“Post-Traumatic Hope”

Job 42:1-6, 10-17

“I know that thou canst do all things, and that no purpose of thine can be thwarted.”

Anyone who lives in New Orleans knows what post-traumatic stress is.  It is an anxiety disorder that occurs in about 3 ½ % of the general population in response to a traumatic event—a death, a loss, abuse, violence.  Did you know that it is approximately 10 times higher in New Orleans than in the general population since Katrina? The symptoms include emotional numbness, difficulty falling or staying asleep, difficulty focusing, anger, irritability, wakefulness, hyper-vigilance, chronic anxiety, general hopelessness.  These symptoms were especially prevalent during the first 3 years after the storm. 

Last year a visitor to New Orleans remarked to me how amazed she was that the subject of Katrina had come up continually in every conversation, every newspaper, every news program.  She thought by now Katrina would be history.  She could not grasp why such an event could be so definitive for a community, leaving such a mark and such a memory.  I guess you “just had to have been there.”  When I tell tourists who visit our church, who marvel at its beauty, how the steeple was shattered, the massive roof beams snapped, the building condemned, that it took $5 million and 3 years to get it back, better and stronger than before, they can hardly believe it.  And if 4 years ago, in the face of near destruction someone had said to me, “Don’t worry.  Be happy.  Cheer up.  Much good will come out of this unprecedented tragedy.  Think of it as a blessing in disguise,” I would have been tempted to punch out their lights!  Talk about post-traumatic stress! 

But it’s true:  4 years later, I can see that something else has been at work in my life, in yours, in our traumatized community:  I call it post-traumatic hope–a reason to believe that in the aftermath of this disaster, something good and beautiful is emerging, something better than before, more than we ever could have imagined, a new beginning.  Do we dare to believe in a happy ending?

I thought about that when I read our Old Testament lesson for today.  It is the conclusion of the Book of Job.  It is a happy ending. Remember Job, a good, rich, righteous man who suffered the disastrous, traumatic loss of everything:  his home, health, family, children, business?  For 40 chapters, Job exhibits all the symptoms of post-traumatic stress:  anger, anxiety, irritability, sleeplessness, shaking his fist at the heavens, passionately asking “why?” 

Finally, in chapter 41 God comes to Job in a whirlwind, a blinding, life-altering revelation.  He has no easy answers for Job’s hard questions.  But he comes–closer to Job than he’d known before. In the midst of the struggle, the very presence of God becomes the only answer Job needs to face tomorrow.  This he confesses in awe and humility. And in the final Chapter 42, Job’s life is given back to him—changed, yes, he will never be the same, but richer, fuller, deeper, doubly blessed.  And in the end, after all he has endured, there is hope for a new beginning.  Post-traumatic hope.  If ever there was a “happily ever after,” it is found in Job 42.

But there’s a problem with Job 42.  Without going into the kind of detail that is better saved for Bible Study, let me just say that for many compelling reasons, most scholars understand Chapter 42, this happy ending, to be the work of another writer.  I believe these scholars are right.  So, do we simply dismiss it?  Ignore it?  Hold it in suspicion?  Most of us are, I think, pretty suspicious of happy endings.  We want them.  We hope and pray for them.  They make for good movies and fairy tales!  But we don’t trust them!  Do we trust Job 42?  Is it there for a reason? Dare we believe it?  Do we dare to believe in a happy ending?

If we do, it seems to me that it makes the big question of Job even bigger.  The big question of Job is:  Why?  Why is there suffering in this world?  Why do bad things happen, and why do they happen to good people?  But Job’s happy ending raises the flip side of the same question by asking “why is there blessing in this world?”  Why do good things happen, and why do they happen even to bad people? 

Does Job get his life back as a reward for his faithfulness?  It does not say.  Indeed, the book of Job does not give any easy explanation for either suffering or blessing.  Indeed, the careful reader will see that both remain mysteries.  Centuries later, Jesus would sum up the same mystery by saying, “the rain falls on the just and the unjust.”  That’s life:  it is not a simple matter of rewards for the good guys and punishments for the bad, if only it were that simple!  Good luck, bad luck, who’s to say?  Instead, it so often seems, stuff just happens. 

