Who Are You In The Book of Job

How do we forgive ourselves when we have harmed, even maimed, someone else?

There was a man name Alan I spoke with who went to the hospital for a routine podiatrist appointment. An accident occurred while he was driving his vehicle to the hospital, resulting in a gentleman losing his leg.

“I thought my foot was on the brake. I was putting it in park.”

Alan’s foot slipped, the vehicle kept going. The vehicle struck a hospital worker, resulting in a severe injury to the hospital worker’s leg. Days later, we all found out amputation of said leg was needed.

Alan was angry, ashamed, sorrowful, and suffering of total despair. He couldn’t help but see dark and bitter irony to the circumstance, coming to the hospital for a small procedure on his foot and, in his own words, “at the expense of someone else’s leg.”

In our conversation, Alan repeated Christian motifs over and over, his knowledge of Christ saving us from our sins, forgiveness that comes through Him alone and His sacrfice. Nonetheless, he couldn’t forgive himself, indicating he should have never come to the hospital. It didn’t matter to Alan that this was an accident, and the grace that he believes Christ gives him didn’t seem to address the personal resentment he had for himself for this accident. Alan was furious with himself, calling himself a list of names and regarded his own medical needs—having cancer in addition to diabetes that was affecting his foot—as insignificant in light of the event. I think in part Alan wished he would have suffered bodily himself, to be martyr to his own medical complications rather than suffer the accident. Putting myself in his shoes, I don’t blame him for such sentiments. I can’t imagine living with that guilt, even knowing it was a total accident.

How are we to make sense of such things? Both Alan and the medical worker suffer from immeasurable grief from something accidental, something so blameless. There was no impariment. There was no malice. What is to be said to Alan? What is to be said to the medical worker? What consolation or sense can be made out of this?

We are tempted to offer our own explanation for such things, to provide some answer for the calamity. We offer this both when we are asked and sometimes we offer this unsolicited. But it is a haughty thing for us to espouse a particular meaning or message out of it, and we must be careful as we attempt to offer explanation that we do not become like Job’s friends.

In the Book of Job, we hear the tale of a righteous man who undergoes undeserved suffering. The reader sees in the beginning that Job is tested due to the devil being given certain permissions to afflict Job; Satan seems to think Job will stop praising God once his fortune turns around, and God allows Satan—with some parameters—to afflict Job. Job laments for the lives lost in the calamity, for the illness he endures. He does voice some hard questions to both God and to his friends that come to “comfort him.” But what we find at the end of the Job’s story is that Job is not satisfied with the explanation for his senseless suffering, nor is God satisfied. At the very end, God restores Job and gives Job the holy responsibility to offer prayers and sacrifice on behalf of his friends who attempted to rationalize the calamity. In short, God rewards Job for wrestling with Him and with the calamity, whereas the friends are looked down upon for their poor counsel.

Looking back on my conversation with Alan, I can’t help but see Job shine in him. Alan is a dedicated man of prayer, faithful in reading his devotionals, doing his daily prayers, and can theologize about grace. Alan carries a kind of blameless record that Job had of being an upstanding servant of the Lord. Like Job, there is wrestling for the calamity, questioning as to why he has to suffer such things. 

But no answer will suffice, perhaps because it is not our part to offer the answer and perhaps because both the sufferer and the counselor cannot examine any answer until a due time presents such clarity. In short, empathy does not come in the form of explanation, and answers cannot provide a balm of healing to such pain.

I think of another encounter I had some time ago with a grieving grandmother and her family as they were about to pull life support from a poor teenage boy who had shot himself. Why had the grandmother’s prayers not been answered? Why had this boy not been protected from such a horrible tragedy in spite of all the prayers and devotion the family had to God? 

“What am I supposed to tell my daughter who is grieving her son and my grandson?” The grandmother asked me quite angrily—and understandably irate. “What can I offer her?”

“Today is not a day for answers. You cannot provide your daughter with that answer, and neither can I. And truthfully, I’m not sure any answer will suffice how awful this tragedy is. But here you are, pouring your soul out. You are here for your family, you are here for your daughter, and for your grandson. That’s what matters. That’s what she needs. That’s what this family needs.”

All praise to God for giving that to me in such a harrowing moment.

Similarly, I nor anyone else could give Alan a proper explanation for such a senseless and horrible thing.

