Of Whips and Carrots: A Disinterested Faith
Sermon delivered at Green St. UMC (Winston-Salem) on 08/09/15
A bit of background: The book of Job appears in the Hebrew Scriptures. The book is about an innocent man named Job who suffers. His suffering is made all the more unbearable by his friends Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Elihu. This message was delivered as if I were Job responding to Elihu. Job’s responses reflect something of my 4 year experience of treatment resistant clinical depression.
Job 33: 1-18 (NIV): 1 “But now, Job, listen to my words; pay attention to everything I say. 2 I am about to open my mouth; my words are on the tip of my tongue. 3 My words come from an upright heart; my lips sincerely speak what I know. 4 The Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life. 5 Answer me then, if you can; stand up and argue your case before me. 6 I am the same as you in God’s sight; I too am a piece of clay. 7 No fear of me should alarm you, nor should my hand be heavy on you. 8 “But you have said in my hearing—I heard the very words—9 ‘I am pure, I have done no wrong; I amclean and free from sin. 10 Yet God has found fault with me; he considers me his enemy. 11 He fastens my feet in shackles; he keeps close watch on all my paths.’ 12 “But I tell you, in this you are not right, for God is greater than any mortal. 13 Why do you complain to him that he responds to no one’s words? 14 For God does speak—now one way, now another—though no one perceives it. 15 In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falls on people as they slumber in their beds, 16 he may speak in their ears and terrify them with warnings, 17 to turn them from wrongdoing and keep them from pride, 18 to preserve them from the pit, their lives from perishing by the sword.
Elihu, what exactly are you preserving me from? From the pit? To preserve me…from the pit! Elihu…you know nothing. Nothing! You know nothing about that pit. In a dream? I pleaded with God to visit me in just one dream. I begged God for such a nightmare. At least then, I’d be asleep. Asleep. Asleep. To sleep… To sleep… “To sleep, perchance to dream-ay, there’s the rub.” But, there were so many nights where my only shut-eye was from blinking.
So don’t talk to me about pits. I have had far too many days begin with me coming to then enjoying a brief peace before the waking realization set in that I am still me and “me” is still very much depressed. Each day in the pit began with me screaming at myself to just get out of bed. Get out of bed. Get out of bed. Get out of bed! Then its, when was the last time you showered? Monday? What day is it? Day? Today. Today? Will I eat today? You need to eat today! Just move! C’mon, just move, please move. Please move for me Chris, please? There were so many days when I couldn’t tell if it was my voice or my wife’s that was doing all that yelling.
So what if God wants to terrify me? What does God have left to say that could in any way further terrify me? I know terror. I spent days in a near-catatonic heap curled up in a fetal position on the floor of my parsonage too terrified to even call for help. For four years, I lived with a constant, never abating fear. It was like I was locked in a phone booth then forced at gunpoint to play tag with myself. And I’d better not get tagged or i’ll be shot for being “it.” There is no escape. No escape. No escape.
You’re in a pit. You’re in a pit. You’re in a pit! And, you’ll never get out. You’ll never get out. You’ll never get out! And what’s worse is those weren’t echoes. Echoes come in ever fading reverberations. This is no echo. It never fades. No. It is my voice. And I shout at myself like this morning, noon, and night. Morning, noon, and night, my voice never gets hoarse. My voice never tires. It never tires. It never tires.
Elihu, you don’t understand…I don’t want to argue my case before God, I just want out! I don’t want Summer to worry about me when she leaves work each day; worried and wondering if I had a good day or a bad day. Every afternoon when my baby girl bursts through our front door she is soon crushed to see that her daddy still hasn’t found his happy. Sophie was sad because she didn’t know how to help me look for it.
So don’t remind me of my shackles as their cuffs still cut marks on my ankles. “What did you do today?” “I played with the cat.” “Chris we don’t have a cat.” “Sure we do, he’s right…here….he’s on…he’s on the couch. We have a cat. I know we have a cat.” “Daddy we don’t have a cat.”
Maybe I don’t know what a pit is like. Maybe I don’t. Maybe I don’t. My anxiety felt like I had tripped and was falling, but I don’t have enough time to put out my arms to break my fall. What’s worse is I never hit the ground. I never hit the ground. Elihu? Pits? Pits, they have bottoms, don’t they? I was in free-fall and the mouth of the pit was just a fading light.
Elihu, I was on so many meds. There were so many pills and so many side-effects. I couldn’t pastor. I couldn’t preach. I couldn’t preside. Some meds lifted me up. Some pills brought me down. Some made me tremble. I couldn’t hold a cup. I couldn’t use a knife. I couldn’t use a fork. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t type. I couldn’t. I couldn’t. I couldn’t! Then one day, I blacked out. Elihu, why is EMS is in my driveway? I had a a seizure? I had a seizure! It was off to Baptist and a day later I was discharged forbidden to drive for half a year. I was a shut-in. But, I was a happy shut-in as I had grown afraid to even leave my house.
