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God of All Comfort

(What follows is a talk I gave at the Church of St John & St Philip in The Hague on 29 July 2007.)

A few years back a hugely popular series of books was written by a man called Jerry Jenkins. It was called the Left Behind series. It was really just one man’s take on how the world might end, and he fictionalized it. I met Jerry several times because we were both writing for the same publishing house then. And he used to make jokes about why was it that everyone was so interested in his Left Behind, and no one cared about his right behind?

A bad joke, I know, but my point is, this tremendously popular series struck a chord, especially in America, where a culture of fear has taken such deep root. Whenever you tap into people’s fears, you can find a huge following. And what was this fear? The fear of abandonment.

That’s what I want to talk about today, the apostles’ fear of abandonment, and our own.

I would like us to put ourselves in the place of the early Church during this passage that was just read (Acts 1:1-11). It’s hard, but imagine a great Teacher. Our Messiah. Our Rabbi, the man we dared to believe and follow. He turned our worlds upside down. You’re not fishing any more. I’m not collecting taxes. We’ve watched the miracles, seen with the blind, touched the lepers, listened to the children’s laughter. Then the soldiers. The crowd. The hatred. The mob violence. The despair. He is gone. We are abandoned. We are alone.

But wait. The women. The running to the tomb. Hope. No way. A road to Emmaus. The conversations. He appears. Again and again. “I am with you always.” The promises.

And now, in the first 11 verses of Acts 1, Jesus appears to the apostles for the last time. He promises, “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” And He leaves. Again.

Left behind. Abandoned. Death. Despair. Doubt. The three d’s set up camp and the apostles flee to an upper room to hide. It is before the arrival of the promised Holy Spirit, before the miracles of sharing, community, love and forgiveness, before Paul’s Road to Damascus, before Peter fulfills his destiny, before John and his rich Revelation.

This is an in-between moment in the history of the Church. A pause. A waiting. A drawn breath. What is next? Who can know?

Hunted by the Pharisees. Probably Luke wrote the book of Acts. The doctor. The healer. The scientist with an eye for detail.

During this pause, with the ministry of Jesus, his death and resurrection behind us, and the Church leading right up to today in front, we wait.

What is the overriding emotion? Abandonment. He left us. But he came back. But He left us again. The Ascension. Abandonment.

The thing about abandonment is, it reverberates through our hearts like echoes that will not cease. The two abandonments become ten thousand. What do I mean? It is the nature of abandonment to recur. Our lives are an ebb and flow, a low tide and high tide of relationships. There is a season for everything. But when first abandoned, the next time it happens, and the time after that, that first time will resurface as the pain only deepens, if not dealt with. So when our parents abandon us, and then a friend is not there for us, we feel like the friend let us down as badly as our parents did. When a friend dies and leaves us behind, and a lover abandons us, we feel a pain as sharp as when our friend stopped living. When our children move out, when a grandparent dies, when anyone at all we love leaves us, all the many abandonments of our past rear their ugly collective heads and the pain is all over us again.

So why did I cry so hard that last Sunday when Michael blessed us? And why did I feel like someone had kicked me in the gut when Rosie blessed us for the last time a week ago? Why do I hear myself saying to people, this is the downside of this church? The comings and goings, the saying goodbyes? Why do I make jokes about the part of the church we sit in now that Erik is no longer warden, links achter, the left behind part? It’s because of the abandonment. When this week Anastasia and I helped pack up Rosie’s kitchen and then we had to say goodbye, I recognized the pain in Rosie’s face—this has been even harder for her than for us—I realized at that moment. But the pain was still so real. Why is saying goodbye so awful here? Especially here?

We live in a Michael-less church. A Rosie-less Hague. My mind knows this is what happens. We’re cosmopolitan, we are a community of time-zone travelers, we go back and forth between Peru and Abu Dhabi and Caracas. Some of us move on every 3 years, some every 6 years. And some of us are left behind. I remember after I lived here about 11 years, I found myself avoiding non-Dutch people. I never even attended one American women’s Club meeting, but now I wasn’t inviting people over anymore who might be leaving in a year or two. The pain was too great every time they left. A friend said, make some Dutch friends, make them your core, and then it will be easier to make friends with people who come and go. But I know of people who have left our church because the pain of abandonment summoned by yet another goodbye after so many others—proved too overwhelming.

Why bring this up? Why not just try to pretend it doesn’t hurt and carry on? Because every time we deny our pain, it will wait until the next goodbye when it will redouble its efforts and a seemingly insignificant departure will feel like a tsunami of emotion, about to drown us. So let’s talk about the pain. Describe it. Tell the story, and you diffuse the destructive power of abandonment. Jesus holding our hands as we heal in our memories.

Some of you know one of my favorite verses is in Revelation, when John writes about the tree of life, the leaves of which are for the healing of the nations. Could it be that these leaves are our stories? That as we tell the stories of our pain and of our healing, of our death and our resurrection, stories of us individually, and stories of us as nations, as we tell the truth and shine the light on lies, that we will heal as individuals, and as nations?

