When I sat down and thought about the recent tragedies I have been close to, I came up with a list of 5 serious issues that have presented themselves in the past month for people I know personally. For their privacy I will not list any details but suffice it to say you are happy to not be facing what they are. As a pastor this is always true, that is why Christians mark the longest night of year, because there is a real sense in which every year is a long year full of trouble, not for everyone and yet every year has been a tough year for some.
Psalm 119 is probably the longest single piece of writing in the bible. It’s ornate and special, an acrostic which in this case means that it has a section for each letter in the Hebrew alphabet and in the section each line begins with the letter. It is a poem that would have taken an incredible amount of time to craft and it has been read by millions of people over the years, it has been a comfort and an inspiration to many.
Not quite in the middle of it, but pretty close, are these words, “My soul faints with longing for your salvation, but I have put my hope in your word. My eyes fail, looking for your promise; I say, “When will you comfort me?””
In other words, the person who so excellently and carefully crafted the poem knows what it’s like to turn to God’s word looking for comfort, and to not find it quickly. That desire to be comforted, and the recognition that literally nothing in this world can offer us the sort of comfort we need, is a timeless reality and one the bible knows plenty about. If you are reading this and the pains of the world lead you to struggle in faith, you are not alone, even biblical writers went through it.
The prophet Isaiah fulfilled one of the major roles God gave the prophets by reminding people of where they were falling short, as individuals and as community. Prophets didn’t leave people there though, they lead them to hope in God. Here’s a passage full of promise and hope because the world has ever and always needed to hear promises that this (whatever personal tragedies we face to say nothing of global ones) is not all there is and that a brighter day is coming,
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this.
It’s a famous passage that we often hear as promise, but we rarely remember the desperate desires behind it. The realities of oppressive governments, war, famine, illnesses and the like. Hiding in the promises are the needs of the world for comfort and peace.
Christians have come to believe that in Jesus of Nazareth we have found the one spoken of in the promises. This doesn’t mean everything is great, that God has snapped his fingers and made everything perfect, but rather that everything is assured. We pray every week, many pray daily, “thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” because we trust, or want to trust, this truth. That despite how things are looking at any given time there is hope to be found in the one who was born in a cattle stall who was destined to be King.
I have been thinking lately about how his is a kingdom of belonging. I’m not an expert but from what I can tell, there is a growing belief amongst psychologists and psychiatrists that some of the anxiety and depression our society struggles with represents an appropriate response to the challenges of living today. They think that this is rooted in a lack of the sense of belonging. We need to belong and that is getting harder.
The church in the world is a place to belong, when we are at our best at least, and that includes everyone struggling this season, struggling and pained as we are.
Sometimes we can already see Jesus at work in the world, sometimes we even see him at work in the church.
His kingdom is not just for the happy clappy christians or the healthy christians, or the supposed “blessed” wealthy people. No, it is a kingdom of mercy, compassion and justice, a kingdom for those who weep, those who write laments, those who struggle, a kingdom of belonging.
I recently read an article by a woman struggling with mental health and especially her sense of belonging. As we come out of covid she has found it very hard to be in social circles, even a family gathering can create debilitating panic attacks in her the make it hard or even impossible for her to get out of her car. As Christmas approaches she writes,
There have been many lonely holiday seasons when I yearned to join in the unifying nostalgia and fondly recollect memories that I did not even have, but I felt outside of the group. If I walked through the twinkle-lit streets and felt a pang of sorrow well up, were those lights still for me?I’ve come to conclude: yes! Perhaps they are especially for me…For those who are feeling lonely around the holidays, those twinkle lights are not insensitive to your ache but graciously beckoning you into the collective.
I hope we can feel the same way about faith in Jesus, that as we celebrate the birth of Christ there is room for everyone, no matter what 2022 looked like or what they fear 2023 will look like.
One thing I agree with that woman about is this: Frequency of contact with people we care about is one of the key indicators of well-being, worldwide. And so we do well to make a point to be in touch with one another, to belong to and with each other.
When Jesus was dying on the cross his beloved student was there, so was his mother, and in his great pain, and theirs, he brought them together, bonded them, even in their grief, Jesus was acting.
May he act, may he bring the comfort the psalmist and each of us seek, in outlives during these long nights.
For now, may we feel we belong just as we are.
And “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”