If you've ever heard a sermon on the book of Job, it's likely that the preacher will have criticised the protagonist's friends.
In the opening chapters, Job’s life is decimated. His children die, all of his property (and therefore security) is taken away and he is afflicted with physical illness.
His friends arrive and almost immediately attempt to explain away his suffering. They seem insensitive and suspicious of the one that they are supposedly there to support. It makes for painful reading.
But before all of the incidences in which Job's friends get it profoundly wrong, for a brief moment, they get it right.
The narrator tells us (Job 2:11):
Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him. 12 When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognise him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. 13 They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.
What lessons can we learn from Job's friends and their silent presence in the midst of his grief, and how might this shape our Lenten journey?
I have found it difficult to know exactly how to approach Lent this year. For many of us, the last year has felt like living in a perpetual wilderness - a Lenten experience where worldly comforts and joys have been taken away from us by the events of the pandemic.
We are painfully aware, after watching the global death toll climb to incomprehensible levels, that we are 'but dust'.
My instinct is to say 'let's just take it easy!' and pretend that Lent isn't happening, but on reflection that doesn't seem quite right.
I do think we should be more gentle with ourselves than is usual for this season, weary as we are. But perhaps, rather than just letting it pass us by, Lent might aid us in some of the processing that we need to do in light of the vast changes in all of our lives in the last year.
We do not need to do this alone, but rather in community. Perhaps we could be like Job's friends and sit silently alongside each other, bearing witness to our own pain and that of our neighbour.
It has become clear to me over the last year, while hearing stories of other people's losses and experiencing my own, that there are good and bad silences.
A bad silence usually emerges from awkwardness. It comes after you've disclosed something really difficult and the person you're speaking to doesn't know how to respond. Those kinds of silences are excruciating.
Most of us can call to mind a conversation where we were less pastoral than we hoped to be or were paralysed by our own awkwardness. There is, of course, grace for us in the moments when we fail. I often wonder whether Job's friends were just trying their best. But nevertheless, an ill-timed awkward silence can be painful for the person sharing their experience.
There are, however, also good kinds of silence. These usually come after a few initial kind words in response to the difficult story being told. Commiserations are offered and questions about the bereavement are asked - allowing the story teller to feel heard.
Then, instead of collapsing into platitudes or tidying away the difficulty - nothing.
A silence at this moment is companionable and kind. It simply holds the sadness and difficulty in the communal space so that the story teller is not alone in their grief.
This is the kind of silence that Job's friends held at the beginning of the book. Although the narrator does not tell us that anything is said before the silence descends, this is not the awkward silence that we all fear when we share something difficult.
This is a companionable silence.
This kind of silence is built into the mourning rituals of many groups of people around the world. One of the most striking is the practise of sitting shiva observed by many Jewish people.
In a sermon on the sacrifice of the Red Heifer in Numbers 19, the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks says this:
We no longer have the Red Heifer and its seven-day purification ritual, but we do have the shiva, the seven days of mourning during which we are comforted by others and thus reconnected with life. Our grief is gradually dissolved by the contact with friends and family, as the ashes of the Heifer were dissolved in the “living water.” We emerge, still bereaved, but in some measure cleansed, purified, able again to face life.
Silence is key to the shiva. Rather than feeling a pressure to constantly fill the space with talking, visitors are encouraged to speak only when sharing a memory of the dead, and otherwise to keep silence with the mourners.
Customs like this, and scenes such as that at the beginning of Job remind us of the way in which there is often nothing to say in the face of tragedy. Words become useless and platitudes are salt in the wounds of those who are in pain.
At moments like this, the best that we have to offer is presence.
This is a particular challenge to us at the moment, when lockdown restrictions are still in place meaning that gathering with those outside of our households is not possible.
When something difficult happens to someone we care about, our natural instinct is to want to be with them. Even when we can't do anything to help, we know the importance of physical presence. Someone to hold your hand while your loved one is in surgery. Someone to sit with you while you weep. Someone to lay a gentle hand on your shoulder in prayer.
To not be able to be with those we love when disaster strikes is painful precisely because it goes against all of our instincts which are longing to be present. It simply feels wrong.
But even while physical presence is not possible it might be more important than ever for us to be emotionally present to those in our communities.
I am in my fourth year of ordination training, and one of my favourite things about the pattern of life that brings is being in a formation group. Every Thursday during term time I have met with a group of seven other ordinands and a tutor, and we have prayed for one another, read the bible together, argued with each other, critiqued each other’s sermons and been present to one another through really difficult times.
This year, a lot of my very close friends left college to be ordained and I was met with a new formation group which looked very different. Although I was looking forward to getting to know them, I was also disappointed that we could only meet over Zoom and I had low expectations for what would be possible in terms of our building relationship.
After one and a half terms, I have been surprised by the way in which God has drawn us into community with each other even though we've never actually been in the same room.
This has been a reminder that so much more than we can ask, seek or imagine is possible with God.
In this time, then, perhaps it is more possible than we think to be present to those in our communities and begin to share the stories of the challenges and losses we have faced over this last year. Even over Zoom, it is possible to be present and hold spaces of holy silence which honour the grief in our midst.
For me, this honouring of grief played out when my formation group shared testimonies at the beginning of the year which left many of us in floods of tears. We were deeply moved, even as we were unable to be physically with one another.
It is well known that shortly after Job's friends get it right in the passage we began with, they get it profoundly wrong in the rest of the book. After a period of companionable and holy silence, they launch into reasoning, platitudes, rambling theological explanations for Job's suffering - as well as offensive suggestions that he must have brought it on himself.
It would have been much better if they had remained silent and prioritised listening over speaking - although that would have made for a much less interesting book of the Bible.
As our Lenten discipline this year, perhaps we can try to imitate the example of Job's friends in chapter 2 (and chapter 2 only...).
Paul tells us in Romans 12:15 to 'weep with those who weep' and the scene at the tomb of Lazarus in John 11 shows us that Jesus was not afraid of weeping. In fact, he went out of his way to be present to Mary and Martha in their grief and wept with them even in the knowledge that he would raise Lazarus from the dead.
Grief matters that much.
Let's make it a priority to seek out those opportunities for hearing the stories of others, silence and perhaps even weeping. We might reach out to those in our church communities who we would usually chat to over after service coffee, but haven't seen for a while. Ask them how this time has been, and be gentle in holding their stories of difficulty. Look for opportunities for prayer and holy silence.
Despite the fact that all of this has to happen digitally and at a distance, the Holy Spirit can still knit our communities together more deeply and reveal to us what it means to see glimmers of the coming resurrection, even in dark and difficult times.