- Written by Kevin Derksen Kevin Derksen
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Consider the Birds
I’m curious how many of you would have known before this summer that there were ostriches in the Bible, and where you might find them? Not too many. That’s encouraging, because I sure wouldn’t have known that either. The ostrich is not the first thing I would associate with the book of Job. In fact, it seems quite out of place. Mostly because ostriches don’t feel dignified enough for such a serious and weighty book as Job. They lack gravitas. Take a look at it again.
A big flightless bird that runs like stink across the African savannah. Skinny legs that mushroom into enormous muscular thighs. This huge torso that comes out of nowhere and seems impossibly balanced. Long flouncy feathers that drape over its body, but don’t give any lift. A towering, curvy neck that runs into a small head fitted with the largest set of eyes in the world of land vertebrates. Each eyeball, in fact, is larger than it’s rather modest brain.
I have to say it: ostriches are a little funny looking.
They’re also remarkable creatures. The largest species of birds out there. Ostriches are among very few of the large flightless birds that have survived human exploration and hunting. Those muscular thighs power them to land speeds topped only by the cheetah. They compete and survive in a hostile environment rife with predators. Ostriches are really quite amazing.
Amazing, but also kind of funny. They don’t have much of a reputation for smarts, whether deserved or not. We talk about burying one’s head in the sand like an ostrich. If you can’t see others, they must not be able to see you. This one is actually a myth – ostriches don’t bury their heads in the sand. But they have been known to run in circles when spooked by predators. Not a towering intellect, in any case.
So, what’s this goofy bird doing in the middle of the deep, agonizing speeches of Job? It’s like a court jester missing his cue and bursting into the deliberations of a royal council meeting.
Perhaps a step back is in order. The book of Job is a piece of biblical wisdom that wrestles with questions of suffering, justice and divine activity in the world. The vast majority of the book is an extended dialogue between Job and his friends after Job has experienced massive calamity. His great wealth is lost, his children perish, and he is stricken with disease. What’s worse, the opening of the book describes how all this was permitted by God to settle a dispute with Satan.
So Job sits in the dust in the crumbled remains of his world, scraping at his skin sores with a piece of broken pottery. This is how Job’s friends find him when they come to pay their respects. To their credit, they sit with him in silence for a whole week before anyone speaks. And then they have at it. Job cries out of his great suffering and pours out his anger and grief. His friends try to offer some explanation for what has happened.
They go back and forth, but they keep coming back to the same themes. Job’s friends are convinced that justice and righteousness belong together. They’re dead sure that if all this calamity has fallen upon Job, it must be punishment for sin and evil in his life. They plead with Job to repent and turn away from his sin, and experience once more the blessing of God. For his part, Job refuses to allow that his suffering is any kind of deserved punishment. He clings desperately to his innocence and purity. “I have done nothing to deserve this.” He longs to take God to task for what he has experienced, to lay out his case before God in court. But alas, there is no one to judge between Job and the Almighty.
There’s no doubt that Job’s friends are less than helpful. They hold firm to a theological framework that doesn’t begin to catch the nuance of Job’s lived experience. The week of silent vigil aside, they don’t have much sympathy or compassion. But when you read Job’s speeches, there are times when you can’t blame them. Job isn’t always the most sympathetic figure either.
I will admit that it’s really hard to cast stones at Job. How can you argue with what he’s suffered? He is the ultimate tragic hero, and we feel obliged to give him a lot of latitude. But like any of us, Job also has his rough edges. He’s a little full of himself and a little overblown. He takes himself a bit too seriously and cannot see beyond the small circle of his suffering and its narrative.
A few examples might be helpful.
In chapter 29, Job begins his final defense. His last major speech proclaiming his righteousness and the injustice of his disaster. It’s in the middle of this speech that he calls himself a brother of jackals and a companion of ostriches. And Job begins by remembering wistfully back to the days of his prosperity. But it’s not his possessions or his children or his health that he mourns. It’s his loss of social standing. I won’t read it all, but here are some of the highlights:
O that I were as in the months of old, as in the days when God watched over me; When my steps were washed with milk, and the rock poured out for me streams of oil! When I went out to the gate of the city, when I took my seat in the square, the young men saw me and withdrew, and the aged rose up and stood; the nobles refrained from talking, and laid their hands on their mouths; the voices of princes were hushed. When the ear heard, it commended me, and when the eye saw, it approved. They listened to me, and waited, and kept silence for my counsel. After I spoke, they did not speak again, and my word dropped upon . Theythem like dew waited for me as for the rain. (29:1-25)
Job imagines himself in the good old days, strutting through the city where all activity stopped adoringly in his presence. Even the high-born deferred to him. In Job's memory, his words were jewels gratefully received by those fortunate enough to be found in his presence. I can see the eyes rolling in the heads of Job’s friends.
But now, Job continues, they make fun of me – those who are younger than I, whose fathers I would have disdained to set with the dogs of my flock. (30:1)
Ok, well, perhaps it’s not so hard to imagine why these folks might now be enjoying Job’s fall from grace a little and taking the opportunity to rub it in. Job thinks himself better than everyone else, their fathers not even as valuable as his dogs.
Job continues to press his righteous credentials, and once again goes a little over the top. He describes his kindness and generosity to those on the margins:
For from my youth, he boasts, I reared the orphan like a father, and from my mother’s womb I guided the widow. (31:18)
Is that so. A remarkably kind and generous unborn child indeed, to offer such assistance.
Job is stuck in a spiral. He has suffered outrageously, and we cannot treat his pain lightly. But he needs to be jolted awake. He needs that court jester to burst in and provide a change in perspective. He needs an ostrich in his life.
