Out of the Whirlwind

(Job 38:1-7, 18; 39:26-27; 40:7-14; 41:11; 42:1-10) – J G White

11 am, Sun, March 1, 2020 – UBC Digby

Brian puts his paragliding wing on his back, a giant backpack, and climbs up a blueberry-carpeted gravel hill of Cumberland County. At the top is ‘launch,’ the clearing at the edge of a steep slope, where a person equipped with a hang-glider, or the parachute wing of a paraglider, can take off into the air, when the wind is just right. 

I’ve been there; I’ve seen it. No, they don’t ‘jump off’ a mountain to take flight. When the gentle wind is right, I’ve seen Brian inflate his wing, and walk straight out into thin air. Then, with updrafts, he can soar and float and circle around – perhaps for half an hour – before he gently descends to the landing zone below. Another blueberry field. 

We have joked from time to time that Brian climbs mountains just to get away and ‘work out his problems.’ We know better: he simply loves paragliding. But sometimes the wind is never quite right, and he spends a lot of time on a hilltop, watching and waiting. 

There is something potent and powerful in such solitary times, out in nature. Long times waiting, watching; or walking, exploring. Hunting. Or finding a pouring waterfall, or pounding surf on the shore. Whatever. Wherever.

Of course, a pastor like me has heard many times, a person who never sits in a pew, say, “I can worship out in the woods.”  Yes. 

“But do you?” I wonder, and never ask. “Do you worship God out in nature?”

Why do people say the woods is their cathedral? Because it is, and they do worship the Creator there? Because they just like that ‘pat answer’ for a religious person like me? Because they truly can get quiet, and focused, and ‘work out their problems’ there? Does nature give us answers to our biggest problems?

The long conversations of Job and his four friends are over, when the Creator arrives, somehow, and all creation is in God’s talk. God’s questions. God’s non- answers. It is beautiful, and awesome. But how does this work? Does Job, the suffering man, get any of his problems worked out? The problems of pain. Of his physical body wrecked. His children all killed off, when a mighty wind blew down the house they were dining in. His total property of livestock and servants taken away by raiders, or killed and burned.

We, we have our own troubles. Or we are at least surrounded with people who have major problems.

I was surprised, three weeks ago, to read in the obituaries that a 97-year-old woman named Laura had died. I thought she was long dead already! I’d been introduced to her in 2002 on January 15th. She was 79. By then she was already living in a nursing home in Windsor, NS, spending her days rolling around in a wheel-chair. From the first day I met her, she would always look at me, agitated and confused, and say,

“Who are you?

“I’m the Baptist Pastor”

“What’s your name?”

“Jeff. Jeff White.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m the new Pastor, from the Church.”

“What’s your name?”

“Jeff White.”

“Who are you?”…

Laura had been a nurse. She was a graduate of the Grace Maternity Hospital, and had got the Proficiency Award in 1945. She married and raised a family: four children. She was a devoted Baptist Christian. She was a gardener, she played the organ and the autoharp, she loved to dance, she drew and painted. 

Yet, for at least eighteen years, she was in a state of not knowing what was going on, maybe not knowing who she herself was. ‘How long, O Lord?’

Each week, lately, I think of another woman. Kerri is 25 years old, a mother of three, and lives in California. I know her grandmother and family well, here in NS. I knew Kerri when she was a little kid, growing up in NB and NS. 

One early evening, just back in December, before a family gathering to do some Christmas decorating at her brother’s new place, Kerri did a favour for a senior couple she knows. She took their dog out for a walk. Crossing an avenue, a car struck her and the dog. The dog was killed instantly. Kerri suffered serious fractures to her skull. She underwent brain surgery. She was fighting for her life. Prayer was requested from everyone connected with the family, from Canada to the US to Australia. 

It’s more than two months later, now. She has made progress, but is still fighting for her life. Her grandmother told me on Friday, when I asked, that Kerri is “aware but not talking. Nor walking.” It’s a long road ahead for a 25-year-old mother of three. ‘How much will she even recover, O Lord?’

We look for God, for our amazing God, in the amazingly bad situations. Like Job did. 

The final chapters of Job, that Margo surveyed for us, say some remarkable things. I think it remarkable that God does not answer any of Job’s big questions about suffering. I find Job’s answer to God remarkable, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (J42:5-6) I find it remarkable that Job is justified, and his three friends are not. And how Job prays – with sacrifices – for his friends. Young Elihu we’ve been hearing from for weeks does not even get mentioned. It’s mysterious.

