Updated: Mar 9, 2022
a message by the Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the theme: “Love That Heals”
Coral Isles Church – U.C.C.
February 20, 2022
1 O LORD, how long will you forget me? Forever? How long will you look the other way? 2 How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart every day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand? 3 Turn and answer me, O LORD my God! Restore the light to my eyes, or I will die. 4 Don't let my enemies gloat, saying, "We have defeated him!" Don't let them rejoice at my downfall. 5 But I trust in your unfailing love. I will rejoice because you have rescued me. 6 I will sing to the LORD because he has been so good to me.
I don’t know, this love stuff is hard. Hard to do, hard to talk about. Oh, it’s easy at first. We’ve all “fallen in love,” in our lives whether we are a child that “falls in” love with a new puppy, a teen who falls in love with a boy or girl in our school, an adult who gets a new boat or a new car or some other toy. Love! But that puppy messes on the carpet and mom makes you clean it up. That heartthrob in High School turns out to be an abusive jerk. That boat breaks down out in the middle of the Gulfstream! Where’s love then?
Loving someone when they make a mistake is easy. Loving someone when they begin to show a pattern of destructive behavior becomes something other than easy. Loving someone when they are good, when they are well, when they are what we want them to be is easy. Otherwise? Not so much. Unfailing love? What is that? A Disney fantasy?
Want to talk “spiritually?” Ok. Tell me about God’s “unfailing love” when the Dr. says “It’s cancer.” Or worse when the Dr. says it about the one you love. That’s even worse. Tell me about God’s “unfailing love” when your child or grandchild is dealing with anxiety, depression and cutting her beautiful arms because that’s the only way she can let out the pain. Where is God when she is hurting so? Where is God when Hurricane Irma destroys your house, sinks that boat, and all the photos that were memories of love you had in your retirement house were soaked beyond salvation and now you have to move, and you can’t afford to move?
This is why it is hard to sell the notion of God’s Unfailing love! So many people can testify to these things and more; to mental health issues that defy diagnosis or treatment or understanding. I have set myself an impossible task. Talk about unfailing love? Let’s start with what the Psalm says. The Psalm writer knows pain and suffering in life:
1 O LORD, how long will you forget me? Forever?
How long will you look the other way?
2 How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul,
with sorrow in my heart every day?
How long will my enemy have the upper hand?
Anybody saying “amen” to that cry? Anybody felt that kind of hurt? How long, O Lord? How long? How can I promise you “unfailing love” when God’s love seems more often a Disney fantasy than a sure-bet reality?
This question is important as we consider becoming a “WISE” church. What are we saying about us, about God’s love, and about our welcome. Part of that process is to write a covenant. You did this when you became “Open and Affirming.” This covenant will express our hope to be able to be a sign of God’s love to those who struggle with mental health issues. That means both those of us here now, and those who may come among us. That means learning how to be a loving presence when someone is going through a difficult time. I have no doubt we want to do this, we all strive to do this to the best of our ability now. The Open and Affirming statement was more for those coming here who might have been hurt and rejected by other churches for their identity. In the same way this WISE covenant will be an effort to say to ourselves but more importantly to those who are among us or may come among us that we want to be welcoming, inclusive, supportive, and engaged when they are struggling with a mental health issue. In the meantime it is critical to think deeply about the limits of our love before we just declare we have an “unfailing love,” or even to declare God’s “unfailing love.”
Loving others isn’t a popular notion these days. Theologian Walter Brueggemann, wrote about the problem with loving “others”. [“Not Numbed Inside,” day1.org, Nov 27, 2020]. He said the real reason “mainline” churches, like the UCC, have experienced a dramatic loss of members and public influence, is partly due to the success of the message that life is about “self-actualization, self-securing, and self-satisfaction.” Others don’t matter, only one’s self. This preoccupation makes “love of neighbor,” which is the foundational ethic of the Christian life completely unimportant. We can see this in the wild claims of freedom from any mandate or expectation to do anything for the “public good.”
Brueggemann points out that “It’s not that mainline churches have been depleted because they have become ‘too liberal.’ In fact our denomination has a long history of progressive concern for public issues of justice. Indeed that passion for public issues of justice was largely shared by clergy and lay people... until it wasn’t!
