MATTHEW 25: 31-45; JOHN 3:16

August 24, 2014 by Raymond Anderson

Last fall I received a call from one of our Deacons at Broad Bay UCC, where we regularly attend on Sunday morning asking if Catherine and or I might be willing to speak to one of three questions: Has God ever seemed to be missing in action, Is there a sermon you never dared to preach, How has your ministry and sense of God shifted since you retired. In chatting with Nancy, our pastor, about this assignment it was her hope, that sharing some of our own struggles as clergy might be a reminder that at one time or another in our lives, ordained or not, most folks have struggled with the big questions that have no easy answers. Unfortunately it was I who took our deacon?s call and Catherine thought it would be a wonderful opportunity for me to share the very human side of Raymond Anderson. And so, as my old preaching professor, Walter Cook was noted as saying ?if it is worth preaching once, hopefully it is worth preached again. And I should also say that given the recent events in southern Maine where a mom and her three children were brutally murdered by her husband, or the horrendous loss of life in the Gaza Strip and throughout the middle East or the death of an unarmed eighteen year oil in Ferguson Mo. the questions I will share are no less relevant than when I was first confronted with them.

Part of the discomfort with taking on this assignment was that it blurs the lines between sermon and personal testimony, for after, all the sermon, as Walter Cook taught us so many years ago in that same preaching class is not supposed to be about me, but about the Good News and yet the very point of this sermon is to share my journey with you as I struggled to find that Good News.

In meditating about what I might share I remembered a situation that occurred while leading a spirituality group at MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta where I was a chaplain for some twenty one years, which broke through my professional venire and made me struggle with questions which up until that moment I had been too afraid to face.

These questions were all about Gods absence. In the past I had dealt with them intellectually and theologically, why is there suffering in the world , why do bad things happen to good people, as an unconscious way a way of avoiding my own deeper struggle with a lack of intimacy with God, with Jesus.

So this is my story:

For many years I ran a spirituality group for our outpatient mental health program. I both loved and was challenged by this group. They challenged me and they kept me honest. There was no pretense with these folks there was no way you could get away with simple answers or trite clich?s. Sadly a common theme over the years for many of the clients was the devastating experience of sexual abuse. And given that this was a spirituality group it was inevitable that the questions of faith would arise, what kind of loving God would let this happen, why didn?t God stop it. Where was God when all this was happening? (When it is still happening! Over time their questions became my questions, I had no answers. Indeed, it wasn?t my practice to give them answers, but rather to give them the space to express their feelings, doubts, anger, despair without judgment, and to explore with them a path in which they might find their own answers, So when I say I had no answers I mean I realized in my heart of hearts that I had no answers for myself.

Their anger, and to a degree, their despair became my anger my despair.

This came to a head one day when a patient who I will call Mary who was on the mental health unit asked to see me. She asked to see me because she was in a great deal of emotional and spiritual pain. On the outside Mary appeared to be a very successful thirty-something middle class professional with a good job, high income etc., etc. But inside, her life was falling apart. The pain she felt deep inside was killing her spirit and she was finding it more and more difficult to cope with her life. Mary had been sexually abused as a child and was full of anger, hurt guilt and shame. She had tried to cope. She had tried to make sense of what had happened to her. She had reached out to God in Prayer and through her church but could find no solace. And so she had asked to speak to the Chaplain. She told me her story, She let me see her resentment and her anger at how her life had been devastated for so long by something she knew was not her fault; something she had no control over. Mary wanted me to tell her why God wasn?t helping her. Why God hadn?t protected her in the first place. As I listened I felt helpless and overwhelmed by questions to which I had no answer. I felt a great sense of sadness for her pain and loss of innocence, trust and faith.

Up until this point it was Mary?s story a story that touched me deeply but did not involve me. But then Mary asked me a question which no one had ever asked me before;? why are you a Christian?? At that point her story became part of me, of my story. I heard her asking, how do you make sense of my pain how does your faith in God make a difference? Perhaps for me the question was, does your faith really make a difference? Like I said in over 20 years in ministry no one had ever asked me that question. Sure, I often was asked why I was a chaplain (often times as a way of changing the subject) But Mary didn?t want to change the subject and she didn?t want any bull she wanted to know if it really made a difference in who I was, how I lived and how I healed.

Finally I said ?I am a Christian because Christ makes God accessible for me. It is in watching what Christ did that I learn best about who God is.? There is a story I read a number of years ago which speaks to my response to Mary?s question. It seems that t there was this little girl who was awakened one evening by a violent Thunderstorm. Terrified by the rain beating against her bedroom window and the loud crack of thunder she cries out ?mommy, mommy where are you!? Quickly her mom comes running into her bedroom and sits on the side of her bed and gives her a big hug. Attempting to use this frightening experience as a teachable moment as well as provide reassurance mom says ?whenever you are frightened you need to remember that God is always with you and God loves you very much.? ?I know that? the little girl says sobbing and indignant, ?but I need someone with skin on!?

I wish that I could say that my presence with Mary was as comforting as that little girl?s mother. I wish it was that easy to take her hurt and pain away. And indeed I fear that my answer fell way short of answering her questions. For really, I had no answer, for her or for myself. And later in sharing this experience with my wife Catherine I realized the depth of anger I felt toward God. I wanted a miracle; I wanted to know why God didn?t do something dramatic, why didn?t God stop her pain and hurt. Indeed why did God let things like this happen. Her story and the tragedies of so many others I had witnessed over the years had finally caught up with me and my faith in God was now terribly shaken. Or in answer to the question posed by Clair; God was missing in action and I found myself in a long season of questioning of soul searching.

But what do you do when you are a hospital chaplain, God is missing in action and you are called upon by patients? family and staff to be the chaplain? Fake it till you make it? Well that was part of my answer. But along with going through the motions I used my head and my heart to get through this very long season of confusion as I attempted to reconnect with God. My head led me back to my earliest beliefs found in the 25th chapter of Mathew, ?what so ever you do to one of the least of these you do unto me?? which had led me into the ministry and into chaplaincy. It was important for me to reclaim my call.

Secondly I had to reclaim another belief that I had claimed many years ago at the First Congregational Church in Boylston Mass. That, ?the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.? It was the humanness of God in Christ that gave me the passion to become parish minister and later a hospital chaplain. In seminary and later in chaplaincy training we called it incarnational theology, God with skin on. That God s love and the mystery of healing and acceptance are available and present through the love and compassion of others.

But as important as theological remembering was, I needed also to open my heart through prayer, share my struggle with trusted friends and practice what I believed and was taught. When I began to listen with ?the ears of my heart” (something I learned from spending time with the Benedictine brothers at the Weston Priory in Vermont). I began once again to experience God through the love of others who accepted me with all my doubts and cynicism and I began to see God at work through the love and compassion shared in places of Christian community. To quote Marcus Borg, ?for me Christianity is home like no other tradition could be?it?s vision and way of life, it?s ?it?s passion for compassion and Justice, the sheer goodness of its most remarkable lives, it?s scripture, worship, language, music, thought, vision and so forth, is home.? And like all families we have are squabbles and disagreements but in the end it is home. It is the place to which I return to share life?s greatest needs and greatest joys.

Well, I certainly continue to feel righteous anger for Mary and over the many other evils others are forced to live with, such as the and victims of domestic violence. I still struggle with questions and doubts. But I truly believe that as long as I stay connected, even when it?s hard, keep the ears of my heart open and let God be God then I will be more accepting of life?s mystery with its many challenges and gifts.