Our lectionary gives us the Sparknotes version of Job and we have skipped a lot and today is no exception. But there was something in today’s portion that looped back to prayer. Did you notice what this conclusion to Job said? “And the LORD restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends …” What is it about prayer being a part of Job’s “restoration?”
First let me recap for those of you who have missed some of this series. I’ve been saying for the past four weeks the story of Job is a parable – it is a folktale which is similar to a number of ancient Near East stories from Sumeria and Babylon: the story of a person who suffers for no apparent reason. It is our story too, isn’t it? In our lives, we will suffer and at times we won’t know why. Sometimes we suffer because of our own choices and we know it … and sometimes we cannot admit our own complicity in our suffering. But sometimes bad stuff just happens for no apparent reason at all. Sometimes we get a glimpse of why in retrospect, but just as often we will never know. This ending of Job where God thunders out of the whirlwind still leaves us not knowing the reason why Job went through what he did. Rabbi Cushner in his book “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People” suggests part of the reason is that God is not finished with creation and there are a lot of loose ends still being worked out. I find that plausible. His take on God speaking out of the whirlwind is more like God saying, “Hey! You think you can do a better job than me? I’m still working on all this mess!”
If we remember this is a parable and we are left in mystery, then we can approach the ending in a different way. The narrative says “the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends …” I’d like to suggest a different word than “restored” – let’s consider this the “resurrection” of Job. The word “restored” kind of makes it sound like God showed up and said, “Hey, sorry about that. My bad … here’s some replacement stuff and kids.” The truth is, new children cannot replace the ones who died. I find resurrection a more helpful word here because it tells us God moved Job to a different place. Resurrection is never the revivification of what has died – it is moving through death and loss to a new reality. Job is in a new reality because God moved him there … but only after he prayed for his friends.
We are missing a few verses from the lectionary today, so we lose the emphasis on the prayer of Job. After addressing Job, God turns attention to Eliphaz the Temanite (one of Job’s clueless friends). God basically says, “Hey, you three ticked me off! You are clueless about me and you spoke like idiots. You three need to make a burnt offering sacrifice in front of Job and he will pray for you … because you need it!” OK … admittedly that was the AAV (Anjel’s Authorized Version, not available in stores), but you get the gist of it. God again trusts Job to be a righteous person who will pray for his friends. The three friends offer sacrifice, Job prays for them … and then Job is set in a new place after the prayer. God called Job to prayer, Job prays, and then Job is set in a different place – prayer changes the situation.
I couldn’t let go of this because I have experienced something similar in the past month; only instead of praying for my friends, God pulled me into praying for someone who has set himself against me as an enemy – someone who betrayed me deeply. Now I know Jesus commanded us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us … but I confess I don’t like that any more than you do! It’s hard for me too.
God called me as is usual when I wasn’t quite awake, you know that half awake/half asleep state we are in at times? I had spent a big chunk of time since this person left my life working through what happened with my therapist and spiritual director. Now I want to be clear, I’m not telling this story because I want to call attention to myself. I’m hoping you hear this is about what God did to put me in a new place, much like Job … but I kind of went with more resistance. I tell you this because I believe in the incarnation and the presence of God working in and through our flawed selves and the only story I have to tell is my experience. So in that state where I wasn’t quite awake, I had a message: “You need to apologize.” My first reaction was, “Are you kidding me?? What do you mean apologize? Did you even SEE what he did to me??” Well, duh, of course God knows what he did! But God also sees what I did and I was caught up short. The message continued, “He may never apologize to you and I know what he did, but you reacted to him in a hurtful way and you are responsible for that.”
OK … fair enough. I did react in a hurtful way. I remember the last time I spoke to this person on the phone. I let loose. I spoke a lot of truth to him … but it was NOT in love. I’d come to the end of my rope with deceptions and lies and I reacted in a way that wasn’t very Christ-like. I think I may have even hung up on him. Now compared to the lies, slander, defamation of my character, and the other evils he directed at me, what I did was pretty small. But God doesn’t care about whether my sin was “lesser” or “greater” – God cares that it was sin … period. God also knew I was stuck and wanting vindication. But what was revealed to me in this call to apologize was that vindication would not look like what I had envisioned. Vindication would not come through his apologizing to me – it would come through owning my brokenness and apologizing. OK … I agreed. Then came the harder request – “before you write the letter, you’ll write an icon … for him as a way to make peace.” I really did not want to do that! I write icons for people who ask me to pray with them. What do you mean write an icon for someone who did what he did? When I resisted, I woke up crying. I hate crying … but I pay attention to it now. It usually means I have something I need to release. OK … an icon it is.
So I wrote an icon and started it at the Chapman Dialogs and I know Bishop Michael Curry’s words on the Liberation of Love were working on me too. Writing an icon is an act of sacrifice … like Job’s friends. It came effortlessly, like it had been pent up trying to get out, and when it was done I really liked it. But I knew it had to go along with my letter of apology which I then wrote. I spoke of my wounded soul and his. I named both of our wounds and how I see we now both struck at each other out of that place of hurt we each have. I told him I was working on this so I wouldn’t repeat the same mistakes in the future. I also told him I did not want to re-enter his life in any way because the likelihood of repeating a destructive pattern of behavior was high and I didn’t need that negativity … nor did he. I wished him peace and healing and told him the icon was a prayer that he might find a way to wholeness. And off it went … through an intermediary … and it was delivered to his workplace.
But here’s where the story gets weird. The very same day this icon and letter was delivered, I received a Facebook message in my “Other” box. Usually those messages are spammy – scams requesting money or guys who thought I was cute and want a date (Seriously? Do they even see that I’m a married priest?? Sheesh!). I did not recognize the name of the sender at first but when I opened the message I was caught short. It was an ex-boyfriend of mine from way back … I mean wayyyy back … 33 years to be exact. He said he thought of me often and wanted apologize for the hurt he caused me. He thanked me for my prayers way back then and said they eventually led him to Christ. Wait … what?? Do you know what my first thought was? “Hey! Who do you think you are barging in on my life after 33 years?” … DOH!!! Yeah … right after I did the same thing to somebody else. Wow. I took a few days to think about this and whether I would respond. I could have ignored it (and I did delete his Facebook friend request) but then I thought, “Where would the grace and mercy be in that?” Clearly, he had carried this burden of what he did for 33 years … and that’s too long. He wanted to clean his side of the street just as I had done. I wrote him a short note. I told him I hoped he understood if I didn’t accept his friend request – it had been too long and we had both moved on. I told him I accepted his apology and thanked him for doing so. I wished him blessings in living the life God had given him to live. He replied: “I understand. Thanks.”
I’m still trying to wrap my head around all of that. I didn’t want to clean my side of the street and apologize for the hurt I caused but clearly something opened up for another person to do the same with me and it lifted a very old burden. I can’t understand the timing on this but prayer moves out in unpredictable ways. In that sense, prayer is a risky enterprise. Prayer moves us to a new place but we don’t always know what the implications of this will be. I rarely understand it, and it doesn’t always work the way I think it will but I know this: it works … for me and for you too.