The Healing Power of Theodical Spirituality

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Readings for the Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25 Year B Track 1)

Job 42:1-6, 10-17

Psalm 34:1-8, (19-22)

Hebrews 7:23-28

Mark 10:46-52

This sermon was preached at Christ Episcopal Church in Sausalito CA on October 25, 2015. 

In 1940, Anglican author and apologist C.S. Lewis wrote a book titled The Problem of Pain, which seeks to answer the question: How do we reconcile an all-loving and all-powerful God with a world of suffering? Lewis offers an intellectual defense of God’s justice and righteousness in the midst of evil. The theological term for this defense of God, this attempt to answer the problem of evil is theodicy (which means God’s righteousness).[1] Lewis and many other theologians have articulated several philosophical theodicies throughout the centuries. However, Lewis revisits this question of suffering twenty years later after tragically losing his beloved wife to cancer. In his later book titled A Grief Observed, he vents and explores his grief and discovers the impotency of philosophical theodicy in the midst of heartwrenching tragedy and loss. In his raw honesty and bitterness, he asks God, “Are you a cruel clown? A Cosmic Sadist? A spiteful imbecile? An Eternal Vivisector?”[2] He asks questions that make us uncomfortable, that make us want him to be quiet or to insist that God knows what he’s doing and who are we to question God? Questions that Lewis himself would have tried to smother with orthodox theology and philosophy only a few decades earlier. However, it is because of Lewis’s bold prayer and unrelentless lament that he begins to experience healing compassion from God. He realizes the limitations of theological and philosophical theodicy and experiences the power of what one author calls a “pastoral theodicy” or a “theodical spirituality,” a spirituality that involves boldly bringing one’s questions, confusions and cries about suffering to God and allowing oneself to be transformed by God’s response.

The Gospel and the Hebrew lesson this morning reveal this theodical spirituality by inviting us both to bring our questions and cries boldy before God in prayer and also to not create obstacles for others who seek to do the same.

In the Gospel reading from Mark, a blind beggar named Bartimaeus shouts and cries out for mercy, much to the chagrin of Jesus’s followers who understandably want to keep some semblance of order and structure around their rabbi and his healings. So they sternly order Bartimaeus to keep silent, but he responds to their rebuke by yelling and crying out even more loudly –a phenomenon that I am all too familiar with in youth ministry. In the midst of this growing chaos and antagonism between Bartimaeus and Jesus’s disciples, Jesus stands serenely still and seems to affirm Bartimaeus’s boldness by saying, “Call him here.” And with these words, the followers quickly change their tone from admonishing to encouraging and tell Bartimaeus to “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” In Mark’s wonderfully fast-paced language, Bartimaeus throws off his cloak, shoots up and runs towards Jesus, who asks him to articulate what it is that he wants. “To see again” (anablepso), he says. He wants liberation from his suffering and darkness. Jesus then affirms him in his bold faith saying, “Your faith has made you well.” And “immediately” (Mark’s favorite word), Bartimaeus regains his sight. Boldness in prayer, even when it is loud and feels chaotic, is affirmed by Christ, who responds with healing.

Bartimaeus3

I exert a great deal of energy trying to keep young people quiet and still, especially during times of prayer. For the most part, they are very good at this and seem to even enjoy these brief moments of stillness and contemplation. However, there are other times when our prayers together in youth group are more chaotic than contemplative, as is also the case sometimes in our children’s mini-mass at 9:30. In today’s Gospel, Jesus invites me to model calmness and stillness in the midst of loud chaos, just as he did. And the Gospel also seems to suggest that sternly ordering people to be quiet might actually get in the way of what Christ is trying to do in their lives. Enforcing a strict theology of structure and order might actually be smothering necessary growth and healing that can flourish best in a spirituality that is messy and sometimes uncomfortable.

