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Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Reflections on the Coronavirus and the Ancient Wisdom of Job

By:   Jansen String
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Reflections on the Coronavirus and the Ancient Wisdom of Job

In our present dire circumstance induced by the sudden onset of the coronavirus, we may be comforted by the Book of Job to know that we are not the first generation to be swept up in events beyond our control.

“And now my soul is poured out within me; days of affliction have taken hold of me. The night racks my bones, and the pain that gnaws me takes no rest…Thou liftest me up on the wind, thou makest me ride on it, and thou tossest me about in the roar of the storm” (Job 30.16-22).

BIBLICAL SCHOLARS SPECULATE that the Book of Job may be the most ancient of the Biblical writings. If that’s true, it means that the first inspired book of the Bible was written to answer the first question all people everywhere have of God: how can we believe in a good and just Creator when the world is so corrupted by evil, suffering, and injustice? The answer Job gives is simple: The existence of evil in this world is not dispositive of God’s existence but is ancillary to it. We believe in God because God is.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” God asked Job (38.4).

The question answers itself. God is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end (Rev.1.8); God’s existence is known to us through reason and revelation. If we are not allowed to know why we suffer, it’s because we don’t need to know: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts” (Is. 55.9).

The primary human responsibility is not to know why evil exits but to keep faith in God.

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The Book of Job is the story of a good man who suffers the loss of everything, despite his having done everything right. It’s included in the Bible because it is a literary masterpiece, an epic story elegantly told about a man to whom all of us, having lived past a certain age, relate.

It doesn’t take a theology degree to understand what Job is about. It’s about every generation everywhere that suffers crisis and catastrophe. Every generation everywhere has praised the genius of the Book of Job for that very reason: because it helps when you’re suffering to know that someone is walking the floor on those long nights with you, feeling the same wounds you feel.

In our present dire circumstance induced by the sudden onset of the coronavirus, we may be comforted by the Book of Job to know that we are not the first generation to be swept up in events beyond our control. We are not the first to fear the loss of everything or to witness the sudden destruction of all that has been familiar to us.

We are not the first to lay awake at night for fear of what’s coming next and to watch our world disintegrate as an apocalyptic hammer drops. In one way or another, all that’s happening to us has happened before. That in itself is not comforting. But what is reassuring is the fact, and it is a fact, that for those who keep faith in the goodness of life and endure, God brings something good out of even the worst and most tragic events.

Tragedy does not have the final word in this world. God does.

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As Job put it in his darkest hour, “I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth; and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God: whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger” (Job.19.25). The beauty of the story of Job is that in the end, God did speak to Job. And although Job could not recover all that he had lost, he gained something else, something ineffable and brimming with grace, something priceless: the wisdom and sober joy that comes to those who keep faith in God no matter what.

I apologize for preaching (old habits), but that’s a way of getting to a larger point. As awful as this present catastrophe is, Americans before us have been through worse, and their experience can both inspire us and teach us how to endure hard times. History may seem to many like a boring subject; who wants to read yesterday’s newspaper? But in this case there is much to learn from those Americans who suffered through circumstances similar to those we’re experiencing now, who survived and then prospered.

When my dad went to work for Bache and Company as a stock broker in 1952, his father-in-law (my grandfather), with whom my newlywed parents lived at the time, thought he was wasting his time. Dad tried to get grandpa to invest, but grandpa would have none of it. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust my dad. It was that where my Dad saw the stock market as an investment opportunity, Grandpa saw it as a high-risk gamble, and he didn’t want to risk losing any more than he had already lost.

My grandfather was born in 1898. He told me that when he was boy he almost died of appendicitis.

He said he remembered his mother putting him in the back of a horse-drawn wagon at night, piling blankets on him with hot bricks because it was winter, and taking him to a doctor. He survived. A few years later, at eighteen, he was drafted into the army during WWI. Fortunately he was not sent overseas where tens of thousands of Americans died in senseless trench warfare. But he saw many of his young friends die.

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Then, in 1918 and ’19 he saw thousands upon thousands more die of the Spanish flu at the war’s end. More Americans died of the flu than died in the war. (And, in fact, many of those who died in the trenches actually died of influenza, not bullets or mortar rounds.) Between the war and the flu over a million Americans died in just three short years.

