So far this year there have been 52 school shootings. Just today police in Virginia announced they had arrested two teenagers plotting a mass shooting at their high school. It makes you wonder what on earth is going on. Have we all gone mad?
“When will this madness cease?”
Not long before I left for seminary, a Sandia Prep parent who had become a good friend came up to me. She had a burning question. There was an intensity to her I had not seen before. She held me by the shoulders and looked me in the eye. “Susan,” she said to me, “Where is God when a young child is raped and killed and then dumped on the side of the road?” I had no answer to her question. I had not been to seminary. I had not read Elie Wiesel’s accounts of the Holocaust. And I had not read the book of Job.
Perhaps you know Wiesel’s story. Perhaps you remember his haunting account of young boy hanged for attempting to escape from Auschwitz. All the prisoners in that section of the camp were forced to witness the boy’s execution. He dies slowly. Ever so slowly. At one point in that lingering execution a voice in the crowd of prisoners shouts out, “Where is God?” Another voice replies, “There. Dying on the scaffold.”
For much of his life, Wiesel has struggled with the question “Where is God?” It’s a question many of us ask when we face relentless grief, sustained suffering, deep disappointment, grave injustice; it’s a question that I’ve found myself asking as I’ve looked out at the world this week; it’s a question that runs through the book of Job. It’s a question Jesus asks from the Cross.
Times like these—times of untimely deaths and times of clearly unmerited suffering demand we grapple with that question “Where is God?” and its corollary—“What’s God’s place in all of this?” Questions Job and his friends grapple with on the ash heap.
You remember Job—the righteous man who did what he was supposed to do. I think of him as a “good girl” kind of a guy living in an ordered predictable world. He shows compassion to those in need—widows, orphans, the poor. He dispenses justice fairly. He prays diligently. He offers sacrifices—for himself and for his children too. He prides himself on his integrity. His righteousness. And he has reason to. Even God brags about Job’s righteousness.
Then things begin to fall apart. Job’s children all die a violent death. His livestock fall dead in the fields. He loses everything except his life and his wife. He’s a mess—his body covered with boils. Folks go out of their way to avoid the sight and smell of him.
But not his three good friends. They join him on the ash heap where he sits in mournful silence. A silence broken only when Job begins to howl. And howl he does—to God and to the universe as well.
Job’s friends are appalled at his howling. They scold him. They blame him. They indict him. They remind him time and again that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. They urge him to search deep inside himself to find his own wickedness for surely it is there. But Job remains uncowed, waiting for the time when he will meet God face to face. Waiting for the moment when he gets to plead his case. All the while protesting his innocence. In the end, the friends fall silent. And so does Job.
Then, in that awful silence of the ash heap, God comes to Job. In a tempest, no less. From the center of that storm, from the eye of the hurricane, God speaks to Job. God doesn’t refute Job’s arguments. God doesn’t justify God’s own actions. God doesn’t explain. Instead God draws Job’s attention to the vastness and beauty and the violence in creation itself. One might wonder, “Was God even listening to Job?”
I think God was listening to Job. I think God was there the whole time. The fifth one on that ash heap. There receiving Job’s protests. There hearing his cries. There listening to Job’s long prayer of lament. There as Job, again and again maintains his innocence and asserts his righteousness.
At the end of the story God says to Eliphaz, one of Job’s companions on the ash heap, “I am incensed at you and your two friends, for you have not spoken to me rightly as has my servant Job.” Those friends of Job have not spoken to God at all. They’ve just sat on the ash heap mouthing platitudes and offering cold comfort to a man in deep grief.
Job spoke rightly to God. Job demanded a hearing. Job protested his innocence. Job howled in pain. Like blind Bartimaeus, Job screamed so loudly he had to be heard.
You and I are not called to suffer silently. Nor are we called to watch in silence as others suffer. We are called to cry out when others cry out in pain; we are called to protest suffering when we see it; we are called to raise a ruckus when things begin to fall apart. We are called to follow in the footsteps of God’s servant Job. We do so as followers of the One who suffered death on a cross.
As I stood mute before that Prep parent, my mind went to the Cross for it is there that I draw strength. It is there that I find comfort. Suffering is a part of life. It comes to all of us. Often there is no explanation; and justification would be obscene. The One we follow has been there before us and is with us in the depths of our deep pain. That is where I draw comfort. That is what sustains me.
Time and again throughout his life, Elie Wiesel has returned to that question, “Where is God in all of this?” We might answer, “There. There on scaffold. There on the cross. There in a child seat in a big red truck. There on a school room floor. There in the midst of human suffering.”
Time and again, Wiesel’s path leads him through the book of Job. A story that ends with a beginning—a beginning of a new and different and perhaps more tender and more just world. Not one that erases the suffering but one which emerges out of the suffering. A suffering that becomes and invitation to participate in the building of a new world and a new way of being in the world.