Friday, 21 March 2008

Center Stage

Life is an improv. There is no written script for daily conversation and no time is allotted for practice or preparation of dialogue; we have to rely on each other for inspiration and co-operative creativity. Not everyone, however, can provide that necessary counterpart. There are people in life that can completely deflate self-confidence. You know the kind... a heckler. Everyone faces them, and for the most part, we face them alone.

But life was not designed to be a solo act – great improv happens in groups or teams or pairs: the set up to your punch-line, the laugh track to your slap-stick, the clever banterer, the matched wit. Someone you can trust without hesitation or reservation, someone who will laugh at your bad puns and meet them with and equally horrible joke, someone to join you on stage and face the audience side by side, someone to fight off the hecklers, someone to spark your imagination.

I’ve found one of these people; my best friend. We are an amazing improv team. She is the superhero to my sidekick and the background music to my rock-opera solo. We work, and I have taken to the stage with her many a time... but eventually she will go on tour with the man(ager) of her dreams and I'm a little worried that I will be left on the street corner with a couple of old jokes and a guitar I can’t play... unless...

What I need is a partner in crime; someone who would be willing to join my act and come with me on a tour of my own. I’ve been running informal casting calls my whole life, but I’ve decided to stop the hunt. Take down the signs, gents; no more interviews. This is improv, after all, and you can’t force funny... funny just happens. Humour either works or it doesn’t. People fit or they don’t, you can’t change their style any more than you can change your own, so I don’t know why I’ve been trying so hard for so long. That’s the whole point of improv, isn’t it? You don’t have to try, you just are. You don’t write lines, you just start talking and the show moves forward. I know that I will eventually discover my hilarious, talented, quick-witted equal and together we will rock this life. Until then I will build up my act, learning and teaching and sharing the spotlight with all of the other comedians I know.

Friday, 7 March 2008

Job and the Bet with God

The spiritual realm and the physical world are intimately connected. Histories and traditional legends worldwide recount the direct relationship that these dimensions share, and the complexity of movements between them. In the Judeo-Christian religious history, this cross-over or flow-between concept is understood from a time even before time began. God, the origin and epitome of everything visible and invisible, created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1). Everything, therefore, is understood to be within God’s control, under His authority and vulnerable to His influences.

The biblical account of history spans just over four thousand years, and throughout the text of scripture, God speaks with his people and indeed all of creation in a wide variety of ways; in Genesis alone God delivers his message face to face and voice to voice, through a flame-engulfed shrub, through dreams and visions, in a pillar of fire and one of cloud, through prophets, by global flooding and literally written in stone. As His people develop new ways to ignore Him, barricade Him outside of their lives and intentionally misinterpret what He is saying, God continues to find more and more creative ways to communicate with the ever-expanding human race.

Though God is the only omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent force acting in and on our world, He is not the only supernatural being that the inhabitants of our planet have to worry about on a daily basis. Angels and the rebellious, fallen angels (more commonly referred to as demons) live in a world that is both parallel to and intermingled within our own. Angels are the physical and tangible presence of God and act as his messengers. Demons account for a third of the original angels, thrown out of heaven after their prideful attack on God’s spiritual kingdom. Traditionally, the angels are associated with the skies and spaces ‘above the world’ and demons are linked to the seas and deep places ‘under the earth’. Biblically, both angels and demons have equal access to our world, and often work directly with (and within) people.

In the book of Job, we are given a rare and incredibly unique insight into the methodology of our spiritual counterparts in creation. We listen in on a brief and bantering conversation between the extreme definitions of our moral scale, God and Satan.

