Author Archives: Brian Crofts

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The ‘suffering-with-us’ God

Category : Reflections

Holladay UCC  8th October 2017

Sermon: The ‘suffering-with-us’ God

Texts: Psalm 13: 1-3; James 1:2-3; Romans 8: 22-29

 

Introduction

“Why are you frightened and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” These are the words of Jesus to the disciples as they gathered in the Upper Room after the resurrection, not understanding what had happened to them (Lk24:38). We come here today in the aftermath of some of the most terrible tragedies of recent times: (and these besides all those in many other parts of the world): three massively destructive hurricanes, Harvey, Irma and Maria, wrecking devastation in Houston and other parts of Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, and now Nate in the South; three equally horrendous earthquakes in Mexico, (473 deaths) and now, one week ago, the heartrending violent loss of life and limb in the Las Vegas shooting. We are no strangers to suffering and death; even young people.

The universal predicament

I think we could agree that probably every one of us has experienced some form of suffering of body, mind or spirit, or been close to those who have experienced suffering or even death; some folk it seems, more than others. And then there are those little deaths which happen all the time – deaths that chip away at our hearts and minds and rob us of life and joy. Teens and children have these experiences through those who tease, shun, ignore or exclude them, talking behind their backs. And the parents of children who are bullied and hurt in this way feel their children’s pain intensely. There are even seniors in old-age or retirement homes who gossip or criticize, eating away at their neighbour’s joy and gratitude for life. As people have spoken to me over the years, some of their most vivid painful memories have however often stemmed from childhood abuse, humiliations, rejections or ridicule from friends, siblings, teachers, even parents, and the feelings of loneliness and isolation that they are left with. And then there are the ongoing trials and pain that some carry, of challenging or difficult relationships, trying work situations, unfulfilled hopes and longings, disempowering addictions. Even the burdens of our own sense of shame. In my own experience I’ve had two people in their nineties tearfully tell me they needed to unburden themselves for adultery committed in their twenties! They both felt the weight of a painful secret carried deep in their hearts that they had betrayed their partners! And they needed to be set free from an anguish that had plagued them their whole lives. So, where are we all this morning?

The Scriptures

James states very boldly: “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy” ((James 1:2), because your testing will produce endurance. “Pure joy”? Really? Is that our first reaction to trials? If you are anything like me that is not how I spontaneously respond. Often our response is one of disbelief, doubt, grief, sorrow, questioning “why”, “why me?”, or even a feeling of abandonment if circumstances seem to be getting worse. When we face the consequences of an accident, a bad diagnosis, the loss of home and livelihood, or the death of loved ones we very often fall into that default position. Where is this so-called powerful, loving God?  I’m very glad for the sheer honesty of expression of the biblical texts. As we walk together this morning maybe we can allow ourselves to ask this question. Can God’s healing be found in the face of suffering? If we allow ourselves to engage with these writings, we begin to see the scope and range of their many authors. They are just like us. They wrestle and struggle, doubt and believe, question and object, shout and cry out at a God they long to engage. They sense the presence of the hovering Spirit, yet also plunge into the depths of despair. “Where are you God when I need you the most?” Or as our psalmist today expresses: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” (Ps 13: 1-2a) The Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann talks about the biblical texts being layered and seemingly conflicted, reflecting the very depth of the complexity of our daily lives. One moment the biblical authors are plunged into sadness, or even despair at what they see around them.  The next they are inspired with faith and hope.  Maybe; could this be why the 23rd Psalm is so popular at funerals – “even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they will comfort me.” (v4)?

Our vulnerability

One thing is certain, we are all very vulnerable in the presence of real suffering or death. When we lost one of our babies who was born very prematurely and only lived for 24hrs, and a colleague minister remarked that “it was probably for the best” I wanted to blurt out to him that that was not a sensitive or comforting thing to say! Those were the days before cell phones and quick photographs. I never held Nicholas John as he was rushed off to an incubator, and we have no photograph of him. But I want to share with you and assure you, that God’s comfort and consolation does eventually come, sometimes unexpectedly, even if it takes a long time. In July 2004, 23 years later, our first grandchild was born, at 29 and a half weeks gestation, at the exact same hospital, after our daughter-in-law went into labour on a flight between N.Zealand and Cape Town, SA. Through the trauma of the next several weeks, we as grandparents, along with our son and daughter-in-law, were encouraged to participate in what is called ‘kangaroo care’, holding the baby skin to skin. As my husband and I spent some time each afternoon holding Josh, tubes and all, skin to skin, so God’s love seemed to complete the healing that our young parenting lives had previously not allowed. Josh is now a healthy 13 yr old.

