The Longest Night

Beth A. Faeth November 5, 2017

Scripture Isaiah 40:1–11

I have given and received a particular greeting card more than once in the last few years. The front of the card features two of my favorite childhood characters—Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet. Piglet is standing just behind Pooh and reaching for his hand. They are walking along. The inside of the card states, “I just needed to be sure of you.”

When I was a child, beginning at age 7 or so, I would awaken in the night and call for my mother. She would come to me, readjust my covers, stroke my forehead with her cool hand, kiss my cheek and reassure me that I was loved. I would go back to sleep quickly, grateful for her patient presence. I just needed to be sure of her. Sure that I was loved, sure that I was safe, sure that my mom hadn’t skipped out on me in the middle of the night. Sure that I was not alone.

Night after night, I would call for my mom. Eventually, I was satisfied if she called back to me with the words “I am right here. Everything’s all right.” I have no doubt she was grateful for the reprieve of having to physically get up each night. Just her voice, her soothing words, were enough to provide the comfort I was seeking. I just needed to be sure of her.

   “Comfort, O comfort my people,” says your God.

Over the years sleep has, at times, been a precious commodity in the Faeth household. And when that first stage of difficult sleep began, when my now-teenage girls were mere babies, I was aware of how the tables had turned. I became the Comforter, the one called upon to make those midnight fears go away. I am the one who soothes with touch and words. I am the one who has developed a sixth sense regarding a presence at my bedside, who can come instantly awake and aware at the first call for reassurance. I do not think I am always as gracious as my own mother, who never seemed perturbed by my midnight needs. I am at my best when I remember my overwhelming need for comfort when the night seemed too dominant, too dark. I wanted to be sure of a loving presence in my life, just as my own children want to be sure of me.

For the first 39 chapters of the book of Isaiah, the prophet scholars call “First Isaiah” delivered a word of warning about God’s impending judgment to the people of Jerusalem in the 8th century BCE. The message of First Isaiah lambasts Israel for any number of appalling sins, centered mainly around their complete refusal to care for the poor, the widow, the stranger, the orphan. Much has happened in the 200 years that span the first 39 chapters of Isaiah: First Isaiah spoke of the threat of the mighty empire of Assyria, but in Second Isaiah’s time, which is where our passage today begins, the Babylonian Empire has destroyed Jerusalem and carried off many to captivity. The disaster has, like disasters do, provoked theological reflection and much lamentation. As this section of the book begins, Second Isaiah comes to bring a word of comfort to the people. This is a different voice. A new perspective. In these 15 chapters, or the “Little Book of Comfort” as it is sometimes called, are messages of release and forgiveness, the promise of restoration and a great homecoming. “‘Comfort, comfort my people,’ says your God,” can only sound as balm to the spirit that has suffered the witheringly unrelenting scorn of prophetic wrath.

After a time of extreme desolation and living in exile, the people are in great need of comfort, and the prophet delivers with words meant to cease their lamenting and to acquire new courage. This prophetic comfort must show that a future for them flows from the heart of God. Even though the Israelites have questioned God’s love for and protection of them, here is a word meant to restore confidence and trust. Second Isaiah is all about hope, a hope rooted not in the people’s strength or goodness, but in the faithfulness of God. For those waiting for God to respond, this is a surprising, unexpected word of hope and a challenging one as well.

While I may be able to understand the isolation of personal exile, I really can’t imagine being exiled as a community from my home and spiritual center. I do not think it is much of an assumption to presume that the Israelites would have felt abandoned by God. They were homeless, lost while living in captivity. And they had endured years of God-ordained messages of wrath and punishment. I expect sleep did not come easily to them, and they sought to know that God had not abandoned them, had not stopped loving them. They no longer trusted in God’s presence, no longer had something or someone of which to be sure. Here are feelings and circumstances to which we may, indeed, relate.

All Saints Sunday can often catch us unawares. It is a church day of which I am quite fond, because there is something both awesome and intimate as we recall together our great cloud of witnesses—those who have led this church community, those in our lives who have taught us and loved us and accepted us. It is also a most tender day—both for me personally and, as I have witnessed, for many a congregation. For as we remember those we have loved and lost, I anticipate fresh waves of grief to erupt within us. It is expected, I suppose, as we gaze upon the candles representing our most recent saints. But I also know that the journey of grief is long, arduous and, sometimes, unrelenting. Whether close or far away from a death, we can lose our breath sometimes when a memory is triggered, a moment remembered, our senses assaulted with familiar smells, sights, touch. Through our whirling dervish of emotions, comfort is often what we seek . . . reassurance that all will be well, that remembering won’t always hurt, that the legacies left will bring us joy rather than sorrow.

