Today is Children’s Sabbath, one Sunday of the year when we especially celebrate the gifts our children bring to our lives and remember that our faith calls us to act prophetically and decisively on behalf of our children, our future.
It seems appropriate, then, that you’ll hear quite a bit about my children, specifically my eldest, Hayden, in today’s sermon. Rest assured I have his permission to talk about him today.
In fact, I have to tell you that my children have been some of the most gifted spiritual teachers in my life. They model a dependence and trust, a love and assurance that I long for in my relationship with my divine parent, God.
Today as we consider our response to the feeling that God is absent, we’ll turn to our children for direction.
We were reminiscing this week at our house about a period in the life of our little family when Hayden, our eldest, was about 3. We were still parents of an only child then and meticulous about educational experiences for our genius offspring, you know.
Hayden loved to “read” books, which, in effect, meant Mark and I spent hours on the couch reading to him–sometimes the same book over and over again. When we were reminiscing, Mark and I laughed about how life used to be and Mark suddenly brought up the memory of Oliver and the Monsters.
I hadn’t thought of Oliver and the Monsters in years! How could I have forgotten?
For a period of several months straight in his third year of life Hayden loved the book Oliver and the Monsters. He wanted to read it every night before bed, over and over again (just one more time!), until he could “read” it himself and until Mark and I had the words indelibly marked on our brains. In fact, as we were laughing over the memories Mark suddenly began reciting ” . . . and they shook hoofs, paws, hands and claws on the deal . . .” and I chimed right in. The words are still there.
So, the other day when we were talking about this, we dug through the kids’ bookcase to find Oliver and the Monsters and this time made Hayden read it to us. We still remembered most of the words.
Though a cute children’s story about a little boy named Oliver who gets fed up with all the monsters under his bed and sets out to go scare the monsters straight himself, believe me, Oliver and the Monsters is no work of literary genius.
In fact, it has always been something of a wonder to me why exactly Hayden loved that book so much. He just could not abide one bedtime without reading Oliver and the Monsters. I was remembering that time in our lives and suddenly began to think that it was just another testimony . . . to the power of a story.
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By the time we get to the 38th chapter of Job, Job had just had it. He’d been through a horrible time where he’d lost everything from his house to his self-respect. He owned nothing material anymore; he was wracked with illness, his wife had left him. Job had a few friends left, if you could call them that, and they showed up to pay a visit. But his friends are no help at all, placing responsibility for every misery right at Job’s feet.
And the worst thing of all–worse than anything he could have ever imagined–was that the God who had been so close and intimate, such an important part of Job’s life, the God around whom Job had built his very purpose for living, seemed like he was hiding.
In fact, no matter where Job looked God seemed to be missing, and as Job sat on a pile of ashes, scraping his sores with a broken piece of pottery, Job cried with anguish at the deepest hurt of all . . . the absence of God.
It’s this week in our story that things change for Job, and the difference is that God, God himself, appears and finally speaks. And when God speaks, WATCH OUT. In some of the most powerful and beautiful poetry of the Hebrew Canon God thunders out of the whirlwind to remind Job what he forgot . . . that all those hours of anguish when he felt God absent Job could have remembered, remembered the story of faith, and rested in the assurance that God is always in control. God reminded Job and invites us to remember: there’s something about the power of a story.
Remember? We worship a God who decided to come to earth and live a human life, a human story. And in our Bibles, how do we read and learn about God? Through stories. Stories told over and over again, stories we tell our children, stories that were told around campfires and recited through oral tradition, stories that are told in Sunday School or recounted at bedsides . . . big stories, like Noah and Jonah, the feeding of the 5,000 and the woman healed from a deadly illness, stories in which you and I can find our own little stories and remember that there is indeed a big and active God always at work, even when the circumstances of our little lives lead us to feel that God is hiding.
I’ve talked before about the hot controversy in pastoral circles about how personal you can get in the pulpit. It’s true, you’ll often hear me talk about my everyday life, but for the past few weeks I’ve been telling you a little bit about a time in my life when I felt God was absent. I’ve let down my guard a little to share some of that story with you because I think . . . I suspect . . . that if you can hear a story in which a little common truth might exist, then you might be able to remember that God is present, even when it seems like God is hiding. Perhaps you can relate to my story.
So this week, I continue.
The time in my life I’ve been sharing with you was lonely and painful, and it seemed that no matter where I looked I could not find God. I told you about a time I walked out of church and swore I would never to go back to all those smiling people and what seemed like empty, meaningless words. I felt I did not fit in in the very place that was supposed to be God’s house; that my pain was unique among the very people who were supposed to be God’s people; that God, who was supposed to be walking beside me through all of this hell was nowhere at all.
And, like Job, those feelings that God was absent made me angry . . . full of rage and pain at the injustice of God’s absence, especially at this time when I needed God so very much.
It was during this time in my life that my mother in law called me on the telephone to see how I was holding up.
Terrible, I told her.
I didn’t know where God was, but wherever God was I wanted to tell him how angry I was. So angry I couldn’t see straight. And I felt that was wrong, to be angry at God, but I just felt that God had left me high and dry and the outrage I felt was overwhelming.