Groaning in the spirit                     

You see, I’ve come to understand that we don’t need to strive, but simply allow God to love us and heal us, so that we in turn may become “wounded healers” with others (as Henri Nouwen calls us). Just a few chapters before our passage in Romans 8, Paul assures us that “hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5)

On 25 February we had an unexpected group Skype call with Ruth and Jono and our scattered family. We knew Ruth had been struggling with a very painful hip and limp. She saw more than one physical therapist to try to diagnose the cause. But we had no inkling that the results of an MRI would reveal a massive tumour. I just remember the utter distress in her words: “It’s big mom, it’s big!” At that stage there was no diagnosis, but by the next morning we were booking my ticket. One can never get inside someone else’s head and heart, but I know she and Jono and the girls spent those next days crying a lot. And I just remember going into a spare room at home the next morning and weeping; crying out to God, to myself: “This is the wrong way around. I’m the one this should be happening to. Ruth’s too young!” She was then 39. Whether it is the C-word, or any other disease, diagnosis, accident or loss, it is often desolation and a spiral of despondency of one sort or another that we experience! Hardly “nothing but pure joy!” How does one pray in such a situation? Ruth, in her times of doubt and fear for the future, has found much consolation and strength in the Serenity Prayer: “God give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

The great comfort in this amazing passage in Romans 8 ( vs 26-27) is that we are assured that we don’t even need to summon up courage or strength or anything else. There are times in our lives when we just don’t know how to pray. What consolation to know that the Spirit interprets our very thoughts and feelings with deep groanings. We sigh and groan, waiting to be made whole, our hearts to be healed. For myself, I know that I have done a lot of “sighing and groaning” in these last months. And the one who helps us in our weakness is the Spirit of the risen Christ. Do you remember how Jesus sensed the desperate touch of the woman who had been suffering for twelve years with constant haemorraghing? He not only turned to heal her physically,with such sensitivity,but by doing so, restored her to a community whose religious taboos had made her suffer from being ostracized as ‘unclean’. This is the same Jesus who shows us in the gospels, time and time again, the way of compassion and empathy, and who promises that the Spirit, our helper, will always be with us to comfort and restore us.

Our experience

This has certainly been true for us. Amid our tears , our reasonings, Ruth, Jono and the girls and we as a family have experienced some of the most beautiful moments of true empathy, kindness and compassion, in so many ways: through their neighbours who sent  a surprise parcel around for the girls, and arranged for cleaners to come bi-weekly to clean the house. And when in fact they came, the lady who owns the cleaning business insisted that they wanted to do the job as a gift! Our family and friends (Zoe included) arranged a shave-a-thon to show their support for Ruth’s impending hair loss, and made enquiries about the Sunflower foundation to become stem-cell donors; family and friends have made special visits, some from far away, and stayed to help. Ruth has had parcels and messages from friends and total strangers alike, from as far away as India, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, and of course S.Africa! She has had the most amazing medical team at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, that we can only conclude was God’s timing – their being right here in this time of need. There have been other “timing” aspects of Ruth’s experience that have also touched us deeply. One day after receiving some results that were not as good as we had hoped, she and I went up to the cafeteria on the top floor of the Huntsman so that Ruth could compose herself. When I attempted to pay for our drinks the woman at the check-out said that the man in front of us had already paid! We were just overwhelmed by the timing of that little act of kindness. And “overwhelmed” is the word we would also use for the amazing love, prayers and acts of practical concern in the form of so many meals, visits, a big clean up before her first transplant, outings for the girls, beautiful prayer shawls for Ruth and me, etc etc etc from this wonderful community of God’s people. We are just so so grateful and recognize that the Spirit of God is among you. So much so that Ruth has been able to refer to this time as “the gift of cancer.” We also randomly met a man when we were sitting in the car outside the grocery store. Ruth commented on his beautiful chocolate Labrador and he turned back to her and asked: “Are you on treatment?” When she said “yes” he told us a bit of his story and recovery. But what stood out was the open vulnerability of this stranger and his comment at the end: ”I now no longer fear dying. I fear not living.”

So, what about all of us?

