CONVERSATION ON THE DUNG HEAP, Reflections on Job ($10)

LP: 0-8146-2503-7

Tragedy, catastrophic disease and natural disasters bring upheaval to life, pain and suffering to our souls, even as they compel us to reflect upon the meaning of our lives within the context of a chosen faith tradition. Today, the effects of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) upon people can be overwhelming. Women, children and men who face this tragedy, whether personally or professionally, frequently find the meaning gone from life and life itself in chaos.

Since my first experiences, in 1985, with the effects of HIV, I have become aware that in the last breaths of the twentieth century a retrovirus is causing a "massive, dynamic and unstable" global pandemic. Even today, when the new protocols of protease inhibitors appear to be stemming the flood of deaths in the United States, the HIV pandemic marches on relentlessly upon the earth. The physiological response to the virus not only makes the human body vulnerable to opportunistic disease, but the associated condition, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), exacts an overwhelming and terrifying toll in pain, suffering and death. The challenge of living with HIV is forcing us to critique, deepen and transform the images by which we create meaning for ourselves in relationship with God and others.

My work as a hospice nurse---caring for terminally ill women, children and men, their families, life partners and friends--exposes me to much pain, suffering and death. Frequently there are no acceptable answers to the sickness, pain, grief and the "why me?" of illness and death. Although death is rarely welcomed, most women and men would agree that life eventually must end. As sisters and brothers in life's journey, we can and must let go. However, it has become increasingly difficult for me to accept the global devastation of the HIV pandemic.

The enormous pall this deadly virus has spread across the world exposes our vulnerability, unveils the frailty of life and reveals the depth of sorrow that is part of the intrinsic fabric of human existence. And yet, in the midst of this tragedy, my world-picture has expanded and deepened as I have reflected upon the experiences and stories of women, men and children affected by HIV. I have come to realize the presence of God in the midst of this tragedy. In this time of the HIV/AIDS pandemic I frequently read Job in the Hebrew Bible. The story of the man from Uz has brought hope and an answer to the human question which has been asked in times of trouble throughout the ages. It is the question verbalized by Eliphaz the Temanite and repeated countless times today in this time of AIDS: Can a mortal be of use to God? Can even the wisest be of service to him? (Job 22:2).

Job answers with a resounding "Yes" and shows a God whose arms are spread wide across a universe in pain. This God is willing to meet with me, this God cares for my spirit and enables me to constantly renew my vocation in the world.

The writer of Job, Poet Job, proclaims there are no simple answers, no right ways to live and no perfect theology. Poet Job does, however, passionately speak of the pain and suffering which is an innate part of human existence. The story of Job validates the human response to tragedy and reveals a God who cares for the human spirit, always. Therefore, I find Job a profound help for spiritual reflection when troubles come.

My reflections have uncovered the similarities between Job's story and our stories, especially in this time of AIDS. Job has become, for me, the person who flings open the door to speak of human tragedy with guts, emotionality and companionship. The biblical text reveals that Job held on to his integrity while he faced the physical, social and emotional devastation inherent to all catastrophic occurrences, including illness.

The reader of Job follows Job's journey out of the silence of affliction. She or he will hear the verbalized anger of Job's pain and suffering as he argues against theodicy (a vindication of divine justice in the face of the existence of evil) and retribution theology (punishment or reward based upon actions in this world).

The reader will recognize the crucial role of the three friends from afar. They play an essential part toward the processing of Job's pain and suffering when they sit and converse with Job on a dung heap. The phrase "dung heap" is reflective of how people throughout the ages have shunned the ill, sick and poor, often to the point of casting them as society's "untouchables." The companionship of Job's friends reminds us of the need each of us has for support in times of trouble.

Ultimately, this achingly honest book about human pain and suffering gives no quick fix, no easy answer, no simple formula for healing humanity's tragedies. But Job is a touchstone for women and men to reflect upon as they face the dissonance, disorder, chaos, pain and suffering endemic to any catastrophic disease, and explicitly now, when HIV is devastating our globe. Job is a wonderful resource for reflection in times of trouble.

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