Comforting, Coddling and Confusing

When I was ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church, the preacher was the late Bishop Cedric Mills .

Bishop Mills knew a few things about life’s bumps and bruises, having ministered as a black man in a very white church, and, by the time he preached at my ordination, lost his eyesight. (It was an honor to serve as his deacon at the altar.  He’d memorized the Eucharistic prayers in both traditional and contemporary language, and seldom missed a beat. If he did, it was my job to whisper the next word, which was all he needed to resume the prayer in his great, deep voice).

At the ordination, he preached from Isaiah 40:1,

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.

Despite whatever indignities and maladies he’d known, his main point was that Biblical exhortations to comfort God’s people do not mean to coddle them.  The word means to strengthen and encourage them.  The message of comfort in Isaiah’s later chapters is about moving defeated people to get up and rebuild from the rubble.

This morning’s reading in the Roman Catholic Liturgy of the Hours was 2 Corinthians 1:3-5, in many English translations a passage loaded with the word comfort or consolation,

 Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; Who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God.  For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ.  (KJV)

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. (ESV)

The New American Bible (NAB) renders it in language that would please Bishop Mills (my emphasis added),

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and God of all encouragementwho encourages us in our every affliction, so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God. For as Christ’s sufferings overflow to us, so through Christ does our encouragement also overflow.

The Greek word that comes out comfort or encouragement is paraklesis, the same root from which Jesus describes the Holy Spirit in John 14:15-17.  Some English versions of that passage call the Spirit Comforter, but there are others (and plenty of footnotes) pointing out more assertive translations like Helper, Counselor and Advocate.

The word is about coming alongside of another person to help them.  The shades of meaning have to do with the content or character of the help, ranging from coddling to cheerleading.

I have to confess that over almost thirty years my keeping of Bishop Mills’ charge is hit and miss.  I’ve often given in to the heavy pressure to coddle people who really needed a whack from the pastor’s staff.  On the other hand, I’ve watched God do some spectacular things when I’ve been faithful to the Word and encouraged the people to be about His work.

confusedReading the 2 Corinthians passage, I realize that the comfort of which it speaks, even at a coddling level, can only confuse a non-believer.  The charge in the passage it to encourage Christ’s people, to share in His sufferings and know His comfort.  The Isaiah passage in Bishop Mills’ sermon was directed at God’s people, not the pagans all around them.

Take a passage like I Thessalonians 4:13-18, in which Paul addresses concerns about life after death.  It ends with an exhortation to comfort or encourage (parakaleite) one another with the hope of eternal life in Christ.

To a non- believer, this is neurotic behavior.  It is coming up with a coddling myth to take the edge off of the finality of death.

Paul likewise assumes that his message holds value only for the believer, distinguishing Christians from the pagan neighbors who grieve without hope.

When Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit in John 14, he makes clear that the comfort, advocacy, help or counsel of the Spirit is not available to non-believers (my emphasis again),

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.  (ESV)

Reading these various passages and giving prayer and thought to them makes me realize that I need to find a church again – by which I mean a group of people gathered in worship.  I’ve let that slide for a number of reasons, none of which amount to much next to the clarity of God’s Word.  The comfort and encouragement passages are all about Christians living together as disciples.

If you are reading this I would invite your prayers that the divine Counselor guide me to a local gathering of disciples with whom the Lord Jesus would have me bring glory to our heavenly Father.


The Politics of Personal Destruction

The Politics of Personal Destruction refers to gaining advantage over a political rival by impugning his or her… well, his or her anything.  Assumed motives, looks, friends, decades old quotes, model of car driven, college attended; anything can be turned into a critique more effective than engaging in debate of consequential issues and ideas.  Instead of Lincoln and Douglas debating slavery, we might have had the two square off in a Yo Mama joke smack down.

But I think that the personal destruction hastened by our present politics is our own.  Recently released research indicates that our American political identities generate growing dislike for those who disagree with us, to the point of not wanting to have them as friends, live around them or have them marry into our families.

Pew polarization
One graphic from the linked Pew research on political polarization.

A friend posted the following on Facebook:

Setting myself a challenge for today: every time I feel frustrated by political news, I will look for some kind words to say to someone nearby, or some kind act to perform to improve the lives of those around me. I suspect this will be hard, but I want to try.

That’s insightful.  Political news frustrates us into a disposition that is the opposite of kindness.  Kindness must be employed like the antidote to a toxin.

