Sunday, October 22, 2017: Words of Comfort

Prelude: Somebody Else’s Troubles – Steve Goodman

Welcome: To learn more about being human – Erika A. Hewitt

Welcome to this morning, this day, and this opportunity to be together in community — which is a time of joy, comfort, and sometimes challenges. This Unitarian Universalist congregation is a place where we come to learn more about being human. We’re not here because we’ve figured out life’s questions, or because we think we’ve got it right, or even because we think we know what the questions are.

We come here to learn more about being in relationship together: how to listen, how to forgive, how to be vulnerable, and how to create trust and compassion in one another.

Let us move into worship, willing to be authentic with each other, honest within ourselves, and opening to connection in all its forms.

Come, let us worship together.

Chalice lighting: Thirsty – Gregory Pelley

And so we gather, from the ebb and flow of our lives
Thirsty for connection to ourselves
Thirsty for connection to others
Thirsty for connection to the larger life.

As we light this chalice
May all who gather here be filled:
Filled with joy and hope
Filled with compassion and love

Here, may we be filled
So that we may pour ourselves out
into the world.

Song: Gathered Here (3 times)
Please rise in body or in spirit and join in singing Gathered Here, three times.

Gathered here in the mystery of this hour.
Gathered here in one strong body.
Gathered here in the struggle and the power.
Spirit draw near.

Principles of Unitarian Universalism
Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote seven Principles, which we hold as strong values and moral guides:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Song: There But for Fortune – Phil Ochs

Story for All: Job
From: The Doubleday Illustrated Children’s Bible, by Sandol Stoddard

Offering and Response (Unison)

Offertory: I Ain’t Heard You Play No Blues — Steve Goodman

Response (Unison)

For the gifts which we have received — and the gifts which we, ourselves, are — may we be truly grateful. Yet more than that, may we be committed to using these gifts to make a difference in the world: to increase love and justice; to decrease hatred and oppression; to expand beloved community; to share, and to keep sharing, as long as ever we can. Amen.

Reading: from: “Leaf by Niggle”, J.R.R. Tolkien

Niggle was a painter. Not a very successful one, partly because he had many other things to do. Most of these things he thought were a nuisance; but he did them fairly well, when he could not get out of them: which (in his opinion) was far too often. The laws in his country were rather strict. There were other hindrances, too. For one thing, he was sometimes just idle, and did nothing at all. For another, he was kind-hearted, in a way. You know the sort of kind heart: it made him uncomfortable more often than it made him do anything; and even when he did anything it did not prevent him from grumbling, losing his temper, and swearing (mostly to himself). All the same, it did land him in a good many odd jobs for his neighbour, Mr. Parish, a man with a lame leg. Occasionally he even helped other people from further off, if they came and asked him to.

Lesson: Words of Comfort
Robert Helfer

The announcement I sent out for this service said: “When the world ends, when it seems to crash in with all its weight leaving heartbreak and loss in its train, whether for one individual or for many, those of us who are not directly affected may be left struggling to find some way to provide comfort or support, something to say or do that might help. What we say might sound hollow; what we do might be inadequate. We might even make the situation worse. Is this inevitable?”

Perhaps this introduction is too extreme?

It seems that right now we’re in the midst of a rash of tragedy. Hurricanes have devastated the Gulf shores and the Caribbean – Puerto Rico especially, already suffering dire poverty has been essentially destroyed. Fires in the western parts of the US have destroyed thousands of acres, rendered thousands of people homeless, and exacerbated long-standing problems with water, living spaces, and agriculture. Here in West Virginia … well, you’ve heard about all that.

If we look beyond our national borders, earthquakes have devastated parts of Mexico, floods have overwhelmed parts of Asia, wars continue to flare in the Middle East and Africa, and now may threaten parts of Europe. The plight of refugees, who flee but cannot find shelter, is difficult to imagine for those of us who have never had to leave everything behind.

Such problems are huge, often too huge for us even to comprehend what has happened, much less what needs to be done to help. These are things that require major efforts, organization, massive sums of money and resources. And, to be honest, these are topics that are far too large and far beyond me right now.

Instead I’d like to try to address the smaller tragedies, the personal events, losses, difficulties that individuals around us experience.

Every day the world ends for someone. Our lives are fragile, subject to sudden changes. A job is lost, so livelihood is suddenly gone; a doctor diagnoses a dread disease, leaving a person’s life in turmoil; a loved one dies and the loss wracks our emotions; a romantic relationship ends without warning — or perhaps after too much warning. The list goes on and on. Perhaps because these are individual tragedies their variety is endless. For the individuals involved, these are not “small tragedies”. They are devastation and despair.

But what comforts do we give, what comforts can we give, to those who despair?

Our world has always been torn among different understandings of suffering, and thus among different ways to comfort.

If you have a taste for Medieval lives of saints you’re familiar with the notion that suffering is a glowing coal through which God tempers the steel of the believer’s heart. The sores and pains the saint endures are evidence of God’s love, purging the soul of whatever small residual sin there might be and thus shortening the saint’s stay in Purgatory after death. And knowledge that this is true, and that the soul will arrive in Paradise that much more quickly, is sufficient comfort. The saint endures.

But we don’t think about suffering quite that way anymore.

Somewhat more modern versions of this thinking make suffering necessary to develop character – “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Or perhaps it just makes you a better runner, as my old high school Phys Ed coach seemed to think – “no pain, no gain”. But whether tempering the person or tempering the body, consolation is pretty much the same thing. You console the sufferer by talking about the goal.

But I’ve wandered a bit and must try to return to the point.