“The LORD said to Satan, "Where have you come from?" Satan answered the LORD, "From roaming through the earth and going back and forth in it." Then the LORD said to Satan, "Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil." "Does Job fear God for nothing?" Satan replied. "Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face." The LORD said to Satan, "Very well, then, everything he has is in your hands, but on the man himself do not lay a finger." Then Satan went out from the presence of the LORD.” (Job 1:7-12)

After a few seconds of heavenly bragging and demonic criticism, we witness the unbelievable; not only does God allow Satan to meddle with Job’s life, but he puts forward what can easily be interpreted as a challenge to ‘give it his best shot’ with the sole condition that Satan is not to physically harm the man. That is a dangerous amount of creative licence to give to someone with Satan’s personality.

The official Hebrew definition of “Satan” is “Accuser” or “Adversary”, but it may be just as true to characterize him as a malicious extremist. Within the chapter, Job goes from being the “greatest man of all the people of the east” to having nothing; in a matter of minutes he loses five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys and three thousand camels to raids and thieves, seven thousand sheep and their attendants burn alive in a rain of fire, and Job’s seven sons and three daughters are crushed and suffocated in the collapse of their home. In every case a large number of servants are also killed, with the exception of one from each situation, as a messenger. Satan took everything from Job in one fell swoop. The power of the supernatural, exposed for what it is: terrifying.

Job is shocked to the core of his being and in his pain and grief, begins to act quite strangely; he does not curse or blame God for this uncalled for punishment, but instead he “got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said: "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised"” (Job 1:20-21). Few people would react to their heartache with declarations of joy and hope.

This response irritates Satan’s obviously competitive and prideful nature. He had underestimated Job’s commitment to his God; the kind of faith and devotion that the human heart is capable of is certainly a force to be reckoned with. Satan and God re-negotiate the terms of their agreement during a familiar exchange of words. God extends Satan’s infliction permission to Job’s body, but Satan must let him live (Job 2:3-6). Quite sure of himself this time, Satan proceeds to cover Job’s body in sores and boils, in an attempt to plague him into cursing God, but Job holds fast.

It is during this time of elongated physical torture that the people in Job’s life begin to offer their advice. Within the arguments made by his wife and three friends, we observe the fundamental, instinctual question of life that everyone must at some point face: WHY?

It is the battle of the question “WHY?” that is at the core of Job’s story. The reason that this particular tale fascinates the human imagination is that, for the first time in biblical history, the answer to the question “WHY?” is revealed, in the spiritual bet and conversation. To the reader, it is an explained motivation, as ‘unfair’ as it may seem; to Job, who lives in constant external and internal anguish, the whole situation is incomprehensible. So, when no explanation was offered by God, Job and his companions struggle through the process of finding an answer by their own means, based on their deductions and assumptions of the case at hand. Their conclusions are as limited, incomplete, and human centred as each individual person, by no fault of their own; these answers are the only ones that they can come up with and understand, and they are echoes of the conclusions all men and women draw in such situations.

Job’s wife condemns his stubbornness, and in frustration and despair of her own (as she has also just lost ten children and all of her worldly possessions), she appeals for him to “curse God and die” rather than continue to suffer (Job 2:9). The response of Job’s wife is quite typical of people who don’t try to justify or explain what happens, but quickly surrender to internal defeat. Her advice to Job is to “give up, give in and get it over with”, as she has done. This solution does not satisfy Job, and he continues to seek out a resolution through God-directed prayer and human-directed inquiry.

Eliphaz, the first of Joe’s friends to speak up, diagnoses the problem in a way that simultaneously protects God and condemns Job. He bases his inferences on the human concept of divine justice; God rewards for good and punishes for bad. Under this law, if Job is suffering, he has done something wrong, after all, “Who, being innocent, has ever perished? Where were the upright ever destroyed?” (Job 4:7). According to Eliphaz, bad things happen to good people because they’re not actually good... if bad things are happening, it’s your fault, not God’s. The fundamental flaw in this situation is that Eliphaz, as with all humans, naturally begin with people and expand to God instead of working from God first. Because God is the origin, the creator and the master, we cannot correctly assume that He works within the laws that He created for us. So often we forget that God is outside of law; He is just, but He is not bound to justice, and certainly not our imperfect definition or interpretation of what justice is. Job rejects Eliphaz’s analysis because he is completely convinced on his own innocence (and rightly so, as it was because of his model citizenship that he was originally targeted).

