“What have writers…said about the struggles and joys of humanity that I could use to understand evil? Perhaps they can share with all of us an ongoing and abiding hope…that they will remind me that to simplify the complex is to neuter richness and defame the marvelously complex gift of life found pulsing ubiquitously around us…To eradicate evil is a process, not an event.”
–Emilie M. Townes, Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil
My week began with a broken heart. The truth is, my heart has been good and broken for a long while…and sometimes I’m able to admit that…and sometimes I find myself doing everything in my power to keep from thinking about it. But occasionally, I will encounter a piece of art that helps me to name that brokenness…and the pain mysteriously eases for awhile. This week I was blessed to come across such a piece, and, as God often does, it came from the least likely of places. There’s a late night talk show host on ABC named Jimmy Kimmel, and for the last few years, he has issued a challenge to his viewers. The challenge is this: On the morning after Halloween, wake your kids up, and tell them that you ate all their Halloween candy. And he tells them to record the whole thing and put it on YouTube, and then the Jimmy Kimmel Show puts the best ones—which inevitably means the most tragic ones—on TV. If you have seen the video, then you already know where I’m heading with this: It is simultaneously terribly sad, and remarkably hilarious.
I mean, it’s an incredibly cruel prank, and I don’t really support parents willfully playing with their children’s emotions like that. However, it’s also totally innocuous. I mean, they’re crying about candy, after all. But they are REALLY crying. These children get very upset, “How could you?” they scream. Some kids kick and hit things around them, others throw things at their parents. Some just stand there in shock, trying to process how something so cruel and unusual could happen to them. Others weep openly, but calmly, letting their grief wash over them like a shower. Something many of the kids ask over and over is a simple question, “Why?” Why would you do this? They’re searching for some way of understanding this, some way of making it make sense. But mainly they cry. They cry and lash out, knowing there has been a grave injustice done to them. The people they trust most have stolen from them and greedily devoured something that brought them great joy. How could this happen? How could this be allowed? Will there ever be justice?
As a spiritual teacher and leader, I can’t help but be fascinated by this video, and the lessons it teaches. I don’t support lying to your kids, I don’t think it’s right to deceive…but even in this prank, there is a deep truth: Tragedy will find its way into these children’s lives. At some point, these children will wake up and their world will be changed forever. And it won’t be candy that has been ripped from their grasp, but their health. Or their loved ones. Just as these precious children went to bed Halloween night, fully expecting to wake up to sacks full of candy the next morning…one day they will wake up to a world that has taken away everything they knew the night before. Tragedy will find its way to them, and instead of having parents or a mischievous talk show host to blame, there may not be any discernable answer to the question, “Why? Why is this happening?” And I find myself hoping for them–and for me, and for you–that when such a day comes, we might learn from the witness of the children in this video. Because broken hearts lead to Truth, and sometimes our best response to the presence of evil is a good, hard cry.
Which brings us to the story of Job. In a series of days, Job, the wealthiest, most prosperous, most upright citizen in all the land of Uz loses all his money, all his property, all his livestock, and his children are all killed in a terrible collapsing hut incident. After that he comes down with a horrible skin disease, his whole body is covered in boils. Job shaves his head, covers himself in ashes and goes out into a field, and sits…praying God will leave him alone for awhile. He has 3 friends who come to comfort him in his distress. When his friends arrive, Job begins making big speeches about how God is dealing unfairly with him. “I don’t deserve this,” he cries. “If only I could take God to court, if I could find someone to take my case across the cosmos to God, then surely, if there’s any justice in the universe, even God would have to agree that I am innocent, and I deserve NONE of this.” His 3 friends are horrified by the words Job says. Horrified because Job is challenging God directly, claiming he knows better than God. In turn, they all tell Job that he is a blasphemer, that God would never allow bad things to happen to good people. Surely, they argue, Job has done something to deserve what has happened to him, and now his only chance is to repent of his sins. But Job sticks to his story, insisting that he is blameless in God’s sight, convinced he would win his case against the Almighty. Well…God shows up. A roaring tornado appears and God speaks from within it, “You, mortal, where were you when I created the universe? Where were you when I tamed Leviathan? You were then but dust, and to dust you shall return, who are you to bring charges against your God?” Job immediately, humbly, withdraws his argument, “You are God, and I am not.”
