Thursdays are always a really long day of the week for me. Since I’m a pastor, Sunday feels like the natural beginning to my week. By the time I get to Thursday, I am tired and drained. That’s why I’m excited to join with a group of blogging friends in order to offer you a weekly devotional which will be posted every Thursday. We are calling the series, “His Encouragement.”
It is my prayer that these words of encouragement inspired by scripture will help to carry you through the rest of your week My prayer is that this weekly series will be a much needed reminder that God loves you.
Observing him [Job] from a distance, at first they [his friends] didn’t even recognize him, so they raised their voices and burst into tears. They each ripped their robes, threw ashes into the air on their heads, and sat with Job on the ground for a full week without saying a word, since they could see the great extent of his anguish.
-Job 2:12-13 ISV)
Today, I will be presiding at another funeral. There is never a “right,” thing to say at funerals. This is especially true around the holidays. My heart goes out to all families who are mourning but I especially grieve for those whose time of mourning is connected to Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, Mother’s Day, or another special day of the year. I know from personal experience that now each year when this holiday rolls around again, a family who has lost someone will once more be reminded of their grief. That is part of the reason why the Longest Night Service is so precious to me. It is a special service held on the longest night of the year in order to honor all of those who are mourning during the holidays.
I have served in ministry for about five and a half years. In that brief time, I have lost count of the number of funerals at which I have officiated. To give you a general idea, consider the fact that during the summer of my final year in seminary I presided at eight memorial services. Then, once I started serving a church full time, I presided at a funeral on the second day of my job. I lost count after a dozen funerals.
At a conference in Dallas this summer, a colleague told me that psychological studies have shown that only around 15-20% of people can do the type of job that we do and not become overly depressed. He said it takes a very specific personality type to work with those who are grieving. I’m not sure about the veracity of his statistics; however, I am certain that I feel most useful when I am working among the sick, the grieving, and those who are in pain.
The Ash Heap
I might not know exactly what say at funerals; however, I intuitively understand the importance of the ministry of presence. Just being present with those who are hurting speaks volumes.
After Job lost everything, including his health and his children, his friends traveled from their homes in order offer him comfort. When they found Job, they discovered him in a terrible state of distress. He was lying in a heap of ashes and covered with the sores.
In the ancient world, ashes were a symbol of mourning and grief. Job’s life of health, wealth, family, and prosperity had literally crumbled to ashes all around him.
When Job’s friends saw his affliction, they were speechless. I can’t help but be reminded of the disconcerting experience I’ve had many times when I walked into a hospital room in order to pay a visit. The anguish of sickness can greatly change a person’s appearance.
Job’s friends were so touched by the change in their once healthy and wealthy friend’s appearance that the only thing they could think to do was to sit down in the ash heap and cry right along with him. I have felt that way many times when I have seen a friend, family member, or parishioner struggle with disease.
The most eloquent thing Job’s friends said when they attempted to offer him comfort was to say nothing at all. For seven days and seven nights, they simply sat with Job on the ash heap. It is not until later, when Job’s friends gather themselves and attempt to offer words of comfort, that they begin to run into trouble.
The Question of Theodicy
When someone says, “God never gives us more than we can handle,” I can’t help but wince. Those words, while full of good intentions, make me picture a hardhearted cosmic creator kneeling down from the clouds in order to dole out tests and punishments to tiny insignificant humans. I don’t believe that God makes bad things happen in our lives. I don’t believe that God tests our faith.
Although I agree that this did happen in the Old Testament, I do not believe that this is how God interacts with humans in today’s world, especially after God sent us Jesus. In the Bible, when God tests the faith of mortals, God is always clear about what is expected. Furthermore, when mortals are tested in the Old Testament, they are always given the chance to repent. (For more about this interesting topic, I recommend God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist, and Racist? by David Lamb)
Each of Job’s friends do their best to explain the question of theodicy to Job. They attempt to make sense of the universe and then draw conclusions.
(Note: The term theodicy can be defined as “why bad things happen,” or the more common question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?)
Despite their best efforts, the explanations of Job’s friends all fall short. Words and earthly logic fail when faced with the very real suffering of Job on the ash heap. This is an important and humbling reminder for all Christians: We might think we know the answers- but we don’t. Only God knows.
One Song to Sing
During that same conference I mentioned earlier, another colleague confessed to me, “I’ve been preaching for years, but you know, I really think I’ve just been delivering the same sermon over and over and over again. Some composers only have one hit song in them. Some authors only have one book. I think I only have one sermon.”
“Really?” I asked. I was intrigued, “What’s your one sermon?”
My colleague smiled and shrugged. Then, after a pause he simply answered, “Just this- that Jesus loves you.”
I don’t know why bad things happen. I don’t know why God chooses to call some people home and not others. I don’t understand God’s greater plan. However, I think my colleague is on to something.
Like my colleague, I also have only one song to sing. There is only one sermon in my heart. In the end, for all my love of words, it boils down to just one thing:
Jesus loves us.
Furthermore, not only does Jesus love us, but Jesus loves us enough to kneel down and be in the ash heap with us. Jesus loves us enough that he weeps when we cry and mourns with us in the midst of our struggles. We do not worship an uninterested and distant Creator- instead, we worship a God who wants to be in relationship with us so much that God is willing to send down God’s own Son to be in the middle of the ash heap with us.
Dear Reader, now that the busy hustle and bustle of the holiday season is over, it can be tempting to sink into a state of depression or experience the “January Blues.” I don’t know what your individual hurts or sufferings might be, but I do know this:
Jesus loves us.
As we quickly approach 2019, I will keep singing my one song into a New Year. It is an old song and many people have been singing it for millennia before me. I know that after I’m gone, people will continue singing it when my name is no more than a distant memory blown away on the wind.
During 2019 and all the years to come, I will continue to sing of God’s love and I hope that you will as well.
Until next time-
Peace Be With You,
Please be sure to check out the other great bloggers involved in the His Encouragement weekly series!