I was digging through old writing this week and came across a sermon I shared at Peace Mennonite Church many (like, 12?) years ago, before the internet was invented.
Oh, wait, I just fact checked it and turns out that’s not true. But before I used the internet to share such things.
Each weekday at 5:30, I rush into the childcare center where G– and M– enjoy their days. Usually, I am one of the last two parents picking up their preschoolers. I usually rush in, full of apologies to everyone for being the last, still thinking about the problems of the day and already worrying about dinner, bathtime, and bedtime and wondering if it’s okay to put your kids to bed at 6:00. The other parent is Chris, who has two daughters roughly the same age as my children. Though C–, like me, comes in at the last minute, he is calm and happy, always smiling and looking ready to enjoy his family time in the evening.
I am especially impressed with this because C–’s older daughter, Isabelle, hasn’t been in daycare since August. Instead, she’s been in the hospital. You see, Isabelle was born with a severe heart defect. We met at daycare when she was not quite two years old, so now she and G–, who lovingly calls her “Isabelly”, have known each other for half their young lives.
In August, Isabelle had the third of three scheduled heart operations, but something went wrong, and, shortly after the operation, the procedure had to be reversed. Her health deteriorated quickly, and, since August, she has remained in the hospital. In October, she was moved from Children’s Mercy in Kansas City to St. Louis Children’s Hospital in part to increase her chances of receiving a heart transplant. Her mother, a middle school teacher on a long term leave of absence, remains with her, while C–, her father, stays in Lawrence with the younger daughter, working to pay the medical bills, which they estimate may be more than $100,000. After having spent months lying on her back with a tube in her throat, Isabelle is now able to spend about half her time off the tube, but she has lost use of her core muscles and so can’t sit up, and she has, because of the tube, lost her ability to speak. Her time awake is filled with speech and occupational therapy and videos involving Disney princesses. Her mother, who is staying at the hospital with her, gets a lot of time to read novels but is lonely, while her father is single-parenting a toddler who hasn’t seen her big sister in four months.
So when I run into C– at the end of each day, I am immediately impressed with his cheerfulness, then ashamed of my own grumpiness. He knows that it’s possible that Isabelle will not find a donor—and, if she lives through the transplant, she still faces a life of difficulty. I know that most marriages do not survive the death of a child or a bankruptcy, should medical bills result in that, and I worry about the younger sister, what her future will be like if she loses her sister and her parents’ marriage. I look at Isabelle’s father and wonder about my own ability to handle the kind of situation his family is facing.
How they do it? Not just how does this man continue to go through his day or his wife sit at Isabelle’s bedside, because I know the answer to that. They do this because they have two young children, and they have to do it. But where does the sense of peace and comfort come from?
I have a small clue.
Last week, posters of Isabelle appeared at the kids’ daycare, along with cards listing her website and these bracelets that you can buy to raise funds for her. We have the card and the bracelets, too. But what struck me as most interesting was the posters. They include Isabelle’s photo and ask us to pray for her.
What a humbling thing to ask someone else, especially people you don’t know, and people whose faith you don’t know, to do—to pray for you. Isabelle’s family needs so much, but what they ask for is our prayers.
I have no experience of God’s supernatural comfort, no moment when my own grief and pain was erased by a sense of God’s warming love, no moment when I’ve felt myself picked up by God the shepherd and, like a lost lamb, carried in his bosom. I have no life-altering encounters with the Holy Spirit comforting me, no clear visions of God telling me not to fear but to rest in the protective shadow of God’s arms. In fact, when, at moments of grief, well-meaning friends deliver platitudes like, “All things happen for a reason,” or “God has a plan in all of this,” I usually feel irritation rather than comfort. I don’t have the experience of God actually walking through the shadow of the valley of death with me. I find that “Footprints” poem really sweet, if a bit hokey, but it’s very far from my own experience.
So, as I’ve prepared this sermon on the comforting face of God, I’ve struggled a lot. In the meantime, I’ve attended a double funeral—a friend lost both her parents, one unexpectedly and one not, in the same week—and I have received news of the imminent death of my cousin’s child. With each piece of news, I’ve been faced with my own sense of inadequacy as a comforter. What shall I say to my cousin as she prepares for her son’s death? What do I say to my friend in the receiving line after the funeral? Do I repeat the platitudes of the funeral sermon? My first response is to deliver a casserole. That seems very inadequate.
Today’s texts give us an idea of what providing comfort means. They give us an outline of how we might invite God’s comfort of us, how we might prepare ourselves to receive it.
Isaiah gives us this list of commands to follow to hasten God’s comfort:
Prepare the way of the LORD.
Make straight a highway for our God.
