“Where Were You When…?”
As I write this, September 11, 2019, remembrances are underway. The question I hear repeated each year, “Where were you when you heard the news?” That day, its events, and our experience of it are indelibly set into our deep memory. All of us continue to mourn that day at varying depths. I offer to you that in that question, “Where were you when…?” is the answer to our grief. I say that not because rehashing the memory is unto itself healing. I say that because in the Bible, we see that question being asked in the face of suffering.
In Job 38:4, God asked of Job, “Where were you when…?” You see Job had endured tremendous suffering on an unimaginable scale for the ancient world. His friends came and sat silently with him for a week and offered great comfort in doing so. Then they began asking Job what he had done to deserve such great suffering… it is safe to say this was of zero comfort to Job and was the source of great pain to him. Job spent 35 chapters explaining he is a human after all, yet did not do anything to “deserve” these great calamities. He appeals to Almighty God for an audience to argue his case, that he did not deserve all of this. (It is important to note, the original telling of Job made the story out to be as though the calamities were random and had nothing to do with God directly or indirectly causing this.) God’s question to Job is, “Where were you when…” and verse after verse retells of the Creation, God’s provisioning for life, sustaining life, etc. Hang on to this thought.
When I smell flowers, I think of funerals. You could say that is a job hazard for clergy and you’d be right. When I smell lilies, I think of your loved ones I’ve helped you say goodbye to. Other than the custom having flowers to mask scents why would we use flowers though? One funeral which hit me particularly hard I stopped in to the Sanctuary of the country church I served to just pray for a few moments before everyone arrived. The flowers were already delivered the air was thick with the scents. When I knelt to pray I came face to face with a proud, brilliant, white, lily. I was struck by the miraculous architecture, the intricate design behind each pedal, which admittedly I had always taken for granted. I looked around at all the other flowers flooding the sanctuary, being struck all at once that each one had a similar complexity which together proclaimed beauty in the midst of unimaginable grief. Then it occurred to me: the answer to death is life itself. That life “IS”, is the answer to our suffering. We present life to those suffering the loss of a loved one because that is also God’s answer to our suffering… let me explain.
When God asks Job, “Where were you when…?” and then spends several chapters describing all God had done and was doing, our tradition makes it sound like a sharp rebuke of Job for “questioning God.” That is not the main point God is making. While there certainly is an edge of God saying, “Job, you have no idea of the scale you are asking about.” The main message God is saying to Job, in the midst of all your suffering, there is LIFE. You exist and so does all else around you.
When I hear people ask that question, even on 9/11, I remember that our living, the day in and day out lives we live, is THE answer to all suffering. Life is the answer.