I’m beginning to sense that the very understandable reason we struggle to find peace sometimes in the midst of our very real pain and suffering, stems from two things: our understanding of who God is, and our own preparedness to be vulnerable at such critical times in our lives, even having to ask for help. If our lived experience leads us to believe that God is absent, or far away, not caring too much about us, or the world, we’ll feel cut off and alone.  Theologians sometimes are called to try to explain and make sense of why there is suffering and evil in the world if God is supposedly good, all-knowing and powerful. (But this Theodicy question is a subject for another time). I want to suggest for now that we try to see in the Cross of Jesus, the central symbol of our faith, a God who has not absconded, but who suffers with us. Just maybe that can help us to call upon the “very present help” (Ps 46) of the Spirit. Jurgen Moltmann in his book The Crucified God helped me to see that the whole Trinity was deeply affected by the desolation, separation and sense of abandonment of that moment, from the inside, as if reflecting the pain of a loving parent. And so, Moltmann concludes, there is no situation of suffering where God will not identify or enter, because those hands still carry the scars. There is a wonderful Bluegrass song: (I love Bluegrass music!) “By the marks where the nails have been”. There is one line – “You will know my savior when you come to him, by the marks where the nails have been.” A friend of mine said to me a long time ago that she had found one of the best ways to get to know someone is by their scars – their physical ones, their emotional ones and their spiritual ones. It’s so often my scars that speak of the hard experiences of my life. And so, if we allow ourselves to be open, to share with those we trust, revealing even our scars, God can use us in our weakness and vulnerability as a channel for our own healing and that of another. So even 90-yr-olds need never feel abandoned and forgotten!

Our common humanity in suffering

Our experience as a family has been just how compassionate and kind people are. We are “wired for kindness” as some recent Scandanavian neuroscience research has shown (TEDtalk Katri Saarikivi). Human beings somehow find their common humanity in suffering. We want to help each other. We have seen this in some of the tragedies that have taken place just recently (our friend Steven’s experience of people’s kindness and generosity  in Houston). Even where the authorities have failed, fellow citizens have helped one another; after the hurricane devastations and in last week’s tragic shooting, even to the extent of becoming human shields!  We trust that it will not stop there. Our prayers, our sympathy and immediate rescue and help are a stepping stone for seeing where systems, and even laws, need to change.

Our hope

The picture in Romans 8: 22-27 is one where the whole creation is groaning, as if in labour pains, Paul says; the evolving earth heaving and groaning from within. Remember those words of Jesus that I quoted right at the beginning? “Why are you frightened and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” The fact is that we are often frightened and doubting at those times of extreme stress. But it is in just such times that the “Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” (v 26b). This is the God who suffers with us.

Let us be still and meditate on these words.    In the words of an old hymn of George Matheson:

“O joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain;
That morn shall tearless be.”

Eleanor Gaunt


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Friendship Manor, 50 Years of Dignity

Category : Reflections

Good Morning once again.

It’s been busy around here these past few weeks and I don’t think we’ve been explicit in our current worship theme of Missions and Ministries of HUCC that we’ll continue for a couple more weeks.  

Beginning with Pastor Fred’s message on aprons not bibs about a month ago, followed by Linda Hilton’s message on Crossroads Urban Center, Rally Sunday and Rev. Shesh Tipton’s Labor Day message last week, we have tried to illustrate to you the importance of your church, HUCC,  in the never-ending march toward a more just world for all.  Christ repeatedly asks that of us and we are the United Church of Christ.

The bible tells us over and over again that we can and must change our behavior to help bring God’s realm here on earth.  As we all know, that’s easier said than done, but never impossible.  My message today is about another mission of HUCC that started many years ago and remains critically important today…allowing our elderly to retire in dignity.

Holladay UCC was founded back during a period when people were inspired to make some big changes.  From the late 1950’s through the 1970s, from fights for racial justice to women’s equality to LGBTQ rights, HUCC has been there every step of the way.  

One aspect of what we called our Great Society back then was taking better care of our senior citizens.  Although social security had been around since the 1930s, it wasn’t until 1965 that Medicare came about to provide some measure of security that surgeries or hospitalizations would not force seniors out of their homes and into bankruptcy.

Although social security and medicare were a godsend for seniors, some elderly still had a difficult time finding clean, safe and affordable housing.  Corporate America required a mobile workforce who could relocate anywhere.  Gone were the days when a family might stay in one town, able to take care of mom and dad down the street.  Mind you many of these seniors were WWI veterans and their spouses.  What could be done to help these seniors who had done so much in the first 25 years of the 20th century?

Well here in SLC, Friendship Manor was part of the answer.  The possibility of building a non-profit affordable housing community for seniors of any economic means was radical for 1961, and was the idea of two Westminster College professors who were members of the First Unitarian Church.   Because of the size and money involved to make Friendship Manor a reality, First Unitarian quickly realized this had to be an interfaith effort with other progressive congregations.  