And I find the creation poetry of God remarkable. Job is questioned. It is almost like a science examination. Or a David Attenborough documentary. Hey, I have a B.Sc. in Biology and Chemistry. I might translate it into my own experience this way…

The Word of YHWH: Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? I will question you, and you shall declare to me. 

Where were you when I laid out the north Mountain, the Neck and Islands, with a volcanic lava flow of basalt? Tell me, if you know.

Or who shut in the tides with doors when it burst out of the womb?– and prescribed the bounds for the bore, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come up the Shubenacadie river, and no farther’?

Have you entered the genetic springs of the orchids, and walked the DNA strands that detail the fragile and variable beauty of their leaves and roots and blossoms? 

Is it by your wisdom that the cardinal sings in the morning with a song brighter than its colour? Is it at your command that the ruby-throated hummingbird arrives in the spring from below the equator, and makes its tiny nest hidden in the shrubs?

Tighten your belt, straighten your tie like a man; I will question you, and you declare to me. 

Deck yourself with majesty and dignity; clothe yourself with perfect wisdom and authority.

Look on all who are rude, and make them polite; tread down the criminals where they hide. 

Look at Coronavirus, which I made just as I made you; it takes control of cells from the inside. Its strength is in its reproduction, and its power in its contagion. Can one halt it with a mask, or pierce its RNA and stop it? Who can confront it and be safe? Under the whole heaven, who?

Can you draw out the Right Whale from the net and set it free to breach and dive, never to be harmed by a boat again? Will she speak to you softly, telling where she wants to feed and guide its calves in safe plankton pastures?

Then Jeff answered the LORD: “I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. I had heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I know I’m nothing in my understanding, and I make a u-turn, bowing down and shutting up.”

When we have no answers for our problems, does the gigantic glory of creation suffice? Is it enough to meet God in the beauty & awesomeness of the world?

It may indeed be when we wander, when we are alone with our thoughts and prayers, that we seek answers. And there we may meet our Maker. 

Even then we still do not get direct answers. So life is not just about ‘answers.’ It is about connection, even friendship, with God. Job discovered the Divine One would still be his friend, not his enemy. And the Big Picture, the whole universe, all creation, is so much bigger than our lives, and even our most intense problems. Our God is that Big. And that Good.

So, when I hike up Beaman’s Mountain, or Mount Shubel, is that ‘my church,’ where I can work out my problems? Yes – in part. I am so glad I don’t have to choose between that and a congregation that meets in a building on Sundays. You. I get to have both! Both nature and religion. 

Life is right because the Holy One comes to us, in creation, and in Christ. A few thousand years after Job, we have more. We have the friendship of God in Jesus Christ. We are about to sit down to The Lord’s Supper, our Holy Communion with Christ and one another. This is not mere explaining, it is experiencing. It is not simply retelling a story, it is reimagining life and death. And it is not just individuality, it is community. 

The Christ event does answer. It hits us directly where it hurts. Jesus suffers. Jesus dies and gets buried. Then, Jesus lives. And the Crucified One still lives today. 

May we each be given the experience, and then the faith, to say, ‘I had heard of Jesus by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You;

therefore I am empty; I bow, and receive.’

You Do Not Know

(Job 38:1-7, 34-41; Mark 10:35-45) – J G White
11 am, Sun, Oct 21, 2018 – UBC Digby

In Frederick Beuchner’s delightful book, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, he gives us a little religious dictionary, of sorts.  The very first word he talks about, on page one, is AGNOSTIC.  

An agnostic is somebody who doesn’t know for sure whether there really is a God.  That is some people all of the time and all people some of the time.
There are some agnostics who don’t know simply because they’ve never taken pains to find out — like the bear who didn’t know what was on the other side of the mountain.
There are other agnostics who have taken many pains.  They have climbed over the mountain, and what do you think they saw?  Only the other side of the mountain. 

We are together in one room here, this special room, because we have done some seeking and some finding of God.  Along with all that we do know, from our experience, there is still plenty we do not know.

This month we are just peeking into the saga of Job, the good, suffering person of ancient Israel. After more than twenty pages of fine print Holy Bible, wherein Job and his four ‘friends’ debated why Job’s life had been destroyed, God the Holy One arrives and speaks. Out of a whirlwind. Joyce read just a bit of God’s speeches, that are in chapters 38, 39 and 40.

What is the divine message?  No answers. No reasons why. No verdict on if Job did wrong or not, was deserving or not. No judgement on which humans got it right: Job, Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar or Elihu.  God presents the magnificent creation, and presents Godself to Job. Asking, rhetorically, “Where you there?  Do you know all this?”

