29.1.17 – Faith And Suffering – Paul Hooper

Reading  –  Job 1:1-22 and Job 2:1-10

This week’s reading serves a couple of purposes.  It introduces the story of Job and it sets up an exploration of the nature of faith and suffering, and the human response to the suffering of good and righteous people.  The subtitle of Job might well come from Rabbi Harold Kushner, when he asks, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

We know from the second sentence of the book that Job was a good person.  He was “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1.1)

But no sooner do we learn about this good man Job, that bad things start to happen to him

  • thugs kill his servants and steal his donkeys and oxen
  • lightning strikes and kills his sheep and his shepherds
  • a tornado comes and kills all his children
  • terrible, ugly, painful sores pop up all over his whole body, from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head

Even after all of this, Job still would not blame God.  He steadfastly refused to play the role of the victim.  He just moved out to the garbage dump and sat by himself, day after day, scraping the sores with a piece of broken pottery.

After  a while Job’s three best friends came along.  They had heard what had happened to Job, and they came to talk to him..  At first they couldn’t even recognise him, but once they realised that this sick , broken man was, in fact, their old friend Job, they started doing what any good friends would do.  They tried to console him with a little advice.

(Not necessarily the things one should say I imagine to a suffering parishioner!!)

The first one said, “Don’t be sad Job.  God never does anything to a person without some reason.  God has hurt you but God will also heal you. Well thats helpful.  God did this to you to make you stronger, but don’t worry God will fix it!

The second friend said” God doesn’t punish a person unless that person is guilty.  All you have to do is confess your sin to God and repent, and God will pardon you and restore you to a long and prosperous life”  So in essence, what this friend was saying was “Job , your suffering is your own fault and your cure is dependent on who? You Job.  That way, if you aren’t cured, who is to blame? That’s right: you are to blame”

The third friend said, “Don’t worry, Job, God never puts more a burden on a person than that person is able to bear.  Just get right with God, and God will lift your burden in time” So try offering that as consolation to that abused woman who has just lost everything: Yes, my friend, God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.  So you can handle the fact that your husband continuously beats you up, you are about to lose your home and your car, you can’t get a job, there is no food in the pantry for the kids, and you are going to spend the next two years spending every dollar you have earned to fight for custody of your children.  That is sadly the true story of many families we see at Family Works – Presbyterian Support.

Would it be useful in these cases to attempt to comfort the Mum by saying “you just need to get it right with God, and then God will make it better”

So we’ve all been there, right. We get this story.  We understand Job’s feelings.  Maybe not to the degree that Job was suffering, but we have all suffered and wondered what we have done to deserve our suffering.  And our friends, maybe like Job’s friends had some advice for us didn’t  they.  The problem is, there are a few holes in the story.

  • Job’s friends didn’t understand that it wasn’t God who had caused Job’s suffering.
  • They were not privy to the text we read today, so they didn’t know that it wasn’t God, but Satan, who had ruined Job’s life
  • They didn’t  know that God had defended Job and never thought that Job was guilty of sin.  In fact the opposite was true.  God thought that Job was the model of goodness and righteousness and faithfulness.
  • They didn’t know that God thought Job was so strong that there wasn’t any burden that he could not bear, nor any sorrow he could not endure, and that God was betting on Job to keep right on being faithful and blameless and upright, no matter what challenges Satan threw his way.

We like to have an answer to the question of “Why do bad things happen to good people?” We want to have something to say that will bring comfort, or at least an explanation.  But the truth is, offering platitudes in response to difficult questions from people of faith doesn’t  always provide the solution that is required. What are we supposed to say when we get those calls that come in the middle of the night?  The truth is, we can really do nothing but pray and sit by and listen when wonderful, faithful, loving people, people of all ages, all kinds of backgrounds, all kinds of abilities, find themselves suddenly caught in some kind of vicious cycle of suffering or some kind of unexplainable event for example cancer, car accidents, devastating losses, marriage separation, divorce, poverty, injustice, prejudice, child abuse, gambling, drug and alcohol addiction, economic troubles, war loss of employment and the list goes on…

That brings me nicely to the work of Presbyterian Support. Everyday we working with individuals and families that have had significant negative events affect them or ones they care for.

