Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 2 Corinthians 1:4
I think on this verse for a long time and wonder, “How have I been comforted by God? It isn’t sarcasm, but an honest question for I know I have been comforted in many trials, however, I am amazed at how quickly I forget as soon as my heart finds peace. And while my heart may currently be at rest, there are many suffering around me that I long to comfort and I feel helpless in my efforts. I know I am empathetic because grief has been a companion for a while and even in peace, it is not far from me.
It has been a long time since I have written a blog post – almost a year – and before that it has been sporadic since my daughter’s wedding and the months leading to it. It has been a season of grief, though not always recognizable as grief; a season of busyness; and a season of change. It has been a time of both busyness and sorrow, and a time of sorrow over busyness. I have mourned many things in the past three years. I have mourned the death of my sweet sister-in-law and my floundering attempt to help raise her boys. And although I still have an excellent relationship with my daughter and I have gained a good son-in-law and precious grandson; I have mourned the loss of daily conversations and the significant help of my daughter; I have mourned an ‘empty nest’. I have mourned the loss of a relationship with my youngest son – a relationship that I once considered to be closely knit together with mutual respect, shared history, and love, has become fragile and fractured, and though gratefully it is mending, I know it will never be exactly the same because he is not the same and neither am I. In the past year I have also mourned a lost relationship with my younger brother and while I hope and pray we will be able to reconcile, it too will never be quite the same as time passes and people change. And I have mourned the loss of time itself. I miss days that are past, mornings that are slower, and long, slow summer days.
I bring my thoughts back to the verse and I wonder again, “How have I received comfort in these trials? How have I received comfort when my voice trembles and the lump in my throat threatens to choke me; when tears brim and threaten to tumble and my nose embarrassingly flows as though some unseen fountain has been undammed? And what has brought peace when the tears are absent but depression has hung over me like a heavy cloud and made the days seem dark and heavy? As I think on my recent experiences and older sorrows in my adult life, my mind also drifts back to my earliest memories of pain, and still I wonder, “how have I been comforted in my pain? “.
‘Big girls don’t cry.” While I don’t remember this ever actually being said to me, I do not remember crying as a child or ever really expressing pain or sorrow, but there was one occasion in which I forced myself to cry – a time when I needed help and knew of no other way to get it. I was four-years old and I was at my Granny’s house. She had a tire swing attached to a large elm tree behind the garage, and I loved to poke myself through the tire and hug the black rubber to my middle, give a little running push, then dangle my feet and sway with the movement of the wind through the tree. I was often allowed to play outside by myself if I stayed close to the house, and that day I headed down the short sidewalk that ran between the unattached garage and the house towards the swing.
In the shade of the old elm, the bare earth was damp and muddy, and I had on brand new, red, sneakers. I was very proud of my new shoes, and I didn’t want to get them muddy. There was a pile of old lumber against the back of the garage and a few boards had been scattered and lay haphazardly between the sidewalk and the swing so I decided to use them as a walkway to avoid getting my new shoes muddy. Stepping from board to board, I made my way towards the swing. I was almost there when I stepped on a board and suddenly felt a sharp pain in the sole of my foot as though I had been stung by an insect. When I lifted my foot, I found it adhered to the board. Pain was stinging in my foot but my first instinct was to get it off the board. I tried to hold the board down with both hands and lift my foot, but I couldn’t balance. Carefully I sat down with my impelled foot flat on the board and my knee bent. The other leg I stretched out straight across the board so my weight would hold the board down and with both hands on my ankle I pulled my foot upward. There was immense pressure and the suction of flesh sealing itself around the nail as though I were trying to pull my thumb out of a piece of clay. I could feel the nail move through my foot and finally it was bound only by the rubber sole of my shoe. With all my little girl strength, I pulled until my shoe was freed and the nail popped through the rubber with a force that almost sent me tumbling backward. I steadied myself, got up and began to make my way back across the boards. By the time I reached the sidewalk, my foot was throbbing and my leg ached with a dull ache that run from my foot all the way to my knee. I sat down on the sidewalk just beneath the kitchen window and noticed with horror that I was leaving a trail of red dots on the sidewalk behind me – even with my shoe on. I took off my shoe and was mortified to find my sock soaked in blood and the white insole of my new shoe now red with blood. As I pulled off my sock, I saw that the top of my foot was turning black as the blood pooled beneath the skin where the nail had almost completely penetrated my little foot. My hands were bloody, my leg was bloody, and the sidewalk was bloody.
