Beloved Folly

Some months ago I read Debbie Blue’s Consider the Birds, and for the first time in years, I felt compelled to share some of a book’s insights in the form of a sermon series.  To that end, the folks in Crafton Heights will spend ten weeks in the Summer of 2014 considering some of the insights brought forward in that volume and by the creatures and stories featured therein.  For the sake of brevity, let me simply say that if you read something that strikes you as profound and wise, it probably comes from her work.  If you read something that seems a little heretical, well, chances are that it’s from me. 

On August 3, 2014 our readings came from Job 39:13-18 and Luke 12:27-37

The Patient Job, Gerard Seghers 1591 – 1651

The Patient Job, Gerard Seghers 1591 – 1651

What do you think of when you think about Job? If we know anything about this rather mysterious person whose name graces what is perhaps the oldest book in our Bibles, we know that he was patient. Have you ever heard that phrase, “the patience of Job”? Even if we aren’t quite sure who he was or what happened to him, most folks associate him with being patient.

If we dig a little deeper, we get a sense of Job as a great guy who didn’t deserve all the terrible things that happened to him. To be honest, that seems to be how he saw himself. And, to be honest, we wouldn’t wish what happened to him on anyone: family tragedy followed by financial ruin followed by virtual exclusion from his community and society. By his own account, Job is a good man who acted wisely and well and who had somehow earned a little better treatment from God, the universe, or whatever was out there.

By the time Job gets to the end of his rope in his litany of complaints against the almighty, he declares,

Yet does not one in a heap of ruins stretch out his hand, and in his disaster cry for help? Did not I weep for him whose day was hard? Was not my soul grieved for the poor? 
But when I looked for good, evil came; and when I waited for light, darkness came. 
My heart is in turmoil, and is never still; days of affliction come to meet me.
.. I stand up in the assembly, and cry for help. 
I am a brother of jackals, and a companion of ostriches. (Job 30:24-29)

When Job wants to say that this life he’s been given is worse than anyone could possibly deserve or even imagine, he says that he is a “companion of ostriches.”

I've been told that this bird is in fact an EMU, not an ostrich.  I like it.  So sue me.

I’ve been told that this bird is in fact an EMU, not an ostrich. I like it. So sue me.

The ostrich does not have a very good reputation, either in the Bible or in our experience. It’s listed among the birds that are called “an abomination” in Leviticus. It’s an ugly, ungainly, and allegedly remarkably stupid creature. It has the smallest brain in proportion to body size of just about any animal on the planet – truly a “bird-brain” if ever there was one. In the wild, ostriches live in desolate areas eating plants and insects. They are usually alone or in pairs, and can be found in some of the harshest climates on earth.

Given all that, it’s understandable why, on his worst day, Job would compare himself to one of these creatures: called unclean, forced to live in the wilderness, lie in the dust, and subsist on a minimal diet. For much of the book that bears his name, he bellows his complaint to God and humans: “Look! I’m a good guy! I do the right things! Why did this happen to me? What did I do to deserve this?”

Job’s complaints are met, first of all, by a group of “friends” who come to console him and to show him how maybe he’s not as good as he thinks that he is. There must be something really wrong, they say, or this kind of thing wouldn’t happen. Like Job, the friends are just as convinced that we get what we deserve in life – they just happen to believe that old Job must be forgetting some great sin or mistake in his life that is obviously the cause of his great trouble.

God Answers Job, William Blake 1757 – 1827

God Answers Job, William Blake 1757 – 1827

After Job and his friends argue about what Job does or does not deserve for about 37 chapters, God finally speaks to Job “out of the whirlwind”. His response – some of the most amazing poetry ever recorded, in my opinion – is to say to Job, “Look, friend, who do you think you are, exactly?” There is an immense litany of all that God has created – chapters 38 – 41 of Job are essentially a love song from the Creator to the creation. God charges at Job with question after question:
– what do you know about the rising of the sun?
– what do you know about the habits of the mountain goat?
– have you ever looked at, and considered the wild ox or the ostrich?

And when he gets around to the ostrich, you get the feeling that the Creator is ready to admit that maybe the oddly-shaped bird wasn’t his best idea. In fact, it sounds like God is joining Job in giving no respect to the ostrich.

God talks about how the bird flaps its useless wings, and how overly proud the bird appears to be of its feathers.

Incidentally, do you know that prior to World War I, ostrich feathers were just as valuable, pound for pound, as diamonds? There was a fashion craze in the beginning of the 20th century and everyone wanted ostrich plumes. They were, and are, very popular items in feather boas, hats, and (from what I’m told) “adult toys”. They were and are valuable because the ostrich is a flightless bird. It can’t use its feathers to fly, and so, unlike most birds, the feathers of an ostrich don’t have little hooks on their outside edges. They feel really nice to brush up against – precisely because they are useless for flight.

God appears to condemn the ostrich for being a poor, or at least clumsy, parent for building its nest on the ground where the eggs or hatchlings could be stepped on and crushed by a parent that will typically weigh between 150 and 300 pounds.

And yet…and yet, God says… “Have you ever seen one of those creatures run?” The ostrich, says God, laughs at the horse and rider. Ostriches are capable of speeds of up to 45 miles per hour, and can maintain sustained speeds of about 40 miles per hour. Their anatomy is such that they can just go and go and go.

God celebrates and cares for the ostrich! He tells Job, “Yes, of course the ostrich is foolish. It looks like it’s from another planet. It behaves in very unusual ways, and it is overly proud of some of its more profoundly useless parts, like wings… but I delight in the ostrich!”