Family Works looks at ways to give people a handup, not a handout – to assist families become more self sufficient and support families to create a positive environment for children to grow.  Throughout Otago there are a steady stream of people, in the most desperate of need at our doors each day, When people have no food , or nowhere to live, or they are fearful for their safety then we are able to step in.  People fitting the category of “urgent” are the fastest growing group of our clients.

But response means something at a community level as well.  We underpin our Family Works activity with a philosophy of strong communities enabling strong healthy families and individuals, but what does that mean in practice?  We are keen to work with whole communities helping identify strengths in that community that can be built on..  When there are strong and vibrant communities there is a greater feeling of belonging to something worthwhile.

Government funding is completely under review , and the future focus of this funding will be on the high end set of needs.  At the community level we also need to work with ordinary people with challenging situations.  This work will no longer be funded by Government, so we need your support  to carry this important preventative and early intervention work.

We have been very fortunate to share the services of Marco Kleinlangevelsloo.   Marco has taken over a lead role in the further development of the Buddy programme in Dunedin and supports workers in Balclutha and Oamaru.  This programme clearly looks at providing support early on where families are having difficulty.  The Buddy programme up here shines a light in the world of children at risk where they can spend time with their adult buddy away from the chaos of their daily life.   The demand for this service is ever – increasing.   You might have seen in the Star last week that Marco has had more than 30 responses to the call for suitable volunteers.

Here in  Dunedin,   Presbyterian Support continues to provide very person centred care at Ross Home, St Andrews and Taieri Court in Mosgiel,  when people face the need for residential care and the anxiety and loss of self determination that that means.

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Presbyterian Support Otago Family Works continues to work with partners to further enhance social transformation.

Transformation has always been the language of the church, that is, individuals changed through an encounter with God. Transformational change at personal, family, parish and community levels and the role the Church has in responding to human need and seeking to transform society was discussed in a stream at the 2014 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand.

In New Zealand two significant areas of human need which have an adverse effect on people have been identified as those of family violence and the impacts of poverty particularly on children. The challenge is often how best to respond to the people caught up in situations of family violence and poverty, while at the same time gaining an understanding of the broader social context in which these issues occur. Social transformation involves both of these actions.

What is our church known for? And what will our church be known for?  Our church is situated in a community where there are vulnerable people who may be experiencing major social issues such as poverty and/or family violence. There are just too many children being deprived of their basic needs in up to a quarter of households in New Zealand.

What can the church do for the most vulnerable? The establishment of Presbyterian Support over 110 years ago was an excellent response to the vulnerable. However, the development of a social service agency alongside the church does not absolve the church of its responsibilities to be the light here in Mornington and the prophetic voice of the church.

The previous Moderator, Andrew Norton, has outlined in his white paper how he believes the Presbyterian Church has lost its voice.  If we look at social justice in this broader sense maybe there is a way of getting back some of that voice.  He goes on to suggest that every congregation partners with Presbyterian Support.

How might you do that?  Many of you do already in your support as individual donors and volunteers in the range of programmes within Presbyterian Support – be it the Buddy Programme or providing support to our services for older people in Rest-homes.   In what way could you partner with Presbyterian Support at the grass roots level in your community.

the Church and Presbyterian Support  published a booklet, Justice in Action, for churches to use as they think about social justice/social transformation and looking at Child Poverty and Family Violence.

I encourage you to utilise the booklet .

As we reach out into our communities we can begin to make a difference – as we are better informed  with new understanding.

Mahatma Ghandi said:

“Be the change you want to see in the world”

That is powerful stuff!

My prayer is that each congregation sees Presbyterian Support as the Social Service arm of the Church and does indeed seek ways to partner with us and take an interest in social justice issues.

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