In the Letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul sets forth the personally destructive works of the flesh, several of which are palpable in our current politics,

Now the works of the flesh are evident… enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy…and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21 ESV)

Against these, Paul sets the fruit of the Spirit, gentle on the one hand but a conscious order of execution carried out against one’s works of the flesh,

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Galatians 5:22-24 ESV)

We need to shrink our politics.  I write this not as some theoretical argument for limited government, but as a theological appeal to pull some of us out of self-destrutive behavior.

In contemporary American politics, winning might be the biggest loss of all.

We have to do SOMETHING

Jesus attacked religious leaders – in particular the Pharisees – for multiplying laws and taboos to ensure righteousness but effectively pushing people away from the loving God who was trying to gather them into his kingdom.

American politics have secularized the Pharisaic method.  No matter how good things might be, we amplify the problem and call for a response by the government.

We default to a pseudo-priestly caste to declare and then do something about a metastasizing list of problems.  And there are plenty of aspirants to that priesthood filling publicly funded positions to do something about this, that and the other thing.

Augustus von Prima Porta (20-17 v. Chr.), aus der Villa Livia in Prima Porta, 1863

1 Samuel 8:10-20 is worth reading as we invest more and more power in government:

So Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking for a king from him. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you in that day.”

More terrifying is the peoples’ response, which sounds like it could be right out of a contemporary on-the-street voter interview. “A leader to decide and do it all for us.”

But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.”

It is a sad time as our nation descends into the craving for authoritarian “solutions.” We lament political “gridlock” and bewail the hypocrisies of right and left while we without irony invest politicians with more and more of our daily lives, at greater expense to each of us and all of us.

For those whose fealty is with a king not of this present world, here’s the good news:

“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:37-39 ESV)

But our enslavement to mortal rulers is going to hurt a lot along the way to the eternal kingdom that is to come.

Kids in Church

Those who are faithful in the prayers of the church, such as the Holy Eucharist, Daily Offices, Liturgy of the Hours or any other forms with common prayers and Scripture readings, know all about mental wandering.

It can be the world and its urgencies: “Oh man there’s nothing in the ‘fridge and what will I make them for dinner?”

It can be our own self absorbed flesh asserting itself as we silently critique the music, or judge a reader’s vocal qualities, or resent the person who just plopped down and crowded our pew.

It can be alluring thoughts slipped in by the evil one.

Wait, wasn’t the title about kids?  You know, the brats other people bring and who disturb my “worship experience”?

Joey 4th of July
La la la la I can’t hear you

The world, the flesh and the devil turn us into little kids during the prayers of the church.  We can sit still but our minds are wiggling, scribbling on bulletins, kicking the pews and whining “Are we done yet?”

Nothing to be done for it except to resist it.  As long as we live in the flesh the power of sin will contend with the work of the Spirit.

We need also rely on our more mature and attentive older brother to get us through each service.  Jesus gives the Father undivided love and attention, and does so for us when we are squirming in mind and spirit.

“Our Father,” he says, with and for us, nudging us to join in.

“who art in heaven,” he says, getting us to lift our gaze from the distractions to the glory that welcomes us.

“Hallowed be thy Name,” he says, because we are yet children and do not address our Father by name.  That perfect intimacy will come, but for now we grow toward it as our short, childish attention spans sit through the prayers of the church.

And sometimes become part of them.

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.  (Ephesians 4:11-14, NRSV)

Danse Dysfonctionnel

The two militant world views afflicting the world right now share a fundamental assumption about reality but arrive at diametrically opposed responses to it.

Islam and secularism are assertive, confident movements.  They agree that human beings have no intrinsic purpose or meaning.

Islam believes that God is a pure will with no obligation to humanity. Islam’s dominant theology, ultimately articulated by  Al-Ghazali in the 12th century, preaches that God  destroys and recreates all reality in every moment.  There is no unfolding plan that involves any of us as unique beings; God has no obligation to anybody or anything.

Secularism, stated honestly, believes that we are accidents of nature.  Events have no ultimate coherence and are only what we experience in the moment.

Thus the cosmos holds no love for us. There is nothing we can expect and nothing to restrain us from what our urgent thoughts and feelings dictate in the moment.

More deadly is Islamic and secular functional agreement that there is nothing to bind us together but action against whomever we perceive to be threatening or offensive.  

For Islam, the only real unity is common action against all that is not in submission to the perfect will of Allah (pretty much everything, as God told Hagar about her son Ishmael, He shall be a wild donkey of a man, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen (Genesis 16:12).

For secularism, the only real unity is effort to control or remove those things that threaten the subjective pleasure of the present, which is all we can know and have.

