Still I Rise
Text: Job 38
I ran into Job while I was on leave a year ago. He looked like he had not slept for weeks and his typically well-put-together appearance seemed a bit undone. I asked him why he looked so rough and he explained his son had just been killed in Afghanistan and then a week later he was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer.
When I was in Wegman’s earlier this week, Job nearly knocked me down with his grocery cart, totally absorbed in thought. He had lost his job just days after he had to commit his father to a nursing facility and he had no idea how he was going to pay for his father’s care. He then walked into the office to find a legal notice on the kitchen table stating that his wife of 30 years had filed for divorce. My bones ached for him. Who, in their right mind, wants to keep company with Job?
In August Wilson’s haunting play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Levee is one angry black man and for good reason. The play is set in the 1920s and Levee is a jazz musician who has experienced many horrors of racism firsthand. He will not be assuaged by anyone’s sweet talk about how things are improving between the races, because he does not believe they are or ever will. He is not just an angry man. Levee is enraged and he rages at the world and rages at God.
In one of the most powerful and provocative scenes in the play, an innocent, pious soul tells Levee to stop talking about God in irreverent ways. Levee, Wilson’s black man’s Job, shakes his fist at the heavens and says: “What I care about burning in hell? You talk like a fool . . . burning in hell. Why didn’t God strike some of them crackers down? Tell me that! That’s the question! Don’t come telling me this burning-in-hell . . . why didn’t God strike some of them crackers down? I’ll tell you why! I’ll tell you the truth! It’s sitting out there as plain as day! ‘Cause he a white man’s God.”
Maybe you have never bumped into Job, never have been Job. I have made his acquaintance. I have not been the “I know that my Redeemer liveth” Job. I have been the “Give me a break, God, enough is enough, stop it already” Job. I have climbed the last step to heaven’s gate and shouted, “Come out, God, you and I have got something to talk about with you and talk about NOW.”
That is where we find Job at the opening of chapter 38. He has lost everything and everyone he loves and for no good reason, though friends keep trying to explain his suffering away and worse, explain that he deserves all he has suffered. He listens to his four “so-called” best friends – Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Elihu—explain God’s will, but Job has little use for their mindless religious piety. Job knows that he has suffered unjustly and he wants to hear why from a God he cannot seem to find. His cry is not unlike the cry of the abused black woman in Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise.” Like Job, she cries out:
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
For more than thirty chapters in the book of Job, God is silent, but finally, in chapter 38, God speaks. The words, though, are not what we might expect or even want, nor, I imagine, were they what Job expected or wanted. God does not explain why Job has suffered such senseless and catastrophic loss. Instead, God replies to Job’s questions with rhetorical question after rhetorical question. Job wants concrete, clear answers and God asks questions.
To Job’s outrage, God replies: “Where were you?” “Who are you?” Job wants to know why his wife died so young along with his children and God speaks about heavenly constellations, ostrich wings, and locusts. Come on God, really?! Is that the best you can do?!
Ask rabbis and Hebrew Bible scholars about what God says in chapter 38 and you will get a wide variety of answers. I find the most provocative thought about God’s response to Job from Sam Ballentine, former professor of Hebrew Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary. Many people read God’s bombarding Job with rhetorical questions such as “Where were you, Job?” as a case of God bullying Job, reminding this lowly human that he is just mortal and is in no position to question God. Ballentine suggests another way to hear these questions. He writes, “. . . rhetorical questions do not always function to put down a person for failed or flawed understandings. Sometimes, especially in situations where the grim realities of everyday life may have thinned the imagination, they serve to resurrect hope from the ashes of despair” (Ballentine, Job, Smyth&Helwys Bible Commentary, p. 633).
My own experience of suffering, albeit nothing like Job’s or Maya Angelou’s woman in her poem or Levee’s in August Wilson’s play, is that suffering does indeed “thin the imagination.” Deep into our own suffering, we cannot imagine a day when the pain will not be acute, when hope might be reborn, resurrected “from the ashes of despair,” when you and I might sleep through the night without being haunted by unwanted specters. Worst of all, deep into our own suffering, it is easy to imagine that God cares not a whit about it or about us, if God even exists.
“If all poetry is a ‘raid on the inarticulate’, as T.S. Eliot says, then perhaps God’s rhetorical questions are a raid on Job’s despair about what seems incomprehensible,” Ballentine goes on to say (p. 634). Maybe the power of chapter 38 is less what God says, but the fact that God speaks at all. Maybe the power of chapter 38 is to expand faith’s “thin” imagination and to begin to resurrect hope from the “ashes of despair.”
Maya Angelou’s powerful poem ends not with the cries of lament and anguish found throughout the rest of her poem and throughout the pages of the book of Job and too often throughout the pages of our lives. Her poem ends not with a call for God to speak up and explain injustice, unjust suffering, and finally, to make things right. It ends instead with these words of confidence and conviction:
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
As Easter people, you and I rise not because we finally have all our questions answered by God, can finally then get over our suffering and get on with life. We rise because Christ, one who unjustly suffered and untimely died, is risen and calls to us, even in our suffering, even when our imaginations have grown thin, even when our faith is too fragile to encounter a divine whirlwind.
Christ raises us up out of the ashes of our own pain and suffering to enter into the pain and suffering of a world broken as badly as was Job. God calls us to rise and stand with God’s suffering world not armed with the insipid answers of Job’s friends, but armed with the awe-filled promise that in the resurrection, God’s word is life.
As Easter people, well-acquainted with suffering, then:
By God’s inscrutable mercy, we rise.