When you consider that the population was then a third of what it is now, that would be like 3 million Americans dying of coronavirus. And we think we’ve got problems?

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Grandfather then put himself through law school, married, had a child and began his career just as the stock market crashed. In one week in October 1929, the stock market lost 25 percent of its value! I remember hearing stories of men on Wall Street jumping out of windows after losing everything. As a boy, I didn’t understand why they would do that. It’s only money, right? In the wake of the present economic shutdown, it’s easier to understand how panic drove those men over the edge.

As bad as the market crash was, things got even worse after 1929. By 1933 the unemployment rate in the U.S. was at 25 percent. And it stayed in double digits for a decade; this was before social security and all the various social welfare programs we rely on today. In the 1930s a lot of people really had next to nothing. “I got plenty of nothin’ and nothin’s plenty for me” the song went. And life went on in an era we now call “the Great Depression.” That history helps explain why my grandparents saved everything. They weren’t hoarders. They had learned from hard experience that one day everything might vanish.

So they learned to save, just in case. And it was good that they learned to save and be thrifty because just when you thought things couldn’t possibly get worse, they did. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and suddenly America found itself at war again. My congregation in Dundalk was comprised of the generation that fought that war. Many of them graduated high school, got married the next week, and the week after that were sent to unknown islands like Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Some came home after three years. Others never made it.

Either way, nothing we’re experiencing now begins to compare to that. If you ever feel sorry for yourself, remember that the parents of two boys who died in the D-Day invasion of Normandy donated the large stained-glass window on the west wall of St. George’s church in their memory. I’m sorry to say that I don’t remember their names. Like the thousands of young men (and women) who died fighting the Nazis in Europe, they are mostly all forgotten now. But one thing is for sure, whatever we have to endure and sacrifice because of the coronavirus will pale in comparison to that.

My dad graduated high school in May 1945. A week later his mother put all 120 pounds of him on a train to South Carolina. He said it was the only time he remembered seeing his mother cry. He spent three months at Parris Island training for the invasion of Japan, an apocalyptic event in which he most likely would have been killed had not the atomic bombs, dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, convinced the Emperor Hirohito to surrender.

Iwo Jima wounded 816x1024 2wounded in Iwo Jima

The war ended as all wars eventually do and people began to get back to normal and to hope again. My parents then began dating, got married and moved in with my mom’s parents because my dad had no job and no money. But like a lot of young men, he had visions of a better future and was eager to invest in those dreams, whereas my grandfather, looking back over his lifetime, just couldn’t see his way to put much trust in the future.

My grandfather, however, missed a good opportunity. He made it to the top of his profession and retired as president of White Sewing Machine Company. He had money to invest. Had he listened to his eager son-in-law in 1952, he could have made a fortune and been worth millions by the time he died in 1980. But life had made him timid. When you look at what his generation went through can you blame him? But with faith, (that generation went to church every Sunday), they made it. And the boy who went to the hospital in a horse-drawn wagon had a full life and became a great man. Grandpa died content with the modest home and little wealth he had. Who can ask for more than that? Job was satisfied with less.

My generation has had its challenges, but nothing like those that my grandparents and parents faced.

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I remember, in first grade, all of us practicing getting under our desks in case of a nuclear attack by the Soviets. We grew up in the age of Mutual Assured Destruction or MAD. When I was about ten, I remember one night crying myself to sleep because I had heard Nikita Khruschev say on the news, “We will bury you,” and I believed him. My mother came into the room and promised me that that would never happen. I believed her more.

That was called “the Cold War.” The War in Vietnam, which raged throughout the 1960s was not cold; it was a real shooting and bombing war. But either way, those of us who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s grew up under the clouds of war (my draft number was 15). The threat was always there. And sometimes it became very real, as it did in the Cuban missile crisis, when it suddenly dawned on us all that we could at any moment be annihilated by a nuclear bomb.

I remember Mr. Blough, our sixth-grade teacher at Moreland Hills Elementary School, telling us that President Kennedy had been shot. It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon, November 22, 1963. It was a Friday. The next thing I remember is coming home from Sunday school just in time to see Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald on live TV. We later learned that Oswald had been recruited by the communists and trained in Moscow. The Cold War had real consequences.

