As I prepare this sermon for you, a sermon that I realize I am not likely to deliver in person, my grandfather is laying in a hospital room, surrounded by family, waiting to die. He has been waiting to die for a long time. Since he was diagnosed with cancer in his 50s, even though he completely recovered from it, he's been focused on his death, ready for it, praying for it. Even making sure he always has sturdy shoes handy, for his literalist understanding of heaven has led him to believe that he's going to have to walk there after he dies.
At age 89 he was institutionalized when dementia made him more and more a danger to himself and his wife. He was not happy, to say the least. In fact, he was enraged, and has remained enraged for most of the last four years. He is a man who wielded much power and did not relinquish it easily. And so, his prayers for death gained a new urgency. And finally, it seems as if his prayers are going to be answered.
I entered seminary before all this happened. And, surprisingly, my grandfather was supportive of my decision to become a minister, given that for most of his life he strongly resisted the ordination of women. Perhaps the early stages of dementia had loosened him up, and he almost enjoyed the novelty. After he was put in the home, I visited him when I could, and he wasted no time in using what he perceived as my direct relationship to God to his advantage.
He said to me, "Krista, tell me something. I sit here, day after day, and I pray to God to take me home. I don't want to be here anymore. Why doesn't he listen? I've been a Christian all my life. Why doesn't he give me this? He has left me to suffer! You're a woman of God. Tell me, why has he turned his back on me?"
My grandfather is not alone in his suffering. Each of us suffers or has suffered in some way. He is also not alone in his search to find meaning for his suffering. We are meaning-making creatures, obsessed with finding order amongst the often chaotic and unpredictable unfolding of our lives. Some people believe that's why we need religion - to put order where we need to find it. To offer us an anchor for those things we struggle with.
WHY DO WE SUFFER?
Every religion has some insight about why we suffer. Buddhism sees suffering as the very nature of life, and our suffering will cease when we detach from this life. When all have done so, we will, collectively, be resumed into Nirvana. During the time of Jesus, many believed that suffering could be inherited from your ancestors. If your ancestors had sinned their sin might come to rest upon you. Christianity offers many answers, some conflicting, about suffering, not surprising given the many contradictions in the Bible. Some Christians see suffering as the consequences of sin. You are being punished for something. My grandfather falls in this camp. Others see the world as evil and suffering as a consequence of simply being in the world. Suffering only ends with death. Other Christians are more optimistic. Suffering is not intrinsic to the world, but one part of it. It is not punishment. Suffering happens for many reasons. And it can have a purpose. As we engage our suffering, we may learn more about ourselves, about how to love, about how to be in relationship with God, how to live well, and with integrity.
Secular society has many insights about suffering, and the one that most readily comes to mind is that suffering is a bad thing and that the proper response is to end it as soon as possible. Banish it from your life. Isolate and eliminate it. We are awash in an ever-ready supply of products that are supposed to make our lives easier, freer from suffering.
Not surprisingly, Unitarian Universalism has no clear answer for suffering. We are a non-creedal religion, meaning that we do not provide simple answers to life's complex questions. But that doesn't mean we don't seek a meaning for suffering. We draw on the religious traditions around us to explain why things happen to us. We place great value on what we can learn about suffering from the secular world. We draw on both the limitations and possibilities of our own life experience to gain insight into questions that leave us hungry for answers, hungry for comfort and solace.
There are many reasons why we suffer. Sometimes we do suffer because of choices we have made. This doesn't mean you are to blame for your suffering, or are being punished for your choices. It doesn't reduce you to a sinner. Nothing you do can separate you from your inherent worth and dignity. You always remain a child of God, worthy of being loved and worthy of loving. As children of God, made in the image of God, we make mistakes, and part of the living in the grace of God, with its unconditional forgiveness and love, is to live with an open mind, to look critically at our choices and their consequences for our lives and to have the courage and humility to forgive ourselves and change course when what we're doing is not working.
Sometimes our suffering has no reason or purpose, no distinct cause. The sudden death of a loved one, an accident, an illness, an unfortunate twist of fate. There is no one to blame. These are the times when it becomes apparent how little control we have, either over the circumstances of our own lives, or others' lives. Acceptance is what is asked for here. Acceptance of what has happened and willingness to enter into the changes that follow. Not an easy thing in a religion and in a society which often tells us that we can be the masters of our own destiny.
Perhaps the most difficult suffering is the suffering that comes to us because of the actions of others, when there actually is someone to blame. What is called for here? Protection of ourselves and our loved ones? Judgment and condemnation? Withdrawal? Forgiveness? Likely we have tried them all. How do you, amidst the anger, the sense of betrayal, the loss of trust, find peace and harmony when your boundaries have been violated?
Each of us here has experienced all three forms of suffering and we come into this religious community carrying the scars. It is not unusual for us to come into community with unhealed scars, and sometimes we act out our woundedness with the people here. This is not unusual. It happens in families. Why would it not happen in religious community, especially given the expectations we may bring here?
A PLACE TO HEAL & TO STAND WITH OTHERS
Many of us come into religious community because we are seeking some place to heal. Somewhere to be with others who can hold us. One of the tasks of religious community is to be able to stand with those who suffer. So for all of us, our place here in relation to suffering is two-fold - we come here to heal, and we come here to stand with those who are in need of healing.
Now what might this look like? Well, let me start by saying what this does not look like.
We as a religious community cannot save anyone from their choices. We cannot solve your problems. We cannot take away your pain. We cannot insulate you from the difficulties that come your way. We cannot and should not tell you that if you do this or believe that, that your suffering will melt away. Were we to try to save everyone from their problems, we would be the most dysfunctional, enabling co-dependent church around and it would leave us and those we serve with nothing. We would be so drained by trying to save everyone, we would not even be able to care for ourselves.
So what can we do? We can as a community and as individuals ask ourselves to stand with those who suffer. And we can, in each of our lives, model how to move through suffering. We can strive to model lives that do not fear suffering, but embrace it and learn from it and grow through it. We can learn how to ask for and receive support in a way that does not enable our own particular pathologies. This is actually much more challenging, and more effective, than trying to save people from their pain. This is about going deep into life, deep into ourselves, deep into places that many of us would much rather avoid.
The richness of your life is not determined by the absence or presence of pain. The richness of your life is determined by what you draw on to move through the pain in your life, and what you draw on when you stand with those who are in pain. If anything, religious community is about providing us with the tools to do this for ourselves and the openness to learn how to stand by those doing the same thing.
For the last several months, the Sustaining Committee, which is responsible for identifying and addressing pastoral needs, has been looking at how we care for each other. This committee wants your help. This committee needs your help so that we can be the community we say we are - a community that supports those who have made this their religious home. In a few moments, we will be taking a Service Offertory. By now, perhaps you've looked at the form and discerned what kind of care you are willing to provide to those in this community who are in need. Some of the needs are simple - a ride to the hospital, a ride to church, sending a card, providing some food. Some of the needs are more complex - a hospital visit, a phone call, a visit following the death of a loved one. Each of us has a way we can stand with those who suffer. (To obtain a copy of the form, contact the committee at Membership@EmersonUUChapel.org.)
As I have written this sermon, my grandfather is still lying in the hospital. We could not save him from his dementia. We could not save him from the rage that overpowered him in his last years. We cannot save him from the death that is approaching. All we can do is stand beside him and keep loving him. At this moment, his sons circle round him and they sing. They are singing the old hymns. They are singing him home. They are standing by him and with him as he nears the end of this part of his journey.
,br > May each of us be anointed with unconditional love as we live out our days, and may we find ways to stay true to ourselves and be open to others. May the spirit of life and the love of God be with you all.