Paul Wallace: When God Shows Up


I didn't need a crow to tell me Dad was going to die.

He had been in the sunroom in his hospice bed for two days, and he would be gone within an hour. The family had gathered and we were prepared. We knew Dad was dying. Still, the poetry of the moment was not lost on me.

The crow was perched in a familiar poplar right at eye level and only a few yards away, just outside of Dad's bedroom window. I had walked into the room to get something for Mom, looked up, and there it was.

It was dusk, and the low-angled light reflected off the crow's highly-organized rows of wing feathers. The long black beak was held slightly open, as if the bird were about to speak. The eyes were intelligent and hard. Before it set itself in motion, the creature looked as if it had been machined out of impossibly fine black-purple metal.

After a moment, it spread its long black wings and rowed away in silence.

An anonymous sixth-century Syrian monk we have come to call Dionysius once described God as a "brilliant darkness." This is an apt description of that crow--a brilliant darkness--and it made me wonder: does God, who we claim called light from the void, shine in dark things? Did God take the form of the darkest of birds, a living shadow, just to pay me a visit and remind me that such a thing is possible?

Is this how God shows up?

Today's reading finds old Job on the ash heap. He has lost everything. His children, his wealth, his health, his home, and his high social position have been taken from him in a very short time. He sits and weeps in an empty world, crying out for justice, for God to make all things right, for God to please explain how and why this happened. But mostly he cries out for God's presence.

He cries, "I go forward. God is not there. Or backward. I cannot perceive Him. On the left God hides, and I cannot behold him. I turn to the right, but I cannot see Him."

What Job want is for God to just show up. But God has not shown up.

Someone has. Four someones, to be exact. Four of Job's friends have shown up and have tried to help him make sense of things. Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Elihu, however, are not helpful. They instead make things worse for Job by insisting on the conventional wisdom of the day.

This conventional wisdom, you see, tells Job that his losses are due to his sin. He has done something wrong and is now paying for it. God is just, so how else could things be, his friends ask. Why else would he suffer so? The tragedy that befell Job, his friends say, is God's punishment. Or it's God's discipline. Or at the very least it's God's way of drawing Job's attention to the fact of his sin.

But Job says he has not sinned, and in this he is right. He is a fully righteous man, and certain of his innocence. His friends do not give up easily, however, and by Chapter 19 Job is deep in conversation with them. Actually, conversation is not the right word. At this point the conversation has devolved into furious argument. Positions have hardened. The previous chapter features an exasperated Bildad directly accusing Job of wickedness, a wickedness compounded by Job's refusal to come clean and confess his sin.

God, in the meantime, still has not shown up.

By the time we get to our passage, Job has accepted his fate: he will die without having God show up. He will die without having seen God. He begins to look beyond his death. He first calls for his story to be recorded for posterity: "O that my story were written down!" he cries, thinking first of a book but deciding that a book is insufficiently permanent: he wants his story of suffering to be written "with an iron pen and with lead, engraved on a rock forever."

The reason Job wants his story recorded is not so that thousands of years later we can preach sermons about him. His concern is greater and more personal than this: he wants someone to read his words and avenge his losses and perhaps even his death. In verse 25 he cries, "I know that my redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth."

Now, this requires a bit of explanation. Job, himself a former judge, is speaking here the language of the court of law. The Hebrew word behind redeemer is a legal term for a family member--a kinsman--responsible for vindicating the murder of other members. In other words, Job wants to preserve his story so that one day, long after his own "skin has been destroyed," someone can take revenge on God. This is the extent of Job's anger!

He calls on a redeemer, but what he really wants in his deepest self is to see God with his own eyes. "If only I myself, and not another, would behold God with my own eyes," he cries in verse 27.

What Job really wants is for God to show up.

The argument continues to escalate. It goes on. Job repeatedly defends himself against his accusers, and his accusers grow even more frustrated. Then, after 18 MORE chapters of entrenched argument, near-blasphemy, and cries for justice, it happens:

God shows up.

But God, it turns out, is not interested in the particulars of Job's grievances. God does not engage Job at the level of his complaints. God does not explain why Job has suffered. God does not propose some general theory about why bad things happen to good people. And God says, most conspicuously, nothing about justice, that ideal so sought after by Job.