In panic and fear equal to my pain, I called out, “Mama! Granny!” but my voice sounded little even to me and I didn’t know if they could hear me. I called out again, “Mama! Granny! Someone come help me!” but no one came. I remember thinking, “if I was crying, maybe they would hear me crying and someone would come. Desperate and frightened, I cried out as loud as I could. It was something between a wail and a scream and the sound of it scared me. I wailed again but this time it was quieter and a great sob sounded at the end of my wail. I thought I really might cry, but I didn’t. Almost immediately after my first wail, someone had looked out the window and soon my parents and grandparents were all there. I don’t remember much after that. I was carried into the house; my hands were washed and my foot was washed and bandaged, and I was taken to a doctor. I remember soaking my foot at home and laying on the couch for a few days while I recovered. Help and comfort came when I was finally able to express my pain and call for help.
For so many years my pride and self-control has often been a barrier between my pain and any comfort I may have received. While there were times, despite my prideful self-control, I occasionally had to swallow back tears of shame and embarrassment – typically over some incident at school, I did not usually cry or allow others access to my pain. This prideful self-control that was almost beyond my control formed sometime before my memory can recall and it was often a wall between me and many consolations I may have received. Because expressing pain and grief was so difficult and awkward, offering comfort to those in pain has been awkward for me too, and I have often failed miserably to offer consolation to those who are suffering – even, or especially, to my own children.
But looking back, I realize that there is comfort even for the helplessly self-controlled. My fear and pain as a child were comforted when others came to be there with me; in the knowledge of knowing someone was there to bind my wounds and do those things I could not do for myself. And as an adult there has been comfort in the presence of others – even if they do not always see my tears. And there have been times when, either by my own willful pride or circumstance, I have been left alone with my grief. Often in desperation, and sometimes simply by habit, I have prayed; and I have found comfort in prayer – even when my prayers did not seem to rise above the floor, my spirit has been quieted. Other times I have purposefully sought comfort in solitude and I have known I am not alone. I have also found consolation in Scripture that, although written thousands of years ago, still seems to speak directly to my heart and my sorrows while I am reminded that I am not alone in my suffering.
And so, my wandering thoughts come again to this scripture and I realize there are no easy answers to my question. While I have found my precious Lord to be both a friend and a comfort when there are no other comforts, I have most often found my comfort when God in His grace has manifested his presence in the presence of others. So, I ask myself again, how can I offer the same comforts that I have received? How can I offer my presence and comfort to a child who is so far beyond my physical reach that I am unable to offer the help or time that I really yearn to offer; or how do I truly empathize with a friend who’s voice breaks on the other end of the phone while I am so busy working that I must abruptly end our conversation when I would like to stop everything and simply sit and drink coffee and share the morning with her; or how do I console an aging parent who fears she may soon lose her sister and best friend, or offer comfort to the childhood friend who has just lost her father when I haven’t even found the time to reconnect? And what about the lonely brother who feels abandoned and misunderstood; the working friend who feels overwhelmed and depressed; the brother and sister-in-law who are stressed and struggling; and the others whom I barely notice?
As I think on these things I realize suffering abounds all around us and comfort does not always mean that our wounds are cleaned and bound and our suffering ends, but comfort may simply be the knowledge that we are not alone in suffering. I may not always find the time to make my presence available to those who are hurting. I may not always know what to say or how to offer true comfort, but I do know that when I am willing to step into the presence of suffering and acknowledge pain – even pain that is not always obvious – I bring a little of the comfort by which I have been comforted.