Sunday, August 11, 2013

Faith, hope, love, and suffering (J. Barry Vaughn, Aug. 11, 2013)

Yesterday we buried Robert McLuckie, Carol Mittwede's husband. They were married in this church only 4 months ago. I thought I would interrupt my series on the Lord's Prayer and talk this morning about Robert's death because I know that many of us, including me, were so troubled by his death.


Carol asked us to read 1 Corinthians 13 at Robert's funeral. In St. Paul's great meditation on love, he says, "Faith, hope, and love abide, but the greatest of these is love."


I would like to talk this morning about faith, hope, and love, and how they might help us deal with Robert's death and with the problem of suffering in general.


First, I'd like to talk about faith.


The author of Hebrews writes, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible."


Robert and Carol were married only 4 months ago. Never in my experience has "I do"  given way to "till death do us part" quite so quickly. The whole experience of Robert's illness and death has left some of us wondering about our faith. What kind of "assurance of things hoped for" do we have? Are there any "things not seen" that can help us make sense of this tragedy?


I want you to know this:  It is perfectly all right to doubt. In fact, I would say that doubt is an essential part of faith, because faith is not the same thing as certainty. Certainty leaves no room for faith. Faith means that we know the destination, but it does not mean that we will be able to see every step of the way. Faith means that we believe that God will guide our steps even though it is sometimes so dark that we cannot see the way, and perhaps this is one of those times.


I would like to tell you that God has a plan and that Robert's death was part of that plan. But I don't like the word "plan". It implies that Robert was some kind of chess piece on a cosmic chess board.


I believe there's a sense in which it is true to say that God has a plan.  But I would rather talk about patterns and meaning than plans.


One of the things we know about the world and human life is that we have freedom.


A college friend of mine told me that he lost his faith after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. I can see why he would be troubled by those attacks but not why it would cause him to lose his faith. Actually, I believe his faith had been eroding for a long time.


9/11 was the result of human agents. I don't know why anyone would hold God responsible for the attacks on the towers and the Pentagon, even though the attackers claimed to be acting on behalf of God. My friend, Rabbi Jonathan Miller, called them "theological hoodlums."


On the other hand, I can understand why the existence of so-called acts of God, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and diseases such as AIDS and cancer could shake someone's faith. Why would God create a world in which these things could cause such suffering?


But perhaps God did not just endow human beings with freedom. Perhaps the universe itself has a kind of freedom. Theologian and scientist John Polkinghorne says that God made the world so that the world can make itself. When I consider the way that evolution operates or how stars are born, grow old, and die, I think he must be right. 


So part of the pattern of the universe and of human life is that we are free to make both good and bad choices and perhaps even non-human creation has a degree of freedom. Perhaps an element of randomness is built into the universe.


The arts, especially drama and music, also help me understand how human life and the non-human universe can have both free and pre-determined elements. When a musician plays a piece of music or when an actor plays a part, she is expected to play the notes on the page or read the words that the playwright has written. But she also has to make thousands of decisions about how to do so. Should she play softly or loudly? fast or slow? Should she pause for effect? Should she sit or stand? Walk to the front of the stage or exit stage left?


Jazz may be an even better illustration. A jazz saxophonist has an enormous amount of freedom within a general structure. He is playing "Stars fell on Alabama" in the key of E flat major. But within that structure and confined by those chords, he can go off on the most wonderful - or the most awful - solos. And if you add an electric bass, a piano, and drums, then you multiply the possibilities for both delight and disaster almost infinitely.


And that is where meaning comes in. I believe that if there is no freedom, there is no meaning, or at least there is much less meaning. If there is no suffering, then there is also no sainthood or heroism.


The existence of suffering makes possibility the existence of Mother Teresa. It was her response to human suffering that inspired people in every country and of every faith.


Political persecution and repression called forth the heroic example of Mahatma Gandhi.