16 “Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
   or walked in the recesses of the deep?
17 Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
   or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
18 Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?
   Declare, if you know all this. (Job 38)

19 “Where is the way to the dwelling of light,
   and where is the place of darkness,
20 that you may take it to its territory
   and that you may discern the paths to its home?
21 Surely you know, for you were born then,
   and the number of your days is great!

Holy God speaks of earth and seas, clouds and weather, stars and sun and moon, lions and mountain goats and wild donkeys and oxen, ostriches and horses and hawks and eagles, the fearless hippopotamus and the dreaded crocodile.

Job, of course, does not know, nor has any say over any of this.  This vast, beautiful, terrifying, unknown creation on earth and in the heavens.   Today, we might think that we people know so much about so much.  Science has studied and explained life and astronomy and atomic physics and time.  

But the more we have learned, the more we realize we do not know, and cannot yet explain. And the BIGGER is the awe and wonder at all there is in nature and the cosmos.  

Our gasp at utter beauty, the smallness we feel in a giant landscape, the amazement we have at what is out there, are spiritual experiences. Like the spiritual experience of Job, meeting God in a whirlwind, and pondering all the creatures and all creation.

Other Bible words celebrate the creation that shows the Creator.  Such as Psalm 19.
1 The heavens are telling the glory of God;
   and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
2 Day to day pours forth speech,
   and night to night declares knowledge.

The apostle Paul got at this in his short sermon written down in Acts 17.
26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.

God says to Job, “you don’t know, do you.” He does not, & it’s OK for Job not to know everything.  About creation, about his own predicament, about God.  

All the deep questions Job and his friends asked, all the personal problems they wonder about, are not answered here.  Not getting things right is OK. God comes and meets them, and that is what matters most.

Like Job and his companions, we learn from the embarrassing questions we ask of God, the not-so-sensible prayers we prayed, our actions that were not obedience to what God wanted.

Philip Yancey has been a popular and insightful Christian author, who had a very strict religious upbringing.  He has written of his father, who suffered from polio. Not long after Philip was born, his father ended up in an iron lung so he could still breathe and live.  Church leaders urged Mr. Yancey to take himself off the iron lung machine, assuring him he would be healed. This was their church’s fervent prayer; this is what was done.  Mr. Yancey died, one week later, when son Philip was only one year old.

People of faith do not always know what they are asking.  Think of today’s story from Mark, with James and John asking for prominent leadership in a kingdom they expected from Jesus.  “You do not know what you are asking,” said Jesus to them.

They also said “we are able” to drink the cup Jesus was about to take.  They still did not understand. They could no see that He was about to suffer completely, and die.  In time, they too did understand, & sacrificed their lives for the gospel.

It might be quite often that we “do not know what we are asking.”  We are looking for answers we will not get.  Yet, even wanting the answers to the wrong questions can lead us closer to Christ.

It is OK not to know.  Not to know everything.  And to be mistaken. We learn from mistakes.  We are humbled. We are limited. We do go astray.  We are given the grace of God when we think we know what we don’t understand.  Grace is to live beyond our foolishness, and be greater. Last week we heard Job crying out about God. And kept trusting the goodness of the Almighty, the good plan for him. (Job 23)

9 on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
   I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.
10 But he knows the way that I take;
   when he has tested me, I shall come out like gold.

The ways we goof up can make us greater, by the grace of God.  We need to know this; and we should let other people know this too.  By how we treat them, by how we explain our God.
What each person seeks is different.

This morning, Joyce sang a modern song that I have never heard before.  
It Is the Cry of My Heart to follow You.
It is the cry of my heart to be close to You.

It’s a good song for me. It is the cry of my heart to follow Him.  I am a natural born follower, actually.  And I have sought to be a pilgrim on a Christian journey, a disciple of the Master, a follower of Jesus.  But many people are not going after such things.

What are the heart cries of others around us?  Not necessarily the same as ours. Nor what we think they should be crying out for or needing.
Some cry out, like Job, to ask why there is such suffering, such injustice.  Why? And what can be done about it?
Others cry out: Are You there or are You not?  The existence of God. The agnostic wanting to know.
Cry out: Who am I to be? Where do I belong?
Cry out: Are the things that seem good to me really wrong?  (God and cannabis?)
Cry out: Why is religion so harmful? Why doesn’t it work?  Where is authentic spirituality / humanity?

