It was cold outside — snowy — about mid-November. And we’d bundled up to go to church. You know how that is– When it’s cold outside and you come to a crowded gathering of people–coats and boots were everywhere; the hallways were packed with people trying to get their children to the nursery before church started. The air was very warm, steamy, almost. The hallways were loud and chaotic, filled with people embracing, smiling, shouting out greetings to one another.
I didn’t know if I could stomach being around all those people but somehow we made it in and found some seats. I still distinctly remember–our seats were about midway back on the left.
I remember gritting my teeth and trying to put up with all the chaos around me–people all dressed up and smiling climbing over us to get to their seats. I could barely make myself stay in my seat, but I thought that if one were in need of comfort from God one could find God, obviously . . . in church.
I sat there clutching my Kleenex and waiting to feel God right there, close and ready to comfort me.
It was right as the service started that the pastor got up and shouted–shouted–“God is GOOD!”
And then he shouted it again. And again. And then he told us to shout it along with him. And it kept going and going, all those people crammed into that small place, smiles tacked on their faces, shouting . . . shouting at the top of their lungs: “God is GOOD!”
I stayed as long as I could. I clenched my fists and closed my eyes and tried to feel God somewhere in all that chaos. I tried, really hard. And then I left.
I’d come to this place–church–the most obvious place that I could think of that I might find God, and I could not. I couldn’t even begin to get a hint of the presence of God, in church of all places. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to yell right along with everyone else that God is good . . . but I couldn’t, I just couldn’t.
My life seemed void of any evidence that God existed at all, much less that God was good. And so I fled.
It could be that you have never, ever felt the desolation and utter absence of God in the same way I did that Sunday morning. But my guess is that, for most of us, we experience occasional gut-wrenching times when there’s no sign of God . . . anywhere.
I suspect this fact based partly on the Old Testament readings the lectionary offers us for the next few weeks, in which we begin an exploration of the book of Job. If you haven’t read it, you might want to give it a shot over the next few weeks. It’s a story, often written in poetic form, found in your Bible right before the book of Psalms. My goal over the next four weeks is to try to think creatively and offer some suggestions for the times in your life when it seems like God is very far away . . . when God hides.
If you have never felt this way I celebrate with you.
For the rest of us . . . it might help to have some tools in our pockets that we can pull out if we need help finding God.
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The book of Job is a story of really, really bad luck. Really bad luck. Think about losing everything, several times, about everyone you love abandoning you, about sitting on a trash heap feeling the desolate loneliness of total abandonment.
And not because you brought it upon yourself, either. Job was the all-star quarterback of the faithful. Homecoming king and most likely to succeed, Job was blameless and upright. He feared God. He turned away from evil. Job actively pursued holiness. He even, chapter one tells us, prayed extra hard for his children, just in case they made some foolish mistake and forgot to apologize. Job had it all covered, for himself and for everyone else around him.
And even then . . . even with all these qualifications, it seemed to Job that God was far, far away just when Job needed him most to be right there, right alongside him, holding his hand through the darkest time of his life.
The book of Job isn’t meant to be a historical recounting of a cultural time frame or even the biography of one guy who lived a dramatic life. No, what inspired the writing of this book was the fact that one person, a writer, was troubled by the prevalence of suffering all around him. Composed as a kind of morality play, a fable told to underscore religious sentiments, Job contains some of the most beautiful and profound poetry in the Bible. But I suspect it probably was fueled also by some personal investment. In other words, I suspect that the writer of Job may have felt, at one time or another, the distinct absence of God.
And for the writer of Job, this is how he decided to address his pain, uncertainty and fear, to try to find an adequate answer to the question of why we suffer. He picked up a pencil and began: Once upon a time, there was a man named Job.
Job is a single person, not a race or nation or religion . . . the character is a single person, created that way to remind us and remind God that when the pain hits us it hits us hard, right here in the middle of our chests, and the pain takes on a uniquely personal flavor, so that, even if we share the same tragedy, we never really share the same pain. Job was created to remind us that it happens to all of us . . . that even with loving people all around us, our pain and our suffering tend to make us lonesome—all alone, all adrift, shouting at the sky, “Where are you God, especially NOW, when I need you most?”
This is the question Job longed for an answer to . . . just a small shred of hope, not that God would necessarily end his suffering, but at least, at least, that God was there in the pain.
But God was hiding.
In the 1950s at McGill University in Canada scientists began experimenting around the question of how a human being might react if he or she were placed in a situation in which all sensory stimulation was ended. That means: no sound, no sight, no patterns, no touch, no voices . . . nothing.
Participants in a study were placed in sterile, dark rooms with nothing soft or textured. There was absolutely no sound, no color, no texture on the walls. The temperature was carefully regulated to be neither hot nor cold. Everything was kept as sterile and non-notable as possible. And participants had access only to a button to end the experiment.
Researchers found quickly that, for the first few minutes of the experiment participants relaxed. Without the constant stimuli of the lives we live, their heart rates slowed and their breathing relaxed.
But after only a few minutes, that result began to completely and dramatically change. In fact, participants soon started to struggle and that struggle grew to panic. Participants’ heart rates went up alarmingly, they began to sweat profusely and do what they could to create stimuli–yell, pound on the walls, sing, that sort of thing. No one lasted very long.
