When you were little and you needed comforting, what was it—or who was it—that did the trick? For me, the person who could always help me feel okay again was my Great-Grandma Roos, a playmate 77 years older than I was and an endless source of love, fun, and tenderness. If I woke in the morning after having a bad dream, Grandma Roos would wrap me in a soft blanket and tuck me into the warmest spot in the kitchen—the seat at the breakfast table closest to the furnace flue. As she stood at the stove preparing any breakfast my little heart desired, she’d tell me about her early life in Chickasha, Oklahoma, or how at age six she traveled all the way across the country by train with her mom after her father had died suddenly.
Her stories told me that she’d been through hard and scary things too. Her tender attention showed me that my struggles mattered to her and I was seen and understood and heard. Her actions showed me that I was loved, my experiences counted for something, and that ultimately, things were going to be okay for me, as they had been for her. And until then, we had each other.
Who was that special person in your life? The one who represented for you that giant sense of comfort, who loved you no matter what, who could be trusted with your fears and struggles? It might have been a parent, a grandparent, maybe a sibling, or a favorite teacher. It could have even been a stranger, someone kind and present, who was with you in a moment when you really needed kindness and security and understanding. A time when you needed to know there was hope. That life could be good again.
That person, in whatever circumstance, gave you something important that you needed as you grew—an understanding of how to find comfort when life goes upside-down. Researchers say if we grow up in an environment where our needs are tended to, we learn an important lesson in self-comforting that we’ll need later, when we’re on our own and things get rough. That caring person set the model, the expectation we have, for whether we think help will come when we need it, and that deep belief can have a shaping affect on how or whether we turn to God. Studies have shown that addictions are misguided attempts at self-soothing that ultimately take us down a hurting path, making things worse instead of better.
So if someone comforting comes to mind for you just now, send them a little inward thank you for the seeds of love they have planted in your life.
We all need comfort because sooner or later we bump into the reality that life is much bigger than we are and things don’t always go our way. We get hurt and confused and we’re sometimes afraid and not sure what to do next. Circumstances often feel outside our control, which increases our stress and can leave us feeling overwhelmed and vulnerable.
I wish every person could grow up in a home with loving, available parents who know just how to comfort them when they are scared or sad or angry. But the reality is that isn’t the case for many people. We’re all—parents and kids, communities and nations—struggling at the same time to make sense of our world, to be safe, to deal with our anxieties, to heal past hurts, to find what matters, to contribute something good, to find God, and to learn how to be vulnerable enough to be real, truthworthy, and here for one another. We’re all—every single one of us—imperfect at this. We do our best, and throughout our lives, we learn and grow, forgive and change.
As I was writing this message yesterday afternoon, I stopped to make the pecan pie bars for our shared meal after worship and while I was rolling out the dough, I turned on PBS. A 23-year-old artist named Julien Baker was being interviewed, talking about her process of writing and singing, explaining the time in her life, growing up in an evangelical Christian home, when she found herself thinking more and more about suicide, because inside she knew she was gay and she felt she could never tell her family. Finally, at age 17, the pain was too great and she was surprised to discover, when she told them the truth, that her family still loved her. She said her father opened his Bible and instead of looking for verses to make her see the errors of her ways, he looked up scriptures to assure her that God loves her. It suddenly occurred to her that the message wasn’t God loves you anyway, as in, no matter how wrong you are or what you’ve done or how short you’ve fallen. Instead, the message is simply, unconditionally, completely: God loves you. Period. Forever and ever, amen. Now that’s comfort.
The partial lyrics to her song Rejoice are these:
Give me everything good
I’ll throw it away
I wish I could quit but I can’t stand the shakes
Choking smoke, singing your praise
But I think there’s a god and he hears either way
I rejoice, and complain
I never know what to say
But I think there’s a god and he hears either way
And I rejoice, and complain
Lift my voice, that I was made
Somebody’s listening at night
I rejoice, I rejoice
The Old Testament verse we started with today is Isaiah 41:10: “Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.” I like what Richard Foster says in his commentary on this verse. He writes, “The recurring promise of God’s presence is the most fundamental assurance given in gospel faith. God is with us: ours is a with-God life.”
Julien Baker suggests that there is no qualifier on this promise—no part that says, If you do what I want, I’ll be with you or If you don’t mess up or break a rule, I will help you. God simply just says fear not, for I am with you. Don’t be afraid, I am your God. How clear and how comforting, a bedrock promise for all of us, no matter what.