Elihu, I pulled three stints in behavioral health unit. Those months were mind-numbing with little to do but count the tiles on the ceiling and boards in the floor. Elihu, I know the pit! Elihu, I know it’s dimensions in tiles and boards. The pit came with a year of shock treatment where the same nurse asked me every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, “So, how’s your day going?” Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday… How’s my day going? How’s my day going? You’re putting an IV in my arm so that good men and women wearing masks and scrubs can paralyze me with anesthesia so as to better electrocute me. How do you think my day’s going?
I prayed to God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, Mother Mary, each and every saint, hoping somebody, anybody, everybody would listen? Elihu? Where were you? Where were you? Where were you when I begged God for nightmares or no more. “To sleep, perchance to dream.…”
By the way, you’re rather late Elihu. Pastor Eliphaz stopped by and encouraged me to “get into God’s word. Chris, the reason you’re suffering is you haven’t been in the word.” Who’d have guessed that my literacy could have got me out of that pit. And then there was brother Bildad who told me “that God must have closed a door on me for some reason.” But, he said, “not to worry, he always opens a window.” How wonderful. I asked Bildad if he’d point out that window so that I might shove him out it. Bildad would have had to take a number because Zophar asked me if I had tried “cheering up.” I thanked him for his sage-like wisdom as it had not occurred to me prior to just cheer up. Zophar, you should have stopped by sooner, it would have saved me a fortune in medical expenses, doctors’ visits and therapy sessions. Just cheer up. Brilliant. Who’d a thought? (Alas, poor Job your friends possess all the theological depth of a “Turn-or-Burn” Bible track that one might find conveniently left in a public toilet.)
At this point, is it safe to assume that some of you are naming your Elihu? And, are you thinking of an Eliphaz or two that you might like to tell off? Surely, none of us have, at one time or another, been a bit of a Bildad? So, how many of us see Zophar in our mirrors? We know such people and we are such people. We can be people guilty of theological simplicity. We can be people who are afraid to live our lives in the liminal gray between a false black and white. We are addicted to our binaries. More simply, we’re only able to see a god of reward and punishment. Do we really worship a god of dangling carrots and punishing whips? We speak of grace, but grace welcomes the gray and, at times, we are not altogether comfortable with that color. Grace calls us from our implicitly. Grace challenges the notion that if something bad happens to a person, then that person must have done something to deserve it. Grace convicts us again and again that sin and causality are not hand-in-hand. To think otherwise is an exercise in binding an unmerited weight of guilt on innocent shoulders. To speak this way is to misrepresent God.
For example… Ten years ago, I was online in my office watching the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina…when a parishioner popped in to tell me how glad she was that God was finally punishing the sins of that city. “Pastor, I guess things ain’t so easy now down in the Big Easy?” Did I have the patience of Job? No. “Really? Funny…I don’t want to be that guy, but, Bourbon St. is still in business. Your god has horrible aim.”
The God of carrots and whips is at best nonsense and at worst offensive. God does not busy God’s self with testing our aptitude for guessing what we did wrong. Such testing would imply that if we could name our sin we could then repent of that sin. And, if we could repent of that sin, then God would have to end our suffering. “God I don’t know what all I did, but I am really sorry about it. Please make this stop. I want my happy back!” Nothing. Nothing happened. I thought that if this is God, then how can anyone stand behind a pulpit and say, “God is good?” And how can those folks in the pews shout back “all the time?”
Two years ago, I sat on a front pew in what may be the last church I ever pastor. I was exhausted. You know you can really only cry for so long before, even though you’re still upset, your body just says no more. It is a horrible experience. You drown in the tears you can’t shed. I called my wife, “I’m sorry I’m upset again… I’m in the sanctuary.” Funny, I don’t remember what else I said. I even called my Mom. Talking to her, I began to cry again. I wanted her to wake me up. I wanted the last four years to be some fever dream. I wanted her to burst into that room and turn on all the lights just like she did when I was a kid. “God. I’m done. To hell with you, I’m done. I have fought this disease everyday for four solid years but today it wins. I’m done. I don’t care. I’m done. Amen.”
