Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Job 5:1-7) transports me to the old Pisgah Fish Camp, one of my favorite places for fried shrimp when I was a kid. Low on the atmosphere, with paper plates and styrofoam cups, but the best sweet tea and cole slaw and cocktail sauce for dipping the shrimp. On this occasion, I was out on the road with my Dad and his brother Jim on one of their tandem work outings, where Daddy would fix a church organ and Jim would tune the piano. I carried Daddy’s tool box and handed him things like the red-handled socket head screwdriver or the tube of oil for the Hammond organ or the can of silicon spray. Maybe it was fish Friday, or maybe the church in question was near the Fish Camp, but for whatever reason we got the unusual treat of stopping there to eat, instead of the usual lunch bucket sandwich and Viennas. It’s funny how particular experiences like this stick in your mind. I remember that Uncle Jim was feeling down that day; something was bothering him. I don’t know what it was, what kind of disappointment or discouragement or defeat he was carrying. I remember Daddy was trying to lift his spirits and give him some words of hope, encouraging him to keep the faith. And while I don’t remember any of Daddy’s words specifically, or the cause of concern, I clearly remember Jim’s final response as he got up from the table: Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward. That stuck in my mind, and fascinated me. I played the sentence over and over again in my mind, and I could picture the sparks from our fireplace flying up the chimney, wondering all the while what it meant to be born to trouble in that way.
It was many years before I discovered the source of Jim’s response. I didn’t discover it directly from Bible reading, although I’m sure I had skimmed over the verse in my many efforts to read the Bible through in a year. No, it was in a Peanuts cartoon strip, where Charlie Brown was asking Schroeder for advice on what to do in the baseball game where they’re getting clobbered. I couldn’t believe it when Schroeder gave him Uncle Jim’s line: Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward. Linus and Lucy and the other players joined in with their interpretations of the book of Job, and Charlie Brown finally laments, I don’t have a ball team…I have a theological seminary! Job didn’t have a baseball team, but he had one of the earliest theological seminaries, comprised of himself, his three friends and God. It was a veritable small group seminar, reflecting on the meaning of suffering and the nature of God. Eliphaz has the floor in this passage, putting words in God’s mouth and passing on the orthodox view of a moral God who maintains a just balance in the universe, cursing the wicked fools who do wrong with dire consequences: boils and death of loved ones and impoverishment, the kinds of things Job is enduring. Of course we find out later that the theological conclusions of the book are far worse than that for the faithful; the dreadful curse of suffering is not reserved as consequences for the wicked. The God of supreme love who sustains the universe has set it up so that random acts of cruelty can inflict the faithful as well as the foolish. And the miracle of the book is that after Job discovers this, his response is still one of faithful praise. It reminds me of the parable of the Jews who met together after WWII to decide who was really responsible for the Holocaust. First they put history on trial, and decided that while history had some culpability, it was not entirely responsible. Hitler went on trial, and while he had culpability, he was not entirely responsible. Next the German people, and the same result. Finally, God went on trial, and they asked God, Are you responsible for sustaining the world? God replied, Yes. Next question: And you allowed senseless suffering on that grand a scale? God replied, Yes. And they found God guilty. Upon hearing the verdict, one of the old rabbis stood up and said, Now that that’s over, it’s time we get back home for evening prayer.
When we got through eating our shrimp at the Fish Camp, Daddy and Jim went on to another church for the next job of piano tuning and organ repair. I carried the toolbox and handed the red-handled socket head screwdriver to Daddy. When they finished the work, they did as they normally would do, played a hymn or two for the preacher or choir director to hear how the instruments sounded. It was usually something like What a Friend We Have in Jesus or How Great Thou Art. Now that I think about it, it seems they were giving a good Job-like response. A defiantly faithful praise song, after naming the harsh reality that we are indeed born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.
How about you? Where does this Poetry Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.