Here’s why that matters. One of the radical claims we make about God is that God is compassionate, merciful, and who loves us with a love that won’t quit – an unfailing love. Now there has always been a strong movement that has emphasized a very different god [ little g ], one that is angry, judgmental, punishing, and frankly scary. And frankly those who read it that way often would really rather not, “love their neighbor as themselves.” That requires compassion – to suffer with someone – and they would rather not, they think that won’t “actualize” their self, I guess.
When we read the Bible carefully we see the truth in Walter Brueggemann says: “The word “com-passion” (also rendered as “mercy” and “pity”) figures prominently in the Old Testament characterization of God.
In Exodus 34:6-7 it declares, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…”
The Bible reaffirms this compassion of God, this unfailing love repeatedly:
Joel 2: 13 says, “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing
The Psalms are full of this compassion – this willingness to “suffer with” us:
Psalm 86:15 reads, “But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness
Psalm 145: 8-9 tells us, “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.
I could spend hours quoting the ways the Bible affirms God’s compassion – to be with us in our suffering. But let me point out that compassion – suffering with – does not mean “miraculously ending our suffering.” If we are waiting for God to do that we may never feel God’s loving presence even though it is there. Let me leave no doubt. Jesus also embodied the compassion of God for the suffering. He was “moved” by the sight of lepers and touched them, he lifted up a child “possessed” – the Biblical way of understanding and naming physical/ psychological issues.
All this “Bible talk” is fine. What about your experience of it, and mine? What about that one who won’t hear us talk to them of God’s love? Joan Stott voices this well. In the prayer I prayed earlier I quoted her prayer. Let me repeat it in part:
“Holy God, we are deeply troubled by all these experiences. When we call on you to hear our prayers, it is as if you are deaf or far away from us, and so we have become anxious about [your] apparent neglect of the world [You] created in such love with which to bless us all. Trustworthy God, come to us now, to reassure us of your enduring love, and of your unfailing mercy towards people in need of your protection.” That’s an honest prayer if one has ever struggled with any issue, particularly a mental health issue and felt like no one was with you in it.
Her prayer goes on to say, “We come here to express our faith in worship. We come here hoping our faith is well placed. We come and we hear the words of faithful souls who speak to us across the ages. They speak of [Your] goodness, mercy and love. The stories of the Scripture remind us that again and again [You] worked in and through the lives of broken, hurting people to bless and to serve and to live lives of meaning and joy.”
Finally, Joan Stott adds this in her prayer to remind us: “In faith and hope, we come together to worship and thank you; to honour and praise your Holy Name; and to sing and celebrate the enduring and patient love of God, who knows all our fears and our despair, and who answers our fear-filled questions in ways we can understand. Together, we will rejoice and sing about the goodness and mercy of our Faithful God, and we look in anticipation for new signs of encouragement to help us in our worship, witness, and service for you.”
To me too many of us come here and we hide our hurts and our brokenness and our struggles, but we shouldn’t, and we shouldn’t have to. This is not a place for the perfect. It is a checkpoint for the imperfect. As we learn to love each other’s imperfections we learn to accept and love ourselves. I heard a wise person say once, the thing we hate in others, the thing that bothers us most in our kids, or our friends, are the things we hate most about ourselves. Instead of hating these things, let us seek to understand, let us ask God’s presence to open our hearts to others, let us ask God to give us compassion to be with others in times of pain and difficulty.
Unfailing love isn’t about instant results. It isn’t about miraculous change. It is about a constant presence of mercy, love and compassion. The Bible most often uses the word “steadfast” for this. It means God is here for the long haul. Jesus even seemed to experience what we experience when he cried out in despair on the cross – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And the resurrection is the sign that God was there, is here, and will be with us until the transformation of the world is complete. Steadfast. Unfailing. It is this unfailing love that will change our lives, the world, and the future. AMEN.
 John Compton, The End of Empathy: Why White Protestants Stopped Loving Their Neighbors.  © 2014 Joan Stott – ‘The Timeless Psalms’ RCL Psalms Year A. Used with permission.