Monday, July 21, 2014

“Bad Things Happening to Good People” Hard Questions Series, July 20, 2014

Job 2:7-10  So the Adversary went out from the presence of God, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.  Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.  Then his wife said to him, "Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die."  But he said to her, "You speak as any foolish person would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?"

Matthew 5:1-10  When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.  Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the realm of heaven. 
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 
"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.  
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the realm of heaven.”

Will you pray with and for me? Wise and Eternal One, help us to understand the difficulties and pain in our lives. Remind us of your steadfast love for us, and your eternal presence with us. Give us grace to learn from our mistakes and the mistakes of others; teach us how to be strong and loving in the face of fear and defeat and to be wise and brave in times of pain and struggle. In all your names, amen.

“Why is life so hard sometimes?” It’s a very valid question. Jesus says that the hairs of our head are numbered and that God knows when even a sparrow falls, so if God cares so much, then why do we suffer so much pain and greif and have so many struggles? Surely a loving God would not let these things happen!

This has been a difficult week for the world. Increasing strife in the Middle East, then a civilian plane shot down, with the added tragedy of that plane being full of researchers into HIV/AIDS, on their way to a meeting in Australia. Other sad stories—the deaths of entertainers who defined their art—Elaine Strich and Johnny Winters; the horrific torture and killing of a turtle by two teenagers in Florida, who recorded it and posted it on YouTube; yet another transwoman murdered, this time in Baltimore; the continuing crisis of children at the US-Mexico border; the worsening epidemic of Ebola in West Africa; and politicians are behaving badly. Yes, many of these stories are recurring, and some will not be remembered much beyond the next few days—but they contribute to our sense of frustration and sorrow.

And, since we are all human, we have had sorrow and frustration and pain in our own lives as well—perhaps we are dealing with uncertainties in our health, our work, our relationships, our families. Maybe we have lost a loved one or the loved one of a friend.  Or maybe we've been disappointed by a friend, a job we had hoped to get, an extra pay day that didn't come through, a family member who couldn't fulfill a commitment or promise.  It might have been something as simple as a car breaking down, or not doing well on a test.

Sometimes life just—well, sucks. It’s not a word you hear from the pulpit often, but sometimes that’s the word that fits.

“Why?” we ask, maybe even shaking our fist at the sky. “Why do you allow these terrible things to happen, God?”

That’s essentially the advice of Job’s wife. “Why do you insist on believing that God is good? Look at you—look at what God allowed to happen to you! You might as well give up—curse God who did this to you, and give up on life!”

It’s tempting sometimes—to just give up on trying to be the person we know we should be, to give up trying to be strong in the face of frustration and sorrow and grief and other people’s bad behaviour. Some days I really want to just go off on people—the one who cut me off in traffic, the one who twists the truth just enough so that others think badly of me; the ones out for themselves and careless of who they trample on. I don’t want to be the better person; I don’t want to just shake my head and move on. I want to lose my temper and tell them exactly what I think of them. I don’t want to be strong and forgiving and understanding and compassionate. I don’t want to just pick myself up, brush myself off and move on. “Curse God and die!” Some days, it feels like a plan.

But—you knew there was a “but” or two!—but here are a couple of things to consider.

One is that when we think our lives are difficult, we are usually comparing our lives to someone else’s life, and wondering why theirs is so smooth and ours seems so hard. We struggle to find work, and they walk right into a position—they knew someone or had some special experience. We are lonely, and look at a couple walking by holding hands and smiling at each other—and wonder why we don’t have a relationship like that, why we can’t meet the right person, or why our relationship is so rocky, when theirs is so blissful. Maybe we can barely make ends meet and stand in line at the store behind someone who is buying all the things we would like to get but can’t afford, and envy them the option of not having to keep a running total of the groceries in their head as they shop, as we have to do.