That being said, Alan and I did pray, and we prayed for his health and for his needs to be met. But we also prayed for the medical worker who had lost his leg, for his needs to be met. We prayed acknowledging only God’s hand being able to sustain them both in these awful circumstances. Alan cried at that, shaking horribly as we prayed for this man. In closing of the prayer, i saw some hope in Alan’s eyes. He found some hope in this. Further, Alan seemed open to the possibility of becoming an intercessor for this medical worker for the rest of his life, to lift this man’s concerns up in his own prayers each day.

Did this accident happen so that Alan would become a prayer warrior? Did the man had to lose his leg in order to have an intercessor? It’s not for us to pose such possibilities. God has purpose, but it is His and not our own.

That being said, I do believe God uses us to two specific ends when we are witnesses to calamity, when we are Job’s friends:

-Sit in the muck of the tragedy with the Job in our life. Don’t sugar coat, silver line, or wax on about some answer we have little discernment of. Let us not presume to be God or know His will…

-But let us fervently pour our heart out in prayer for God’s hand to be in that calamity. Rather than use our words to imagine meaning, let us ask God to make meaning and make mercy in light of the tragedy.

-Lastly, encourage action, with discernment. While I think it’s not our place to offer answers, I think offering action can provide catharsis. That being said, this is something earned and not granted. We ought not lead our empathy with suggestions. In the case of Alan, at the end of the visit, I suggested the possibility of him praying for this man, and it seemed earned as it came after our prayer together and I could see both grace and hope shine forth. In the case of the grandmother, I had sat with the family for about an hour silently listening, confessing my own powerlessness in the circumstances. When the grandmother asked what she could possibly do or say for her daughter while feeling so powerless, I offered her to see to what she was already doing, to continue doing what she was doing: showing up, being present, and nothing more or less than that.

Brothers and sisters, let us forgive each other and one another and seek out the Lord for forgiveness. Let us acknowledge the suffering each of us endures and provide what Job lacked in his friends. 

The Attack on Beauty: Halloween And Humanity’s Inner Dissonace

This particular year, my daughter has been rather vocal about the impact of Halloween decoration she sees all around us.

She’s young and understandably narrates most of her day, what she’s seen, what she’s done. But the manner in which she carries on about witches, glowing red eyes, and all the particularly dark ornamentation comes across as being grossly perturbed. Even at a fall festival kids costume party my family saw a child, not even a teenager, dressed in a some pop culture killer costume that neither of us could identify but nonetheless unmistakably knew belonged to the slasher genre. My wife and I reassure her that the decoration is just that and not real, that these things cannot harm her. Nonetheless, it’s given me pause this year to wonder about American fascination for everything gruesome and evil.

Why the devils? Why the witches? Why the serial killers?

The temptation to call all these figures and manifestations as meaningless is unsatisfactory. These fascinations are remarkable and noteworthy, and beg for some analysis much as a dream or pathological behavior would require analysis from psychotherapy.

Another temptation would write off our celebration of Halloween as humanity’s outlet for death. Still, I think this is inadequate. While the Latin American celebration of Day of the Dead, as far as I can see, provides some cultural merit and de-sterilizes a culture on the stigma of death while reminding families to pray for their loved ones. It may be in part true that America attempts to get over its hang up on the uncomfortable idea of death through our morbid scenes and costumes–such cases have been made why the zombie genre was so popular in our country for so long. Still, it doesn’t account for the aforementioned costumes and figures of Halloween that are deeply satanic.

We don’t seem to be portraying monsters and demons in a cautionary or benign manner. We seem to be glorifying them, out terrifying one another by conceiving of more horrific figures. Halloween is not some lived out ritual wherein a repulsive krampus is brought out to scare the population just before St. Nicholas comes in to defeat the evil. No. Rather, it is a procession of evil without good, a long minor chord without any resolve. It’s the terrible horror movie where all the main characters die, the monster wins, and somehow we are ok with this.

Now don’t get me wrong, I have dark taste. I see value in books and movies that capture humanity’s capacity for evil. I listen to music that speaks about pain and sorrow. I am not one to sterilize all media and myth to be only bright and happy fairy tales. Ancient cultures, including those from our own Western myths, have not relented to speak about abusive gods and horrific monsters. Even Holy Scripture does not withhold painful details of humanity’s dark heart and the gore that we can conceive of. Dark media–just like all media–has its place so long as it is purposeful.

But glorifying the dark or the evil just for the sake of it isn’t purposeful. That’s just patronage.