Seems like she always knows what to say–then and now.
“Let me tell you a story,” she said to me. She began to talk about Hayden, who was, at that time quickly approaching age 2 (her favorite topic at the time, since he was the first grandchild). Hayden was going through a stage when he was expressing himself rather, well, forcefully (shall we say?), throwing his body on the floor and launching into tantrums at regular intervals.
I knew all of this, of course. I lived with the child.
But then my mother in law said, “What do you do when Hayden throws himself on the floor in frustration and anger?”
I didn’t know why she’d be asking me about this but I told her that I do what I can to help him try to calm down. Maybe hold him until he stops flailing or give him a little space to cry it out.
She asked, “Do you decide you’ve had enough, that you don’t love him anymore and that you are through with him?”
“Of course not!” I exclaimed.
“Well, that’s the way it is with God,” she said. “God is not immune to your pain. God is there helping you through it. Remember how you deal with Hayden’s anger? You just love him through it,” she said. “So yell and scream all you want. Throw yourself on the floor and rail at the injustice you feel. Cry and pound your fists and ask ‘why?’. God is a loving parent, you know, and no matter how bad you feel God will not stop loving you; God will not leave you.”
As you can see, the story she told me that day stuck with me. She wove a picture that I could understand, a narrative in which I could see my own story, and suddenly and forcefully, it all began to make some sense.
It wasn’t that the pain went away.
It wasn’t that I wasn’t angry anymore.
But I suddenly heard a story that painted a picture to help me remember that God was there. For me that day it was story that finally revealed a God who I’d felt had been hiding for far too long, a God who I so desperately needed.
Up until I heard that story, I didn’t know . . . I couldn’t see . . . that God had been there all along, right beside me.
The story helped me see that God was there.
What happened to me when I felt God’s absence was the same thing that happened to Job. When all he could feel was the absence of God, God himself finally appeared, out of the whirlwind, to remind Job of a story:
“Who made the foundations of the earth?” God asked. “Do you remember the story?”
“Who laid the cornerstone of the earth while the morning stars sang together and the heavenly beings shouted for joy?”
“Who gave birth to the sea and told it, ‘This far you shall come and no further’?”
“Who commands the morning and knows the way to the dwelling of light?”
“Who tilts the waterskins of the heavens to bring rain to the earth?”
“Who has bestowed wisdom and given understanding to you?”
“Who, Job? Remember? Remember the stories of my creative power, providential care and divine orchestration? Remember?”
And suddenly, even though the pain did not go away, Job began to understand.
He’d heard from the time he was born, story after story about a God who had spun the universe into existence, who’d planted every tree and created every living thing, who controlled the changing of the seasons and the pull of the tides, a God who carefully crafted and powerfully manages every living thing.
And when he was suddenly and forcefully reminded of the story, Job was able to finally see himself and HIS story a little more clearly.
Job became, not just an abandoned man suffering . . . but a beautiful creation of God.
Job became, not all-consumed with the indignities and pain that characterized his life, but suddenly aware that his story was only a little part in a larger story.
Job suddenly was able . . . finally . . . to look up from the pile of ashes on which he sat, to look through the pain that consumed him and to see that God, God was right there with him, and God had been all along.
That’s the power of the story.
After unearthing Oliver and the Monsters from the bookshelf and revisiting the story this week, I began to finally remember and understand why it was Hayden must have loved the book so very much. I am still convinced its literary integrity was not the primary motivating factor. But I do distinctly remember that, right around the time Hayden went through his Oliver and the Monsters faze, we’d moved to a new house and located his “big boy room” at the back of the house to keep him away from noise and insure peaceful nighttimes for parents.
What we didn’t realize when we made that decision was that the room, paneled with dark wood, scared him. Since it was so far in the back of the house, our little person felt really far away from Mom and Dad. While I never recall him complaining specifically of monsters under his bed, in his little world there were a lot of fears associated with going to bed.
And, I suddenly realized, it must have been that when Hayden heard the story of Oliver and the monsters, he could relate. Every time he heard the story read or remembered the storyline himself he gathered courage from that story of a little boy who got so fed up with those pesky monsters that he went boldly up to the monsters’ house, marched right up the stairs to the monsters’ bedroom and gave them a piece of his mind.
That must have been it! There was power, you see, in the story.
There are certainly times in your life and my life that we feel God is hiding, that we feel very strongly the absence of God at a time when we really need to feel God walking beside us. What can we do at times like these?
We can remember the story.
We can remember the grand story of a God who so desired relationship that he laid the foundations of the earth and created human life out of nothing, formed us into creatures in his image and began a grand story of salvation from Noah to Abraham, David to Joshua, Jesus to Paul . . . all the way to your story and your story and my story.
This God who has been in relationship with all of humanity since the beginning of time is the very same God we feel, sometimes, that we cannot see.
But if we tell the story . . . if we listen again to its power . . . we might be able to remember that God is walking right beside us, as he has from the beginning of time and will forevermore.
So read it again. (Just one more time!)
The story will remind you that God is here, right here, in the middle of everything, and that God will never leave us alone.
And that’s a powerful story.
Scripture quotations are the author’s translation or paraphrase.