “the torn place, the rent, in the heart of the world.” We don’t like this contradiction. We have a hard time holding it, and because of the difficulty of holding onto the contradiction, we go to easy places first, like Job’s friends did, to easy answers. Job’s friends tried to tell him that the God of justice likely saw something in Job that needed correcting, and so in some way, Job was getting something he deserved. Job would have none of it. Job cries out in darkness, into a void. His complaint is bitter. He desperately seeks to present his case to a God he can’t find.
Over the years I have had a lot of people come to talk to me in my office about their doubts. They come to me with doubts and worried about their faith. They find themselves unsure about the continuing presence of God. Or maybe they have a sense that God is roaming around somewhere in the world but certainly not in their own personal world, and they always beat themselves for this feeling. They always think they are doing something wrong. What most of you don’t know or don’t like to accept is that most of us, even we who are pastors, go through these times of wintry spirituality ourselves. Doubts pop up in our lives too. There are dark times when we yearn to find God or feel God’s presence or have God make sense out of what we can’t understand. God becomes silent for us at times, too.
Those people who come to speak to me in my office invariably blame themselves for the absence of God they are feeling or the doubts they are experiencing. I always want to tell them, Stop. Stop blaming yourself. Those doubts and that yearning and the silence is God’s presence in your very life, not God’s absence. The fact that you have a doubt in your mind or the fact that you find yourself yearning for something of God—that is God, God’s presence in the form of what seems like silence, or what seems like absence, tapping on your shoulder, paradoxical as it may seem.
Thomas Merton said, “If you find God with ease, perhaps it is not God you’ve found.” Paul Tillich says about faith and doubt, “Faith says ‘Yes’ in spite of the anxiety of the ‘no’ of doubt; it does not build a castle of doubt-free security—only a neurotically distorted faith does that—but it takes the ‘no’ of doubt and the anxiety of insecurity into itself.”
In her sermon preached on this passage, Amy Butler says, “Strong believers we are until we punch in the numbers we thought would give us access to God and we get nothing.” We start to wonder if God is there at all, if God cares about us and our lives. Doubt builds. And to this, Amy Butler says, “Good.” Good because this is a chance to voice out loud to the God who seems silent and absent all of your wrestlings, to become your own theologian, to ask the questions and find some of those questions simply unanswerable and finally to come to terms with your own role in relationship with God. To finally accept that you don’t know all and won’t know all. That we are not in complete control of this life. The wrestling is uncomfortable. Frederick Buechner wrote, “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts at all, then you are asleep.” The wrestling and the doubts are uncomfortable, but there’s a comfort that comes with the acceptance that you might not understand everything.
In the end, regardless of how very much we want all of our questions answered and regardless of how little understanding we have of the reason for horrific things that happen in the world (yes, there is evil, and yes, there is free will, but even those concepts don’t answer why some things happen; certainly I don’t think either of those concepts would have helped Emma in the loss of her daughter), in the end I think we’d want to choose a God who is mysterious and sometimes elusive and even silent sometimes instead of a God who answers to our every whim and comes running whenever we call. That kind of God would wouldn’t hold our attention for long.
That Jesus quoted today’s psalm from the cross tells us that even Jesus had these times of God’s silence. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night but find no rest.” Martin Luther talked often about the hidden God. Psalm 22 testifies to that same theme.
Our asking those questions of doubt, our seeking a God who sometimes seems silent is, in an odd way, a continued statement of faith on our part. We are asking and we are seeking something we somehow think and hope beyond hope exists, whether we can behold God all the time or not. Our doubts are an undercurrent of belief that pulses through us.
Emma did her fair share of wrestling with God and asking her questions, but she never really stopped believing that God somehow existed. During another of my visits to her home, she told me about the day her husband died, which had been just a few years before I came into Emma’s life. She had brought him home from the hospital and gotten him situated in his chair in the living room, and she went into the kitchen to make some lunch. A while later, she came out because she heard him calling her. When she got out to the living room, he said, in his weakened voice, “Emma, there was a beautiful young girl here, calling to me.” Of course Emma didn’t see a thing. But that day, after lunch and later in the afternoon, her husband died. And Emma said to me, “I think that was Bobbie calling to him, waiting for him. That has always given me comfort to think she was waiting and calling and he is now with her.” Through all of her doubts and despite all of her questions about the greatest tragedy in her life, God never left Emma.
Consider that the silence of God is really not absence at all but instead presence and an opportunity for us to ask our questions and to shake our fists in yearning, to find a deeper faith and to understand who we are just a little bit better because the God who is our creator never leaves us.
Thanks be to the One who was and who is and who always will be. Amen.