Hemorrhaging Faith is a 2011 Canadian study of young adults who left the Christian Church. In it, the voices of young people are heard. Sandi said, “I am at the age where you question everything and you start wondering why, and why me, and all that stuff.”  

Lois said, “I like the style of preaching where they don’t just preach to you, they pose questions to you, don’t just tell you how you are supposed to live your life and these are the reasons: bang, bang, bang, because it says in the Bible.”  

Gary said, “I fundamentally believe you can’t understand an infinite God if you are willing to accept answers and stop questioning … you need to be asking questions.” (p. 67)

There may be no simple answer – even from God – for such questions. That’s OK. I have often thought, that when we do get to heaven, some big questions we want answered here will not even matter to us anymore.  Once we are united to Christ, the big problems we want solved will be so tiny compared with what we become and what God is.

1 John 3:2 says, Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.

Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Boundary Lines Have Fallen: an Earth Day sermon

(Psalm 16:5-11; Job 38:1-11) J G White

2nd Sunday of Easter, April 23, 2017, UBC Digby

Here is love vast as an ocean,
Loving-kindness as a flood…
Grace and love like mighty rivers,
Poured incessant from above…

So sang the Choir.  The vastness of creation has always been the language of Faith.  The oceans and tides, rivers and mountains – all are great and speak of great things.

Yesterday was Earth Day.  Over the past month I have had visions of the ancient Acadian Forest of Nova Scotia fill my imagination.  What did these forests and coastlines look like, say, 600 years ago?  If I had a time machine at my disposal, that is one moment I would visit.  Under the overwhelming shade I would travel the province, peeking out at the landscape from the coastlines and wetlands.

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean
Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie, 1847.  And this scene comes from but 260 years ago, when that forest primeval was being taken down.  It tells the tale of changing boundary lines.  The English took over and expelled the French.  Not to mention the First Peoples, being shoved into smaller spaces among us.  

The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places, says Psalm 16, I have a goodly heritage. (16:6)  

We like boundary lines.  We humans.  The Old Testament stories of the Hebrews tell us of the parcelling out of their Promised Land, which happened after they arrived, and from which they themselves would be taken.  And then return.  Again and again.  With too many wars and battles from century to century over that Holy Land.

We like good boundary lines for ourselves. And, in the grand scheme of things, we Nova Scotians can be grateful for the beautiful land that is ours, so to speak.  

The new Jewish Publication Society Version puts Psalm 16 verse 6b this way:
Delightful country has fallen to my lot;
lovely indeed is my estate.  

 The boundary lines have fallen for us in pleasant places, here in Nova Scotia.  Lovely indeed.
Yet the real boundary lines of Creation are beyond our control and fathoming.  Even when we have a part in shifting them, these days.  Moments of trouble and turmoil remind us that this world is bigger and more powerful and more unpredictable than we often admit to ourselves.
We visited a scripture scene today from the life of Job.  Way back in Hebrew history this man had lived well and lived right – and disaster strikes.  His estate, his family, his own health are all destroyed.  And apparently for no reason.  Job has four friends who visit, and when they start talking they never stop.  “All this trouble must be someone’s fault – yours, Job, we’re sorry to say.  Or God’s.”  

After all the talk, all the struggle of Job to figure out why God did this, allowed this… the Almighty One finally shows up.  In a great storm the Creator appears.  And the creator speak of what?  Job’s little problems?  His unstopped suffering?  No. The Creator speaks of creation, the ordering, the organizing of creation.  

Here is a sample from the Book of Job, chapters 38 & 39.  God asks questions – rhetorical questions.
Where were you when I created the earth?
   Tell me, since you know so much!
Who decided on its size? Certainly you’ll know that!
   Who came up with the blueprints and measurements?

Look at the marvels of physics:
“Do you know where Light comes from
   and where Darkness lives
So you can take them by the hand
   and lead them home when they get lost?

Look up to the vast distances of space:
    “Can you catch the eye of the beautiful Pleiades sisters,
   or distract Orion from his hunt?
Can you get Venus to look your way,
 or get the Great Bear & her cubs to come out & play?

Look to the real wild animals on earth:
“Can you teach the lioness to stalk her prey
   and satisfy the appetite of her cubs
As they crouch in their den,
   waiting hungrily in their cave?

Look to the incredible birds:
“Was it through your know-how that the hawk
learned to fly,
   soaring effortlessly on thermal updrafts?

This is the sort of answer the suffering man, Job, gets from his God.  Job is given the presence of God – a meeting with the Creator. Job is given perspective.  This world, and your life, is part of something far bigger than you can ever see or know.  You but catch a glimpse. And, you know Me, the Creator.