The reality? It’s very different. We cannot see into other people’s lives, into their hearts and relationships and struggles. I guarantee you that everyone struggles, everyone has pain. We may not see it, it may not be something that is public knowledge, but every person struggles with something. We are not alone in this. We see what we envy about their lives, but we can’t see what causes them pain. There’s a story about a magician who casts a spell so that everyone can see the struggles others are going through, and they are offered the chance to exchange their burden for anyone else’s burden—but everyone chooses to keep their own burden. They have seen what others deal with and prefer their own struggles.

So that is one thing to bear in mind—whatever it is we are dealing with, others are also dealing with an equal or greater struggle.

Another way to look at it is that while our lives may be hard sometimes, there is also much that is good. We may not have the job we want, but we have a job; our health may not be good, but we have health care; we might not live in the house we had hoped for, but we have shelter and warmth and light and running water.

This does not mean be a PollyAnna ; rather, it is the cultivation of true gratitude for what we have—and we have so much.  I may not be partnered right now, but one day I may be—and in the meantime, I have a loving son and an extended family and many dear friends; I am hardly alone in the world. I don’t have a lot of money, but I have a safe place to live, clothes to wear, enough to eat—sometimes too much to eat—water that is safe to drink, reliable electricity. Actually, I’m pretty rich—I have a car and a laptop and a tablet and a cell phone and a TV and lots of books and furniture and art. Not too shabby.

The reality is that there is always someone who has something you don’t—no matter how wealthy you are, or healthy or what a wonderful relationship with your partner or the perfect job—there’s always someone you could be jealous of, if you let yourself.

And there’s always someone who is worse off than you too—has no family, no job, unsafe water, an abusive relationship, no family, chosen or biological…

So what can we do with all this? How do we get through those days when we agree with Job’s wife, when life just seems too hard to accept?

The fact is that the world simply isn’t what it should or could be—people don’t behave as well as they might and hurt people. We don’t love ourselves as we should and hurt ourselves. That is what a lot of the pain in the world boils down to, isn’t it? But sometimes there is no one to blame for our struggle; and even if there were, it is not too likely that the person would change things, even if they could. In other words, we have to deal with the world, and our lives, as they are, not as we wish they were, or how they could be, if only…

And we can’t expect God to step in and change things with the wave of a wand. We have free choice—we are not puppets. That means that how we react, and how we behave when things aren't what they could be, is up to us. God is with us in the struggle, but we are only ones who must choose our behaviour.

We can choose to continue to weep over what we don’t have and can’t see how to get; we can continue to be angry with people who have what we want or need, we can complain that life is not fair. Or we can be grateful for all that we do have, trusting that what we truly need will come our way; recognising what we CAN do to be where we want to be, and then doing it.

It’s not always easy; but that first step is realizing that we cannot blame God for our lives not being what we want when, in fact, we can either make the changes we want and need, or we can accept that this is our life, at least for now.  If we can do either of those things, then our lives will not only be more comfortable, but we will be able to see what we can change, how we can take things in our own hands, be active about getting what we want and need. If I am not happy with something in my life, then I can either change whatever it is—get it out of my life or change it so I can be happy with it—or I can sit and complain about it. Yes, that sometimes means accepting things we don’t like. But when I had to come to terms with cancer, I couldn’t deny that it was there; I couldn't pretend it didn’t exist and that I didn't need surgery and chemotherapy. Was I happy about dry skin and losing my hair and being cold all the time and mouth sores? Not for a moment. But I did what I could—found lotion that smelled wonderful, made a party out of shaving my head, found cute hats to wear, learned out to make smoothies that felt good and tasted better and were nutritious to boot.

I am not a saint or PollyAnna—if I can do it, so can you.  There is always something, some way, some how to make life good, in spite of the struggles. Find the sparks of sunlight and love; know that they are reminders of God’s presence with you, even when you can’t see or feel that loving presence. Yes, it is hard—but it can be done.

The life you have is yours to make; what you make of it is your gift to God and others. In all God’s names, amen.

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