October 25, 2009
I'm sure you've heard the joke before: what happens when you play a country song backwards? Well, now it's not just a joke anymore. Not that I spend a lot of time listening to Disney movie soundtracks, mind you, but it's come to my attention that there's actually a song for a Disney movie by country group Rascal Flatts called “Backwards.” The lyrics go like this:
When this ole boy walked in and he sat right down next to me
I could tell he'd been through some hard times, there were tear stains on his old shirt
And he said you wanna know what you get when you play a country song backwards?
You get your house back, you get your dog back
You get your best friend Jack back
You get your truck back, you get your hair back
Ya get your first and second wives back
Your front porch swing, your pretty little thing
Your bling bling bling and a diamond ring
Your get your farm and the barn and the boat and the Harley
First night in jail with Charlie
Sounds a little crazy, a little scattered and absurd
But that's what you get when you play a country song backwards
Which, of course, begs the question – what do you get when you play the Backwards song backwards – do you lose all that stuff all over again?
I couldn't help but think about this song when I started reading our scripture today. I think most everyone is familiar with the Biblical story of Job – a story that, lest we forget, is just that: a story. This is not actual history being recounted here but a parable of sorts passed down during the generations before Jesus. In the story, Job is the unwitting victim of a wager between God and Satan, testing Job's mettle and the extent of his faith when his storybook life comes crashing down around him. It is the worst kind of country song come to life – Job loses his family, his livestock, his assets, his health. And to add insult to injury, three of Job's “friends” provide little relief, grilling him with questions and subjecting him to long lectures on the traditional understanding of human suffering – an understanding that assumes he must've done something wrong to cause all this to happen.In a nutshell, that's Job's story. But again, it's just a story. The real meaning behind this parable goes much deeper than one man's terrible misfortune and a divine wager that, let's be honest, is offensive – as if human life is nothing more to God than a Richard Heene reality TV show science experiment. No, the thrust of this parable revolves around one of the most difficult issues we humans face: theodicy. It's a fancy word for the existence of evil in a world supposedly ruled by a loving God. How does this happen? Why do bad things happen to good people – or ever better, why do bad things happen randomly or without reason? Is there any truth to what Job's friends keep telling him – that karma rules and misfortune is cosmic punishment for past misdeeds?
Theodicy is the single question the book of Job deals with for 41 of its 42 chapters. And it all comes to a head with a conversation between Job and God, where Job begs God for an answer. And we the readers are waiting anxiously for the final declaration, for the ultimate answer to be unveiled, for that moment of truth when the mystery of human suffering is forever solved and closure is brought to the previous 41 chapters.....And that is when we get a country song played backwards.
Actually, we don't get it quite yet. Instead we get Job's repentance. His repentance! Even though he didn't do a thing wrong, there is his: repenting “in dust and ashes.” And before we get a chance to really digest that, we also find that Job and his friends suddenly make up, fully reconciled, as if such a thing can happen after days and days of totally unhelpful and un-comforting conversation.And then we get the country song played backwards.
I mean, Rascal Flatts could not have written it any better! Job's lot does a complete 180. He gets his entire fortune back – twice as much as what he had before, in fact. His friendships and his standing in the community are fully restored. He gets a brand spanking new family – ten kids in all. He gets a huge crop of livestock, many more than he had before. He goes on to live a nice long life and dies, as the very last verse of the book tells us, “full of days.” It is as if Job has been transformed from some fictional character in a Hebrew parable wrestling with a major theological conundrum, to the punchline of a funny joke and the subject of a three minute and 23 second song off a Hannah Montana movie soundtrack.And see, here's the thing: if Job were a real person I'd be happy for him. No, I'd be elated. I'd be the first in line at his restitution party; I'd pat him on the back for the new family, marvel at his huge livestock, shake my head in amazement and gratitude at his sudden turn in fortune. I'd tell everyone I knew that it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy, especially after the horrible tragedies he endured. I'd be right there in the thick of the celebration.
But here's my beef with the way the book of Job ends, and maybe it's yours too: Job is not a real person. Real people don't go through the kind of horror Job did and then have everything magically fixed in the end. Real people don't get a full mulligan in the game of life. The scariest thing about life is that our good fortune can turn on a dime, with no warning whatsoever. Oh, we can understand when it's a direct consequence of some poor action or choice – when a student fails a test they didn't study for; when the drunk driver is in a car accident. But what terrifies us is the random-ness of tragedies. Hurricanes – I mean, they just happen! Cancer – there's a big one. Our friend who dies when they are hit by that drunk driver. When stuff like this occurs, we wrestle the same way Job did. We wonder why this is happening to us – why, why, why! We want to cling to our faith, but it's hard – especially when we have others offering simple solutions or easy answers that just don't do it.Real people's lives can look a whole lot like those first 41 chapters, but 42..... well, 42 is the stuff of sappy movie endings where the guy gets the girl as the last credits roll. 42 is the stuff of Harlequin Romances and fantasy worlds. It's not our world – and there's the rub here. We wallow through 41 chapters of suffering in the book of Job, designed to lead us to some kind of answer; a perspective in which to anchor ourselves to something meaningful and solid and certain. Instead we get a country song played backwards. We want to find the truth – and we are cheated out of the truth.
