Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Sacrament of Silence

Yesterday we began to discuss the importance of friendship as we looked at Jobs friends. I began by discussing a reunion of some great friends that I was able to visit with this past weekend at Huntsville, Arkansas. Friendship is something that can last a lifetime. It can bring you much joy and encouragement, but it can also bring you hurt and frustration.

As we look at Job of the Bible, remember that he has lost his wealth, his children have died, his wife is telling him to "curse God and die", and NOW he has lost his HEALTH. As his friends come on the scene, they see him from a distance sitting on an ASH HEAP that was reserved for those who had leprosy and other contagious diseases. After the leper would die sitting on the Ash Heap alone and isolated, the remains of his body would be burned. This is the hill that Job's friends climbed to get to him. They get a lot of abuse at times, and rightly so, because of WHAT they said. But they should be commended for WHAT they did. They were there for Job during the most difficult time of his life. Let's pick up the story.

Job 2:11-13 When Job's three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. (12) When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. (13) Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.

News of Job's perch on the ash heap must have spread far and wide. From a distance, his three visitors peer at him but see nothing that resembles the Job they know. Coming closer, then, they are so shocked at Job's appearance that they tear their royal robes, throw dust into the air in distress, and fall to the ground in mourning. They had not expected the sight of "walking death" that greets them. No words pass between the friends. Job's sunken eyes, blackened skin, running sores, and swollen lips speak with silent horror.

Job's friends come to the same conclusion as Job's wife—the man might as well be dead. Furthermore, their doctrine of "cash-register justice" can only lead them to the conclusion that Job's terrible suffering is punishment for some terrible sin.

As with a terminally ill patient for whom the doctor leaves the order, "Make him as comfortable as possible," Job's friends conclude that the compassion of mourning is the greatest comfort they can give. To their credit, they do not turn away from their repulsive friend as others have done.

For seven days, Job's friends sit with him in the traditional ritual of mourning. If death is imminent, no one speaks until the mourner speaks. William E. Hulme, in his book Dialogue in Despair, sees a deeper value in the silence. As a counselor who deals with grief, Hulme commends Job's friends for not speaking when words are useless. Each of us knows the awkward moment when we enter the room of a person who is fighting for life. "How are you?" is the most inappropriate greeting and yet this is what we invariably say. The unspoken communication of eyes that meet and hands that touch may well convey the compassion that we want to share and the communication that our friend needs. Hulme calls such a moment "the sacrament of silence," when kindred spirits meet and share the meaning of life in the midst of death.

Job's friends did not have to talk either. Any words would have been wrong. In the long nights of terror, Job knew that they were there. During the burning days of insufferable pain, Job sensed their compassion. Today, "Job's comforters" is a disparaging term. We forget that until Job spoke his anguish, they were truly his comforters.

These men proved to be really good friends. They came from a long distance to be with their friend during a difficult time, they climbed the disgusting ash heap to be with him, they didn't just make an appearance and leave…they stayed with him for SEVEN DAYS AND SEVEN NIGHTS. They didn't say a word, they honored him with the sacrament of silence. There are many times when people just don't go around hurting people because they "don't know what to say." There are times when you shouldn't say a word, and don't have to say a word. Just being there speaks volumes into the life of the one suffering. So many times silence is perceived as a negative thing, when in reality it can be a very positive thing. I read the following story yesterday:

My father-in-law was a preacher who loved people. He had a gift for words in and out of the pulpit. Even after his retirement, he ministered to people with his across-the-street greetings and sidewalk conversation. Anyone who asked, "How are you?" got the cheery answer, "Finer than a frog's hair." One day, he went on an automobile trip with a college president who was known for his deep thoughts and limited words. As they rode along, my father-in-law tried in vain to engage his friend in conversation. Frustrated, he lapsed into a silence that lasted many miles. Finally, he could stand it no more. Turning to his driver, he said, "Leroy, do you know that we have ridden together now for almost fifty miles without a word?" Not turning his head or breaking his train of thought, the college president answered, "Good friends don't need to talk." Obviously, they rode all the rest of the way in silence.

The most important thing as a friend is to be there for them. There is a time for talking, but there is also a time for silence…the sacrament of silence. Blessings!

Pastor Rusty Blann

Today's "THROUGH THE BIBLE IN A YEAR" Bible reading: Wednesday (April 30, 2008) Psalm 5:1 – Psalm 16:11