I think of the story about what happened in a certain hospital’s ICU where patients always died in the same bed, on a Sunday morning, at 11 am.  Week after week, it happened as it if it was a curse:  same room, same bed, same hour, same day.  This deeply perplexed the doctors, some even suspected something supernatural.  And so a team of internationally renowned experts was assembled to investigate the case.  On the next Sunday morning, at quarter to 11, the doctors assembled in the room to see what would happen.  Some were holding Bibles, some beads, some crosses and prayer books.   And then just when the clock struck 11 am, in walked Pookie Johnson, the part-time Sunday sweeper.  He unplugged the life support, so he could use the vacuum cleaner.  Oops.  But, hey that’s life.  “Stuff happens.”

But so does healing: “Healing happens.”  In one of his essays, Robert Fulghum talks about all those times in life when Murphy’s Law does not hold, when things go right, and nothing seems to be able to keep it from going right. He says, “It’s not always something as dramatic as the slam-dunk or the hail Mary that wins the ball game. Ever drop a glass in the sink, have it bounce 9 times and not even chip? Ever come out after work to find your lights have been on all day, your battery’s dead but you’re parked on a hill and you let the car roll and it fires the first time you pop the clutch and off you roar …A near-miss at an intersection…the glass of knocked-over milk that waltzes across the table but doesn’t spill…the deposit that beat your rubber check to the bank…the lump in your breast that turned out to be benign…the heart attack that turned out to be gas… picking the right lane for once in a traffic jam…And on and on and on and on.  Small miracles for ordinary people, day by ordinary day.  When the worst does not happen…the grace of what might have been but wasn’t…the ecstasy of what could never happen but did…or the bliss of what happened when life just worked.  Let us give thanks to God for what went right.” 

But do we ever ask why? When things go wrong we are sure to ask it, but when things go right, should we not also wonder “why?”  Why should I be so blessed?  I don’t know!  Before both mysteries– undeserved suffering and unmerited blessing– we must fall on our knees in wonder and awe. 

One of the reasons I love Job is his courage to ask why–to face the worst that life has to offer and to ask why.  It takes a lot of courage to face the worst.  We have all known people who live in perpetual denial, who refuse to face reality,  who keep their heads in the sand,  the “sunny side up,” who have become almost blind, insensitive, hardened to suffering—even their own.  It takes a lot of courage to face the worst. 

But, listen, I think it takes a lot of courage to believe the best.  We have all known people who seem to have a script that spells defeat, that no matter how much potential they have, no matter how much success they enjoy, they find a way to shoot themselves in the foot–self-sabotage.  Maybe they need a new script–a new chapter for their lives.  Maybe they need Job 42!  What about you?  Do you need a new chapter for your life, one in which healing happens?  Do you have the courage to believe the best? 

Sometimes I compare it to Good Friday and Easter.  Almost every year someone says to me something like “Good Friday makes sense.  I can believe they crucified him.  But Easter is too good to be true.”  Good Friday, as hard as it is to face—indeed, one of the worst attended worship services in our tradition—is not hard to believe, not in a world like ours filled with murder, injustice, violence, prejudice, genocide.  No, we can believe Good Friday.  But Easter? to stand outside that inexplicably empty tomb and believe the good news?  The happiest ending there ever was?  It is too good to be true! 

I think it takes courage to leap into the arms of Easter and trust the good news:–that “the worst things are never the last things.”  That ours is a God “who never leads us through deep waters to drown us, but only to cleanse us.”  That “God will make a way, even when there is no way.”  That “yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me!”  That “nothing is lost that will not be found.  That nothing is closed that will not be opened.  That nothing that ends will be without a new beginning.”   To believe and to receive the blessings of life with both hands, to embrace healing when it happens, to walk through the door when it opens, to take the hand that is offered you, to affirm the goodness of life, to love life, to love one another, and in the end, to love God–the One from whom we come, the One to whom we go, the One who holds the future.  To trust him.  And to never, never, never give up hope for a new beginning.

It takes a lot of courage to begin again.  Like Job, who after all he has been through, at the very point at which he might instead put up a wall, never love again, never risk losing everything again, instead  embraces a new beginning so far beyond anything he could have imagined.  No, it does not replace what he had before—it cannot.  But healing happens.  No, there is no guarantee that disaster will not strike him again.  Just as there is no guarantee for us either.  No guarantees but this:  through it all, come what may, no matter what, good luck, bad luck, God is with us, we are not alone. And that’s what makes all the difference.