Since that study was done, sadly, sensory deprivation has been used to torture prisoners. Why? Not only is the experience of sensory deprivation immediately and horribly anxiety-provoking . . . the long-term effects of extended sensory deprivation are very serious. Anxiety disorders, depression, anti-social behavior and all kinds of psychoses result, all because of the lack of sensory stimulation.
If we didn’t know this already, this study might just be enough to convince us that we need to feel God, and most certainly in those times when life has dealt us a hard blow. God silent, absent . . . hiding, is unacceptable. And the results of THIS kind of sensory deprivation . . . of not being able to feel God . . . can be destructive.
We need to feel, we need to know, we need to be reassured that God is right there alongside us, even when we don’t see visions and dream dreams . . . even when, like Job, we look around at the devastation of our lives and wonder where God might be.
Today’s gospel lesson, then, gives us a hint about where to start looking at those times when we’re in desperate need of God’s presence. Where should we look?
Well, we start at the very beginning.
Jesus tried to explain it to his disciples by cuddling a little child. He said that for us to come into the kingdom, we were going to have to become like little children. Some days, when the identification of God in our lives is proving elusive, we are going to have to go back to the very beginning, to the very start of who we are, to be able to touch the divine, to be able to remember where God is.
And the very beginning for us, children of God, is way back before even we were born as little children . . . really, before anything existed and God, in whatever miraculous way God did it, took a little spark of the divine and created . . . humanity. God took a little spark of the divine and created the human. You and me and you and you and you, created with the most wonderful stuff . . . a little bit of God . . . and then taken into the divine hands and shaped and nurtured and loved into being.
God created us in love, in the image of God, our Bible says. And, as a result, there is evidence of goodness . . . evidence of God right here inside of each one of us. We say it in different ways, of course. But this might just be the best place to begin when we find ourselves afraid that God is hiding, gone from our lives forever. Start by remembering where we come from.
I was gone this week at a retreat during which I planned, with five other colleagues, sermons and worship themes for the year ahead. I always leave those retreats a little intimidated, wondering how it is I might somehow–anyhow–become even a little bit like my talented colleagues. I am not sure, but I think they might have the same sort of insecurities, because we do spend a lot of group time talking about preachers we admire and hope to emulate. One of those is Dr. Fred Craddock, preaching guru, who tells the following story:
Dr. Craddock told of the time he and his wife slipped away to the mountains for a few days of relaxation. As they sat in a little restaurant, they saw a man going from table to table greeting diners. Eventually the man made his way to their table and, learning that Fred was a pastor, he insisted on telling this story.
If you happen to be a pastor you will know that public knowledge of that fact often leads to the very strangest conversations. Dr. Craddock didn’t really WANT to hear this man’s story . . . he was on vacation! But he sighed and moved over so this man could tell him about his life.
The man sat down at the table and began. He said he had been born a few miles from that very spot, right on the other side of the mountain.
There was great shame in his childhood, he said, because his mother had not been married when he was born. He learned young to stay to himself at school and to work hard at drowning out the insults sure to come his way wherever he went. “Bastard,” folks whispered under their breath when he and his mother walked by.
Because of this pain, this little boy stayed as far out of the limelight as he could muster. He went to school and came home and that was about it.
When the little boy was about twelve, word began to spread that there was a revival in town. A big tent was set up right on the edge of town and everyone was talking about what was going on there. Apparently there was a preacher there who could spin words like you have never heard before . . . to leave you mesmerized and totally engrossed. He lived a lonely life, that boy, and as word of this new preacher trickled gradually his way, the boy began to get curious about the new entertainment in town.
Finally the boy decided he had to hear the preacher, so he snuck into the revival one night, almost undercover. The stories were true: the preacher left them all sitting on the edge of their seats, just waiting for what he’d say next.
The boy came back again the next night. And the next.
But he was always careful to slip in late, sit in the back, duck down in the pew to remain unnoticed, and always leave early, before anyone could question his right to be in church or throw any insult his direction.
On the last night of the revival the boy was so caught up in the service that he forgot to slip out early. When the service was over he turned to leave and suddenly he felt a big hand on his shoulder. As he whipped around, he saw the face of the pastor.
The preacher said, “Who are you, son? You look familiar! Who is your father?” The boy’s heart sank at the dreaded question; but then the preacher went on: “Wait a minute. I know who you are. The family resemblance is unmistakable. You are a child of God!” With that he patted the boy on the back and added, “That’s quite an inheritance, son. You go now . . . and claim it!”
Then the man at the table in that diner explained that his name was Ben Hooper (1870-1957) and that he had risen out of poverty to become a lawyer; and then that he had been elected to two consecutive terms (1911-1915) as governor of the state of Tennessee.
Governor Hooper then said to Dr. Craddock and his wife, “That one statement literally changed my life.”
There’s something, you see, about remembering where you come from. When times in our human lives come that we feel desolate . . . lonely . . . questioning whether or not God is there at all . . . you and I can stop to think about a spark of God, lovingly planted deep inside us, then nurtured, shaped, fashioned and tended by the very hand of God.
In those moments when God seems far away, when it seems to you that God is hiding . . . remember where you came from. Remember who your Father is. Go out and claim that inheritance as you look up and notice . . . even when it seems like God is hiding, it could be that God is walking right by your side. Amen.