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
“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?
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)?
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.
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.
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.”