Isaiah 40.1–11; 2 Corinthians 1.3–11
a sermon at the Commissioning of Authorised Pastoral Assistants
in the Cathedral of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert, Durham
on July 20 2009
by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright
‘Comfort, O Comfort my people, says your God.’ That matchless and stirring opening, the opening of course of Handel’s Messiah as well as of the greatest passage in the Old Testament, unveils a large and beautiful vista on the strange healing purposes of the creator God, and of the way in which our God draws men and women to the prophetic ministry of comfort, the ministry to which we authorize our friends here this evening.
There are many relevant themes which bubble up even within this short paragraph. The whole section of Isaiah which runs from here in chapter 40 through to chapter 55 is one long, multisyllabic word of comfort. I have quite often myself used it as a kind of prescription, like a course of antibiotics for someone who’s puzzled or muddled (when I typed those words earlier today they threatened to come out as ‘puddled or muzzled’, and that might be true as well): Sit down, take a deep breath, say a prayer for God’s help, and read right through Isaiah 40—55 at a single go. Then do it again tomorrow. And so on for a week, or perhaps ten days. You don’t need to take it with water, though that might help. You do need to take it, as you take all of scripture I hope, with a sense both that you won’t understand it all straight off and that God will work through it in multiple ways which include the conscious mind but go way beyond it.
Pastoral counselling is after all an art, not a science. It demands engagement at all kinds of levels which you can’t quantify or put in a formula. Perhaps that is never more so than with that word ‘comfort’ itself. Paul uses the same word, translated ‘consolation’, in our second reading, no fewer than ten times in five verses, almost as though he has it on the brain. And in fact he does; because, though 2 Corinthians is in some ways quite a stern letter, and in some ways quite a funny letter, at least towards the end, it is above all about the consolation, the comfort, which Paul himself has received and which he longs to see worked out in the Corinthian church.
There are in fact signs that Isaiah 40—55 was a key Old Testament passages in mind when Paul was writing 2 Corinthians. That would take us too far away from tonight’s topic, except to say that every fresh wave of godly comfort picks up, or should pick up, energy and direction from the waves that have gone before. And you, tonight, are a fresh wave of comfort, a lively, splashing, refreshing wave, coming in on God’s tide to fill the dry pools of other people’s lives with new life, to revive the life that’s already there and perhaps add some more. And you need – constantly you will need! – to pick up fresh energy from the new tides of God’s healing love, and one of the primary ways you will do that is through scripture itself, through your own reading and praying of scripture, your own hearing of it read and preached, your own wise application of it to the needs and longings of those who will look to you for comfort.
Because comfort, in the Christian sense, is significantly different from the comfort that the world has to offer. We have not trained you, and we are not authorizing you, to be psychotherapists or social workers who happen to go to church. Of course, there are massive degrees of overlap, but the ministry of Christian counselling ought to stand in a relation to its secular counterparts rather as a colour picture stands in relation to its black-and-white counterpart; the same scene, but suddenly everything comes up differently. (And of course in some cases it makes a lot of difference; in the days when colour televisions were not so ubiquitous as now, they used an advertisement which pictured a black-and-white snooker match.) What I want to do with you very briefly this evening is to pick three strands from Isaiah and show how at each point the Christian pastor is doing something very similar but something radically different to her or his non-Christian counterpart.