Get up to a high mountain and lift up your voice and announce God’s coming
Peter tells us to expect “all things…to be dissolved,” for all that derails us from God’s mission to be burned away. Inspired by that promise, we should
Lead lives of holiness and godliness
Strive to be at peace
Be without spot or blemish
These are hard words and not ones we deliver in funeral sermons. We do not usually tell people that they need to “lead lives of holiness and godliness” before God will comfort them. In fact, in our popular expressions of religiosity, we often hear stories of God’s comfort being revealed through coincidence, not as a result of our own spiritual discipline. We hear a song on the radio that reminds us of a loved one, or we are packing up Grandma’s things after her funeral and discover, from the bookmark in her Bible, that she was reading Psalm 25 on her deathbed, the same passage read at her funeral. I do not deny the comfort that such moments bring us, but I do not think that these small coincidences are what Isaiah, the Psalmist, and Peter mean when they talk about comfort.
Isaiah gives us instructions for hastening the coming of God’s comfort, and he says that comfort is a consequence of God’s justice. Or, as we might say, there is no peace without justice; in this case, God’s comforting peace cannot rest upon us if our consciences are stained with the abuse or exploitation of others. Isaiah’s vision of justice is clearly a reversal of power—the high mountains are laid low, the valleys lifted up, just like Jesus promises the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Isaiah’s vision is, literally, one of an even playing field. The writer of Psalm 85 describes this as a time when steadfast love and faithfulness— I think, God’ steadfast love and our faithfulness—will meet. This is where, Peter says, “righteousness is at home.” In other words, our expectation should be that God’s justice and peace belong to humanity even if they do not have their genesis in humanity.
This justice and peace bring us comfort in two ways. The psalmist says that, when we invite God’s righteousness, God will “give what is good.” When we invite God’s justice and God’s peace, when, in fact, we expect that our faithfulness to God’s vision for creation will be met with God’s steadfast love and care, I think we can also expect other blessings from God. We will be better able to hear God’s voice, including God’s words of peace. We will find ourselves in a new heaven and a new earth, as Peter says, a place of sufficiency for all needs, as the Psalmist suggests.
This comforting vision comes from God’s steadfast love, our confidence in God’s plan for peace, our commitment to God’s justice, and our understanding who were are in relation to each other and to God. Note that these qualities all involve consistency, a key to comfort. This is why, of course, we feel comforted by the familiar and comfortable when surrounded by those whose trustworthiness is confirmed through our experiences with them. We are comforted because God’s love is assured. We are comforted because we know that God will respond to our faithfulness with righteousness. We are even comforted knowing that we are like withering grass or fading flowers. Our fears and troubles are temporary. Our individual ability to believe at any one moment is not relevant; instead, God’s enduring presence bolsters us.
To be receptive to this kind of comfort requires action. Isaiah tells us to prepare, to make a highway for our God. In other words, we are to create a means through which God will enter our lives. In the Mennonite tradition, this means, I think, simplicity in living, so that we do not ignore God because we are too busy with other things. We are open, receptive, and alert to holiness. We are also to share God’s coming justice and peace with others. Isaiah tells us to “get up on a high mountain” and announce God, but he also promises that God will level those high mountains. Apparently, then, we are to announce God’s plan for justice before it is delivered—and by doing so, we will aid in its delivery. Likewise, Peter tells us to strive—what an athletic word!—for peace, holiness, and godliness. Here are our obligations.
Isabelle’s family receives the comfort of God by preparing themselves for God’s goodness, for waiting with anticipation and assurance of God’s consistent love. This week, C– and I spoke about Isabelle’s chances for a transplant. “They’re good,” he told me with a mixture of hope and grimness that I understood. St. Louis is a larger city, which means more potential donors. Winter means more auto accidents, and rates of donation go up around Christmastime, when people are more generous and as parents seek to make sense of their own child’s death in a time that celebrates the birth of Jesus. For Isabelle to live, some other three year old will have to die—and for her to inherit that child’s heart, some other child, also in need of a transplant, will have to wait. C– asks me to pray for the donor’s family, and for the first time, I see his cheeriness waiver. I ask him the awkward question all the etiquette books say not to ask someone in need: “Can I do anything to help?” It sounds insincere as I say it. I can’t pay their medical bills. My own children have healthy hearts beating in their chests, and I can’t give them up. C– does not ask me for these things, thankfully. Perhaps he has read Isaiah and the Psalmist and Peter lately, but he doesn’t ask for the kind of social justice that would reduce his healthcare bills or make it possible for both parents to be with an ailing child. Instead, he looks with confidence to a future with his daughter home from the hospital, healthy and growing, and asks me for the comfort I can give to him, thereby consecrating the highway I can build for God’s blessings to enter their lives: pray for his family, pray for the donor’s family, and, when Isabelle gets home from the hospital, please bring them a meal. In his humble acceptance of a gift I can give, C– allows me to walk the highway he has created between God and his family, bringing tidings of comfort that God’s love promises us.