Job’s friends’ “comforts” reveal a very different understanding of suffering. For them, suffering is punishment for sin, just as contentment and happiness are rewards for a blameless life. That Job was successful and blessed in every way proved that he was favored by God because of his piety and spotless life. In contrast, the sudden and drastic transformation of his life was clear proof that he had sinned, sinned deeply. So his friends comforted him by berating him for the sins they imagined for him, explaining that these sins offended God.

This notion of suffering as punishment is very much alive today, although the crime might not be so much “sin” as “error” or “flawed character”. In the wake of this year’s hurricanes Houston has been criticized for inappropriate over construction, and Puerto Rico has been criticized for being impoverished. In some people’s eyes, their suffering is an appropriate punishment.

On a more individual level, people living in poverty tend to be seen in two groups. Those whose poverty results from circumstance – disabilities, age, jobs lost through no fault of their own — are the “deserving poor”, whose suffering is lamented. Those whose poverty is self-inflicted – drug users and “lazy bums” – are the “undeserving poor”, whose suffering is a just reward for their lack of mettle. Exactly where the “lazy bum” line lies is often unclear.

The notion of “deserving poor” introduces another interpretation of the causes of suffering – “no fault of their own”. This is Job’s plea, “I have done nothing wrong”, a plea which his friends vehemently reject, but which the first part of the story shows was clearly the case. God wagered with Satan, and poor Job, whose life was spotless, served only as a chip.

But while leaving aside any thoughts of a capricious God, perhaps it would be kindest to assume that all suffering is of this last kind – “no fault of their own” – even if we think we can perceive a fault. Or an error in judgment at least. If we are to offer comfort, saying, as Calvin’s mother does, “if you wouldn’t [do whatever it is] things like this wouldn’t happen”, provides little comfort.

There’s no problem so awful that you can’t add some guilt to it and make it even worse”.

I like Calvin’s assessment, and I sympathize with him on this point, although I’m about 99% certain that I’ve been guilty of that very error from time to time. Perhaps I can justify myself here by claiming that I was trying to instill proper judgment in my children – I doubt that at the time they would have agreed.

But I’ve wandered again. We’re trying to talk about providing comfort.

I’ll be honest here. I’m not the world’s most competent comforter. I’m awkward, always listening in advance to what I’m trying to say and hearing those words as “just words”, hollow, insufficient, empty, even stupid. My first impulse is to try to “do something” to fix the situation – a peculiarly masculine inclination I’m told, although I know women who do the same – even though it’s so often clear that there’s no “something” that can be done, or that if the “something” is done it will be much too late. And so I am likely to stand, awkwardly mumbling, trying to find the words that will help, sounding increasingly insincere. I rarely find the wise, healing words, or find them too late for them to be helpful. I don’t often make the situation better, and too often I make it worse. Was Niggle’s “help”, which Tolkien suggests he only grudgingly offered, ever in the form of words of comfort? If so, it was probably executed more-or-less like my words of comfort.

It may be because of that that I have chosen this topic; and it may also be because of that that I am faltering, trying to find words.

The Internet is a source of wonders. Today I can watch or read of inspiring acts of kindness, or devastating acts of cruelty. And I can, perhaps, see the effects of blame and comfort. And I can even find a bit of instruction from the “Art of Manliness”.

“How to Comfort Someone Who’s Sad/Crying” ( outlines a helpful approach, broken down into a small number of guidelines under these headings.

  • “Witness” their feelings.
  • Affirm that their feelings make sense.
  • Show the person you understand their feelings, and facilitate the deepening of his or her own understanding of them.
  • Don’t minimize their pain or try to cheer them up.
  • Offer physical affection if appropriate.
  • Suggest action steps.
  • Affirm your support and commitment.

I’m not going to try to describe each of these pieces here – I’m not sure I’ve actually gotten it all down yet anyway, and I don’t want to simply plagiarize the page (you can visit the page yourself if you are interested). But I do see that the main point is to understand (and show that you understand) the person’s feelings, not to judge, and to allow the person the space either to grieve or to complain as he or she chooses.

Job, after his “comforters” have had their say, pleads for real comfort, not blame. All he asks is for them to listen to him:

Listen to me, do but listen,
and let that be the comfort you offer me.
Bear with me while I have my say;
when I have finished, you may mock.

(Job 21:2-3, New English Bible)

Perhaps that alone is sufficient? No, probably not. Believing is probably necessary, too.

Music: Lean on Me – Bill Withers

Joys and Sorrows
(Please save announcements and comments until the end of the service)

By custom in our community, each person may chose to tie a ribbon to our “Tree of Life” to represent that person’s joy or sorrow, whether it was spoken or left unspoken. An additional ribbon is also tied to the Tree each Sunday to represent all unspoken joys and sorrows.

If you woke this morning with a sorrow so heavy that you need the help of this community to carry it;
or if you woke with a joy so great that it simply must be shared, now is the time for you to speak.
For the joys and sorrows that haven’t been spoken, but which remain in the silent sanctuaries of our hearts.
These joys and griefs, spoken and unspoken, weave us together in the fabric of community.

Silent Meditation
Let us join our hearts and minds in silent meditation

Song: Go Now In Peace (3 times)
Please rise in body or in spirit and join in singing Go Now in Peace, three times.

Go now in peace, go now in peace
May our love and care surround you
Everywhere, everywhere, you may go

Closing: With faith in the creative powers of life – Linda Bates

With faith in the creative powers of life,
With hope for the future of life in this world,
With love for all others who share this life with us,
Let us go forward together in peace.
Our meeting has ended; let our service begin.

The chalice is now extinguished.
Go now in peace.

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