Blow on the Coal of the Heart

November 25, 1993

"J.B.," Archibald MacLeish's reworking of the biblical story of Job, begins with a family argument over Thanksgiving dinner. Sarah fears her five beautiful children and handsome, successful husband are too casual in giving thanks.

"God doesn't give all this for nothing," she warns. "We, too, have our part to play" -- meaning we must send thank-you notes to God to insure his continued grace. "If we do our part," says Sarah, "He does His."

J.B. remonstrates with her: "Eat your dinner, Sal, my darling. We love our life because it's good; it isn't good because we love it -- pay for it -- in thanks or prayers. The thanks are part of love and paid like love: free gift or not worth having."

For the many of us who rejoice today in the comfort of home and family and good food, J.B.'s theology makes sense. We are thankful not in payment for services rendered but in grateful response. But J.B.'s wife knew that blessings can be taken away. What of the many of us who are suffering loss or pain? Can we, too, be thankful? J.B. found, as did the biblical Job, that we can -- even that we must.

J.B.'s beautiful children die horribly. He is stripped of his wealth. Suffering, says J.B./Job, is equally a part of life: "The Lord giveth; the lord taketh away: Blessed be the name of the Lord."

Yet it is not so simple for J.B. The man's body is attacked by painful and disgusting illness. His wife leaves him, advising him to "Curse God and die." J.B.'s neighbors offer the facile assurances that his suffering is divine punishment for some sin he committed; or that life is meaningless so suffering is also meaningless; or that we are all victims.

No, no, no, says J.B. "Can we be men and make an irresponsible ignorance responsible for everything?"

At last God speaks: "Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? . . . Hast thou commanded the morning?" You're only a man, God is saying; there's a lot you don't know.

God's answer is not intellectually satisfying. That is the point. Life is often not intellectually satisfying. Yet it is life. All of us stand with Job somewhere on the human continuum of joy and despair. Shall we then give thanks?

In the end, J.B.'s wife returns, his prosperity is restored and new children are promised.

Can J.B. accept a new beginning, now that he knows the indivisibility of gift and loss? Sarah, his wife, shows him the way: "Blow on the coal of the heart, and we'll see by and by . . ."

Let us all, wherever we stand on the continuum of joy and despair, blow on the coal of the heart, and give thanks today.

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