After what had to be a lot of outreach and planning, three other congregations had joined in the effort: First Congregational Church, Congregation Kol Ami and the Intermountain Association of the United Church of Christ.  By early 1963, HUCC was part of the Board of Trustees for the Friendship Manor Corporation.  I believe that makes Friendship Manor the second oldest ministry of this church, after the preschool.  

Hard work by all four congregations continued, and in 1965 a loan of nearly $3.5M was obtained from the Federal Housing Authority to begin construction on property already owned by the First Unitarian Church at the corner of 13th East and 5th South.  By the way, that $3.5M loan in 1965 dollars would be nearly $27M today.

After a few bumps here and there, a new high-rise apartment building opened in Salt Lake City almost 50 years ago on December 10, 1967.  This 14 story building contained 178 apartments, ranging from studios to 2 bedroom, two bath units. Half the units were subsidized by the then new federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.  Subsidized apartments meant that seniors with only social security income could afford to live with dignity in a modern, safe and clean apartment.  This was truly a Christmas blessing come true for seniors in December of 1967 and that blessing continues to this day.  

When it opened, Friendship Manor was one of only a handful of non-profit independent living senior housing buildings in the entire country.  To this day, there still aren’t many equivalents to Friendship Manor because Friendship Manor was designed to be a community just like the founding congregations.  

Within Friendship Manor there is a convenience store, a hair salon, dining room for breakfast and lunch, a large lounge for many resident activities, a TV/movie room, an exercise room and gym, a computer lounge, a library, wifi throughout the building and a central garden and courtyard.  There are two service coordinators whose job is to assist residents in finding medical, transportation and other services, with the goal of keeping residents healthy and independent.

Friendship Manor’s original mission remains true today:  providing those 62 or older, or of any age with a disability, with affordable, decent, safe and sanitary housing, provision of nutritious and varied meals and diversified cultural and social activities.  To my knowledge, Friendship Manor is the only senior housing community in Utah that explicitly welcomes our LGBTQ seniors.

For 50 years, Friendship Manor has allowed seniors of any background and economic means to live in dignity.  Dignity is defined as:  the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect; a sense of pride in oneself; self-respect.  As a compassionate Christian, I think our senior citizens are worthy of that and I’m so happy that our denomination and this church is a part of Friendship Manor.

A number of HUCC congregants have called Friendship Manor home over the years.  Lydia Whipp was a long time resident until her recent passing.  At Lydia’s memorial service, I heard she loved to play poker with her FM friends, but wasn’t that good at it.   That funny, but loving statement from another resident illustrates the community aspect of Friendship Manor that is so important for our seniors.

Members of HUCC continue on the Board of Friendship Manor today.  I am the current Board Chair and am happy to be joined by Pat Gamble-Hovery, Jean Boyack and Keith Gurnsey.  Together with members of the other 3 congregations, our 17 person board makes sure that Friendship Manor remains true to its mission and that any project or change made is only done if it ultimately benefits the residents.  HUCC members who have served on the Board over the past several years include Nancy Stallings, David Turner, Joe Baker, Molly Turner and Russ Gorringe.   

If you or someone you know is looking for a place for an older relative or someone with a disability, I recommend Friendship Manor.  Just like this church,  it’s the community formed by the residents and staff that truly make Friendship Manor different.  If you want to find out more, call and take a tour.   In addition to your bulletin insert, I have more Friendship Manor info in the Narthex.  We also have a 50th Anniversary cake from Friendship Manor in MacMullen Hall to enjoy with your coffee.

Although our long-time missions…FM, our preschool, Crossroads Urban Center and others are all doing well, our work is never done.  The current social and political climate prove that.  We may have thought that we were finished, that the battles for social and environmental justice were finally won, America had changed for the better and we could start building on those achievements.  Now we realize it’s two steps forward and one step back and we are once again  called to action as we were in the 1950s and 60s.   

Seniors live much longer now than in 1967, but often with the need for assisted living.  Did you know there is no federal program supporting non-profit assisted living facilities?  States and other groups are left to try things on their own using Medicaid funds.  As a result more than 80% of assisted living facilities in the US are for-profit and there are no non-profit facilities in Utah.  Our current system moves too many poor seniors from places like FM directly to nursing homes where they soon die.  Let’s keep working to change injustices like that.  I’m proud to be with you in that effort.  AMEN!

Roger Lamoni


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