In the case of the Orlando shootings, the Islamic explanation is incomprehensible to most of us as Westerners.  It would be something like, “God made the finger move.  God made the trigger pull.  God made the powder ignite.  God made the bullet spin through the gun’s barrel.  God made the bullet move through the air.  God made the bullet strike X.  God made X’s heart stop. God made X die.” (Repeat except “God makes the bullet strike Y.  God makes but a small nick in Y’s skin.  God lets Y live.)” Etc. etc. etc.

The secular explanation is obvious.  “We are free to do what we want, but some people will react to environmental factors beyond their control and want to do violence that deprives others of pleasure.  So we must remove the means of violence and deprivation, therefore gun control.”

The weird dance is this.  Islam and secularism meet in agreement that the universe holds no ultimate compassion or knowable consequence for humanity (or for anything that exists, for that matter).

But Islam responds with violent spasms of destruction, seeking to knock down vain human creativity that dares to usurp the will of God.  This is why the Taliban throws acid in the face of a girl who goes to school, or why Nigeria’s Islamic terror front bears a name that means “ban Western education,” or why America realized too late that destabilizing Islamic autocracy does not result in democratic “nation building,” but IEDs.

Secularism responds with institutions on steroids.  Build more systems, especially government, to buffer people and their pleasures against an uncaring cosmos.  Much of this is beneficial, as in public policies that eradicate plague-potential diseases.  But eventually the sublime meets the ridiculous, and we are told what we can or can’t think, write or speak.  Secular versions of burdensome old cultic piety emerge: Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch (Colossians 2:21).  Social engineering.  5 Year Plans. Cultural Revolutions.  Reeducation camps.

And so Islam sets off bombs in random places to show that no human endeavor should stand against the pure will that is Allah, while secularism pushes a button, watches the drone launched missile’s on-screen descent into the distant, threatening target, then knocks off at 5 pm to party down at the club.

One other assumption that Islam and secularism share is that Christianity is a blight on the planet.  And they share a common response – both can tell you everything that’s ever been wrong with their common enemy.  They both work hard to rid the world of  Christianity’s nonsensical ideas.

Like Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love (I John 4:8).

Saying the Lord’s Prayer with the Lord

Our Father…

Maybe you’ve heard the quite right harangue about the corporate nature of the Lord’s Prayer.  Even said in private, it assumes our connection to brothers and sisters in Christ.

But might we also open ourselves to awareness that we are praying it with Christ the Lord, and he with us by the Holy Spirit?

Consider the familiar prayer with awareness of the one who taught it to us.

Our Father: The Father we address is Jesus’ Father in heaven.  We pray as brothers and sisters in the church but also as brothers and sisters of Christ, sons and daughters of the heavenly Father.  And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:49-50 ESV)

who art in heaven:  Jesus assumed our mortal nature with its suffering and limits.  The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  He had to go off to find quiet places to pray because the flesh was a hindrance to the perfect intimacy of Father, Son and Spirit enjoyed in heaven.  Jesus knows our struggle to pray through our confusions and distractions to an unseen Father, and prays for and with us.

hallowed be thy name: Not “Praise to you, Zug,” but “Holy is the name that we can’t speak.” It is praise to the God we now see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now … in part; then … fully (1 Corinthians 13:12 ESV).  As Jesus’ brothers and sisters, we can huddle with him as he addresses our Father.  It’s almost cute when you think about it, as we give our earnest baby talk efforts alongside our brother’s perfect prayer.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven: Suffering in the flesh, offering compassion and even tears for our fallen race, Jesus longed for the completion of his earthly ministry.  He knows the awful distance between heaven and earth, and his is the passionate heart awaiting their reunion for eternal joy.  Do our hearts beat with his as we offer this petition?

Give us this day our daily bread: Jesus knows how our flesh multiplies demands, and the demands amplify our prideful desire to “have it all.”  He teaches us to keep a short list of have-to-haves, that we might lift our sight to greater blessings that are already prepared for us as gifts.  Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? (Matthew 6:25 ESV) And he teaches this as one who was famished in the desert and had no place to call home on earth.

and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us: Jesus doesn’t need to offer the petition, because he is without sin.  He gives it to us to pray to help us grow to maturity in the full stature of Christ, with our sins erased by his cross.  He ensures that he will be the measure of our transformation, teaching us to forgive even those who afflict us, as he did from the cross.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: Jesus ends our prayer where he started his earthly ministry, facing the temptations of the evil one.  Having confronted the reality of the tempter, Jesus received the ministrations of angels and went forward to preach his Good News.  As traditional worship ends with a launch into the mission field – Go in peace to love and serve the Lord; Let us go forth in the name of Christ – Jesus brings us in prayer to a perpetual beginning.  We ask the divine help that Jesus received so that we can go and share in the work that Jesus is doing.