Thursday, August 30, 2012

Comfort: What It Is, What It Is Not

2 Corinthians 1:3-4 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 receive from God.

It has been almost thirty years now, but I still vividly remember that Wednesday night prayer service.  Asked to voice the closing prayer, I bowed my head . . . and I realized I could not pray. The weight of my personal sadness had piled up so high around me I felt as if I were drowning.  I couldn’t speak.  I could barely breathe.  The longer I stood like that, the lonelier and more powerless I felt.

Then I felt a hand close around my arm, just above the elbow.  No word was spoken, but the person standing next to me moved close and continued to hold my arm like that, gently squeezing.  Somehow I muttered a brief prayer.  I continued to stand with my head down and my eyes squeezed shut as people filed out.  The person who had gripped my arm stayed with me, never wavering in their silent support. 

The word “comfort,” repeated four times in this brief scripture passage cited above, means precisely to “stand beside us, calling (out for) us,” spiritually, emotionally, and even physically if need be.  It is the same word that Jesus used when he promised us that we would receive the Holy Spirit, the comforter, or “one who stands beside, calling” out for us- that is, advocating for and comforting us.

This seemingly ordinary incident illustrates some important lessons about what effective comfort is and is not, that I think all of us who sincerely believe we have been called to comfort others must take to heart.

Comfort Is Not About What You Say, It is About Showing Up

How many times have you heard someone say, "I wanted to go be with her, but I just did not know what to say?"  When students bring me process reports on their pastoral encounters in which a patient or family member expresses gratitude for their ministry, I always make it my business to lead the student to carefully examine just what it is that people are grateful for.  It is never about words of wisdom- literally never.  It is invariably about the fact that the chaplain or other care giver showed up and let the patient or family member express what they were going through.

Comfort Is Not About Solving A Problem, It is About Giving Our Undivided Attention to the Person with the Problem

In the language of helping theory, this is sometimes referred to as creating a "holding environment" for someone who has been overwhelmed by suffering. I like that term.  I believe it implies our willingness to open the door to our lives and to invite people to come into a relationship that is strong enough to withstand the onslaught of suffering the other is experiencing.  

However, I want to be sure to make a distinction between being with someone in a genuinely helpful way and simply being present. I have come to dislike the the over-used term, "the ministry of presence," because people too often use that term to justify unhelpful ways of being with people.  

If you go to someone who is hurting, then make a commitment to give them your undivided attention.  Don't sit in the corner and watch the spectacle. Don't spend your time on the cell phone talking to other people.  Do not talk nonstop about the weather or the traffic. Don't take Aunt Emma out in the hall to get the scoop on things while the person who is suffering gets to watch you avoid them.  Attend to the person who is suffering.  When you can't think of something to say, hold their hand and breathe, and pray silently as you do.

Comfort is Not About You Or Me, It Is About God

In 1855 Joseph Scriven wrote a hymn to comfort his mother who was an ocean away from him in Ireland.  In the first stanza, he penned the following, 

"O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear / All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer."

I like to think that Scriven was writing from first hand experience, as a person who had discovered what can happen when God is invited into our circumstances, especially when those circumstances are painful.  

Isn't it curious that so often when we encounter suffering our first attempt is to banish pain with the power of our presence, our words or even our personal charm?  

We can try so hard to speak FOR God that we forget to invite God to shine into desperate circumstances.  No wonder so many people feel as though God has abandoned them when those of us who say we have faith do not acknowledge God's living presence and power in the moment.

This does not always mean that public prayer is the thing to do.  We may be required to give prayerful attention to suffering people.  We may need to stand quietly by someone's side, calling silently to God as advocates for them because they are not yet ready to do so.  

That night when a stranger quietly stood by my side and prayed silently for me as I struggled, became a living lesson to me of what St. Paul meant when he wrote II Corinthians 2:3,4. 

Thanks for stopping by.  May God comfort you today. May God open your heart to the One sent to stand with you.  And may the Comforter bless you to be a companion to someone who needs you to stand by them.

Who stood by you when you needed them?  What did their care for you teach you about standing with others?  Leave a comment below.

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  1. You are welcome. Thanks for providing "holding space" for these words.

  2. Powerful word, but even more the applications...


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