So what do you think – do you think this is the best ending for the story? Not a good ending, not one the makes us feel all warm and fuzzy. Do you think this is the best way to bring closure to all the hardship, all the angst, all the struggle that came before it?I don't know about you, but it seems that the 42nd chapter of Job ought to come with some kind of disclaimer: Warning: Harmful Assumptions Ahead. Those harmful assumptions come when we believe that our faith in God will somehow spare us from life's hardships, sidestepping the struggles that others endure. It's the same thinking that's led some to embrace the “prosperity gospel,” where faithfulness translates to more digits in one's bank account. Or the Prayer of Jabez fascination a while back, where simply praying an obscure prayer from 1 Chronicles leads to material blessings. If only it were that easy!
Life experience tells us something quite different, doesn't it? Life experience tells us that people sometimes suffer for no reason at all, and that a simple prayer or act of repentance rarely makes everything right again. Life experience shows us that we cannot jump so quickly to the happy ending; and that there is even a time and a place for the struggle. We have this wonderful thing in the Christian faith called Easter, where we celebrate victory over death and new life for all. But before we get to the empty tomb we have to gather around the table on Maundy Thursday, mired in conflict and uncertainty and betrayal. Before we get to the tomb, we have endure the cross, a bloody spectacle and a complete defeat of the powerless by the powerful. Our very faith lays testimony to the fact that there is no such thing as cheap grace; no such thing as an “easy out.”But there is something else that the gospel proclaims over and over and over again – in the story of Job, in the saga of the Israelites searching for their Promised Land, in the collective voice of the prophets, and in the life of one man from Nazareth – and that is hope. Not quick resolution, not the simple solution. Something better: hope. Not easy answers to life's quandrys; not a “get-out-of-jail-free” card in the Monopoly game of life. Something more foundational: hope. Not promises which never come to pass; not false protection and immunity to life's challenges; and certainly not some automatic restitution of all that was lost. Something more life-giving and satisfying and enduring: hope.
Hope had to have been what pulled Job through his struggles, don't you think? Hope enabled him to continue clinging on to faith in a God whose ways were a mystery, a God he was angry with. Hope sustained him through those fruitless, frustrating conversations with his friends. And hope ultimately allowed him to face God in the end as a changed man, acknowledging his place in the big picture and recognizing that there is more to the life of faith than understanding everything.And Job was changed, mind you – and it wasn't because he got everything back. He was changed because he went into that place where there are no easy answers, where there isn't a quick fix; where the country song is playing forward at full speed. Even in the midst of his ordeals – in fact, because of them – Job discovered something more powerful and meaningful than answers: he discovered his faith. Through all that life dealt him, Job found the foundation, the strength he was looking for. Job found God.
And as I think about that, I keep coming back to an image that burns heavy in my mind from the gospels: of a boat floating in the water. And in that boat are some fishermen, out for their daily catch. And as the skies above begin to turn black, as the seasoned men quickly realize that the fast-approaching storm is more than even they can handle, they cling to one another in terror. The boat careens violently back and forth; and the men realize that if they lose the boat they will lose their lives as well.And then quite unexpectedly, through the storm and the surge and the waves, a man comes walking across the water toward them. He comes to them in the midst of their storm, in the midst of their time of greatest need, when they thought all was lost, when they thought there was no hope. And what the men will remember days, months, years later is not the storm that eventually subsided. What they will remember is Jesus who came to them in the midst of it.
I wonder what would happen if Christians all over the world changed the way we do things. What if, instead of offering the easy answer, the quick fix, we offered something more meaningful: company along the sometimes turbulent journey of life? What if, instead of trying to make everything make sense, we acknowledged the fact that we don't know everything? What if, instead of trying to steer clear of the storms, we chose to go right into them – to face them head on, knowing we are not at all alone?Because the thing is, while happy endings are all sweet, and imagining country songs being played backwards makes us smile, what really sustains us for the long haul is not the easy answer or the quick fix. What sustains us as people of faith is the promise of hope that comes to us while we're in the process of living – good times and bad, joys and sorrows, mountaintops and storms. It is there where God does some of God's best work. And it's where we, with God's help, can do some of our own too. Thanks be to God. AMEN.