I also remember my father saying that Rev. Parsons had given the best sermon that morning he had ever heard and that the church was packed. I remember a few days later watching my mother and Georgia, “our cleaning lady,” sit before the TV and sob out loud as the President’s casket paraded by. I don’t know where Dad was that day. I only know that I was too young at age 11 to understand that kind of grief. I left my mother and Georgia and went outside with my brothers to play in the woods behind our house.

We could go on and on about the events we’ve seen, but you get the point. To live in this world is to live through crisis after crisis after crisis.

The terrorist attack on 9/11 was an event that changed the lives of us all and the course of history. The violent collapse of the World Trade Towers shocked the nation in 2001 much as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor shocked the nation sixty years earlier. And we are still marked by both of those events. Some tragedies leave a permanent scar. But after the housing bubble burst in 2008 and the economy collapsed with it, 9/11 seemed like a distant thing.

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Nothing so concentrates the mind quite like the fear of not being able to pay your mortgage. Today’s crisis will soon be superseded by a new and even worse crisis as yesterday’s crisis recedes into the dark recesses of our memories. The question is not, “when will this end?” The crisis never really ends. The question is: how will you handle it?

The best way to handle crisis and catastrophe is to do as Job did: keep faith, do what is right and trust in God. That’s easier said than done to be sure. But if we’re going to survive and grow and prosper we have no choice but to do it. And we can do it.

People know right from wrong. God has given us a moral conscience for this very purpose. It’s a matter of choosing to do right. I think of the Jewish psychologist, Viktor Frankel, who wrote a book about his experience at Auschwitz, Man’s Search for Meaning. He said that the thing that struck him most about life in that camp was not the evil being done there but the good; what he remembered most was the man who, even as he was starving, went the extra step to share the few crumbs he had with someone who was suffering worse than him. What could be worse than to have been a prisoner in Auschwitz? Probably nothing. But if we know what is right and fail to do it, then we are guilty of something for which we have only ourselves to blame. That may be worse.

There are many uncertainties in life, but one thing is for certain: our suffering today will never surpass what our parents and grandparents had to endure. That’s not much consolation to those who fear losing everything in this present crisis, but in the midst of this pandemic it helps to know that others have overcome much worse tragedies; and if they could do it, so can we.

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And we will do it the way heroes do it: look out for your neighbor and be ready to share your crumbs because as bad as it gets, just look around and you’ll see that there’s always someone suffering more than you. It’s amazing how this works, but as we help the other guy carry his cross, the pain of our own problems dissipates.

But in our day the harder part for many Americans is the other thing: trusting in God. To many in the age of secularism, the era ushered in by the American and French Revolutions, a faithless age that has relegated Christian faith to the back seat of the bus, trusting in God is nothing but a motto on the dollar bill, a cliché, a piece of pop advice about as profound as telling a friend to take time to smell the roses.

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It’s hard to trust in God if you believe you are the direct descendants of apes and that life is just something that randomly happened on earth by sheer chance. If you don’t believe that you have an immortal soul, it’s hard to be grateful to God for having created you with one. But then again, I really don’t think the American people are as atheistic as they seem.

On some level, almost everyone knows that conscious life did not arise by chance from lifeless elements, nor did a universe suddenly appear out of nowhere from nothing. At the beginning of all that is a thinking mind, a transcendent wisdom, an eternal power that Christians call “the Word” (John 1.1).

Job encountered that Word and when he did, he found the peace of mind and the inner healing he needed to begin again and go on. He found it because God wishes to be found. God wants us to find Him. “Seek and ye will find” Jesus promised. “Ask and it will be given unto you” (Lk.11.9).

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We may be locked down for a month or more and social distancing with a passion, but with God we are never locked down and never alone.

Don’t be afraid or too proud to ask God for help. “I will never fail you nor forsake you,” says the Lord (Heb. 13.5). That is a divine promise. And when this pandemic ends, even (God forbid) should you lose your most valued possessions, if you gain, with Job, the assurance of God’s presence, you will possess an invaluable thing (Mt.13.45).

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Last modified on Tuesday, March 24, 2020