Bildad settles his stance between Eliphaz and Job; he believes that Job is innocent of wrong, and he also trusts God to act in accordance with justice and rightness. His advice is encouraging, but not immediately constructive or helpful; “wait it out, eventually things will start looking up, as long as you remain faithful” (Job 8:6). This is the passive-optimistic approach to problems... the “don’t worry, be happy” philosophy of life. After his conversation with Bildad, Job confesses that he fears direct confrontation with God, and is therefore trying to figure out his situation independently from God (Job 9:15). He cannot conform to Bildad’s paradigm because he is still actively trying to solve the problem. And so, his quest continues.

Zophar is the last to offer Job his two cents on the subject. He explains that Job’s focus is off center; if Job can stop trying to figure out the cause of his life’s ruin and start putting the emphasis back on God, he “will surely forget [his] trouble, recalling it only as waters gone by. Life will be brighter than noonday, and darkness will become like morning. [He] will be secure, because there is hope” (Job 11:16-18). Alas, Job is once again unsatisfied with the advice of his companions. He is unready to let go of this grudge against God, and at the root of his indignance stands his own ignorant pride.

“But I have a mind as well as you; I am not inferior to you. Who does not know all these things? I have become a laughingstock to my friends, though I called upon God and he answered — a mere laughingstock, though righteous and blameless! Men at ease have contempt for misfortune.” (Job 12:3-5)

Job is overwhelmed by frustration and defeat. He completely disregards all of the advice from friends and family alike as foolish lies (Job 13:4-5), and proceeds to make his case to everyone, heavens included. Over and over his friends appeal to Job’s common sense; however, no sense can be talked into this man; he is heart-set on bringing this issue face to face with God, whatever the consequences. Eventually, “these three men stopped answering Job, because he was righteous in his own eyes” (Job 32:1). Elihu, another man who had been listening to the banter of the four men, takes over in the lecture and council of Job; his words, however, fall upon deaf ears and a closed mind.

“Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm” (Job 38:1).

God makes no effort to sugar coat his message. He gets right to the point in a massive, dramatic, wonderfully sharp, almost sarcastic way; “Where were you?”, “Who do you think you are?”, “Do you even know who you are talking to? I AM GOD! You are speck!” (Job 38-41).

God never explains his bet with the Devil, or any of the spiritual context. Job never gets to know why his life was unravelled. Job asked “WHY” and God answered with “WHO”. “WHY” isn’t the point of the story; God is. He is the answer to the important question, and the question asked will change based on the answer you receive.

The epilogue to this story is short and strange. After God finished putting Job back in his rightful, humble position, He turned his attention to Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, demanding sacrifices and offerings because they had not spoken truthfully or completely about God, as Job had (Job 42:7-8). Job, restored in God’s eyes (after a lot of prayer for himself and his friends), was given twice as much property as he had had before Satan stepped into his life. He had seven more sons and three more daughters, and “after this, Job lived a hundred and forty years; he saw his children and their children to the fourth generation. And so he died, old and full of years” (Job 42:16-17).

God jump-started the physical and the spiritual realms at Creation, but that was obviously not the end of his impact upon them. He is outside of law and outside of time, but his fingerprints can be found all over the universe, and in every ‘insignificant’ event of our lives. Job’s story gives the Judeo-Christian believer an insight into the mind and the heart of their God; all-knowing, all-powerful and ever-present. It also provides a unique view of the spiritual attacks that Jews and Christians face because of their obedience. This story shows us a mirror to human reaction when something happens that can’t be, or will not be, explained. And, ultimately, it answers the question WHO... who will win the petty disagreement over a single man, and who will win the ultimate battle over the entire race...

But that’s what happens when you bet with God.