Instead, God points to creation: the foundations of the earth and wind and stars and rain. Also ostriches. Feral donkeys make a strong showing, as do goats. Ravens and hawks and vultures are praised.

God, in response to Job's perfectly justified cries for justice, takes Job on a wild and wooly tour of the cosmos.

God first transports Job to the bottom of the world. "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Who determined its measurements? Who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk?" asks God. The emphasis here is on the stability of things--the divine architect has built the cosmos on rock, and it will not be moved.

Next, Job is taken to the edge of the sea and sent upward to the storehouses of rain and snow and hail. The opening sequence climaxes in a mind-bending ride through the constellations. Job is shown Orion, the Pleiades, and the Great and Small Bears. God seems to be saying: "Job, you want me to show up? Just open your eyes, and look. I'm right here."

After this God takes Job into the wilderness and points out animals.

God starts with lions and ravens, pointing out their daily cycles of hunting and providing for their young. "Can you hunt prey for the lion? Who provides for the raven's young ones?" asks the Lord.

The point is, of course, that God can and does; but the poetry suggests more than this. God admires the lion and that darkest of birds, not as trophies or as food for human beings, but as creatures set apart, valuable in their own right, members of their own communities. But now, for the first time, Job sees them this way, too. Job sees them as God sees them.

Next, Job gets an eyeful of mountain goats and deer. The goats, dwelling among distant peaks, give birth to their young. As seasons pass, God observes the animals grow strong and leave their homes and parents behind. These are intimate moments in wild lives. The Lord has always seen them. Now Job sees them too.

The wild ass is next, a denizen of the steppes and salt flats. The wild ox values its freedom too much to be dependable or faithful to any human master. Job sees these creatures clearly, brilliantly, as if for the first time.

The ostrich is the most foolish creature of them all, an animal completely free of wisdom or understanding. It struggles to fly yet is not equipped for the task. Foolishness too is part of creation, and the ostrich belongs. God is happy with the bird. And now Job sees it as God does, simply and directly, and worthy of admiration.

Other animals follow. The war horse, domesticated but only barely, is praised for its courage and lack of hesitancy in battle. The hawk angles southward far above the desert plain, another turn of an ancient migration cycle Job has never even thought about. At the periphery of knowledge, in the remotest crags of mountain and rock, the vulture makes its home. This sharp-eyed scavenger lives on death and fills its young with the blood of its prey. In God's presence Job sees its dark beauty as if for the first time.

By the end of the tour, Job is silenced and humbled, for God has finally shown up. Job cries, "I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you, Lord; therefore I repent in dust and ashes."

Now my eye sees you. Job has finally seen God.

Yet Job did not see God, not exactly. What Job saw was the earth, the sky, storm clouds, the wilderness, and an assortment of oddball creatures: the ostrich, the hawk, the raven, the vulture.

This is how God shows up.

Dad has been gone for several months now. My grief waxes and wanes. I might go a week or two without incident, but then grief kicks in and three things start to happen. First, I find myself tremendously annoyed by tiny setbacks: traffic, scheduling errors, bad weather. Second, simple tasks become difficult: I forget the names even of friends. I miss appointments and interstate exits, I lose track of what I'm doing. My mind seems to be taking a long nap and won't be bothered. Third, and speaking of naps, I sleep a lot. In the morning it is hard to wake up, and I find myself longing to drift off in the middle of the day.

But then, after days or maybe a week of this, God shows up.

One day a few months ago I was passing through the hard part of the grief cycle. While working in the kitchen I began to grow weary. I paused at the sink and stared out the window into the back yard. And a Cooper's hawk--a rather uncommon creature--come out of nowhere to alight on a low brick wall just a few feet outside the kitchen window. The hawk was a massive thing for eyes accustomed to chickadees and wrens.

Like the crow it was a bird of arresting beauty. It was draped in long slate-colored wing feathers. Its beak curved to an impossibly sharp point. Its ebony talons adjusted themselves against the bricks. It surveyed the yard through bright orange eyes, searching, I suppose, for a chipmunk or a rabbit. It was the most alive creature I have ever seen. And after a moment, it was gone.

I was left standing at the sink thinking of Dad, grateful for his life, for my life, and for the hawk, graced by holiness.

For in that creature, God surely showed up.

May God show up for each of you today. Amen.