So let’s tell the story of Ollie, our former youth pastor, chasing after the laptop thief and when the police asked him, why didn’t you grab him? Ollie said, “Sir, I am not a police agent, I am a priest.”

And let’s tell the story of Michael’s deep and great faith, as demonstrated in his undying support for the Aston Villa football team.

And let’s tell the story of Rosie’s challenge to us to become the people we were born to be, doing those things that give joy to our hearts because God plants the desires of our hearts.

And let’s tell the truth. What this abandonment pain is really about–is death. And grief. For the ultimate abandonment is death. And even a goodbye can summon emotions of grief over dying when that death was never given a chance to be described, never given a place, when the story has gone untold.

I recently read a handbook on bereavement counseling for children. It was written for communities in sub-Saharan Africa, where 15 million children are orphaned and living in what they call child-headed households. Children who have no one and must raise their little brothers and sisters. In this handbook it talks to parents who are dying of aids, and tells them how to prepare their children for losing their parents to aids. It stresses the need to tell children who are grieving, it is not your fault. And it highlights how important it is to simply listen to children tell how they feel, tell their stories, remember their parents and describe how they felt and smelled. The warmth of a mother’s touch can still be felt after death.

A friend of mine in Spain recently lost her sister, who died of cancer. Her sister’s name was Lola. This is now a Lola-less world. Lola danced flamenco for 20 years. It’s a vocation, this dance. She got together with the same girlfriends every week for decades and they would dance and drink and gossip and dance some more. Eventually the husbands wanted in on the fun and so they came to the lessons too, and they watched and clapped, and drank and smoked cigars. Lola worked in a hotel. Everyone knew her. She was full of life and laughter and love for her husband and two daughters and everyone she met. I sat beside her at a party in March, her head in a scarf because she was bald. I told her about the trip we made to Cuba and she told me how she didn’t like Cubans. We laughed at her grand-daughter. We talked politics. She touched my hand. By the first week of May she was gone. And when I saw her sister, my friend, in June, her sister told me how the whole family had gathered around Lola’s bed as she died. She told me how in Spain, when someone dies, you go around the house and turn over the paintings and photos with that person’s image. So my friend and her two motherless nieces did this. And what did they find? Letters written by Lola, tucked into the back of the frames, waiting to speak from the past and bring comfort into the present.

In the face of our personal pain, we can take comfort in the truths: God is with them, the Absent ones, in their departure. God is with us in our solitude.

God also helps us transcend time and space. Through God, these people who are no longer with us physically, remain close to us. How? Just as we are inexplicably, inextricably tied to Him. He binds us to other people who are bound to Him. Through prayer.

The word I want to share with us as a Church is this: Our God is the God of all comfort. In Proverbs 3:5 we read: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.

Let us take these words to heart. When faced with pain, what is the next step? You know what they say, denial is more than just a river in Egypt. So, admit to the pain. Enter into the grief. Tell the stories that keep our loved ones alive for us in our hearts. Most of all, Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.

When we connect with others’ and our own pain at a higher level and really connect, we empathize, and then we can pray, but when we connect at the lower level –trying to find similarities with our own unresolved experiences, or perceived experiences that we haven’t processed, looked at, examined, described, told the story of, grieved—this causes us pain. This is not good! Why? Because we are of no use to anyone. Neither to ourselves nor toward those who suffer.

Now this is tricky part. Other people’s pain is never the same as our pain…it may be similar, but it is not the same and everybody feels differently. We imagine, did you hear? We imagine that others feel the same as we do. But they don’t. Her mother dying is not the same as my father-in-law’s death. My child’s death is not the same as your child’s death. So, knowing that others’ pain is different than our own, frees us up from trying to find similarities. Now we may simply listen to their story.

And what else can we do? Trust in the Lord with all our hearts, and lean not on our own understanding. And what does this mean? I think it brings us right back to prayer again.

A poet friend of mine wrote, Praying for someone is carrying them in your heart And in your mind, as God carries them. Praying, carrying, moving them by way of love And silent acknowledgment into the experiences that give meaning to our lives, Through work, creativity, family, friendship, security, health, spirituality. Joining God in the silent, unseen tide (The shift in the air, the slight lifting of the light), Of loving and caring an individual into the Good, Of moving them– In synchronization with the songs of the deep sea And the spins of stars in distant galaxies, With the angels of the unseen– Into places of peace.

The sharp, sudden pangs of abandonment pain can be met in prayer. In honest prayer to our God of all comfort. “God, that hurt. Can you take that from me? I give it to you.” Ultimately, we can tell all our stories to God. In this way, we may rest in perfect confidence in Him.

And so we pray for ourselves, we pray for those who have gone before us. And we pray for those of us who remain. Let us remember the promises Jesus gave the apostles in that fear-filled upper room. “I have not given you a spirit of fear, but one of power and love and a sound mind.” For He will never forsake us, nor leave us as orphans. He is the God of all comfort. God in us enables us to comfort ourselves and others, as we listen, and as we pray.

Let us become a church of storytellers and story listeners, and the pain will lift.

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