A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
August 28, 2016
University Baptist Church
This is the last Sunday for the Grab Bag sermon series. Peter Justin pulled the following topic out of the bag last Sunday: “I would like to hear a sermon about how we help someone who is suffering. Is prayer enough?” Thanks Peter.
That’s a tough question. The response is going to be different for different people. Situational ethics surround the question about how to help someone who is suffering without projecting your own needs onto that person.
A few generations ago, The Beatles wailed, “Help. I need somebody not just anybody. Help.”
Ann Lamott says there are three basic prayers. Help, Thanks and Wow. This sermon is about the first of these archetypal prayers. Help. We say it when we are suffering. We wail it when we don’t feel like we can go on. We pray it when we are at our wit’s end. It comes as a cry in the night that no one but God may hear. It comes in the deepest silences of desperation. It comes when we have exhausted all other options. It happens when we come to the realization that our life has become unmanageable and only a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity. It comes when we feel overwhelmed. But it comes. Help!
In today’s scripture, sorry old Job describes a bit of his suffering: “I loathe my life”. He has been afflicted in the worst ways. He has lost his health, his job, his family. And when he wails to God, he finds little comfort. But wail he does. Over and over he speaks of how awful his life is. And he condemns God who is righteous and just for letting him be this way. He taunts God to intervene: “Your hands fashioned and made me; and now you turn and destroy me.” He says that if I’m righteous, I should not suffer. It’s part of the reward. But we know too well that disease can come to even the most righteous while the wicked live long lives. We know that bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. Isn’t God supposed to change it all if we pray hard enough? Isn’t God supposed to intervene in our sorry lives and make us whole? Isn’t God supposed to shower blessings down on his or her own? Or are we like Job, left to wail in the night with no one to hear us?
Job was suffering and had friends who tried to “help” him. But they were not very helpful. His companions try to explain his suffering, but it just seems to make his suffering worse. They were appealing to his mind when his heart was broken.
The best thing that they could do was actually described at the end of the second chapter of Job. His friends heard of his suffering and came from afar, but did not say anything for an entire week, for his suffering was very great. They came, sat Shiva with him, but said nothing. Sometimes our presence speaks when words fail.
I remember going to a funeral home when a 22 year old child of a parishioner from my first church in Hartford had been killed in a bar fight. The prodigal was laid out there and the family saw him for the first time and they wept and wailed and cried out to God, to Tony, to each other. The funeral home people were upset by this embodied wailing and wanted me to stop it. Thinking a religious professional would do the right thing. We went up front and read a scripture from the Psalms, probably 22 or 23. And the room became silent. The sobs were more subdued and they obediently sat in reverent reflection. But I often think that I did something wrong that day. I think the wailing was honest. It was heartfelt and it was raw. It resisted decorum. The death of a 22 year old ought to make people outraged.
I remember going to the family home after the funeral. That’s when I encountered the well-meaning Christian uncle who kept telling his brokenhearted sister that it was part of God’s plan. That God needed another angel. That God never gives us more than we can handle. I saw her getting silent and squirming. I think it might have made the uncle feel better, but I’m not sure it made his sister feel any better. Sometimes, we just need to be there when someone suffers. To provide some food. To remind people to eat. To go on as normally as we can when the world has been turned upside down. To remind people that they are not alone. It is not a time to provide answers. It’s a time to welcome questions and try to find together the meaning in all of this.
Does God want us to suffer? The story of Job seems to say that we are pawns in God’s game. But I think the point of Job is in the questions that he asks and the way that his friends never give him satisfactory answers. Life is about calling even deeply held beliefs into question and then finding out what really holds firm. For Job, the dynamic tension is where he found meaning.
Henry David Thoreau in his book Walden famously said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.” Suffering can suck the marrow out of us. It can also give us clarity about what makes us suffer. Suffering takes a lot of energy. It’s a part of us. It can define some of us. But it need not be all of us.
My sister posted the following quote on Facebook this morning: “You’re so hard on yourself. Take a moment. Sit back. Marvel at your life: at the grief that softened you, the heartache that widened you, at the suffering that strengthened you. Despite everything, you still grow. Be proud of this.”
