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My friend, Milton Horne, is as close to being an expert on the book of Job as anyone can be. He chose Job as the subject for his DPhil dissertation at Oxford some 30 or so years ago, and the book has had a hold on him ever since. Milt will tell you this is one of the most intriguing, confusing, and misunderstood books in the Bible. It raises far more questions than it answers.
Several weeks ago Milton and I were talking about Job, and somehow we got on the subject of “practical application.” I began to read some of his homilies, and reflect back to him how his thoughts connected to my experiences with clients in my counseling practice. Somewhere in there “we should write a book” was said, and we’ve been hitting it hard ever since.
The goal is 40 homilies, with each followed by a fictional narrative of a counseling session. Although none of the narratives reflect a specific client, each is true to my work with folks over the past 30 years.
We’ve submitted a proposal to a publisher (after first consider the self-publishing route), and we’ve identified publishers two, three, and four to approach if our first option doesn’t pan out. We’ve been getting very positive feedback from those who’ve looked at our initial work, but, heck, these have all been people who like us. Over the next few weeks I’m going to float a few miscellaneous chapters on this blog, seeking a wider range of feedback. So, we’ll welcome your thoughts. But, please be nice. Me and Milt, we’re sort of fragile, you know. 🙂
There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job; and that man was blameless, upright, fearing God and turning away from evil. Seven sons and three daughters were born to him. His possessions also were 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, 500 female donkeys, and very many servants; and that man was the greatest of all the men of the east.
We are reminded about the universality of suffering almost on a daily basis. When was the last time you heard about some horrible plight that came upon some person or her family in some place far removed from your community? It probably hasn’t been that long, thanks to the Internet and the constant watch of anyone who has an electronic communication device with video capabilities. And yet, having such capacity to know what is going on in remote places of the world does not necessarily make anyone care any the more, I would guess. In fact, I wonder whether contemporary capabilities to know moment by moment who’s suffering in the world (as well as who’s winning the daily “pick three,”) does not actually make it all rather mundane, routine, and therefore uninteresting. Reports about some horrific disaster around the world flashes across either our television screens or our cell phones every moment. It flashes into our thoughts and as quickly evaporates as the next bit of data appears on the screen.
That’s one of the things that makes this story of Job so puzzling to me: the apparent anonymity of the main character, Job. Who was Job? And I’m not just thinking this to be a problem for the contemporary reader, but for the ancient reader, too. The opening line of the story tells readers he came from a place called “Uz;” ever wonder if ancient readers asked the same thing modern readers do: “where the heck is that?” Have you even ever heard of the place before hearing it in this homily? The ancient audience would have had to have been a fairly well-informed literary audience to know that it is mentioned in Lam 4:21, “Rejoice and be glad, O daughter of Edom, that you live in the land of Uz;” and at that you would have thought it to be associated, therefore, with the land of Edom, the object of at least one prophet’s wrath (Obadiah 1-4)–and who knew anything about Obadiah?
Maybe an ancient reader only needed to know that this was not a story that took place in the land of Israel; that such things could not, and would not ever happen in the homeland. It’s like one of those comforting fictions contemporary folk like to live with about the “land of the free” even though they are actually living in an age of robber baron CEOs and multinational corporations. Job was not an Israelite, so how could his suffering concern me? In fact, it’s not just that he and his friends were foreigners, but he lived so long ago, didn’t he? Don’t the opening lines have that “once-upon-a-time” feel to them? I mean, he reminds you of Abraham, somewhat, doesn’t he? His wealth is in land, animals, big family; he’s the religious leader of the clan, the one who offers sacrifices, just like Abraham. And, for that matter, was Abraham even an Israelite? Didn’t he come from Ur of the Chaldeans (Gen 11:31). And yet, he’s like the patriarch of all persons of Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith, isn’t he? Citing Abraham is one of the ways that the “big 3” monotheistic faiths feign liking each other.
Maybe something like that is all we need to know when it comes to suffering. As Abraham was the patriarch of ethical monotheism, perhaps Job’s “long ago and far away” background is given so readers, ancient and contemporary, so we will think of him as a kind of patriarch of suffering. That way suffering is not just localized in the life of an unknown person, “Job,” but, because he’s my father, in some sense, suffering is mine, too. (Jesus should probably work that way for Christians, but I’m afraid he’s so much our Christ that we forget he was a man, too.) No matter where suffering occurs or to whom, it is a part of my inheritance, a part of my story. In fact, like a patriarchal lineage, I cannot disown it or deny it. Suffering is a part of my bloodline, defining what it means to be a person of faith. When I hear of anyone suffering, because we are all descendants of Job, it is a family member who is suffering. Suffering is not anonymous, thanks to my being a part of the family of Job.
