What “Comfort” Really Means

Watch YouTube video – Discussion of Angel Flight


“My joy is gone, grief is upon me,

my heart is sick.

Hark, the cry of my poor people

from far and wide in the land:

“Is the LORD not in Zion?

Is her King not in her?”

(“Why have they provoked me to anger with their images,

with their foreign idols?”)

“The harvest is past, the summer is ended,

and we are not saved.”

For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt,

I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.

Is there no balm in Gilead?

Is there no physician there?

Why then has the health of my poor people

not been restored?

O that my head were a spring of water,

and my eyes a fountain of tears,

so that I might weep day and night

for the slain of my poor people!”

– Jeremiah 8:19-9:

Living in 650 B.C.E, the prophet Jeremiah was not one to understate.  Frederick Buechener says:

“There was nothing in need of denunciation that Jeremiah didn’t denounce. He denounced the king and the clergy.  … He denounced the rich for exploiting the poor, and the poor for deserving no better…..He told people that if they thought God was impressed with the mumbo-jumbo that went on in their Temple, they ought to have their heads examined….What became of him is not known but the tradition is that his own people finally got so exasperated with him that they stoned him to death.”

(Frederick Buechener, Beyond Words, p. 179).

In  today’s lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures, Jeremiah is at it again:

“My joy is gone, grief is upon me,

my heart is sick…

“Is the LORD not in Zion?

Is there no balm in Gilead?

Is there no physician there?

O that my head were a spring of water,

and my eyes a fountain of tears,

so that I might weep day and night

for the slain of my poor people!”

Buried in this tragic soliloquy, however, are these words which are right on the mark:

“The harvest is past, the summer is ended,

and we are not saved.”

Which is where we are today in many ways, collectively, and perhaps individually.

Our country and world continue to bleed despair; jobs have gone away and many are not coming back; homes are being lost; war and terrorism are omni-present; the popular culture continues its descent into the pit of violent vampires and Internet porn.

”The harvest is past, the summer is ended. and we are not saved.”

We expect things of summer, and sometimes, they don’t happen.  In our own lives, we may go into fall with issues still unresolved, hearts rent or mending too slowly, spirits seared and sorely in need of comfort.

Of course, there is also the beauty of autumn, the excitement of the academic year, the energy flowing at St John’s, the hope that will not die.

How does God answer our cries of anguish that are as present today as they were at the time of Jeremiah?  How do we access the comfort God promises us again and again in Scripture? 

Today, the word “comfort” usually means to offer relief, solace, restfulness, even coziness.  A cup of hot chocolate on a cold morning.  A familiar piece of glorious music.  A deep breath.  A quiet hour.  A warm puppy.

But the original meaning of the word “comfort” is from the old French and means “to strengthen.”  When we are comforted, we are not only more relaxed, we are stronger.

In fact, the Holy Spirit, is also known as the Comforter, and as  “the Spirit of Truth.”

I suggest to you today that God comforts us through showing us the truth, and giving us the strength that comes from experiencing that truth.  In fact, our Eucharistic prayer warns against “coming to the Table for solace only, and not for strength.”

When we are in a truly frightening situation, most of us say, “Oh just tell me the truth and get it over with.  The worst is this not knowing.”

Seeking truth demands maturity.  I used to have a quotation on my desk from British writer Herbert Spencer that warned against “condemnation before investigation.”

Years ago, I was at a high school football game with my friend Sam.  It was a beautiful fall night with a salmon-colored sunset, clear, brisk October air, and the particular kind of excitement that only high school events can generate.

As the game between Highland and Harding progressed, I noticed that whenever the team from Highland was in a huddle, this woman would run out there and stand in the middle of it.  She was about thirty years old, of average height, and had on jeans and a sweater. No uniform, so she wasn’t a player.

Astounded and confused, I said to Sam, “Does Highland have a female football coach?  Or is she the coach’s wife of something? Why does she get to be out there?”

“No, Barb,” Sam said, “she’s not serving cookies in the middle of the field while they’re planning a play.”

Now I’m desperate and worried that some bit of feminist history is being made and I don’t get it.

Finally, Sam explains to me that two kids on Highland’s varsity team are deaf, and whenever the deaf players are in the huddle so is the mystery lady, using sign language to covey to them what is being said.  She would also sign on the sidelines for the coach whenever these players were called over to talk with him.

This truth led me to believe I was witnessing something special indeed, a truth about how far we’ve come.  Knowing the whole story – avoiding “condemnation before investigation” can provide a strengthening comfort that helps us believe in each other and in the future.

Comfort is often found with our closest friends. These are the people who have been through things with us. Who make us feel safe.

But there’s more to it than that. The comfort we feel may be because they know the whole truth about us and still accept us.   I love what George Eliot (actually, the British writer Mariann Evans who in the 1800’s had to conceal the truth she was female by using a male name to get published): “Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person, having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring them all out, just as they are, chaff and grain together, certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and with a breath of kindness blow the rest away.”

Comfort with a good friend comes not only from feeling safe, but from knowing that they know what is really true about us and what is just – us being us again –as we are wont to do. I think God does this for us, too.

Comfort often comes from the relief of knowing that we are not in control.  The universe has its secrets and patterns that are so intricate and finely-tuned, they are breathtaking.  Last week’s paper contained a story about the annual migration of songbirds:

“A small feathered being, weighing less than 2 ounces may fly 3,000 miles or more in spring and fall, able to navigate with such precision that it may land in the very same tree it left six months earlier.” (Mpls. Star-Tribune, Aug. 25, 2010).

There can be comfort in awe….

And a final example that ties comfort to seeking truth and gaining strength.

In 1991, then President George Bush mandated that pictures could not be taken of the coffins of fallen soldiers arriving home from Iraq.  Many objected, saying that the greatest cost of the war – precious human lives—was being hidden from the public.  Others said it was necessary to protect the soldier’s dignity.

In February of 2005, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by a University of Delaware journalism professor. the Pentagon released 360 pictures of American soldiers in and returning from Iraq, alive and dead.

I only recently learned that the coffins of fallen soldiers are flown from Iraq to Dover Air base in Delaware on what are called “Angel Flights,” piloted by National Guard volunteers.  A singer called Radney Foster wrote a song about these pilots and the connection they feel with the cargo they carry:

“All I ever wanted to do was fly

Leave this world and live in the sky

I fly the plane called the Angel Flight

Come on brother, you’re with me tonight.

The cockpit is quiet an the stars are bright

Feels kind of like church in here tonight

And I fly that plane called the Angel Flight

Got a hero on board with us tonight.

Between heaven and earth

You’re never alone,

On the Angel Flight, come on brother

I’m taking you home.”

God gives us comfort and strength through social progress, friendships, songbirds and angels.  And we will know the truth, and the truth will make us free.

Amen.

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