When we see someone suffer, often we want to help them. It comes from our Christian compassion and empathy. But we ought not to assume that the help we offer may be accepted. In some cases, the help is not wanted. In other cases, the sufferer doesn’t think they need help. Or their help hasn’t reached the point of suffering yet. And we don’t know how to help.
There’s a tragic scene full of pathos at the end of “A River Runs Through It”. Tom Skerrit plays a preacher whose children have gotten away from him. One to school and traditional success, and the other to a life of sin. The latter is a charmer. He has everything going for him. He can gather people the way his preacher father wishes he could. He had that kind of charisma and potential. This prodigal son is eventually killed—the result of his lifestyle that we could all see coming. The preacher then speaks at his son’s funeral the following words: “Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don't know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them - we can love completely without complete understanding.”
Let that one sit a while.
Of course, there are ways for us to relieve another’s suffering. Especially if we are the cause of that suffering. We can stop the harmful behavior. This is what working for justice is all about. Cornel West says that justice is what love looks like in public. When we love, se seek to stop the suffering of others. And when we do that, then we are moving closer to the way God would have us interact with the world. That’s what we do when we seek to elect our leaders. Ask yourself, will they help us alleviate suffering? And if so, whose suffering? Are tax cuts for the rich the same suffering as the suffering of inadequate health or child care? As Wendell Berry said in his famous Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front: “So long as women do not go cheap for power, please women more than men. Ask yourself: Will this satisfy a woman satisfied to bear a child? Will this disturb the sleep of a woman near to giving birth?”
Do what is right by the most people. Alleviate suffering. That is the easier part. The harder part is to attend to the suffering that does not have a clear cause but does have a very obvious effect. It’s the hurt that people hold onto. It’s the silent sufferers who put on a happy face but underneath have a trauma that lingers that we can’t quite figure out. Sure prayer helps, as does therapy, pharmaceuticals, and even activity, like hiking. But there are some holes that are always going to be there. They may not always be dominant, but they are there nonetheless. How do you help someone there?
That’s a harder task. The question on the paper was “Is prayer enough?” Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Sometimes you don’t know if someone is suffering. So, we pray that if there is suffering in the world, let us find a way to address it. Maybe we pray because there seems like nothing else can be done. One time someone came to my office and unloaded a boatload of hurt. I asked if the person wanted to pray and she said no. I then said, well, I will pray for you. And I have kept praying for her even to this day. Prayer may never be enough, but it’s a good start.
There’s a Venezuelan protest song that says, “No no basta rezar hacen falta muchas cosas para conseguire la paz” It means it’s not enough to pray when there is so much more to do to secure a world of peace. We need to resist the temptation to make prayer the beginning and end of our response to a crisis. Prayer, when done right, leads us to become more compassionate and even a bit more wise simply because we are no longer only self-focused but we are other-focused.
What has been helpful to you when you are suffering? What has been your balm in Gilead making the wounded whole?
Know that good people can do the wrong thing out of the right motivation.
Old Job was not remedied by his objections, but he was heard. And that seems to be the point.
So how do we help people who are suffering? We hear them. We try to relieve the suffering. We try to make a safe space where there will be no suffering. If you have your foot on someone’s neck and they cry out, the response is not to pray about how they are in such a bad spot. The response is to remove your foot and then pray for forgiveness.
Help, we pray. Relieve my suffering. Relieve the suffering of my sister or brother. Relieve the suffering of the caregiver. If I have been a stumbling block, if I have hurt someone, forgive me. If I have said words that were meant to hurt, forgive me. If I have not offered the best of myself for another, forgive me and show me the way to be. Help. Show me the way to be the compassionate one.
If there has been any positive learning that has come from Kim’s cancer diagnosis, it’s this: We are surrounded by good, kind, wise, prayerful and helpful people. Everyone has been so good. You have offered wisdom, support, prayer, and even offered space when you think we’ve needed it. The suffering right now is not physical; it’s more emotional, existential, spiritual. But we are strengthened by the prayers and good wishes that people are sending our way. We know it comes from a deep compassion that is a reflection of our very faith. And we know we will get through it. You have already helped us get our feet back on the ground.
Help. That’s what we come to church for. That’s what this community is for. It’s to hear the cries of help and to be the response of God. We may not be able to relieve all suffering, but we can address it with faithfulness, with humility and with prayerful compassion. That is a balm that seeks to make the wounded whole. And that is good news.