I spent the rest of that October, all of that November, and a good bit of that December alone in a hospital room. I counted the number of ceiling tiles multiplying their X axis by their Y axis guessing at the footage of each one to figure the overall size of my unit; then checking that product by measuring the floor boards by their X and Y axes. My daily count was interrupted by meds, meals, and MD’s. The only thing not wearing scrubs or a lab coat were evening visits from my family. But, family, I thought that they had to come. Then I got midday visitors, far rarer on psych. unit. Unicorns, if you will. It was a rotation of a few pastors that I used to check in with nearly every week. I could curse God. I did curse God. And yet, there God was every midday right after lunch. I’d tell myself, it wasn’t God…it’s just a regular rotation of three preachers. I’d thank them each time for coming. Thank you for your time and the good work you must think you’re doing. I gave them no carrot and plenty of whip. They didn’t even flinch. Nothing. They just kept showing up each midday after lunch. They reminded me that, “If I ascended into heaven, you are there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, you are there.” (Psalm 139)
A discharge. My first months of ECT. I am staying on meds. I’m going to therapy each week. Every two weeks I see my psychiatrist. I’m nobody’s pastor. I’m nobody’s preacher. I’m nobody’s priest. I sleep at night. I wake up each day, no more coming to. In time, my wife stops worrying when she leaves work. My daughter says, “I see your happy.” I’m nobody’s pastor. I’m nobody’s preacher. I’m nobody’s priest. Sundays? I tried a Methodist church or two. I figured they baptized me and ordained me sothey can deal with me. I cheated on the Methodists briefly attending a worship warehouse of a church. Turns out they were Presbyterians. I was sick, but not that sick. Most of the time I sat at Starbucks in Clemmons from 10:45 to 12:15. I sat there, but I wasn’t smited. No lightening bolts. No plagues. No sores from the top of my head to the soles of my feet. No whips cracking. Just an increasingly pregnant silence. A silence that I could not decide if it was absence or presence.
Months passed, friends felt it was safe to approach me. One friend asked what I was doing while I was on medical leave? “Why?” “I thought you might want something to do each week?” I didn’t want to do anything, but I knew doing nothing would drag me right back to the pit…so… “Sure…what do you have in mind?” Time passes and I find myself in the basement of a church in Greensboro once a week tutoring kids my daughter’s age. Once a week, I’m tripled-teamed by three sisters. One wanting help with reading. One wanting help with math. And the third one wanting nothing to do with either reading or math. Each week they wanted homework help and hugs. I was comfortable with math and reading, not so much with hugs. I gave them anyway. Little people just glad I’m there. And, I’m volunteering with these college students who, to me, seemed closer to the kids age than mine. But, I don’t have to pastor them. I don’t have to parent them. They’re adults…mostly. “Let me get this straight, I don’t pastor you? I don’t parent you?” “Yes, that’s it.” “What do I do?” “You, just be you.” “I haven’t been me in a long time…what if you don’t like me?” “That’s ok.” They offered me neither carrots or whips. Through those kids and the college students, I stumbled into a most unexpected and greatly welcomed sanctuary.
A little over a year ago now, I started coming here. I started nearly every service rolling my eyes when a pastor said “God is good” and everyone around me shouted back “all the time.” I rolled my eyes, but the word was sang anyway. I rolled my eyes, and the word was still read. I rolled my eyes, and that word became flesh and exceeded carrots and whips. I’m sure Elihu, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar are here, but you all tell them to shut-up. Thank you.
I preach with a labored voice. I have no guarantee that my depression won’t come back. But, I’ve been to the pit. I have stared into that abyss. I fell and no rock-bottom ever greeted me. Despite the darkness and despite the free-fall… Though I couldn’t say “God is good”… Though I couldn’t say “all the time”… What I can say is that God holds all who know darkness and find themselves falling.
I say it because I know a God’s whose love is like a parent. When we first adopted Sophie she was only 3 months old and had Scarlet Fever. My wife and I are in Hanoi, we don’t speak Vietnamese. Sophie didn’t either, bit of a disappointment. She was so sick. She had a high fever. A rash. A sore spot or two. She was so little and so sick. And we were far from home. We went to the doctors 4 times before we got someone who could recognize and treat the fever. And though it all, I held her. She squirmed. She kicked. She cried. Through all her pain and agony, I never once put her down. No matter how hard she kicked and screamed. I wasn’t going anywhere and there was and is nothing she could do to make me love her any more or any less. My love is disinterested. Hear me, it is disinterested. It wasn’t about what she could do to me or for me. I held her because I love her. And so it is with God. God speaks in the tired voice of a wife. God worries about you through the wrinkled brow and tear-drenched eyes of a daughter. God waits with you in the day room, you in pajamas…God in a fetching business casual. God offers you sanctuary through millennials. Millennials? Yes, millennials. God surrounds you with a reconciling remnant. Through all these God called me to a disinterested faith.
We must proclaim a disinterested faith. A disinterested faith is a faith no longer concerned with a perceived necessity for carrots or whips. A disinterested faith is a faith where one acts motivated by the love of God, not the fear of God. God demands of us a posture. It is grace that then positions us. Grace positions us so as to come alongside a person. We neither add to their nightmares or rush to wake them from their dreams. Through grace, Eliphaz is no longer searches for sins. Through grace, Bildad offers consolation without judgment. Through grace, Zophar no longer damns. Through grace, Elihu no longer talks about dreams and pits. And through grace, God uses the medium of humanity to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Through us, God cries out with those in misery, mourns with those who are lonely, weeps with those in tears. God invites us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. No carrots. No whips. Just full communion with humanity. Amen.