What I have gathered about this glorification of evil is an unaligned attempt to convey one’s own inner dissonance. We prop up these figures beyond the margin of society, perhaps, because some of us feel ourselves on the margin of society. Perhaps we have a personal disconnection from our own family. Perhaps we couldn’t find our healthy niche in school. An inner exile occurs while still living within our communities. With that, we convey our own inner dissonance through an acting out, through the portrayal of the figures cast off into he margins: expelled demons, witches left to live in the wilderness, etc.

I believe most of this to be attention seeking behavior, an acting out as an attempt to address the unacknowledged pain of disenfranchisement and loneliness.

It is perhaps equally true–or even more true–that none of us have been shown or conveyed true beauty by our closest confidants and therefore we reach for the low-hanging fruit of shock, ugliness, and darkness. Let’s be honest, walking through America’s oldest and greatest cities is nothing like walking through the oldest and greatest cities of Europe. Our architecture is bland and sterile, and our iconoclastic roots of puritanism meant that America’s inception came without a great deal of beauty or art. While our country did have the foundations of Scripture as its rudder and moral compass, I believe we are seeing centuries later the consequence of the sterility that comes from a solo-Scriptura tradition that endeavors little to create, to convey beauty in new and wholesome ways. As a side note, perhaps it is only too ironic that the celebrated Reformation Day should fall on a day that has ached for art and beauty.

This is not a call to action to stop dressing up for Halloween, and stopping all together–even sheltering–I don’t think addresses our country’s real need.

Instead, I believe the answer to this malady comes from noticing those of us who are on the margins and showing them something beautiful. This could be literal in sharing with them a truly beautiful composition of music or piece of art or story. But the beauty could be just as simple as one’s own kindness and curiosity of their life. Perhaps the easiest answer of this is–in borrowing from Fr Josiah Trenham–the adopting of the beautiful life, the transformed life of truly lived and imitated Christianity that is unmistakably beautiful and bright. And within that Christianity, we ourselves have to understand what is beautiful, what we can adore and share. Yes Scripture is beautiful, and God gives us more than Scripture to rejoice about, to celebrate as beautiful: iconography, architecture, hymnography, the lies of saints, and so much more.

Let us take a moment this Halloween to recognize the catalysts of this mania, to analyze this sick hunger for the darkness. Let us stare in the face of our own sterility and mediocrity, and let us be intentional in both prayer and compassion for those around us who are on the margins that they do not adopt monsters on the margins as their heroes to celebrate.

Let us behold beauty. Let us adopt beauty. Let us be changed by it. Let us infuse it in all we do and recreate it in our works and in our living.

Happy Eve of All Saints.

In Honor of Emperor Constantine

A History of the Saint

Today marks the feast of St. Constantine. Yes you heard correctly: “Saint”.

Even my Catholic friends flinch when they hear Saint or Great included into the Emperor’s name. To be fair, I’m aware of the religious and historical scandals that cause these sort of reactions. Being baptized on his death bed by Arian clergy after the council he founded–that fought against Arianism–comes across as jarring, and the accounts of the execution of his son and wife are also head-scratching matters to say the least–though ancient and modern history can’t seem to agree on why the execution was ordered.

And yet, for a man steeped in brutal Roman politics and culture, his life in such a context is still remarkable and his acts of generosity were brave and counter-cultural. 

The tale of Constantine’s life is a rather heroic one, a story of a littleman ascending to leadership, a story of chaste virtue blossoming into reform of a misled empire.

The makings of a hero

Constantine was born in the humble parts of the Balkans, in modern-day serbia. His father was a well-to-do Roman officer who ended up becoming an imperial guard for the emperor before finally ascending to tetrarch; Rome had become so large that the single ruler of Rome divided the responsibility of rulership to four leaders instead of one. Constantine’s mother was a Greek of low-estate, seemingly utilized as his interpreter for a short period of time before Constantine’s father moved for his promotion. Though the father and son would be reunited once Constantine himself embarked on his military career, Constantine and his blessed mother Helen were left to fend mostly for their own in these formative years.

Constantine was fortunate to have a father of high-esteem in the eyes of room, and because of this received a rich education in Nicomedia. The Christian formation he received from his mother was built upon as Constantine received education not only from Greek/Roman pagans but also from Christians philosophers living in that area. What may have also factored into Constantine’s inclination towards Christianity was his knowledge of the Diocletian persecution of Christians during his military career under Diocletian.

