Advent: A Prison Story

An Advent story from the prison I shared last year:

Billy had a heart attack.

And he died.

The bible study at the prison this last Monday night was sober and sad. Billy was an inmate and popular. An excellent guitar player, Billy would often play for the prison worship services.

On Saturday Bill started having trouble in his cell. A female guard called for help. When the gurney came they placed Billy on it. The guard stayed with Billy as they raced him to the medical unit. Billy was transported to the local hospital.

But his heart stopped and he died.

The next day some of the men in the study, dear friends of Billy, thanked that female guard for what she did. She began to cry and said, "I wish I could have done more." And the prisoners offered her comfort. She did all she could. More than they had expected.

All this was shared at the start of the study. The mood was heavy. And then it was my time to get up and share my lesson. We were starting on the book of Job.

But I began by talking about Advent.

I started by contrasting Advent with Christmas. Advent, I explained, is sitting in the experience of exile. Waiting, hoping God will act in the future. We are slaves in Egypt. We are exiles in Babylon. We are sad friends mourning the death of Billy. Where is God? We are waiting. That, I said, is Advent. Learning to be patient, learning to wait on God.

We sang O Come, O Come Emanuel and Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus.

And then we opened our bibles to the book of Job.

Up until this point in the bible, I explained, the story has been governed by a theology of retribution, the "blessings and curses" of Moses (Deut. 11). Do good and stay faithful to God and you will be blessed. Turn to wickedness and idolatry and you will get punishment and exile.

The entry into the Promised Land. Judges followed by kings. Warnings upon warnings about the blessings and curses. Stay faithful. Do not bow to the false gods.

Deaf ears. Hard hearts. The Kingdom divides.

Israel descends into idolatry. Exile.

Judah follows. Exile.

The logic of retribution holds. The righteous are blessed. Sinners are punished. That's how God has set up the world. Bad things happen to bad people.

And then we get to the book of Job.

And an entire theological trajectory--starting in Deuteronomy and traced through 2 Kings--gets knocked off course. Good people are always blessed? Not so fast, says the book of Job.

Job is a man of integrity. And yet he suffers. Chapter after chapter Job's friends argue for the theology of retribution. Job is suffering, so he must have sinned. That's the way the world works. Moses said so.

Job disagrees. He's done nothing wrong. And yet God has cursed him. There is no lawful relationship here between virtue and suffering. Bad things happen to good people. Billy died on Saturday.

So Job waits on God. Waiting for vindication. Waiting for a chance to plead his case. Job wants answers. Waiting.

Like us in the wake of Billy's death.

You know what, I said to the men, as I reflect on it Job is a pretty good book for Advent. We talk about "the patience of Job."

Patience. Waiting on God. That's Job. That's Advent.

That's us.

But in the waiting is also expectation, longing, and hope.

The men share more from their conversation with the female guard who stayed with Billy until they took him away in the ambulance. Billy blessed her, she says through tears.

She shares Billy's last words, shared as they rushed toward the waiting ambulance.

"I am," he tells her, "a man of God."

He tells her this, over and over.

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2 thoughts on “Advent: A Prison Story”

  1. I work in a Rehab/Nursing center. A number of years ago a lady who was Jewish admitted her mother for Long Term care. Every Saturday while her mother was physically able she would come and take her to services. Of course, over time her mother became to ill to leave the facility.

    The daughter was obviously a student of scripture; it was in her speech and flowed from her lips like poetry. Her favorite was the the book of Job. It was part of her soul. Often when she would visit her mother I would ask her how she was holding up. Her answer on more than a couple of occasions was, "I need to read Job again". I did not have to ask why. That always stayed with me. Here was a person who knew the book of Job as well as some of us know our own phone number; yet, there were times she needed the bread of Job.

    Since her mother passed away and she went on with her life, I have had a few weekends when I read though Job in one sitting. Some of those times were not easy because waiting for God felt useless. I felt as if I had lost my place in line, that I had foolishly let my oil waste away and my lamp could not be rekindled. Yet, the words of the angel that I had a chance to know for a few months come back to me from to time, "I need to read Job again". So, on a Saturday morning, after I read my Psalms from the KJV, I sometimes open the pages of Job, and I actually find solace in my thoughts of my angel, of Job, and the common pain of being a human being. Does it always make me FEEL better? "No". But it gets my thinking back on an outward and upward path.

  2. Utterly exquisite. I'm ready to declare this my favorite essay of yours Richard; I love how you've situated Job in the biblical scheme of things (as well as the situation in which your thinking found this expression).

    I've been wondering something of late. There's this way of Jesus afoot, where instead of seeing god to be like Jesus, god remains the God everyone around Job expected, but Jesus makes us okay with that God. In a sense- 2,000 years since Jesus, a large segment of American culture still does- AND STILL WANTS TO- see reality in the same way we did before Job: Life reduced to a simple simple equation of, "good outcomes can only entail from morally good inputs".

    If you're right about Job's context here- (I think you are)- what's being illuminated is a pathway for growing up in human life.

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