Keeping On Keeping On

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Misery loves company. So they say. But in my experience, it’s not company that misery loves. Rather, what misery loves is surpassing the competition. Misery wants to be the most miserable of anyone in the room. In effect, misery is only really happy when it is more miserable than everyone else. That’s why people who are bummed out don’t often like to hear about other people’s problems. If nothing else is working out for them, they would at least appreciate modest success at being miserable.

I have a friend who many years ago was undergoing treatment for colon cancer. Thankfully she’s been cancer-free now for over 20 years. I went to see her in the hospital after a second surgery. She told me she would also be getting chemo and radiation treatments. I didn’t know what to say. After our quick exchange of greetings and hugs, I sat facing her, and I simply had no words. My friend was always a cheerful person. So through a pained smile, she asked me to tell her something good. I’m still working on my poker face, so I wasn’t able to mask my distress. Well, I don’t remember what I said. But I thought I’d get her talking. First, she told me she was grateful that people came by to see her. But then she said she could do with less griping and whining. Apparently, she spent more time hearing about her friends’ and visitors’ woes and troubles instead of their comfort and encouragement. They thought telling her of other people they knew who had cancer would cheer her up, sort of like telling her she was doing better by comparison. But it only felt like they were trying to outdo her misery. So if you’re visiting someone who’s sick, don’t do that.

It seems Job is the person in the bible we know best for his being miserable. But it’s not fair to Job, because we like to focus on his misery. The passage we read today picks up after he loses everything—his lands, his flocks, his servants, his children—because of a series of freak accidents. Before all of that, he was a powerful, wealthy, influential, joyful, just, humble, compassionate, and upright man. The devil, who we know is more miserable than anyone could ever be, made a false accusation to God about Job, that Job was some goody two-shoes, that the reason he was joyful, just, humble, compassionate, and upright was only because he was also powerful, wealthy, and influential. But I bet if you took away his power, wealth, and influence, he would crack, and all that goodness and joy, that humility, compassion, and uprightness would go right down the toilet. So God gave the devil permission to test his theory on Job. But Job did not crack. His closest friends told him bad things happen only to bad people. So if bad things were happening to him, it means he wasn’t as good as everyone thought he was. He should just admit it, curse God, and die.

But Job stuck to his story of innocence. He never blamed God for his misery. But he did speak of his unbearable sadness, a sadness he never could understand. Now we might identify with his misery. We might know loneliness like his, the desperation, the deep hurt, and crushing sadness. And it’s perfectly fine to call out to God like Job did. Clearly we should know to admit it when we are wrong. But never doubt God’s love.

It all turns out well for Job in the end. God doesn’t abandon him, and the devil had to admit defeat. Now the devil may have found a way to inflict misery on Job, but in the end, he was still more miserable than anyone else on earth. And what makes Job such a memorable figure is that he did not give up on trusting God. It’s always easy to trust God when things are going well. The true test of our trust is when we don’t think we have reason to, but we hang on anyway. God will always be faithful. And the devil will never give up trying to convince us otherwise.

Reading from the gospel of Mark these last few weeks, we know Jesus was at the beginning of his ministry. He was still drawing large crowds who found his style of teaching oddly refreshing. He was healing the sick, and driving out evil spirits. What was there not to like? But we can tell that he was under constant pressure to do good. But there was never enough hours in a day. Constantly people were bringing the sick to him, even after sunset. We never hear about it, but surely he had to eat sometime, and use the restroom, and take a nap. But he also knew to make time for prayer, which he did by getting up early in the morning and going off to a quiet place alone. The time he spent in conversation with God in prayer was what kept him going. His trust in God kept him centered and sane. And there’s a lesson in this for us. We might feel like we’re constantly on the go ourselves, and there just isn’t enough time to get everything done. But if we don’t make time and space to center ourselves, to nourish our minds and hearts with prayer and quiet, we shouldn’t be surprised if we fall apart. He may have been human, but the Son of God was willing to admit he needed a break sometimes.

St. Paul was sharing with the people of Corinth what it meant for him to bear the sweet burden of preaching the gospel. Much like we would tell people who complained about their job, we could tell Paul to just quit if he didn’t like what he was doing. In our culture, we often see little reason to persevere when the going gets tough. If it’s only making you miserable, just quit already. You can always find something else to do instead. But the preaching of the gospel was different. Paul knew he received his commission to proclaim the gospel from Jesus Christ himself. And he was encouraged by the good that resulted from his work, how people received God’s invitation to faith, how they repented of their sins and reformed their lives, and how together they built up the community of God’s family. It was hard work, no doubt. But it was all worth his time and effort. He knew God was at work through him. And if he was a useful instrument in God’s hands, he knew God would be pleased. It was enough for him to know that God was pleased.

So as disciples of Jesus, we are also entrusted with proclaiming and preaching the gospel with our lives. We may encounter disapproval, opposition, ridicule, and discouragement. But if we truly understand the importance of making time and space to regain our center, to call on God in quiet and prayer, to embrace the grace God shares with us in his sacraments, to strengthen our trust in his faithfulness, we will stand firm like Job, we will stay focused like Paul, we will persevere like Jesus. If indeed we are doing God’s work, God will see that it is accomplished. But if we are not up to the task entrusted to us, God can always find more worthy instruments, more convincing proclaimers and preachers of the gospel, more effective disciples to carry on his mission of calling sinners to repentance and reconciliation. Either we’re up to the task or we’re not. What will it be?

Rolo B Castillo © 2018

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