Summer Requests – FBC Laurens
July 28, 2013
Youth Ministry scholar Mark DeVries says in his most recent work on ministry, “I’ve heard some scholars suggest that Job was actually the first book of the Bible written, as if the first idea that God wanted to communicate to his people was that this life is hard, that pain is real.” It’s an interesting thought. God doesn’t promise a life free of pain or difficulty, but gives us Job’s story to offer strength and perspective through the trials. Which is fortunate, because, like Job, the circumstances of life often overwhelm us. And in these instances when praise seems impossible what we need more than anything is A Change of Perspective.
Friday night I stood in the chapel of Central Park Baptist Church in Birmingham, surrounded by thirty-one students and adult chaperones from our church. They, along with the nearly three-hundred others present were joined in worship as the guest band led us in singing praise to God. I liked the pieces they’d selected. The songs of the congregation were heartfelt, and one could feel the Spirit moving in the cramped chapel space. But despite the overwhelmingly good worship environment, I wasn’t feeling it. It was the last night of more than 4 weeks of church camps I’ve participated in this summer, the end of a marathon 2 week stretch that took me through 4 airports and as many states…and I was tired. In addition, as I always get in the days leading up to preaching events, I was nervous about this morning. “This is completely justified,” I thought. “It’s just not your night to worship.” No…big…deal.
These are totally valid excuses right? Perhaps this morning these or others are running through your mind. Maybe you’re unhappy about the fact that Rickey’s not here and you’ve got to listen to me! (I don’t blame you!) Maybe you rushed out the door without eating breakfast and your stomach is growling uncontrollably. For whatever reason, maybe it’s just not your morning.
Whether we’re “too busy,” “too angry,” “too tired,” “too disappointed,” or “too sad,” it’s difficult to find ourselves in that state of mind from which praise comes easy. Our minds (consciously or unconsciously) focus on more pressing matters: relentless deadlines at work, the growing pile of bills on the kitchen counter, or the painful decision of how best to care for mom or dad. Our own issues (or those affecting the ones we love)—the trials of life—push us toward anger, disappointment, and frustration with God. We feel beleaguered—utterly surrounded by enemies that assail us. We empathize with Job, seemingly forsaken by God, believing ourselves a pawn in some sick wager between our God and his adversary.
For most of his story it’s kind of hard not to empathize with Job, a man whose name has become a veritable archetype of patience and perseverance in times of trial and loss. It’s a tale that we’re all familiar with. Job a man of great wealth and happiness loses everything—family, friends, health, wealth—everything we associate with a state of blessedness and fulfillment. In the wake of the loss, Job maintains his faith in God but directs an inquiry heavenward…”Why?” His question prompts God to answer with more than four chapters of scathing challenge that contrasts Job’s mortal limitations with the sovereignty and might of God.
After reading God’s poignant response, it’s much easier (to our detriment) to lose our sense of solidarity with Job. We consider him foolhardy, his questioning as folly…resulting from a complete lack of common sense and steadfast faith. But if we look closely at this text and the exchange between the Almighty and Job, we find that Job’s “folly” is not his questioning. In fact, Job’s only truly foolish behavior is thinking that his present condition (the loss of God’s blessing) exempted him from giving praise to the Creator.
It’s helpful here to distinguish between two types of praise, that which is voluntary and that which is involuntary, or “ontological” (a theological term meaning having to do with existence). Whether we like it or not, human beings are created in the image of God, pointing by the simple fact that we exist to the Divine hands which crafted us, mind, body, and soul. This is ontological praise–completely involuntary glorification of the Creator that can be likened to the myriad of ways creation offers glory to God.
Personally, one of the ways that I most prominently experience God is through observing the natural world: taking in a starry sky on a clear night; paddling through the mist of an untouched river as the sun rises; or hiking a winding mountain trail on an autumn afternoon. God’s majesty is all around us, as evidenced by God’s challenge in the later chapters of Job’s story.
The majesty of the Creator is underscored as God recounts to Job some of the most magnificent specimens in the living menagerie of creation: young lions whose appetites are insatiable, mountain goats who so easily climb the highest peaks, and the soaring eagles who make their homes atop them. The mighty Behemoth and Leviathan are the showpieces of God’s creation, in fact, the entirety of Job 40, which immediately proceeds and motivates Job’s confession of God’s sovereignty is dedicated to describing the Leviathan, “a creature without fear.” Rather than emphasizing the creature’s beauty, the main emphasis of God’s boasting (if we can call it that) is instead the Leviathan’s terror, which as much as anything gives praise to the one Being capable of controlling the king of beasts. Creation honors its Creator.
One of my favorite hymns is the rather unusual contemporary hymn, “God of the Sparrow,” written by Jaroslav Vajda. It’s stanzas very simply echo Job’s final chapters. The 1st, 2nd, and 5th of the hymn’s short stanzas go:
God of the sparrow
God of the whale
God of the swirling stars
How does the creature say Awe
How does the creature say Praise
God of the earthquake
God of the storm
God of the trumpet blast
How does the creature cry Woe
How does the creature cry Save
God of the ages
God near at hand
God of the loving heart
How do your children say Joy
How do your children say Home?
Vadja begins by highlighting the cry of praise that creation gives to its Creator in the sparrow, the stars, and the storm. He then goes on to examine praise throughout the created order, concluding by describing distinctly human expressions offered by the children of God. When things are going rightly humanity is part of a grand chorus with the rest of God’s creation in a symbiosis of praise to the Creator.
