Readings: Job 39:1-8, and a poem by a parishioner; her name and that of her partner have been changed for reasons of privacy.
The book of Job begins with tragedy, and then it gets worse. Because not only has Job lost everything, but his friends show up and try to convince him he must have done something to have caused all this hardship. It’s a classic text of theodicy—that genre that tries to get at why bad things happen to good people, where God is when everything goes to hell. Job’s friends take the positions of several traditional theories of theodicy, basically saying that it is right and just for God to treat Job this way. Job rightly protests that he is a good, just, and pious man, and deserves none of his suffering. The conversation goes around and around, generating more heat than light, as most of our arguments about God do.
But into this festival of blame and shame, something extraordinary occurs: in the midst of a whirlwind, God’s voice breaks in and silences all the human voices. And God’s perspective is completely surprising: rather than say anything about who’s right and who’s wrong, rather than comforting Job, or restoring all that he’s lost, God says, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?” God launches into a four-chapter monologue about the splendor and majesty of creation, its unknowableness, beauty, and intricacy. From the size and workings of the universe to the feeding and birthing habits of wild animals, the wideness of the world is emphasized, as is the ignorance of human beings.
Why does God respond to Job only by talking about nature? I suspect the main reason is to explode the very idea of theodicy: God is not interested in justifying his actions to human beings, and even seems to be saying that human reason is nowhere near powerful enough to get to the root of suffering. It’s also pretty powerful perspective: who has not felt mired in grief or depression, only to go outside, look up at the night sky, and feel awe and wonder? The environmentalist Tom McKibben titled one of his books “The Comforting Whirlwind” for precisely that reason; he argues that the culture of materialism kills not only the environment but the human soul, and that putting our awe in creation at the forefront of our spiritual lives enlarges, comforts, and restores us. Encountering God in creation, he says, brings us joy.
I experienced that joy firsthand several weeks ago when visiting with Abbie and Tom. We sat outside and just drank in the greenness, birdsong, beauty, and the scent of flowers. And we talked about our shared joy in noticing—not in a theological way, but just in terms of plain enjoyment. It was one of the happiest hours I’ve spent in some time. But it wasn’t until a few days later, when I received a copy of Abbie’s poem in the mail, that I started thinking about how the practice of noticing things is actually a spiritual discipline.
When you notice things—whether it’s unmistakeable and huge like a gorgeous sunset or a clap of thunder, or something smaller, like the song of a hermit thrush or the beautiful sheen of a beetle’s back—it takes you out of yourself. It’s a window into another world, a world where you are not the center, and that can be merciful, as we all know. Those of us who suffer from depression or anxiety or other brain disorders need that escape from ourselves constantly. A friend asked me a few years ago what my spiritual discipline was like, and I realized it was my daily walks into the woods, where I fed chickadees out of my hand. Whatever depression is doing to me on a given day, no matter how huge and dark and threatening my anxieties look like, out in the world I am reminded that I am not a black hole at the center of the universe. Rather, there is sun, and rain, and plants growing in the summer, and animal tracks in the winter snow, and always, always, chickadees who know me and want some seeds. Some seeds they carry up to a branch, brace with their feet, and crack open, to eat right there. Others they take away and cache for later. Some chickadees wait patiently for others to get their seeds first, then land on my hand when there’s an opening. Others will challenge a bird already in my hand, in a wild bird version of the pecking order. Still others clearly want a seed, but are so shy they hover in the air for a few seconds, then retreat to a branch, where they look longingly at the seeds in my hand. When they eventually work up the courage to grab a seed, I always want to praise them as I would a child who tried something new and scary.
There’s so much to learn in the world, and so much to give thanks for. I love to realize that, while many of God’s challenges to Job might be answerable now—such as the gestation periods of mountain goats—there are always new mysteries. Why do birds have better spatial memory than humans? Are plants truly sentient? What can’t fungi do? Does dark energy actually increase speed as it travels?
And there are the little mysteries: why is one chickadee bold while another is retiring? Who dropped the seed that grew into these beautiful flowers? Why does the trust of a small child or animal make you feel better than anything else in the world?
The world is full of mysteries, and gifts. No one is required to notice them all—you can survive without noticing them. But I question whether you can thrive, or be joyful, without noticing. In his book God In Your Body, Rabbi Jay Michaelson lays out the treasures of Jewish spiritual disciplines, disciplines that are rooted in the physical and in relationships, disciplines that are located in the everyday—eating, drinking, washing, making love, walking. He invites his readers to “stay with experience, rather than theology. Rather than starting from a position of ‘God exists, therefore I must be grateful to Him/Her/It,’ just use the body to experience gratitude, and see what happens.” In other words, ignore the many voices telling you what you should do for religion’s sake, and instead focus on the joys and pleasures you are given. However you define God or nature, you can always find something to be thankful for, and this is a way to live abundantly.
In traditional Jewish practice, there are blessings for just about everything. There are several for morning: Baruch ata adonai elohenu melek ha’olam poqeakh ‘ivrim: Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who gives sight to the blind; you say that one upon opening your eyes. Baruch ata adonai elohenu melek ha’olam malbish arumim: Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who clothes the naked; that you say as you pull on your clothes. As you can see, the blessings all start with the same phrase, and you just add a different phrase to the end depending on your condition. For getting up out of bed, it is atir asurim, who releases the bound. For getting up and beginning to move around, you say zokef kefumim, who straightens the bent. There are blessings for particular foods and drinks, for seeing beautiful animals, or mountains, or a rainbow. There’s even a blessing for going to the bathroom: “Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who formed man with wisdom and created within him many openings and many hollows. It is obvious and known before your throne of glory that if even one of them ruptures, or if even one of them becomes blocked, it would be impossible to survive and to stand before you (even for a short period). Blessed are you, Lord, Who heals all flesh and acts wondrously.” Incidentally, St. Julian of Norwich also praises God for giving us the ability to go to the bathroom when we need to: “A man walks erect,” she wrote, “and the digested food in his body is closed up like a very splendid purse. And when it is time for the call of nature it opens and is closed again in very seemly fashion.” And she goes on to talk about how marvelous it is that God has created us this way.
I think what I take from Job, from our sister Abbie, from the rabbis and mystics and chickadees, and what I offer you, is that joy is within reach of all of us in every moment, whether we are five or a hundred and five. Joy is not something hidden, bestowed on us by an inscrutable and capricious deity. It is out there in the open, it is available. All it needs is for us to cultivate awareness, to practice the discipline of noticing, whether that is becoming an amateur naturalist, or blessing all we see and experience, or thanking God and Mother Earth for all their gifts. It is a way of living in the present, in the promise that, whatever else may be going on in our lives, there are worlds upon worlds of beauty, and all we have to do is pay attention. The medieval mystic Meister Eckhart wrote, “Apprehend God in all things, for God is in all things. Every single creature is full of God and is a book about God. Every creature is a word of God. If I spent enough time with the tiniest creature—even a caterpillar—I would never have to prepare a sermon. So full of God is every creature.”
Or as Abbie says, noticing is joy. Even “when the rain pours down, we know we will have flowers, and green lettuce, and so much more. We know how much we’re given.”