We have heard the word a hundred times, right? It means simply that someone is not doing their job – not where they are supposed to be.
An absentee landlord doesn’t fix the toilet when it breaks or take care of the leaky roof.
An absentee parent neglects to care for their children in appropriate ways.
An absentee employee has a mysterious recurring illness every Thursday and Friday in March, and the first Monday in April.
But what about an absentee God? In the passage I read earlier, this is quite simply what Job is accusing God of acting as – an absentee diety. It’s not that God is mean or vindictive or hateful. God is just…gone. Job believed that people who were good were rewarded and people who were bad were punished, but now that he is punished in spite of his goodness, he is sure that there is a mistake. He imagines that all he really needs to do is explain this to God, and everything will be cleared up. But God doesn’t even show up! “Where are you?” Job asks. Demands, really.
The pages of Scripture are filled with echoes of this question:
- Where are you?
- I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?
- Why won’t you take this cup from me?
- My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
And the experience of Job is not limited to the pages of Scripture. How many people of faith have had their foundations knocked out from underneath them? C.S. Lewis wrote about the pain of losing his wife in A Grief Observed, asking Job-like questions such as “where is God?” He wrote about the experience of searching for God is like knocking on the door, only to have it bolted and double bolted on the inside. In other words, God is there, but just ignoring our banging. Lewis reports, “the conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like.”
Maybe you’ve been there. You thought you knew the way that God worked and the world worked and felt pretty secure in your faith and your beliefs. And then all of a sudden your life experiences changed and you felt like you were in the middle of the whirlwind. And your assumptions and your foundations and your doctrines were shaken to the core. And you ask God, “where are you?”
Maybe you are there. Perhaps some of you feel that way…today. Your faith and your foundations are slipping out from under you even this morning. And you sit there in your seat and you watch us stand up here in our robes and say some fancy words about the fact that God is here in this place and then watch us light a candle just to prove how much we believe it. And we are a smiling, happy people of the illumined Christ candle.
But sometimes you aren’t. You sit there with all that life has thrown you and you doubt the party line and wonder if Job isn’t right and God just hasn’t bothered to show up.
And sometimes I’m not. There are days that I stand up here as the one who is supposed to have all the right answers and the perfect faith and the unwavering trust, and I wonder deep down where in the world God has gone?
Because it’s all fine and dandy when life is good, but what happens when it doesn’t work out?
- What happens when we lose the life savings?
- What happens when my friend stabs me in the back and I feel so hurt?
- What happens when mom and dad get old? What happens when they die?
- What happens when our kid gets sick…I mean really sick? What happens if one of our children dies before we do?
- What happens when kids go hungry on the streets of Lawrence, Kansas, surrounded by the breadbasket of the world?
- What happens when young women are raped on the campus just up the hill?
- What happens when the young men and women that we have sent off to fight our wars come back overwhelmed and broken and all they get is a round of applause on the plane ride home?
- What happens when women and children are abused in their own homes as the neighbors turn away?
- What happens when….
… when God fails to show up?
…At least not in the way we want God to be?
Can we voice our honesty to God about our pain?
Can we voice the truth to God about our anger?
Can we demand of God with a straight face like Job “where are you?”
Can we blow out the Christ candle and demand “I’ll light it again when I see you show up!”??
Are we bold enough to be a people of the extinguished Christ candle?
Terrors are turned upon me;
my honor is pursued as by the wind,
and my prosperity has passed away like a cloud.
16 ‘And now my soul is poured out within me;
days of affliction have taken hold of me.
17 The night racks my bones,
and the pain that gnaws me takes no rest.
18 With violence he seizes my garment;
he grasps me by the collar of my tunic.
19 He has cast me into the mire,
and I have become like dust and ashes.
20 I cry to you and you do not answer me;
I stand, and you merely look at me.
21 You have turned cruel to me;
with the might of your hand you persecute me.
Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed…Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust.
Two passages, the first from Job, as he delivers his lament before God and all who will hear. And the second form Elie Weisel, is his memoir Night, writes about his first night as a Jewish boy in the Nazi concentration camps. Weisel comes from a tradition that knows well the nature of lament. The Hebrew tradition – the tradition of Job, the tradition of Weisel, the tradition of Jesus – finds power in the ability to complain to God.