Theologians have a fancy word—Theodicy—to address the “problem of evil” in the world. With an all loving and all powerful God in control of the universe, how can evil and suffering be aloud to exist? Theologians have, throughout time, attempted to give big, complete answers to that question, but honestly I have never heard a theological response that didn’t leave me wanting in some way. Due to the fact that theology is “faith seeking understanding,” it can only address the things that we are capable of understanding. And the story of Job affirms that, as human beings, we are not God, we just aren’t meant to understand everything. This is what Jesus is speaking to in our Gospel lesson. Sadducees, learned and devout religious people are trying to get Jesus to explain all the things he’s teaching about. What is The Kingdom of God? What do you mean? How does it work? They bombard him with complex puzzles, trying to say, “If your way is so much better than ours, then how would you answer this problem?” There’s a series of these tests they put him to, and Jesus finds different ways of rejecting all of them. “You’re asking the wrong questions,” Jesus seems to say. “I’m not here to tell you how it works, I’m here to tell you that God has already decided how it works. At the dawn of creation, God established how all of reality works, and we have two choices: We can be prepared to live into the reality of God…or not.”
We all know about suffering. None of you need me to stand up here and list the tragedies, the public stories of suffering, that plague our world, our country, our neighborhood and our very homes. In fact, suffering is so much a part of our lives that every person in here carries with them the memories and the scars of sad times and hardship that may only be known to you and God alone. We are fragile human beings living in a cold and complex world, we all know more than our share of suffering, and we have witnessed even more in the lives of others. And every time we touch such suffering, we respond like children: We cry, we scream, we lash out, and we ask “Why? How? Is there no justice?” Friends, that is called Lament. And Lament is a great gift, possibly a greater gift than any answer to those questions could ever be. Answers can tell you why things happen and what to expect down the line; but Lament is a sacred gift that we can rely on even when we experience the unexpected and the unexplainable. No one wants to suffer, and when we do we want to know what we can do to keep it from happening again, but we should know by now in our adult lives that there is no end to the suffering we encounter on this earth. There is, however, a pattern.
When we encounter suffering, we Lament, we cry out, we show grief, we mourn deeply…and without fail, God meets us there. We are often terrified by our own emotions. We see sadness as this chaotic ocean, we dare not wade in too far for fear that it will swallow us entirely. And indeed, if sadness were an ocean, some of us would have ocean front property right along its shore, we visit it so frequently. Emotions may be what we feel, but Lament is an act. It is a verb. It means to cry out, to show grief, to mourn deeply. Lament is not the emotions that might swallow us up, it is the life raft we construct in order to stay afloat. The better we are at Lamenting, the less likely we are to sink into despair. The book of Psalms is the earliest recorded set of prayers in our tradition, and there we only find two types of prayer: Psalms of Praise and Psalms of Lament. Our most ancient, basic forms of prayer tell us to praise God, praise God’s name and thank God for all the gifts of our lives, and to Lament to God—to cry and scream and mourn to our God when we encounter injustice.
As a society, we do not Lament well. We are often encouraged to bottle up our feelings, to cry behind closed doors, to ignore the dark clouds above us in order to search for a “silver lining.” But when we fail to Lament, to give voice and bear witness to our own suffering and the suffering of others, evil takes hold. The more we set our sadness aside, praying for a magic day when there will be suffering no more, the more we are turning our back on an ocean that will roll in and swallow us whole. God has given us an amazing gift, the ability to speak our pain, and turn in our rage and sadness to the Creator of All Things to say, “This is not right!” And sometimes we find beautiful and creative ways of articulating that cry. We write poetry, we sing songs, we run and use our bodies, we create art to illustrate this struggle. This makes us powerful advocates for ourselves and others, so why do we not do a better job of teaching Lament? Why do we still often find it best to stifle our primal emotions? I believe the Jimmy Kimmel video offers an insight: Think about what kind of parents would play this prank on their kids, to tell them they ate all their Halloween candy? Probably either parents who don’t care about hurting their kids for a cheap laugh, or parents whose relationship with their children is strong enough to trust they will get the joke, or at least forgive them when it’s over. I wonder if our lack of Lamentation isn’t a sign of our lack of trust in our God. I wonder if we are slow to turn to God, to trust God with our big emotions because we might be more than a little afraid that we will find a maniacal prankster, rather than a loving creator? All I can speak of is my own experience. Every time I have brought my broken heart to God, I have found a warm and comforting nurturer. God does not always heal my heart, everything is not always set right with the world, justice is not always served…and yes, sometimes God is having a good laugh at my expense…but it is in these moments that I know without a doubt that evil does not have the last word. There is light and love in our universe that will burst through the blackest night and the thickest hate. Love does win in the end, and it is a victory that comes, not in a single event, but in a process…love wins through a lifetime of cries, tears, and laughter. Thanks be to God!