Comfort, comfort

Their people had been killed or exiled, and their place of worship had been desecrated. It even seemed to some that God had abandoned them.

Can you imagine losing your family and friends, your home, your country, and even your faith? It really happened to the Jewish people in 586 BCE when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians.

The Book of Lamentations is a record of their hopelessness. “This is why I weep and my eyes overflow with tears.” Lamentations 1:16. “People have heard my groaning, but there is no one to comfort me. Lamentations 1:21.

It was into that utter despair that Isaiah spoke words of hope: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…” Isaiah 40:1.

The first 39 chapters of Isaiah are full of dire warnings about God’s judgment. So, when Isaiah started talking about comfort, people took notice. “Comfort, comfort my people…” is a plural imperative. God commanded the voices of all the heavenly host to speak comfort to his people.

Many voices clamor to be heard in the wake of a tragedy, like the awful shooting here recently at the Tree of Life Synagogue, and not all of them are comforting. But God himself has spoken into the chaos and hopelessness, and now all of history points to the time when the glory of God will be revealed.

That’s why in Isaiah 40:6 the prophet says, “Cry out.” In other words, “Lift your voice! Don’t be afraid!”

The God of the universe gave himself over to the chaos of this world in the person of Jesus Christ. The forces of evil threw everything they had at him, but they were powerless to stop him.

Despite all the horror and evil, God gets the final say.

“Comfort, comfort my people.”

God’s got this

Last summer, Jana and I spent time with Eugene and Jan Peterson at their home in Flathead Lake, Montana. Eugene had graciously agreed to mentor me if I was fortunate enough to win a Lilly Grant for my sabbatical.

I’d come prepared with questions from the readings he’d assigned me, but mostly we talked about people and churches we all knew. Eugene had written much of The Message while living in Pittsburgh, and Jan had attended the same church we’d belonged to in Alabama. It was like catching up with old friends.

Eugene Peterson never set out to be a pastor. Indeed, in his memoir, The Pastor, he wrote in detail about how little he thought of pastors, mostly due to the type of pastors who’d come through his hometown when he was growing up. He later came to lament how pastors served more as corporate CEOs than shepherds of a flock. Eugene became a “pastor’s pastor” without ever intending to. His passing this week has many of us pastors reflecting on what he meant to us.

To me, his great gift was being able to see and point to Jesus in all things. Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places is the title of one of Eugene’s books on spiritual theology, taken from the line of a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Everything, no matter how small or seemingly unimportant, is infused with the Holy Spirit. Since Jesus is at work in everything, everywhere, all the time, it means that we can quit running around like crazy, like pastors often do (and are usually expected to do). After all, if Jesus is in this, our role is pretty small by comparison.

My lesson from the sabbatical was “God’s got this.”

I can’t tell you how helpful this was later in the year as Jana’s dad entered his final illness. My father-in-law was a simple man of faith; he wouldn’t have understood books on spiritual theology. But like Eugene, he could see Christ in everything and, like Eugene, he delighted in everything.

It’s nice to know that “God’s got this.” He’s got Eugene, he’s got my father-in-law, he’s got me, he’s got Jana, he’s got our kids, he’s got you, and he’s got this church.

Fish story

Some bible stories are hard for modern people to wrap our minds around. For example, the bible says Jonah was swallowed by a great fish and then three days later he was spit out on dry land.

But the fish has nothing to do with our problem with the Jonah story.

If God really is God; if God created the universe out of nothing; maneuvering one fish to swallow a runaway prophet is no big deal.

Our real problem with the Jonah story is that we don’t think it applies to us. Our real problem is that we fail to see ourselves as Jonah.

When we read Jonah, it’s easy to see his problem. He’s self-righteous. He can’t find any good reason for what God is calling him to do, so he must be right, and God must be wrong. He can’t see that God might actually know better than he does what’s best for him.

Self-righteousness is the reason we don’t think the Jonah story applies to us. Self-righteousness is what keeps us from seeing ourselves as God sees us. Self-righteousness is why we won’t listen to our spouse, our friends, or our pastors. We think we know better than them too, so we take offense. We run the other way.

But if God is offended by our self-righteousness, he has a funny way of showing it.  In Jonah’s case, God sent a ship with a pagan crew, a storm, and a fish to get Jonah to see God’s better way.

I wonder if God could be using the storms that come into our lives in the same way.

Instead of imagining what it might be like to be swallowed by a fish, perhaps we could imagine why God would have to go to such great lengths to get our attention.



In case you missed it, there was a national debate about a nomination to the Supreme Court recently. The level of vitriol of each side for the other was astounding. The situation was not made better by multiple cable channels devoted, not to reporting news, but to showing clips of the outrageous things the other side said.

“Othering” is what you do when you put people who are different from you into categories so you can marginalize them.

Just in time, Tim Keller released his new book, The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy. It’s just as good as Keller’s The Prodigal God. I pray that everyone would read it. Keller introduced me to the term “othering.”

Jonah was one of the religious insiders of his day. He knew more about God than anyone. Yet when God called him to preach to pagans, “others” who he hated, Jonah ran away. Jonah got on board a ship crewed by, guess who? more pagans, still others he didn’t like. Yet in every detail, the pagans in the story were better than Jonah. When a big storm came up, they tried to figure out the cause (they knew someone had sinned). They did everything they could to save the ship and all on board, including Jonah. They prayed fervently. Jonah did nothing.

Keller says we “other” because we haven’t allowed the Gospel of Jesus Christ to penetrate all the way into our heart. We may believe, but our beliefs haven’t changed us. If we still get our self-worth from something other than Jesus’ love and grace for us, then when our beliefs or status are threatened by someone, we marginalize them. We “other” them.

God sent Jonah on a mission, not just to save unbelieving pagans, but to save Jonah from his own self-righteousness.

Jesus identifies with the other, even when the other is us.

Justice network

A long time ago I had the privilege of commanding the Air Force ceremonial unit in Washington, DC, meaning I was responsible for the Air Force Band and Honor Guard. I met with every newly-assigned person and told them I was there for them. If they had a problem, I asked them to first go to their chain of command, but if that failed, “my door was always open.”

In the 90’s the military still faced challenges in integrating women into certain career fields, and the Honor Guard was one of those. Being a ceremonial guardsman was physically demanding work. There was a minimum height requirement. Many Honor Guard members had come from the security forces and had played football in high school. Young women recruited for this duty not only had to meet the physical demands but had to overcome the cultural barriers of an elite fraternity.

One day “Ann” appeared at my door. She was an airman, a one-striper, recruited by the Honor Guard out of basic training. She’d given up the career field that she had signed up for when she enlisted to become a ceremonial guardsman. She’d been well suited for her original career field, but had not been able to meet the physical challenges of the Honor Guard.

Ann could go back to her original career choice, right? Well, no. The chain of command had concluded that Ann had an attitude problem and had left her to the tender mercies of the assignment system.

This was one of those moments when I really enjoyed being a bird colonel. I helped get her an even better assignment than the one she’d enlisted for. Then I had a talk with her chain of command.

Jesus was at a party where he noticed the guests jockeying for the position of honor. In that culture, as in ours today, knowing the right person made a huge difference in whether you made it in the world or not. If you were a nobody–poor, outcast, unattractive–you were in trouble. Like today, the poor are poor partly because they have no access to the social networks the rest of us take for granted.

Jesus expected people to open up their social and business networks to the poor and outsiders. To him, it was a matter of doing justice.

I’m pretty sure God loves it when people make things right for folks like Ann.  I know I did.