Throughout the Old Testament, the Hebrew word “siyah” – usually translated complaint – connotes much more than petty whining or grumbling. It is indicative of a form of deep prayer. The Psalms use this word and this concept. Several Old Testament narratives speak of individuals who offer “siyah” before the Lord. And throughout Job, this word or this idea to refer to a bitter and heartfelt complaint that is at its heart a prayer to God. It is a way of describing a deep and complete honesty before God.
The heroes of the faith all engaged in siyah: Hannah, Moses, David, Elijah. The first words reported from Job’s mouth were cursing the day of his birth. And when Jesus cried out from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” he was engaging in siyah.
Now, this flies in the face of what many of us were taught when we were growing up. How many of us were raised to believe that it is better to say things nicely, or just smile and be silent instead of speaking what is really on our minds? “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” “Nobody wants to hear a complainer.”
In the Old Testament, the concept siyah assumes the complete opposite. It assumes that there are times when it is better to complain. To lament. To protest. Even to God. Siyah names a power in that complaint.
Think about it. It actually makes good sense. I don’t know about you, but if I am hurt by a friend, I am much more willing to complain or protest to a friend that I have known for a long time than one I just met. Why? One, because they know me, and will probably know anyway when something is bothering me. And two, because I know that I can trust the relationship because it is deeper and more sustained and has been through more ups and downs. I can be honest because they aren’t going to disappear or run away when I tell them my true feelings. The measure of true faith in a relationship is the ability to complain or protest or lament when you are hurt or angry.
It is the same thing with our relationship with God. It seems we are afraid to tell God our true feelings. “If you can’t pray anything nice, don’t pray anything at all!” But it seems like the opposite should be true. One, God knows you anyway, and knows what you are feeling. Isn’t it a little silly if you feel abandoned by God or forsaken by God, but you still smile and pretend and pray as if nothing is wrong? It’s God! Don’t you think God already knows what you think anyway? If you can’t fake out your friend of twenty years, do you think that God buys it when you smile and fake it? And two, it is actually a matter of deep trust to be able to complain to God.
Complaint can sometimes be the sincerest form of prayer. A heart of siyah the deepest practice of faith. There is power to complain about our griefs, our struggles, our lives, our world, and not think that we are going to be struck by lightning because we doubted or questioned God. R.B.Y. Scott writes of Job, “Here speaks a free religious spirit, untrammeled either by orthodox religious belief or by dogmatic atheism…(revealing) the profoundest kind of religious faith…a sublime confidence that to ask ultimate questions of God is not to turn away from him but to draw nearer to him”
I believe to the core of who I am that if our God is not big enough to handle our pain, our grief, our anger, and our honesty, than that is not a God worth worshipping. I believe that we must be – or at least be becoming – a people of the extinguished Christ candle. That we are okay sometimes sitting in the darkness. That we are okay questioning and doubting. That we are okay saying that when you enter into worship here, when you come to God in prayer with us, when you engage in the life of faith in this place, that it is okay to do it with a sense of brokenness and bitterness and complaint of siyah.
Because life hurts. And it doesn’t have to be as unbelievably bad as Job’s for it to still really hurt.
And life is not fair. And sometimes complaining about the injustice that we see around us is the only appropriate response.
And so, sometimes that’s exactly why we show up here on Sunday morning.
We gather together, in spite of the hurt and the pain and the anger. Sometimes because of it.
And we light the candle.
We light the candle, not because we always see God in our midst.
We light the candle, not because we never ask “where are you, God?”
We light the candle, even if we think that God is absent in ways that we want God present.
We light the candle, but not because we have all the answers, all the tidy doctrines, all the correct precepts.
We light the candle, but not without doubts and questions and spitting and accusing and protesting and lamenting and complaining.
We light it because we hope that the spit and tears are prayers heard by One that knows us better than we know ourselves.
We light the candle because we want God to be with us. We yearn for God to be with us.
We light the candle because we know that there is power in complaint, but that complaint is not the end of the conversation, that while we tell God what we feel, we also listen for God’s voice.
We light the candle because there is something about saying it that makes it a little truer. Makes us believe it a little bit more, even in the darkness: God is here.