It was the existence of racial prejudice and oppression that made possible the heroism of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that inspired generations to work to undo the effects of racial prejudice and the structures that perpetuated it.


It is perfectly OK to be angry at God when bad things happen to good people. But faith gives us the ability to see the hand of God at work in the lives of those who give their lives to the great work of alleviating human suffering - the Mother Teresas, the Gandhis, the Martin Luther Kings.


Faith gives us the power to see the hand of God at work in taking terrible, random events, things that cause great suffering and weaving meaning into them.


Secondly, what role does hope play in our response to suffering?


Go back for a minute to the analogy of music or theatre. What would be the meaning of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony if we omitted the last movement, the great "Ode to Joy"? What would be the meaning of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream if the spell that bewitched the lovers was never undone? A piece of music or a play makes little or no sense if it is interrupted in the middle.


Similarly, suffering will not make sense unless we believe that our story, the human story, has an ending. The Christian faith tells us that God has already written an ending to our story and it is not just a happy ending, it is the happiest of all endings.


Alabama novelist Vicki Covington writes:


...the ultimate reason for depression and suicide is that a person reaches a point where not only is life meaningless but also there is no mystery about that fact; not only have we failed to be the hero of this story, but in fact there is no story.  And it is the task of Christianity to re-establish belief that there’s a story.  Not that the characters won’t have pain, accidents, or calamity; that the story won’t be sad.  Just simply that there is a story. (The Birmingham News, 1/23/94)


We read our children fairy tales that begin, “Once upon a time...” and that end, “...and they lived happily ever after.”  But between the “once upon a time” and the “happily ever after”, anything can happen.  The heroine may be called upon to slay a dragon; she may have to cross tall mountains and ford raging rivers; she may have to rescue the handsome but incompetent prince from the wiles of an evil witch.  She may be injured or even die.  But we know that somehow it will come out all right in the end.


That is the Christian faith.  Our faith is not that life will be pleasant and easy; we do not hold that if you have enough faith you will not experience pain and suffering.  What the Christian faith teaches us is that there is a story and a Storyteller.  The Christian faith proclaims that although there will be suffering and pain in life, it has a purpose.  We believe that the God who was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, is still with us, redeeming our pain and bringing meaning to our suffering.


Finally, what is the role of love in redeeming and giving meaning to suffering?


I believe that each of us has a role to play in redeeming suffering and bringing meaning out of the apparently meaningless.


In other words, when a terrible, apparently meaningless event such as Robert's death happens, it is our responsibility to try to bring meaning out of the apparently meaningless, order out of chaos.


What would that look like? I think it would look something like this.


Part of our job as meaning-givers is to respond constructively. We could throw up our hands, pull the covers over our heads, or we could reach out to the hurt, wounded, and sorrowful. We could help those who are hurt reweave the torn fabric of their lives. It could be something as simple as a word, a touch, a phone call. "I'm here... I care... I am with you."


It could be as simple as preparing a meal, writing a note, making a memorial gift. These are all ways of turning the apparently meaningless into something meaningful, perhaps even into something beautiful.


All of us will have moments when the meaning of our lives is disrupted, perhaps even shattered for a time. But the one thing that helps us put our lives back together is love. So it is a good idea for us to put love into practice before those terrible disruptive events happen.


Several years ago Unitarian minister Fred Small wrote a song that included these lines:


You can be anybody you want to be,
You can love whomever you will
You can travel any country where your heart leads
And know I will love you still
You can live by yourself, you can gather friends around,
You can choose one special one
And the only measure of your words and your deeds
Will be the love you leave behind when you're gone."


"The only measure of your words and your deeds

will be the love you leave behind when you're gone."


Robert left behind a lot of love. I hope that I do, too. I hope that we all do.


So faith, hope, and love abide: The faith that there is meaning, that there is a pattern. The hope that the human story, the story of the universe itself, will have a happy ending. And the love that gives us the opportunity to participate with God in redeeming suffering and bringing order of out of chaos.