Constantine came to power upon his father’s death, ruling as tetrarch to the North Western quadrant of the empire. This was not an easy governance as the far reaches of Rome here were constantly being tested by Picts and Franks among other developing tribes and groups in northwest europe. In this time of defending his post from these constant threats, Constantine endeavored to repair roads and began ambitious building projects in this Roman frontier. It’s incredible to imagine how a leader constantly under threat can still set his eyes on a vision of building and connecting, embodying both bravery and creativity.

en touto nika

Constantine’s rise to tetrarch happened to be one more tumultuous wave into the political strife already brewing in the Roman tetrarchy. Rome become a six ring circus of disputed leadership, a divided empire, in need of vision and order.

Constantine’s greatest enemy, Maxentius, felt threatened by Constantine’s position in power and had preemptively declared war on Constantine. Constantine carved a war path in response and after his first few victories into Italy was received well by the Italian-Roman population.

Constantine arrived to meet Maxentius and his army at the Tiber River outnumbered 2:1. What rallied Constnatine and his men was a vision, a dream he had before the battle of a sign in the sky. There are different reports if the sign in the sky was that of a Cross or the letters “Chi” and “Rho” (the first two letters of Christ’s name), but the message in this dream was simple: in this, conquer. It was Constantine’s blessing from heaven, a defining moment in Christian history that would allow for the Church and her faithful to regroup, rebuild, and be sent out.

Constnatine won the battle and won the heart of Rome. Henceforth, Constantine not only put an end to Roman persecution of Christianity, but became a patron to it. Constantine personally funded building projects for Christian churches, funded his mother’s venture to seek out the True Cross of Christ, and funded the Church’s First Eccumenical Council, allowing all bishops of the Christian world to convene and sort out the canon of Scripture and seal the tenants of the faith and who Christ is: God and Man, eternally begotten, Son of God.

an imperfect saint

Where we get uncomfortable hearing Constantine’s name is when we hear stories of the execution of his son and wife. The testimonies conflict as to what exactly happened here, and there doesn’t seem to be one clear narrative of motive or even culprit. We also tend to put Constantine under a lens for his death-bed baptism at the hands of an Arian bishop–a bishop that the 1st Eccumenical Council had deemed heretical in the professed belief that Christ was created and not Son of God. 

Perhaps Constantine’s life does not quite stack up to the great contemporary saints of his time: St. Nicholas, St. Spyridon, St Athanasius, etc. That being said, the Christians we think of at that time were ordained hierarchs not set on a track of public servitude and a military career. Though we might point to the lives of St. George and St. Dimitrios as being chaste military saints that have perhaps a cleaner record than Constantine, perhaps we could keep in perspective the temptations that came with leadership at the time. As we consider King David and King Solomon, both elect by God who fell into their own temptations, perhaps too we can consider how human Constantine was, and the humility of his desire to be baptized at the end of his life knowing what hard decisions he might end up regretting to make.

a patron we need today

St Constantine, dedicating Constantinople to Christ and the Theotokos

But why mention all this? Merely because his memory is kept today? Merely because I bear his name?

The highlights and honorable parts of Constantine’s life I think are fairly topical to the needs of today. 

I see a young man who is educated not merely by one side of the aisle, but knowledgeable of both (in his case, pagan and Christian). 

I see a man who in spite of having a distant parent still honors him and seeks training and admonishment (he had a distant father). 

I see a man who in the face of hostility meets adversity with courage and more importantly with faith, bowing before not his own resources or understanding, but on God’s authority (the battle at the bridge). 

I see a man who supports the pilgrimage, the journeys of faith, of others, endorsing their ventures to finding salvation (His mother and the Cross).

I see a man humble and willing to accept he is likely to sin grievously, and nonetheless seeks out a path of salvation for himself, not considering it hypocrisy to devote himself to Christ at the end, but to crave salvation after lamenting a lifetime of sin (his baptism).

I see a man who puts forth the resources to foster dialog and unity, to foster a setting of discussion to make us one, to allow for our ideas to contest in the coliseum of the world coming together (the first council).

I see a man who values the patronage of arts, of wholesome art, that can reshape society and further lead others to God. Above all, I see Constantine’s philanthropy to Christian architecture and art as needed today: we need patrons of beauty that direct our eyes not on our egos and idols, but towards the heavens that humble us, to the God that created us and saved us.

May we find more Constantine’s that will lead us in an example of courage, of dialog, and of beauty, helping reorient our eyes to the sign waiting for us in the heavens that ultimately shows us the salvific power of God.

By the intercessions of he and his mother, may our art and our speech be sharpened by the Lord Almighty.