Comfort, My People
“Comfort, Comfort, O my people!” God announces to the Israelites through the prophet Isaiah.
“The Lord is my shepherd…your rod and staff comfort me,” the psalmist prays to God.
Comfort is a common theme through out the scriptures. We hear the cries for comfort to God.
We hear promises of comfort by God. We hear thanksgiving for comfort received from God.
But what is this comfort we are crying for? What does it mean to be comforted by God? And perhaps more importantly for Christ’s Church in these changing and uncertain times, what does it mean to be comfortable in God?
There are actually a couple of different ways we can understand comfort and what it means to be comfortable. Many of us, when we come to worship or engage in church activities, say we want to be in a place or community that is comfortable. And often what we mean by that is the definition that is found in many dictionaries: a state of ease, well-being and freedom from pain or constraint; a feeling of relief or encouragement; a satisfying or enjoyable experience. In other words, to be comfortable for many is to seek a life without pain, suffering, grief, fear, difficulty, challenge. To be safe and secure from all potential harm. To find that warm, fuzzy cuddling-under-a-quilt-with-a-teddy-bear-on-a-chilly-evening, never a care in the world feeling.
Now perhaps some of the more privileged among us have found such moments of this “comfy-ness” in life, as I call it. But for most of us, that type of comfort is rarely experienced, whether in church or not. For most of us, to be comfortable like that, in a life without difficulty or pain or challenge, is a pipe-dream.
But what if that understanding of comfort is not the full story? What if being comfortable has little to do with a life of ease or security from all external challenges? What if, instead, comfort is about being fortified with the strength and the resilience to live within life’s messiness and not be overcome by it?
In fact, that’s what the word “comfort” meant in its original language of Latin. (Thanks, Pastor Paul Hanson, for this reminder!) In Latin, “com” means “with” and “fort” means “strong.” Think fortify, fortress, even force. So comfort means to be with strength or to fill oneself or another with fortification.
At a WELCA event several years ago, Pastor Angela T. !Khabeb (currently writing for Living Lutheran) offered this challenging statement to all who would hear: “Christianity is not comfortable. If you are comfortable in Jesus, you are doing it wrong.” When our understanding of comfort is a warm, fuzzy comfy-ness, then Pr. !Khabeb is absolutely correct. While we may have hope and trust in a future realm of God without suffering, right now, here and today, such understanding of comfort is not helpful and is not, I think, what scripture means by the comfort God provides to us.
Instead, the comfort God gives is fortitude – the strength, sustenance, and reinforcement in the promises of faith, hope, and love – that empowers us to withstand and even move forward through the challenges and sufferings of humans experience in this world. God’s comfort doesn’t take our pain away; God’s comfort holds us up (like on eagle’s wings) as we move through the tough stuff of life. God’s comfort gives us the courage and resilience to “keep on keeping on,” perhaps even into a transformed place of growth and new life.
The life of a follower of Christ in this world filled with suffering and death is hardly a comfy one. Both Jesus and Paul make this quite clear when we read their words carefully. (Luke 9:58; Romans 5:1-5) In fact, being a part of the body of Christ should never be comfy. We are always called to face the suffering of the world head on and even dive into it to help fortify, strengthen, and support others in their pain. Perhaps we might even work to ease the worst of the injustice and help bring about a life of basic well-being for those most in need.
But in order for us to do that as Christ’s followers, we too must be comforted and fortified in our hope, faith and love. And we do this in part by hearing the Word of new life given to us in Christ again and again, welcoming the resurrection gospel into our whole selves and letting the Spirit of love transform us into fortified people with Easter always in our eyes.
“Comfort, Comfort my people,” says our God. Be strengthened and encouraged to face the many challenges ahead. For we know through faith that we are indeed revived every day through our baptism by the fortitude of Christ and the empowerment of the Spirit.
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Living among the dead
Bishop Laurie Jungling
Elected June 1, 2019, Laurie is the 5th Bishop of the Montana Synod