Even if we aren’t actively grieving, many of us live like the Israelites in captivity. The world is a weary and sometimes terribly lonely place—and as violence and discord continue to abound, little makes much sense. We move around in a fog of darkness, our trust of others greatly compromised. We feel hopeless, and, as we examine the world, it concurs with our feelings. With sighs too deep for words, it appears every conversation includes the woes of the world. People are sick, friends are despairing, the future seems anything but bright.

Whom do we call out to in the middle of the night?

     “Comfort, O comfort my people,” says your God. . . . The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

In my most active seasons of grief, nights were the most difficult. Sometimes I could fall asleep and sometimes I could not. But if I did, almost always I would awake in the night and for a few blissful moments, hovering in unconsciousness, I would forget. That blissful amnesia would then be shattered as my brain returned to the present and I remembered. The pain, the loss, the intensity of emotion would all come rushing back. Awake and alone, feeling as if the whole world was sleeping but me, I prayed for solace, for respite, for resolution, for comfort and care. I know that you have, too. For some of us, All Saints Sunday can rip the Band-Aid off old wounds, making fresh the pain of grief and unbearable loss. Where do we find comfort?

We make some interesting choices when it comes to seeking comfort: alcohol, drugs, food, spending, the Internet . . . anything that might dull the pain of the reality we live in. Second Isaiah was charged by God to remind the people that all that is worldly will eventually perish. Even in our own exiles, what can be relied upon is the constancy of God’s presence, the continuance of God’s love, the soothing balm of God’s grace. God is the shepherd and we are the sheep, and, through our trust in God, we will indeed know the care and comfort of the One who loves us. Rather than dulling the pain through drink or sedatives, God’s love keeps us awake to the world, to the acknowledgement of difficulty, through the naming of troubles. God’s love encompasses us so that we might be filled with compassion rather than drown in our own sorrows.

Isaiah invites us to turn towards God rather than away from God when the nights are long and the light seems far away. The people of Israel were stripped of all that made them recognizable. The prophet reassures them that, in this time of desolation, God is present. God never withers or fades away. But God can only be felt through our own choices, our own acknowledgement. We can choose to dwell in that which seems hopeless, or we can accept God’s comfort—which often presents itself through the care and concern of others—and therefore be present to different possibilities. Because pain, loss, despair, discontent—it demands from us an opening. It invites from us a willingness to trust that with time, with patience, with hope and with faith, the intensity of the grief will transform into something else. Some of us are in the place where that outcome is uncertain, where we aren’t sure of the winding road we travel. But we keep going, keep walking, keep on keeping on, because we see others who have found comfort in the journey itself, who know that transformation is real. Through them we, too, can believe that pain, grief, sorrow can indeed be an entry into something truly life-changing.

In my work as a chaplain, I often became part of a team that provided “comfort cares” to those who were nearing the end of their earthly life. Comfort cares address the physical, emotional, spiritual and environmental needs of the one dying so as to make the most peaceful transition into death as possible. No longer is the goal to preserve or to prolong life, but to instead do all that is possible to address pain, emotional distress, spiritual questions—all in a loving, receptive surrounding in which to do this transformational work. It is a beautiful experience, and I am grateful for the Mortality Project here at Plymouth for providing opportunities like Dr. Plotnikoff’s presentation today so as to have difficult yet essential conversations around dying with dignity. However, we do not need to be dying to establish for ourselves “comfort cares”—attending to our physical, emotional, spiritual and environmental needs.

Some time ago in my pastoral care practice, I began asking people who were struggling with any number of life’s significant issues where they found comfort in this difficult time. Almost always it is a question that takes people aback, and often there is a long pause before any response. It is difficult to name that which makes us feel better, feel differently, feel hope. The question itself provides its own opening, an opportunity to thoughtfully consider where we go for comfort, what provides an instant fix or what is relied upon to give long-term relief. The answers I have heard are life-giving: music, either listening to it or making it; prayer; spending time with a particular person; walking; a spiritual community; travel; a beloved pet; sitting in front of a fireplace; creating art and hand work; being alone; being with a group . . . oh, and chocolate. A lot of folks find comfort in chocolate. Sometimes the question will lead to an examination of not-so-healthy choices. Sometimes the question is one to live with for a while, for the answer does not come readily. Knowing what provides comfort is a pathway to healing. Recognizing that God is a source for comfort can move us from exile into community.

    God will feed the flock like a shepherd; God will gather the lambs and hold them close, and lead the mother sheep with gentleness.

On this All Saints Sunday, as we remember with thanksgiving those who lived and loved and made us who we are, those whom we will continue to grieve until our own life on earth is ended, may God provide you the comfort you seek. Make room for that comfort in the midst of your sadness, in the middle of your uncertainty, in the center of your soul.

    “Comfort, comfort, O my people”; thus says God.

Something to be sure of. In the light of day. Through the longest night.