Somewhere, somehow, we began to live as if we were separate, alone, and in danger. Once afraid, we constructed a self out of that fear and have been steadfastly defending it ever since. Kabir Helminski, Living Presence
“But if I don’t do a PhD, then won’t I just be settling for less than I can be?”
For Janie this is a desperate question. Her eyes express the terror of a cornered animal. For all her work in therapy, her traumatized brain can still get hooked by the “small self” whisper, “You’ll never measure up.” I think about the opening lines of Job, and wonder how Janie’s life might be captured in less than one hundred words:
There was a young woman from East Texas whose name was Janie. She was a gifted therapist who wanted to please God. Having survived a childhood of abuse and neglect, Janie graduated from college with a Master’s degree in counseling. Her outstanding work with juvenile offenders allowed her create a life of wealth when compared to where she came from. Janie could confront an angry teen about his self-defeating choices, only to have that same boy begging her to play basketball with the “inmates” later the same afternoon. Janie was considered the best in town at her work.
“Janie, where is that question coming from? Is it your ‘small self’ that is pushing you towards another degree, or your ‘Authentic Self?’ I’d never want to dampen your urge to study, but it has taken you years to create a life characterized more by meaning than suffering. Why would you want to heap more stress on yourself now?
“I don’t know. I don’t know. It just seems like I ought to go for the PhD. What? You don’t think I could do it?”
“Of course you could do it. Listen to yourself for a moment. What are you feeling? You seem to be frantic right now. What’s going on? Help me understand.”
Janie leans back, “When is my small self going to just shut up? I know you’re right. The kids were all high-fiving me last night when I played basketball with them. By ten o’clock I’d turned myself into a total mess. Even with all my meds I couldn’t sleep. I just kept thinking about what a loser I was for not having a PhD, like you. My Authentic Self tries to remind me of all I’ve accomplished, but it’s like it doesn’t matter.”
“Let’s go back to basics for a moment. Your wounded small self is never going to simply go away. You’ve done such great work in strengthening your God-breathed Authentic Self, but the small self is never going to give up easily.”
“Then what’s the point of all this?”
“You tell me.”
I get the patented Janie eye-roll before she answers.
“I get one shot at this life. I can either run with it, or live my life like a victim.”
“You’ve been running with it, and creating something out of almost nothing. But it still doesn’t feel like enough, does it.”
“Not on days like today.”
I’m noticing that the frantic look has faded from Janie’s eyes. She seems more present now.
“I think I told you my friend Milton and I are working on a book about Job. Parts of it keep popping in to my mind during my sessions.”
“Yeah. I’ve started reading it again. I hope you weren’t expecting me to be encouraged by that story.”
“That’s a fair dig. I guess most of us would find more encouragement in what we think the story says. Some guy loses everything, and then God makes sure he gets it back. But what I’m thinking right now is that you are almost the anti-Job. You started with nothing, have created a stunning life, and yet still find yourself on the trash heap on a regular basis.”
“Are you saying I’m doing this to myself?
“Okay, did you notice how you automatically assumed I was thinking the worst of you? You and I both understand now what an upbringing like yours does to a brain. Constant survival pressures on the small self never allow the Authentic Self breathing room to grow. Despite this, you’ve slowly taken responsibility for your life. But all those old feelings of fear and hopelessness are still in your brain, and easily triggered.”
“See? Right now I can hear what you are saying, and it makes sense. But in the middle of the night, when you are not there, it’s like I have amnesia.”
“I know. Maybe that’s why the book of Job has been around so long. No matter how each of our stories can seem different from his, we all end up on the trash heap, angry and hopeless.”
“You know I do Janie. You know enough of my story to know that. You and me… we’re both a brother and sister of Job.”
Afterword from Wes
Why have you picked up this book? May I guess? You are a child of Job.
Very few turn to Job because of an acquaintance who was suffering, or simply out of some intellectual curiosity. Most people I know who have opened the Bible to this book have done so because he or she is in a place of deep pain — pain that is creating a crisis of faith.
What would the first three verses of this book say if they were about you? What if someone were trying to paint you as some heroic character? You really don’t have to be among “the greatest men in the east” to be a child of Job. All you have to be is a man or woman trying to get through the day, in the face of great suffering.
We know what is about to happen in Job’s story. I know what happened in mine. You know what has happened in yours. And, as Milton points out, since we are all descendants of Job, we are all in this together.