The Hebrew lesson this morning is the conclusion of one of the great literary masterpieces of Western culture: the Book of Job, which recounts the bold prayers of the blameless man from Uz (named Job), who endures an enormous onslaught of undeserved suffering. Job’s friends initially respond to his suffering with deep empathy by sitting with him in silence for seven days, observing an early form of “sitting shiva” which many Jewish people practice today after losing a loved one. The text says, “And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (Job 2:13). Initially, Job’s friends are able to hold space for him in all his messy misery, without trying to comfort him with useless platitudes. But when Job opens his mouth and curses the day he was born, his friends understandably try to reign him in with what they think is helpful theology. Job then responds to his friends’s philosophical theodicies (their defenses of God’s righteousness in the midst of suffering) by accusing God of being a sadistic and ferocious monster (10:3, 16; 16:9; 19:6). Those verses are usually left out of our lectionary because they make us uncomortable. They make us want to tell Job to keep quiet and (as the youth would say) take a chill pill. Just as Jesus’s followers tried to keep Bartimaeus quiet in order to maintain order, Job’s friends try to calm him down with a philosophical theodicy that maintains God’s righteousness and basically says, “Relax and acknowledge the fact that you probably messed up and in some ways you probably deserve your suffering, as we all do.” Job continues to reject their sterile theology and theodicy and instead moves deeper into an untidy but ultimately fruitful theodical spirituality, that wrestles honestly with the question of suffering in the context of prayer. In the last few chapters of the book, God responds to Job out of a whirlwind storm and gives Job a life-changing experience of his awe-inspiring glory, that cannot be contained or tamed by any human. And then God vindicates Job and chastises Job’s friends. God says to Job’s friends, “You have not spoken of me [honestly], as my servant Job has. I am going to have Job pray for you because he knows how to pray” (42:8). God affirms Job in his honest theodical spirituality and reprimands those who cling to a clean and tidy philosophical theodicy.

Jobs-Despair-Blake

In our reading this morning, we hear Job’s final words after wheathering what-must-have-felt-like a divine hurricane. He says, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear.” In other words, I knew my theology and my philosophical theodicy. “But now my eye sees you.” But now, I have experienced you. I have experienced you as one who is far too powerful and mighty to be threatened or made uncomfortable by my questions and accusations and raw anger.

And then, according to our translation, Job says, “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” The dense poetry in the book of Job is part of its beauty and mystery and yet it also lends itself at times to poor translation. In Hebrew, Job’s last line is al-ken emas v’ni-chamti al afar va’efer (וָאֵפֶר עָפָר-עַל וְנִחַמְתִּי אֶמְאַס כֵּן-עַל), which instead of “I despise myself and repent” can just as easily be translated as “Therefore, I can let go and be okay with not knowing.” Job can let go but only after bringing his honest questions to a God mighty enough to receive his anger and loving enough to respond to it.

Towards the end of his book A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis wrote, “When I lay [my] questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘No answer.’ It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand.’”[3] Like Job, Lewis experienced a theodical spirituality that helped him see philosophical theodicy as impotent and maybe even an obstacle to honest prayer. He wrote, “Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All nonsense questions are unanswerable. How many hours are there in a mile? Is yellow square or round? Probably half the questions we ask — half our great theological and metaphysical problems — are like that.”[4] Lewis learns to say with Job, “I can let go and be okay with not knowing.” But in order to get there, Lewis had to stop philosophizing about the question of suffering and to start praying the question of suffering. He had to hurl his questions at the throne of God with what Martin Luther called “a living and daring confidence in God’s grace.”[5]

One of the main invitations in the Epistle to the Hebrews, which we have been reading, is summed up in chapter 4 verse 16: “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” This verse sums up theodical spirituality. And that is the invitation this morning: to approach the throne of grace (the altar) with boldness like Job and Bartimaeus and C.S. Lewis, with all of our questions, confusions, disappointments and anger, “with all the broken parts of ourselves,” “so that we may receive mercy” from God, who is strong enough to hold us and loving enough to respond in a way that will transform us and heal us. Amen.

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[1] Term coined by 17th century German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz

[2] C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: Seabury Press, 1976), 15, 35, 44, 46.

[3] A Grief Observed, 80.

[4] A Greif Observed, 81.

[5] Today is Reformation Sunday, the last Sunday of October, which commemorates Martin Luther’s nailing of the 95 theses on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenburg, Saxony on October 31, 1517.

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About deforestlondon

Episcopal priest
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