But human beings have a means of praise that the rest of creation lacks, the ability to willfully choose to worship God voluntarily. Some scholars say that it is humanity’s unique privilege to translate the involuntary praise of all creation into higher thought and spoken language. When we see, hear, smell, taste, and feel the world around us, we have the ability to perceive the world from the perspective of the Divine. Whereas the creature looks around and sees predator and prey, threat and safety, variable and constant, humanity has the ability to understand the same as an expression of God’s creativity, might, and splendor. We don’t just see the natural world…we see evidence of God’s divinity and God’s sovereignty.
When Job is faced with the reflection of God (even marred as it is by the lens of fallen creation) he realizes that no manner of anger, despair, or confusion can render us any less capable of offering worship to God.
No manner of anger, despair, or confusion can render us any less capable of offering worship to God. Notice the word “can.” I am not saying that pain, loss, or trial doesn’t (or even shouldn’t) hinder our worship of God. The purpose of Job’s story is not to belittle the pain or suffering we meet in this life. Instead, it emphasizes that even when we are at our most destitute that we are always capable of finding some realization of God in our present from which to acknowledge our Creator, Sustainer, and Sovereign.
We only repeat Job’s folly when we accept that we could ever be too (anything) to worship God. Too tired. Too beleaguered. Too angry. Too forsaken. But when we’re made aware of just who God is and who we are in relation to God, the only right place to be with God is bowed down in worship with all of Creation before its Creator. Leviathan and the other creatures God mentions to Job do not only offer praise to God in their beauty, grace, and splendor, but in their power, terror, and fury. Likewise, we still offer involuntary, ontological praise even when we exhibit our most despicable, vulnerable, and least desirable behaviors.
Job’s words to God throughout his story are filled with statements like, “Oh, that I were,” and “Oh, that I had,” qualifying phrases that limit his worship to periods of blessedness and prosperity. In Job’s case it is not that he isn’t experiencing God, it’s that his eyes and ears are not open to recognize the presence of God in his present state of distress. But he does not remain in a state of half-praise, and neither do we. True worship, the praise that we offer willfully can become almost involuntary when we move ourselves into the mindset that Job achieves at the end of his story—where no matter the circumstances we are able to recognize and experience God through the ordinary and to offer our praise and worship with a thankful and a penitent heart.
Last Friday night as I stood distracted in worship, feeling tired and sorry for myself, I began to think about what I would say this morning. I recalled Job’s words in chapter 42, verses 1-6. How this man, so much more worthy of a bad attitude than myself, adopted the perspective of the Divine, when he saw clearly the living God in his surroundings. And through no accomplishment of my own, in that moment God gave me what I needed–a change of perspective. As a lens coming into focus I began to recall the extraordinary evidence of God that I had seen and heard through the ordinary actions of students and adults serving God in Birmingham. As I focused my energies away from my fatigue and toward the acknowledgement of God, I began to worship–not intentionally but automatically. When we are faced with a different perspective (God’s perspective) we cannot be too anything to worship God.
Each night during our church group devotion time, students and adult chaperones were given the opportunity to reflect and share in response to the question, “How have you experienced God today?” This was consistently one of the most edifying parts of the trip for me—hearing the group acknowledge God in the small and ordinary (the smile of a little girl or the kind note given one of our volunteers by a first time visitor to the church). They also found God in the monumental, as in the fact that 4 students (3 children and 1 youth) made first-time decisions for Christ this week, 2 of them being led by our students. Isn’t that incredible!
Some of my favorite testimonies this week revealed in our leaders and students the type of perspective Job exhibits in chapter 42:1-6, where God is manifested in all things wonderful despite our own limitations and distractions.
– One evening Jon Henderson reflected on the blessing given his construction crew by the heartfelt prayer of a thankful homeowner, who with nothing else to offer, prayed for the families and safety of the volunteers who dedicated their time to service of God by repairing the roof on her home.
– Olivia Crotts shared how she was blessed by seeing Kevin Dean, Billy Rockefeller, Jacob Freeze, and other members of the community ministry crew play Duck, Duck, Goose with the children one rainy afternoon. With their kindness and enthusiasm this very simple game became a highlight of the week as they exhuberantly led the children in stirring the “Stew Pot” consisting of salt and pepper, ham, onions, Scott O’Rear, and myself.
– Our local bus driver, a volunteer from the Birmingham area admitted to being blessed “beyond measure” to see Dre Tribble, Matt Henderson, Nolan Burns and the community ministry team purchase a pair of athletic shoes and new socks for a first time visitor to the mission site whose toes could be clearly seen poking out of the front of his shoes his the first day he came to the site.
-College students Jamie Sherrer and Chandler Fleck expressed thanks one evening for the mild sunburn they’d gotten that afternoon, as it was the result of the first day of work unspoiled by afternoon rain showers. I wish I could share every testimony that we heard during the week. Even on days when many of us were admittedly not at our best, God was in, around, and working through us and our surroundings to impact the individuals, families, and churches we came into contact with on the trip, as well as in our own lives. Were we tired, yes. Were there issues…aren’t there always? But in the midst of these distractions there was intentional discovery and acknowledgement of God through everyday and ordinary encounters. Voluntary worship echoed involuntary praise to the God who created, loved, and served because our eyes saw, our ears heard, God.
Perhaps this morning you could use a change of perspective. I invite you to pray with me for God’s revelation in your life, in our church, and in this community as we seek to live and act worshipfully in every circumstance. We could never be too anything to worship God, so with that in mind let us direct our attention to responding to the word of God we have heard this morning. May we see…and hear…and worship. And as you do, may you respond in the way you are most comfortable, to the leading of the Holy Spirit.