The work of science throughout the ages has sought out answers.  The size of the earth.  Two hundred years before the life of Jesus, Eratosthenes (276-195 BCE) calculated the circumference of the earth to be 25,000 miles.  It is actually 24,900 miles!  Eratosthenes did amazingly well, comparing the shadow of a stick at Alexandria at the same moment the sun was directly overhead at Syene, now called Aswan, Egypt.  

Ornithologists through the centuries have marveled at the flight of birds, and their amazing travel.  Right now, many species are migrating across the Americas, some flying from south of the equator, to their nesting sites in the Canadian Arctic.

There is no controlling such things, no changing of these amazing patterns, and their bounds.  

Well, almost no changing them.

I happened to be researching South Sudan the other day, where such famine and fighting is going on now.  I wandered in my reading to the Nile River, and then to the Aswan High Dam, that halts the Nile, far downstream from Sudan and South Sudan.  2,200 years after Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of this planet at Aswan, the Aswan High Dam on the Nile River was built.   

We humans have learned to change the landscape – creating land where there was none, or giant bodies of water.  We can do farming on a gigantic scale – of crops, or of trees, or of fish, or whatever we want.  We change the landscape, the atmosphere, the sea.  We change biology – what lives and grows where.  What species have died, never to be seen again.

The beautiful boundary lines described in the poetry of Job 38 and 39 have been eclipsed by another sense of how boundaries have ‘fallen.’  

Earth’s boundary lines have fallen – in the sense of being broken – by our human impact.  Earthworms did not live in the soil of Canada until humans brought them here a couple hundred years ago.  

Earth’s boundary lines have fallen… as we learn how we have broken boundaries and limits we now should keep.  We are challenged to understand our impact on the boundary lines of our atmosphere and our sea levels.  

Earth’s boundary lines have fallen… Some would say things are crashing now, thanks to our impact.  No animal or plant has had as many effects upon this creation in so short a period of years as we humans have.  

I believe we cannot simply wait for the New Heavens and the New Earth, and let this Earth fall.  It is still worth doing our part for the generations to come, that they may also say, The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places, I have a goodly heritage. (Ps. 16:6)

When Earth Day approaches each year, April 22, I wonder what new step a faith community like Digby Baptist could take.  What could we declare in the spring of the year?  How shall we live better in this creation?

Paper does not grow on trees, I say.  And it doesn’t, unless you are just going to unravel a bit of birch bark when you need some.  As a user of paper with a computer printer and photocopier almost every day, I ignore the high cost to the health of the planet of making paper.  I wondered if a good goal for Digby Baptist would be to cut back – significantly – on the paper we use up.  You know me already, and how fanatical I am about using both sides of any sheet of paper!   

Alongside this, I think out loud with you about how we eat and drink together.  The dishes and cutlery and cups we use come in a variety of formats. Is cutting down on paper and plastic and styrofoam a good step to take?

Well, I don’t think we have a declaration to make this year, this Earth Day, as a congregation.  I don’t believe the leadership settled this, or came to a consensus.  Perhaps in a year’s time we can be decisive, and take one small step.  

There is a need for many small steps, and some very large ones.  Best practices of a Church within Creation will make a difference, and inspire our individual habits to improve.  

Sometimes it just comes down to habits.  Our good habits, our bad habits.  The bad ones we thought were good or OK. We get our own boundary lines changed.  How we get rid of our trash changes.  We change our shopping habits.  We alter our expectations when it comes to heat in the winter.  

Does not our Master inspire this?  Our personal troubles are one piece of the puzzle of the meaning of life.  In the grand scheme of things there is a Grand Scheme of Things.  This faced Job.  All the forces of Creation came crashing down upon him.  ‘Have you ever ordered the Morning to ‘get up?’  ‘Have you ever traveled to where snow is made?’  ‘Will the wild buffalo condescend to serve you?’  And we look out upon the same amazing world.  Of which we are part.  Of which God proved to be a part in the life of Jesus. We are granted to much beautiful knowledge, thank God.

Perhaps one good ecological step for our Church to take this year is at the heart level.  What do we value?  Is this life on earth one of our values, as Christians here?  How do we love what God has given us?  And how then shall we put our money where our mouth is?

Oceans and waves and tides and rivers can inspire us, speak God’s word to us.  The word to live within our means as part of creation!  To learn our boundaries on this earth.  To be tiny co-creators in this world.  We can help the boundary lines to fall in pleasant places for others.

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God… (Romans 8:19)