Sunday, November 20, 2011

All Comfort

 from Drawings by Van Gogh
By expenditure of hope,
Intelligence, and work,
You think you have it fixed.
It is unfixed by rule.
Within the darkness, all
Is being changed, and you
Also will be changed.
. . .
Is given that is not
Taken, and nothing taken
That was not first a gift.
I had thought to write this week on thanksgiving. I had been mulling over a great quote about the subversive nature of gratitude, and had ideas about where that might lead.

But it’s been a difficult few weeks. An email from a friend asking for prayer for painful dynamics in a over-burdened family. A facebook post, then email, from another friend trying to serve a beleaguered community, beleaguered herself by endless health concerns and the resultant financial weight. A call about someone I love, back in the hospital, battling unrelenting mental illness.

Weave through that the endless headlines about child sex abuse in State College. At every new revelation, I grieve again. After my years of doing all I could to safeguard the young people in my care, I find myself sick at heart at the thought of all those men protecting their jobs, their reputations, their programs, at the expense of children who most needed their protection.

Add alarm and grief at the fracking debacle unfolding in the hills and valleys of our beautiful state. As participant in organizations concerned with the health of our water and air, I receive emails with updates, too many updates. A fracking blow-out in one town. More dead cows in another. A pond bubbling with methane. More children with unexplained, scary symptoms. And I find myself talking with people affected. Moms afraid for their families. Farmers worried their safe, organic crops are no longer safe, but not sure what to do.

Ten days ago I came across a passage I had never really seen. I’m sure I’d read it, but it hadn’t registered. 2 Corinthians 1:3-7: 
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort. 
It’s kind of an extreme passage – with nine uses of the word comfort in one short paragraph.

That passage came to mind again when the phone rang last Sunday with word of another grief. A young man we knew through involvement with our urban partner church died of a brain aneurysm early Sunday morning. He was a senior in college, a hard-working kid determined to do his best. No drugs, no alcohol, no foul play. And yet he’s dead, and a whole community is grieving.

What does comfort have to say in light of a loss like that?

What does it mean that God is “God of all comfort”?

It was part of my job, for over a decade, to say the right thing in times of trouble, to kids, families, young adult leaders. But sometimes there is no right thing to say. Sometimes the best we can do is sit in the dark of difficulty and despair, grieving, with those who are grieving. And wondering, with those who are wondering: Why? How can this be right?

In fact, it’s not right. There’s nothing  “right” about our young friend's death. It’s an outrage.  As the abuse case at State College is an outrage. As fracking, as it’s currently done, is an outrage.

Yet, here’s the puzzling thing: none of this is a surprise to God. The lightening strike that shattered our friend Emily, three years ago, wasn’t a surprise to God.

We live in a battered, broken world. Death’s grip is strong, and pain is inescapable.

We work hard to build our defenses: If I do the right thing. If I live the right way. If I pray the right prayers. If I avoid all risk.

Or, as Wendell Berry says in his Sabbath poem, “By expenditure of hope, Intelligence, and work, You think you have it fixed.  It is unfixed by rule.”

Christ in Gethsemane, Michael D. O'brien, Canada
Sometimes I wish I knew Greek. Some words for suffering in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians suggest persecution for the Christian faith. Others suggest any kind of anguish, distress or trouble.

In other places, even later in this same chapter, Paul suggests some of those kinds of distress: lashings, beatings, stoning, shipwreck, imprisonment, hunger, betrayal by coworkers and friends.

And yet he dares to say God is able to comfort in the midst of all suffering, that in fact, as the suffering grows, the comfort grows. As suffering “abounds,” comfort overflows to others.

Again – what’s this word “comfort”? It brings to mind “comfortable” – which has little to do with the kind of grief and suffering Paul is describing. It’s not “comfortable” to experience loss, illness, injustice. To speak of “comfort” in the face of great loss feels a little simplistic, maybe even insulting. 

Some words are sadly flattened in translation, and “comfort” is definitely one of those.

Parakaleo (the verb form) carries all of this:
to call to one's side, call for, summon
to address, speak to in exhortation, entreaty, comfort, instruction
to beg, entreat, beseech
to strive to appease by entreaty
to console, to encourage and strengthen by consolation, to comfort

Paraklesis (the noun) suggests exhortation, admonition, encouragement, consolation, comfort, solace; persuasive discourse, stirring address: instructive, admonitory, conciliatory, powerful hortatory discourse.

Even with all the defining words, we don’t quite get there. “Exhortation” and "hortatory discourse" sound kind of preachy. The real meaning is much deeper, more sympathetic. We don’t have a word for it. "Parakleo" suggests something that speaks to the deepest part of us, with insight and encouragement that goes far past words.

Maybe a better way to explain these words would be to say they’re drawn from the same root as "Paraklete", a word used to describe the Holy Spirit: advocate, helper, encourager, consoler.

Why struggle to understand Greek words from a very old book? What help are they in the face of today’s sorrows?

Sometimes words fail. And our interpretations fail. But there’s something Paul is saying that he’s seen to be true: in our sorrow, as we open our hearts to God and to others, something happens that goes beyond words. God’s kindness, mercy, comfort, presence, fill us in ways we can’t explain. And as we wait with others in their grief, as we speak with others of their sorrow, that same comfort can move through us, overflow from us, filling others, bringing real comfort to us all.

“Within the darkness,” Berry says, “all Is being changed, and you / Also will be changed.”

Christ and Adam, Michael D. O'brien, Canada
In the dark places of grief, our simple answers are painfully stripped away. Our childish belief that we can control things melts.

And in the dark places of grief, if we call out to God, we can come to know him in a way far beyond words. We can feel his presence pressing in close – love, warmth, understanding, mercy, hope, peace. Those words are only hints of what transpires in those places of sorrow as God comes near and our defenses melt.

And in that place of darkness we are reshaped, into people who can grieve with others, hear the pain of others, call on God on behalf of others.

Sometimes, not always, we can become agents of that deep comfort God offers: his warmth can flow through our own burning hands. His love can be heard in our own words of blessing.

I don’t have space to tell of the times I’ve felt God’s presence in my own broken places, but I have. Sometimes through others – strangers, friends, family – calling to God on my behalf. Sometimes all alone, knees on hard floor, tears flowing, grace surrounding me with courage, hope, even joy.

And I don’t have space to tell of the times I’ve seen God move in others: melting icy places of bitterness. Lifting heavy loads of guilt. Speaking words of kindness and love past walls of doubt, anger, grief. 
Is given that is not
Taken, and nothing taken
That was not first a gift.
So I do come, despite the sadness of the day, to a place of thanksgiving. These lives that circle mine, these fragile, precious lives, these lives are gifts. Gifts given, taken. Thank you for these gifts.

The land I love and grieve for – mountains, valleys, rivers, streams. Beautiful, enduring, groaning. Gifts given. Thank you for these gifts.

And the deeper gift: the knowledge, beyond words, reason, questions, grief, that God is near. A gift I would give to others. The comfort from the God of all comfort. That, too, is a gift. Thank you.