A reflection on the readings for Proper 24B: Job 38:1-7, (34-41); Mark 10:35-45
I was fascinated this week to watch a video that originally aired on the science channel with Dr. Andrew Newberg, the Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine at Thomson Jefferson University Hospital and Medical College. Dr. Newberg has studied the neuroscientific effect of religious and spiritual experiences for decades.
In the video Dr. Newberg explains that to study the effect of meditation and prayer on the brain, he injects his subjects with a harmless radioactive dye while they are deep in prayer / meditation. The dye migrates to the parts of the brain where the blood flow is the strongest, i.e,. to the most active part of the brain. He was then able to observe the brain in action while the person prayed or meditated.
The red portion of the scan indicated greater activity in areas of the brain. In this case, increased activity was observed in the frontal lobes and the language area of the brain. This is the part of the brain that activates during conversation, and Dr. Newberg believes that for the brain, praying to God in the Judeo-Christian tradition is similar to talking to people.
While observing atheists meditating or "contemplating God," Dr. Newberg did not observe any of the brain activity in the frontal lobe that he observed in religious people.
Dr. Newberg concludes that all religions create neurological experiences, and while God is unimaginable for atheists, for religious people, God is as real as the physical world.[i]
Last week we began our reflection on the Book of Job. Job ponders the feelings of despair that accompany suffering; especially the sense that God is absent in the presence of suffering which heightens the despair. Job wonders, “What kind of a God is this God who in the face of suffering is nowhere to be seen?”
Job, ever faithful, waits patiently for God to appear. But when his circumstances continue to worsen and God is nowhere to be seen, Job loses it. He rails against God and calls God to task. And finally, in the section of Job we heard this morning, God appears. And, it’s not the nicest portrait of God, either.
Virginia Woolf once wrote, “I read the Book of Job last night – I don’t think God comes out well.”
And Barbara Brown Taylor, a highly regarded Episcopal priest and preacher writes: “ this speech by God seems to reveal an arrogant bully who reaches down a thumb and crushes Job like a bug …a God who has no more respect than that for human suffering does not deserve the title…” [ii]
Those of us who have suffered deeply recognize in the story of Job and in our suffering that the worst thing that can happen is to feel as if one has been abandoned by God, as if God does not care, or perhaps there is no God. That feeling brings with it a deeper despair, the sense that there is no hope and therefore there can be no relief. Even Jesus in the garden and on the cross felt this profound sense of helplessness and abandonment of God.
A challenge for us as 21st Century Christians is how do we understand the contrasting portraits of God that we hear in the Bible. The story of Job gives us an image of God who is invested in being powerful, omnipotent, absent and then very visible. The story we hear in other portions of the Bible is that God is primarily invested in love and that God’s love is realized in our relationships with other people.
A word search through the Bible reveals that the word “Power” appears 461 times between Genesis and Revelation. The word “Love” appears 872 times. One might conclude that love is the more relevant expression of God’s self and the life of faith.
Our Gospel reading this morning considers the concepts of power and humility, of suffering and faith, of relationship and love. In response to the disciple’s grandiose sense of power which, in their estimation, separates them from other people, Jesus offers a sharp reality check. Being a person of faith does not make one better than others, it does not make us “powerful” nor will it prevent us from suffering. Life still happens. Our faith is grounded in relationship – in what it means to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. So, because life happens and no one is immune to the stuff of life, our faith is challenged when we suffer because our relationship with God is challenged.
As the study from Dr. Newberg suggests, if we believe we are praying to a real being, what happens to our prayer and our despair if we begin to feel as if there is no relationship? What happens to our prayer if we believe that God does not hear us or care?
That’s when we begin to pray like Job did. According to Job, we do not have to be polite when we pray. When in pain, we are allowed to yell as loudly and as often as need be: “Why is this happening to me? Answer me!” or as a friend of mine says, “GOD! Be GOD!” The story of Job assures us that devout defiance pleases God and it may even bring God out of hiding…[iii]
In response to Job’s rant God makes an appearance. To our modern ears this appearance of God is harsh and commanding. God never does answer Job’s question, “Why did this happen to me?” God just reminds Job that God is God. But Job is transformed from this experience because he has seen God and lived.
The resulting transformation that comes from this reality of God’s presence in our lives is not always a transformation of life circumstances. Sometimes life just gets more difficult instead of better. The transformation that comes from prayer and conversation with God, even yelling at God, happens inside of us. We are somehow transformed. Its grace and it’s a bit of a mystery. And when that transformation happens, regardless of whether life circumstances remain the same, worsen, or get better, how we view our lives changes. An early 20th century sociologist named William Isaac Thomas built an entire theory on this principle – that how we view the world around us defines that world for us. Dr. Newberg’s study confirms this - because we believe we are praying to and talking with God we are. I don’t really need sociology or science to confirm what I’ve come to know in my own faith life, but there is something rather satisfying in having it affirmed in measurable ways. It’s almost like seeing God face to face.
We may never actually see God face to face in this life. But we can know God in our prayers. God is made real to us every Sunday in song and prayer, in words and silence, in the bread and in the cup. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” Jesus asks. This is no easy task, for it is the cup of salvation where power is broken open and transformed into love. Where God abides with us in the whirlwind and from the chaos brings forth hope. It is the same cup in which we too meet the suffering of this world, drink it into our being. Nourished by this same cup of suffering we become agents of transformation through the power of God’s grace and love. The cup of suffering we share is filled with mercy. Let us drink the cup of our baptism, that we may see God, face to face, in one another, and live!
[i] Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/18/how-does-prayer-meditation-affect-brain-activity_n_1974621.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000009&utm_hp_ref=fb&src=sp&comm_ref=false#sb=2365622,b=facebook
[ii] Barbara Brown Taylor in Home by Another Way, page 166: Cowley Publications, 1999