Fortunately, God provides one. In fact, God provides a whole bestiary of strange and wonderful creatures. A vision of the depth and mystery and wildness of the world that God has birthed. After Job and his friends have all said their piece, the Lord finally answers Job. And God speaks out of the whirlwind.
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements – surely you know? Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together? (38:4-7).
The voice of God goes on to describe the birth of creation, God’s tender nurturing of infinite depth into the shape and form of an untamed but beautiful earth.
Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of deep darkness? Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth? Declare, if you know all this. (38:16-18)
And then the voice in the whirlwind starts talking about animals. The lion, the mountain goat, the deer, the wild donkey, the ox, the horse, the hawk, the eagle, the huge behemoth and the great sea monster leviathan. Do you know the times and the ways of these creatures, God asks? Can you control them? Did you give them their particular strength or beauty? God speaks lovingly, even passionately, about each kind of uniquely wild life God has birthed in creation.
And there in the middle of this divine hymn to animal life is the ostrich.
God concedes that this is perhaps not the smartest or most impressive of all creatures. It flaps its wings wildly and lays its eggs on the ground. It doesn’t have the fear that comes with good sense, because God hasn’t really given it much share in wisdom or understanding.
Perhaps God agrees with Job that he belongs in the company of ostriches. Not the wisest of creatures, lacks some foresight and self-understanding. Preens itself and flaps its wings to great effect – but still can’t get itself off the ground. Sounds a little like the human condition. We’re earth-bound creatures too.
But God doesn’t look down on the ostrich for its funny little ways. It’s still a valuable and beloved and amazing creature. It may not be terribly wise, says the voice, but ho - just look what happens when a hunter tries to catch it – the ostrich just laughs and runs away. Isn’t that fantastic, God says? Boy, now that bird can really run!
God loves the ostrich. God delights in the ostrich, alongside every other creature in the wild beauty of this world. Job and his friends debate the meaning of suffering, the cause of injustice and the role of God in their human experience. They try to justify themselves and make sense of what they have seen and heard. But God says: take a look at the marvelous things around you! There are incredible mysteries here that will blow your mind. The world is amazing, beautiful, complex, and endlessly fascinating. There’s more going on here than you will ever get a sense for. There are depths to creation that you’ll never fathom. So come on, and delight in all this wild mystery with me. Consider the ostrich, and learn how to laugh.
Joy and laughter and delight in the midst of outrageous suffering. Perhaps a hard pill to swallow. And yet, many of us know how closely laughter and tears are connected. How so often we only know the fullness of joy to the extent that we have also experienced loss and grief. God doesn’t really respond directly to Job and his friends, but God does change the conversation.
It can be hard to really identify with Job and probe his experience. His calamity is so great, it feels like we have to tip-toe around him with great solemnity. Who among us has suffered quite that much? But I think the point of Job is not so much that he suffered more than anyone else. The point is that Job experienced suffering as we all experience suffering. Loss and grief and calamity is part of this life. We will not escape it. And we will not escape the questions Job shouts to God as he unburdens his soul.
In whatever limited way, Job’s experience is our experience. Job’s story is our story. And perhaps God’s response to Job is directed to us as well. In the midst of pain and loss, God invites us into a certain kind of joy and delight that places our own experience in a much bigger context. God invites us to a certain kind of laughter. Not laughter that denies or makes light of the pain we know, but laughter that opens up to the deep, to the darkness of mystery, and can’t help but delight in the complex beauty that we find there. Where we realize that we cannot sort out the precise relationship of sin and suffering and justice, and instead embrace a world of breathtakingly wild beauty. A world in living relationship with God, and which God fiercely loves.
Most of the book of Job wrestles with the complicated depths of these basic questions about our human experience. And it reminds us that God and creation both are more vast than we can imagine. There are no simple or easy answers, least of all to our experience of suffering and injustice. The beginning and ending of Job offer a pretty simplistic picture: Job suffered because God allowed it to happen, and then later God made him to prosper again. But the bulk of the book between moves back and forth in dialogue that says: “things are a lot more complicated than that.” God is more, creation is more, we are more. And we haven’t begun to plumb those depths.
So yes, Job’s ostrich is a bit like a jester bursting into a solemn gathering – like the fool that laughs at the most inappropriate moment. But the God of Job laughs too. The God of Job laughs with love and delight at the incredible beauty of creation. It’s laughter shot with tears, as God nurses and swaddles and pours God’s whole being into loving and caring for what has come to birth in creation. The pain of life is a mystery, and one which God knows all too well. God laughs and God loves. God loves all God’s crazy creatures. Even the ostrich, with its funny-looking body and its small brain. Even us, when we hurt and wail and bang our heads against the deep mysteries of this life.
It's not always easy to recognize God's presence and care for us, especially when we're wounded or in pain. Sometimes it feels like God is distant, or absent, or just unconcerned about what we're going through. The ostrich has a reputation for being a bit of a flaky caregiver too. It lays its eggs on the ground, and people have noticed that when a predator approaches the nest the ostrich parent often takes off and runs away. Not good optics. It's hard to see the parental love in turning tail. But for the ostrich, it's a diversion tactic. Draw the predator away from the nest towards a much larger and more obvious target. If all goes well, the eggs escape detection.
I wonder if God's love and care for us is similar. So often it doesn't look the way we think it should. In the midst of fear and loss, we want divine intervention on a scale we recognize. Stay and fight for us, God. Keep us safe from all that threatens without. But what if we don't see the whole picture? What if we can't imagine what all God might be up to? What if God is not uncaring, but more widely caring than we have yet conceived? What if God is enraptured with us, but also with the whole wide and beautiful world we share with the infinite variety of other creatures God has imagined and brought into being? A God of the wild things, who shows us the marvelous beauty of the world we've been created to enjoy.
The God of the ostrich, who laughs as it kicks up its heels and runs like the wind.