It made me wonder what it is that blocks us from feeling God’s all-pervasive comfort, especially if it’s available to all of us, freely, always. I got an answer: resistance.
A little over a week ago, I woke up in the middle of the night worrying. Earlier that evening I was supposed to call someone and then brought home the wrong phone number. It bothered me that I was unable to call when I said I would, that they were waiting on me and I couldn’t do anything about it. As I stewed about that in my wakeful state, I heard my Newfoundland Pearl at the foot of the stairs, scratching and scratching. She’s having allergy issues right now and she’s been suffering with it. That added to my feelings of upset and worry. Now on top of being frustrated that I hadn’t been able to do what I promised, I felt terrible that I was unable to ease the suffering of a being I loved.
As I thrashed around and tossed and turned—internally and externally—I realized how rigid I felt and how tightly my thoughts were swirling. Of course I wasn’t comfortable. I wasn’t comfortable in my spirit, I wasn’t comfortable in my mind or my emotions, and I certainly wasn’t going to be comfortable in my body. Suddenly it dawned on me that the awful tightness I was feeling and my swirling thoughts were all about resisting what I was experiencing just then.
Resistance comes up in us when we don’t want to accept what’s happening. We dig in our heels. We say No to the situation, whatever it is. Resistance can also keep us locked up tight in a mental space where we can’t be open to God’s comfort, which is present in the here-and-now. What we’re reacting to might be something small or big—a place we don’t want to go, a change we don’t want to make, a loss we can’t accept, an injustice that’s not right. Resistance feels like putting on armor, a refusal to budge. “No, it can’t be this way” or “No, that’s not right, “ or “No, I will not accept this.”
There at three in the morning, I wondered how I could release my resistance and left God in. What would acceptance feel like instead? I asked myself the question we use in mindfulness: What’s here just now? The idea is to become aware of what we’ve got going on inside, emotionally, mentally, physically, spiritually. The answer was, “I feel bad. I’m really sorry I couldn’t make the call the way I planned to.” I paused and then thought the accepting part: “That’s just how it is right now.” I felt myself relax a little. Next I listened to Pearl scratching, and thought—in answer to that question, What’s here right now, “I hate it that she’s itching and she can’t get comfortable—and I feel powerless to help her, and I very much want to. But I accept that that’s what we’ve got right now.”
I instantly felt a shift in my mind and emotions. My muscles relaxed, my breathing slowed. That feeling of tightness melted. I could feel how much energy I had been putting into mentally fighting the circumstances that didn’t go the way I wanted them to. Making peace with them as they were—with just those simple thoughts–brought a feeling of relief, of letting go and letting things be.
The next time you feel tight and on edge, replaying upsetting things in your mind, ask yourself if resistance is a part of what’s going on for you. You’ll feel it in your body—that tightness, that pulling in and closing off. When we begin to notice how we feel and take gentle care of ourselves there, we relax and open, we settle down. That comfort makes a difference. In this sense, acceptance isn’t about allowing a bad experience to continue; it’s about being honest with ourselves—and with God—about how we’re hurting, how we’re struggling with it. It’s about trusting God with that struggle and finding comfort in our present circumstance, whatever it is. That place of accepting is where everything can begin to change. And we have the added comfort of knowing that God is right there in it with us.
Our New Testament reading is a much-loved verse from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. He wants to encourage them and calm their fears of the future. “Do not worry about anything,” he writes, “but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Paul is saying not that there is a formula for getting our prayers answered just the way we want them and not that if we do everything right, God will take care of us. Instead, Paul is saying, don’t worry, don’t ruminate, don’t resist, don’t fret—this is a relationship. God is with us. There’s a simple path to feeling God’s peace: Accept what’s here and trust God with our hearts in this exact, living moment.
I think of the peace that passes all understanding—that warm blanket of security and calm that comes—not as a kind of fix for moments of stress and struggle, but as a sign to us that we are back in tune with the presence of God. That’s what my Great Grandma Roos was teaching me with each kind and comforting act. That’s the lesson that those who loved us have planted in our lives. The flow of God’s love is nurturing, caring, present and always available to us. When we remember that, and we invite God in, we allow ourselves to feel the embrace of peace, the warmth of comfort, and the protection of love once more.
- OT Isaiah 41:10
- NT Philippians 4: 6-7
- Julien Baker, Rejoice: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4C_UYJKoALs
- Syme, Rachel. “Julien Baker Believes in God,” The New Yorker, April 2016: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/julien-baker-believes-in-god