PASTOR The Reverend Dr. Roger Paynter
ADDRESS 901 Trinity, Austin
PHONE 512-476-2625
SERVICES Sundays at 11 a.m.

THE TRUE TEST of a Mexican restaurant is the quality of its enchilada plate. Similarly, the ultimate test of a religion is its ability to serve a satisfactory answer to the problem of suffering and evil. (I think it’s a pretty good comparison.) For that reason, I felt fortunate that on the Sunday I attended First Baptist Church of Austin, its senior pastor, the Reverend Dr. Roger Paynter, would deliver the first in a month-long series of sermons and lectures on the Book of Job, culminating in a production of Archibald MacLeish’s classic play, JB.

Like many congregations at downtown churches, First Baptist’s is not as large as it once was, but the spacious sanctuary was well more than half-filled on that cold and rainy winter morning. Though older people outnumbered younger ones, the age range was broad, and the friendly way in which members greeted visitors and one another indicated a warm and welcoming community. The sanctuary itself imparts a peaceful feeling, with its high brick walls and two narrow stained-glass windows. The soaring pipe organ is dimly visible behind a suspended cross and a three-story arrangement of netting that suggests Jesus’ calling his disciples to become “fishers of men.”

First Baptist has long been part of the progressive wing of Texas Baptists and formally withdrew from the increasingly fundamentalist Southern Baptist Convention in 2001 to become part of the more moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Signs of that orientation were immediately evident. The opening meditation, from a writing by Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, pegged “cultural Christianity” with creating “far more problems than it provides answers.” In quiet defiance of the official patriarchal ethos of the Southern Baptist Convention, Minister to Children Dorothy Strickland led the prayer of invocation, then introduced and took part in a six-person dramatic reading of the first two chapters of the Book of Job, which tell of the testing of Job’s piety by the sudden loss of his vast flocks and herds, the slaughter of his many servants, and the accidental deaths of his ten children. A few minutes later, the children of the congregation came forward to hear Sunday school teacher Joy Sparks, whom my family would describe as a “splendid ’splainer,” provide a second detailed account of Job’s woes. “Have you ever had a bad day?” she asked. “Well, Job had the worst day we can imagine, and that all happened in the first chapter. For the next 41 chapters, Job is trying to figure out, ‘Why me, Lord?’” That question was explored still further in a haunting offertory anthem, “Out of the Depths,” by Israeli-born composer Abraham Kaplan, beautifully rendered by an excellent choir.

With the stony path through the wilderness of the world thus clearly delineated, Roger Paynter came to the pulpit. A large, genial man with educational credentials that include seminary, a doctorate from Texas Christian University, and additional graduate work at Oxford and other institutions, Paynter, 56, has an appealing conversational style—he teaches homiletics at the Episcopal seminary in Austin—and is more likely to lower his voice, rather than raise it, to emphasize a point. He began by noting a number of problems confronting our world—war, increasing poverty and social inequality, widespread alienation, and other sources of cultural kindling that a careless spark could turn into devastating conflagration. Faced with such challenges, he said, people of faith would do well to revisit the Book of Job, which he characterized as “a journey into honesty … away from platitudes.”

Alluding to the title of his sermon, “The Impatience of Job,” Paynter observed that it is a puzzle how Job ever got a reputation for patience, since most of the book consists of his bitter complaints, sarcastic accusations, and desperate pleas to be let alone to die, to escape the torment that has befallen him. “It is safe to say,” Paynter said, “that most of us were not taught to talk to God like that. You’re supposed to use words like ‘beseech’ and ‘vouchsafe,’ and maybe with a whisper. You are supposed to speak in the most humble and sincere voice you can muster. What I love about Hebrew scripture is the way it goes against all that good advice.” He cited occasions when Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah, and David had boldly challenged God to provide explanation for what seemed to be injustices visited upon Israel. “Job knew those voices were not the voices of unfaithful people,” said Paynter. “They were the voices of some of the most faithful people that have ever lived, people who spoke to God straight from their hearts without bothering to censor their language or sterilize their emotions. Job stood out in the open and exposed himself to God.”

Job knew he did not deserve what had befallen him. “Plainly, he was undone by God’s failure to do justice, but his larger distress was God’s failure to respond. ‘Why do you hide your face and count me as your enemy?’ … He never stopped asking for a sign. More than that, he never stopped expecting to get it. He never stopped pleading his case… . He never shut up. And that, in the end, is what won him his reputation for patience.” But “patience,” Paynter said, is not the right word. Patience is too passive. “Patience is what we exercise while we’re waiting for a beard to grow or for a bond to mature. ‘Endurance’ is a much better word.” And with that, he returned to the problems enumerated in his opening sentences. “Endurance is what you exercise when you are trying to change national policy … when you try to make a society just for all of its people … when you are trying to learn to walk again after a terrible accident. You know those kinds of things are going to take a huge amount of time, not to mention courage and passion. Job never gave up. He never gave up on his integrity or on God’s integrity. He endured, endured, endured until the day God finally spoke to him.”

Discussion of how God responded would have to wait for subsequent sermons, but a careful reader of those passages (chapters 38—41) will find that the Almighty stopped somewhat short of saying, “I know you’ve been wondering; here’s why bad things happen to good people.” And many biblical scholars regard the account of the restitution of Job’s herds and flocks and the provision of a new set of servants and children (chapter 42) as a later addition by priests unable to accept the ambiguity saturating the rest of this profound book. I expect to endure that ambiguity for the remainder of my life, but in my impatient hope that Roger Paynter might offer some further wisdom on the subject, I’ve ordered tapes of the rest of the series.