A friend posted on his Facebook page this week: “I'm so despondent that I've started listening to Christmas music.” Indeed. The onslaught is unbearable. The waiting, interminable.
The soothing voice of Isaiah 40 set to music looped in my spirit this morning: “Comfort, comfort O my people, speak of peace, now says our God. Comfort those who sit in darkness, mourning ‘neath their sorrows load …” (HWB 176).
Comfort seems in short supply these days. The poisonous public rhetoric is escalating, harming in particular those most vulnerable. This week, over a soup and bread lunch, several AMBS international students told me of how unsettling it is in this current political climate just to go to the local grocery store or Bureau of Motor Vehicles. In the most ordinary human exchanges they encounter rudeness, suspicious glances, abrupt cut-offs.
Comfort seems in short supply in some of our churchwide interactions as well. Competition to stake out the high moral ground has sometimes given rise to fractured relationships, legalistic invectives and heightened suspicion of each other. Whether it’s about how to work truthfully and redemptively with victims of sexual abuse or frame a sexual ethic for Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada or about which presidential candidate is more “Christian,” the claims we make from our different perspectives are cheered by some and decried by others.
The tender images of Isaiah 40 provide a balm for raw nerves and frayed emotions: “Get up on a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings … See, the Lord God comes with might … He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”
Leadership guru Dan Ebener has a wonderful little book called Blessings for Leaders: Leadership Wisdom from the Beatitudes. (Liturgical Press: 2012). He says that leaders who know how to hold together high expectations with a readiness to offer mercy will free persons to be creative and courageous. This is not to suggest that being merciful means overlooking mediocre work, failures or injustice. Rather, persons feel free to try new things, take risks, speak honestly and act boldly because they know mercy will be extended to them should they mess up.
A community practiced in life-giving accountability will expect exemplary behavior. But it will also accompany those high expectations with strong reassurance that persons will not be discarded or left without comfort should they fail to measure up. Such accountability must be characterized by honest give-and-take. We owe it to each other to speak directly about what we see as out of line but to do so within the balm of merciful regard; with a desire to see each of us continue to thrive in wiser, more truthful and self-moderated ways.
Recent blog posts I’ve written (with extensive consultation) have been received with appreciation by many and caused offense for others. I am grateful for those who spoke directly with me about where they perceive I might have misspoken. Giving-and-receiving-counsel, when wedded with giving-and-receiving-mercy, provides the comfort and courage we all need for communities of faith to flourish.
While the raw pain of prejudice and fractured relationships throbs, there is comfort within communities who trust each other enough to be directly truthful with each other. There is comfort in communities who welcome forthright acknowledgement of the pain. There is comfort in communities that embody radical hospitality. There is comfort in communities that are spiritually mature enough to tenderly hold each other within the wideness of God’s mercy. “Comfort, comfort O my people, speak of peace, now says our God.”