The real value of these laments is that they model a way to be in relationship with God when it really seems as if it’s all going to Hell.
Troubles come, don’t they?
There’s not a person alive, if they’re old enough to read on the internet, who wouldn’t agree that troubles come. The question is how we get through when they do.
My grandparents would have pretended that there was no trouble. They were people of the “stiff upper lip.” Born on the open fields of West Central Texas, they lived through a great depression, two world wars, drought, the death of their first-born child, and yet I never heard a story about hard times.
Oh, I heard stories, plenty of them: Like the time a young Albert, my grandfather, threw a frog on Thelma and she screamed so long that her nick-name became Toadie and she was called that for the next eighty years.
There’s a great story about a stranger who came to town and got a job working as a shepherd for Joe Thiele, my great-grandfather. Turns out that the stranger was a sheep rustler. Uncle Joe was a smart fellow, though, and he laid a trap for the rustler. Nobody has ever seen or heard from that sheep rustler again.
We’ve got stories, sure; but there are no stories of hard times. That is one way of coping.
In the readings for today people do not keep a stiff upper lip: “Today also my complaint is bitter; his hand is heavy despite my groaning,” says Job. If only Job could find God, then he’d complain. But, poor Job can’t even find God.
The Psalmist also feels utterly forsaken, “O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer; by night as well…” He cries all day, and all night too, but God is still far off, and seems not to care.
These are great laments. Their value is not in literary style, or even in being good stories, though it’s hard to beat the story of Job and his wife. The real value of these laments is that they model a way to be in relationship with God when it really seems as if it’s all going to Hell. Job rants, and the Psalmist wails, but neither of them walked away. They have not gone out to find other bitter souls to complain to, they are taking their complaint directly to God, and they are complaining bitterly.
There is another character in today’s readings, and he does walk away. The reading from Mark is sometimes called the parable of the rich, young ruler, and he was probably one of the cool kids on his Beverly Hills block, but there was something he didn’t understand about relationships: You don’t walk away.
Unlike Job and the Psalmist, the rich young ruler was poised and in control. He knelt. He addressed Jesus in the most respectful way possible, calling him “good teacher.” He knew the scripture. From outward appearances he was a model disciple, he even followed the commandments. He knew when to stand and when to kneel. It’s all so respectful, it’s proper and in good order. One can almost imagine that if he were one of us he would have memorized the creeds, and known the liturgy by heart. He really seems like our kind of guy.
In the end, though, he walked away. The story says that he was sad, but he accepted things. He just disappeared and we never hear anythingn else about him.
Job would not have done that.
Job would have pointed out that in history there have been lots of fabulously wealthy people who surely inherited eternal life: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Solomon, and David. Job himself had been wealthy (and he will be again.) Job might even have noted that Jesus’s ministry was dependent on the wealth of others. — There are arguments to be made, things that Job would have said, and the rich young ruler could have said. There were ways that he might have stayed in the conversation. Instead he did what might have been more polite in walking away. He certainly was respectable about it, and dignified; he was wrong, though, because in walking away, he failed to engage.
There is nothing wrong with a precise liturgy, or remaining poised in the face of great disappointment, or insisting on things being proper and in good order. In fact, those are great things. But we are wrong to confuse those things with spiritual engagement.
How do you stay engaged when troubles come, when the answer isn’t the one you wanted? It may be that it’s that beautiful liturgy. But, it might also be a nagging question that you’d like to bring out into the open. It might be joy, or creativity, or weeping, or anger, or sadness. These are all ways that we stay engaged. And whatever it may be for you, it’s a step up from walking away.
“Today also my complaint is bitter…” Job 23:1
“O my God, I cry in the daytime…” Psalm 22:2