The labyrinth of life – Job 38:1-11, suffering of Job – Living by the Word – Column

Margaret B. Hess

As the story of Job begins, the curtain rises and we look upon a drama that is as old as the hills and as new as the last bad thing that happened to us. The first few scenes move swiftly as Job is stripped of all his attachments in life. Wealth and possessions, the lives of his sons and daughters, his health–all fall away from him as leaves from a tree in autumn. Only a shred of faith is left like that last small leaf that clings, swinging bravely in a wind that never seems to stop blowing. After the ravages of suffering, it seems that all that remains of his former life is a wife who dares to voice the searing possibility that Job could curse God and call it quits. Oh yes, and let us not forget that this man still has friends. As it were.

The friends come creeping forward after the blast, hesitant to get too close yet curious. At first they can only stare, not daring to believe that this figure hollowed out by loss is indeed their old friend Job. Even their weeping recedes into a stunned, blessed silence as they look upon the sunken-eyed Job, this specter of a worst-case scenario.

The friends are a study in how people come to terms with their own helplessness as they bear witness to the suffering of another. They cannot sit still for too long, and soon move into a litany of well-intentioned attempts to provide a structure of meaning for Job’s experience. They fail to help their friend, and are left with the mighty force of their own helplessness.

Job is a walking Rorschach blot on the theme of suffering. We look into the grotesque drama and find the shape of our own suffering staring back at us. We recognize our own worst terrors, fears, losses and tragedies in the contours and silhouettes of Job’s story. The details change from one story to the next, but we share many of the questions voiced by Job and his friends: Why does God allow good people to suffer? Am I to blame for my suffering? How do I make the pain go away? Is there any comfort anywhere? Although Job begins with the question “Why me?,” thankfully he does not end there.

The depleted Job does not receive satisfactory answers to any of his questions. But something else happens. God speaks to Job out of a whirlwind. “Were you there when I laid the foundation of the earth?” Evidently God has paid careful attention to the cries and whines of this man Job, for God comes prepared with a long list of God’s own unanswerable questions. In a windy speech that goes on verse after verse, God huffs and puffs about the mighty mystery of God, a conundrum Job will never be able to resolve.

After God’s great speech, Job is a changed man, but it is not the content of the speech that heals him. Rather, it is the fact that a God whom he had only heard about has now come to him personally. Theological constructs are not the source of Job’s redemption; rather, it is relationship with God that transforms his profound suffering. Job meets God and sees that the circuitous track of his life has led him through paths of joy and suffering. Best of all, Job realizes that in all things his path was held in the hand of a God who was waiting to take him in God’s arms and wipe his tears away.

Last summer I traveled to France, and visited the great cathedral at Chartres. I had heard that there was a labyrinth laid into the cathedral floor. In the Middle Ages, pilgrims would journey to the cathedral and walk the labyrinth in meditative fashion–acting out a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. They would enter the labyrinth at the outside of the circle and follow the path as it weaves in and out, around and around to the center of the circle. There are no wrong turns and no dead ends: the path always leads back to the center.

When I arrived at Chartres, I could not walk the path because chairs were set up across the floor, so I spent time praying at the entrance of the labyrinth. Soon I moved into the center of the circle. I was struck by the power of the labyrinth as an image of my life. I had journeyed 40 years to stand in the center. As I looked back over my life, I thought of all the losses, failures, mistakes and brokenness I had experienced. I thought also of the joys, gifts and treasures of my life. Through it all, the path led to the center, to a meeting place with a God who was there all along.

Is this word of hope enough for those who suffer–that in the end, wherever the path leads, it is the presence of God that heals our grief? Probably not. For the rumor of God is rarely enough to satisfy. But the meeting . . . the meeting is sweet balm for the one on an ever-circling journey to the heart of God.

The other night I dreamed that I was in Chartres: As my eyes adjust to the dim light of the cathedral, I see people walking the ancient labyrinth and join them. The circuitous path leads me through the terror and shadow of my worst fears, as well as through my most poignant joys. I reach the center, the pulsing heart of it all. Suddenly, an arm is around my waist, a hand light upon my shoulder. I look into the eyes of God. The dance begins, and we whirl and twirl in a dance of laughter and glee. How was I to know, as I moved around and around this labyrinth path, that I was fumbling toward this sweet ecstasy? We dance, God and I, a whirlwind of light. And all round us dance the daughters of Job, the sweet, beautiful daughters of Job.

The author is Margaret B. Hess, pastor of First Baptist Church in Nashua, New Hampshire.

COPYRIGHT 1997 The Christian Century Foundation

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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