Lisa Nichols Hickman: The ministry of 'Why?'
Two scriptural resources for fielding the hardest, most important question.
Americans have been asking, “Why?”
Why the tragedies in Colorado? Why the vicious national divisions during an electoral year? Why can’t I (or my post-college son or daughter) find a job?
There’s a great deal of anxiety at the moment. And as religious leaders we’re tasked to be stewards of both the question “Why?” and its faithful response, even if that response isn’t a solution or “the answer.”
The Bible certainly gives us more, but here are two places we can enter into a scriptural imagination for ministry about the question, “Why?”
Job. Job is the why book of the Bible. Why should I not be impatient, God? Why have you made me your target? Why have I become a burden to you? Why do you not pardon my transgressions? Why do I labor in vain? Why do you hide your face?
“Why?” is asked nearly two-dozen times throughout its pages, but not simply as an accusation. There’s a movement throughout Job in which we hear the question “Why?” differently. It’s not just the verbal form of a fist shaken at God, but an invocation, supplication, confession and intercession as well.
As ministers we can find ways to gracefully direct why questions in those ways.
Syzygy. No I didn’t make that up. It’s actually an English word with a Greek root. While it’s a high scorer for Scrabble, the Greek word syzygy has a deeper meaning for ministry. The dictionary definition of syzygy displays meaning for the study of biology, astronomy and poetry.
In Matthew 11:28-29, when Christ says, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am meek and humble in heart and here you will find rest for your souls,” the Greek derivative for syzygy is found in the word “yoke.”
The right kind of yoke can be a comfort, surprisingly. An irony to the Christian journey, is that freedom from enslavement in the past is broken by the new yoke of Christ’s call to be intimately joined to him. “The Message” offers a refreshing translation that opens the text anew:
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me -- watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly.”
In our cultural milieu, the nation struggles to live “freely and lightly.” This feels impossible, and perhaps even selfish, in the midst of voilence, devestation, unemployment and fear. Perhaps we can’t begin with that end in mind. But we can be drawn into the threefold question that begins the text. Yes, we are tired of senseless violence. Yes, we are worn out from fear. And yes, there are those who feel burned out on religion when the “whys” overwhelm and answers all fail to deliver.
These questions acknowledge that in moments like this, life surrounds us with why. When we are yoked to the circumstances behind that question, we lose our partnership with hope. When we allow ourselves to become yoked to Christ, the circumstances of his life, death and resurrection redeem and renew our earthly struggles and give rise instead to resurrection hope.
Our ministry amid “Why?” matters. We rely on the stories of Job and Jesus to guide us through the meaningless and senseless. We rely on syzygy as we yoke ourselves to Christ and his redemptive ways.
There were a lot of things Job did not understand about the events of his life, but in the end there is one thing he did know for certain: the Lord of the Universe had yoked himself to Job. He will not be undone. Nor will we.
In the midst of life’s sufferings, that yoke holds strong for every day of every week that begins with “Why?”
Lisa Nichols Hickman is pastor of New Wilmington Presbyterian Church in New Wilmington, Penn.