Do you see what is happening here? For most of the book, Job is telling God, “Listen, Big Guy, perhaps my resumé has gotten lost in the pile of paperwork on your celestial desk, but you seem to have forgotten who you’re dealing with. I’m Job. J-O-B, remember? Have you lost sight of all the ways I’ve kept faith with you, all the stuff I’ve done to help the world, all the awards I’ve received from the chamber of commerce? God, you’re supposed to be impressed with me and give me the best treatment because I’m, well, because I’m me.”

And when Job loses his family, his money, his standing in the community – when Job becomes a companion of the ostrich, then Job figures that he is nothing and nobody. Job’s tragedy, in his mind, seems to be that he’s not as important as he thought that he deserved to be – and nobody, especially God, seems to care about that.

In the book that inspired this sermon series, Debbie Blue writes,

Maybe God is saying, “Look, stop focusing on yourself, look around for a minute – look at it all. It’s all so beautiful and mysterious and complex – and bigger than you, way bigger than you. Consider the birds, man. Stop being so consumed with yourself, so anthropocentric.” Maybe it is not meant to diminish us in some scornful way, but rather to diminish us in a way that sets us free. God is trying to give us a break – consider what is not you, what is beyond you. Stop posting your every move on Facebook – go outside for heaven’s sake.[1]

As impressed as Job seems to be with himself, he’s not impressing God with his list of accomplishments. Yet God still regards Job for who he is – not for what he’s got or for what he’s done.

So listen, beloved. Think for just a moment about yourself and your life. Be brutally honest with yourself, and for heaven’s sake, don’t answer this question out loud: what is the one thing of which you are most proud? What is the thing about yourself that pleases you or impresses you the most?

Is it the time you saved that kid’s life back in high school?
The way you’ve kept your figure even after the kids?
Are you impressed with the fact that you still fit into those favorite jeans?
Maybe you’re proud of the time you rescued that family from the burning building, or saved your entire platoon in Vietnam, or eliminated world hunger…
What is it? What is it about yourself that in your heart of hearts impresses you the most?

Are you ever tempted to wave that thing around a little bit in the hopes that someone like me, or that pretty girl over there, or the Lord up in heaven might notice it? Do you want me or God to like you a little better because of this accomplishment of yours?

This is, for sure, an ostrich.

This is, for sure, an ostrich.

Listen, this is the truth: all the greatest stuff you’ve ever done…all those amazing accomplishments and boyish good looks and riotous sense of humor and human achievements… No matter who you are or what you’ve done, those things are all about as impressive as an ostrich flapping her wings.

You want to trot out all the things about you that are supposed to impress God? That bird won’t fly. That dog won’t hunt. The Good News of the Gospel is that your Creator refuses to be a scorekeeper. God is not impressed with your resumé. That’s the Good News.

The Best News is that God delights in you no less than he does in the ostrich. Not because of all that stuff that you carry around with you and insist on waving around from time to time. Because of you. You! God loves you and celebrates you and delights in your youness.

Isn’t that a relief? That you don’t have to impress anyone with this long list of things that are really important about you?

Last summer, my wife and I read a fascinating book entitled The Art of Possibility. In it, we hear the story of two prime ministers discussing the affairs of state.

Suddenly a man bursts in, apoplectic with fury, shouting and stamping and banging his fist on the desk. The resident prime minister admonishes him: “Peter,” he says, “kindly remember Rule Number 6,” whereupon Peter is instantly restored to complete calm, apologizes, and withdraws.

The politicians return to their conversation, only to be interrupted yet again twenty minutes later by a hysterical woman gesticulating wildly, her hair flying. Again, the intruder is greeted with the words, “Marie, please remember Rule Number 6.” Complete calm descends once more, and she too withdraws with a bow and an apology.

When the scene is repeated for a third time, the visiting prime minister addresses his colleague. “My dear friend, I’ve seen many things in my life, but never anything as remarkable as this. Would you be willing to share with me the secret of Rule Number 6?” Very simple,” replies the resident prime minister. “Rule Number 6 is ‘Don’t take yourself so g–damn seriously.’” “Ah,” says his visitor, that is a fine rule.”

After a moment of pondering, he inquires, “And what, may I ask, are the other rules?”

“There aren’t any.”[2]

Friends in the Lord, allow me to suggest that you will enjoy your walk with the Lord more fully if you refuse to take yourself, your accomplishments, and your achievements so seriously.

When Debbie Blue writes about the ostrich, she says,

The ostrich is foolish, forgetful, lacking in wisdom, overly proud of its wings that can’t fly. But God doesn’t condemn the ostrich for its behavior. God loves all God’s crazy animals. The ostrich flaps its flightless wings with joy, and ‘when she rouses herself to flee, she laughs at the horse and his rider.’ The ostrich laughs at us. Maybe it is just the sort of companion we need.[3]

Did you hear Jesus a while back? “Seek first God’s kingdom. Fear not, little flock! It is your father’s pleasure to give you the kingdom.” We aren’t earning a kingdom. We’re not trading for it. We are silly little creatures with flightless wings and useless feathers who are given something more wonderful than we can imagine.

Thanks be to God for his great love in our lives. Celebrate that love, and take that love – not yourself so very seriously! Amen.

[1]  Consider the Birds (Abingdon, 2013), pp. 123-124

[2] Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life (New York: Penguin Books, 2002) p. 79.

[3] Consider the Birds p. 125.

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