To begin with, you are called to be waiting companions. Companions in the long art of patience and waiting. The worst depression I ever suffered was brought on partly by a sense of guilt that I had moved my very musical family to Canada, only to find that we couldn’t afford music lessons for them, and couldn’t even afford a piano. I had never lived in a house without a piano, or gone many days without playing it myself, and my heart despaired at the thought that I had unwittingly cut my young children off from making music. Then, after about a year, in which one level of depression had led to another, a wise friend who was moving house phoned me up and said he was going to sell me his electronic organ. ‘I couldn’t afford it’, I said. ‘I’m going to sell it to you for One Dollar’, he replied. I drove round there and put it in the back of the station wagon that afternoon, solemnly writing him a cheque for One Dollar (I think he wanted to tell his children, ‘I sold the organ’). We installed the organ in the living room bay window, and I got out my old book of easy Bach pieces and found a chorale prelude almost at random, and played it through. ‘That was nice,’ said Maggie from the kitchen. ‘What’s it called?’ ‘I don’t know,’ I said, and looked back to the start of the piece. There it was, the answer to my waiting, the answer given by a gentle companion at the right time. The chorale was called ‘God’s time is best’. And my then eight-year-old son, who started organ lessons that summer, was playing the organ last Friday night when I licensed the new vicar at Wolsingham.
God’s time is best; and all counselling involves enabling people to wait for that time, even if they wouldn’t call it that. But the difference in being a waiting companion within a Christian framework is that we know there is a God who does have a ‘time’. Comfort, comfort my people, says your God; your time is up, the waiting is over, it’s been sorted out, the new work is now going forward. See, says Paul in 2 Corinthians, quoting this great section of Isaiah, Now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation. But it’s only Now because there has been a long and sad Then in which it seemed, day by painful day, that the Now was never coming. And we who believe that all God’s promises found their Yes in Jesus Christ know that with him the great Comfort-in-person appeared, to feed his flock like a shepherd and gather the lambs in his arms, and gently to lead the mother sheep. And we therefore know, not just that time will heal (because it often doesn’t), not just that we’ll gradually forget the pain (because quite likely we won’t), not simply that things will settle down by themselves (because often they don’t). We know that one day God will make new heavens and new earth, where the valleys will be filled in and the mountains flattened so that the Lord in his glory may return to dwell with us for ever. And we know that he allows us, even in the present, to anticipate that great event by moments when, in his good time and in answer to the spoken and unspoken prayer of ‘How long, O Lord, how long?’, he will bring us round the dark corner and into the light, and will wipe away all tears from our eyes. And we are privileged, as Christian pastors, to be waiting companions, not knowing ourselves when God will do the new thing in his own good time but only that he is the God whose time is best, and who delights to give us, even in the present age, advance signs of his great final moment of comfort.
We are called to be waiting companions; and, second, we are called to be wise witnesses. All counsellors, secular as well as Christian, need to remind the person in distress or difficulty of relevant facts about the world, about themselves, about the way things normally are, which will rearrange their mental furniture and perhaps enable them to take a less panic-stricken or desolate view of where they are. Sometimes, indeed, that’s all that’s needed. I vividly remember a bright but panicky undergraduate, who was faced with too many commitments and a term spinning out of control. Why don’t you, I suggested, feeling rather foolish, just make a list of all the things you need to do and work through it? Astonishingly, nobody had ever told him that before and he hadn’t thought of it himself. He came back a few days later and said it had transformed his life. Ridiculous, really; nothing specifically Christian, just common sense. (Of course, there are people who elevate list-making into an art form, and who, when told to be less hyper-organised, make a list of the seventeen ways to achieve that goal. Naturally, they need a different bit of common sense.)
But the Christian is witness to a different wisdom as well, and Isaiah speaks of it here and elsewhere. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand for ever. The announcement of comfort, of the return of the Lord to his people and his city, is not something that human wisdom could imagine, but is something that you are called to glimpse as you read scripture and to pass on as and when appropriate. I know I don’t need to tell you that scripture can be used in vastly inappropriate ways when counselling. It is alas possible to hit people over the head with texts as a substitute for careful and prayerful listening to what they’re really saying. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about what happens when the wise, prayerful mind that is already soaked in scripture comes together with the listening and prayerful heart that is getting deeper and deeper into the problem that’s being presented, until a confluence takes place, like two rivers gradually mingling, and you are able to speak the Word afresh in a way that carries its comfort right into the heart, because the word and the heart have already been joined together in your own prayer and humble listening and the wise witness flows out of both together.
Waiting companions and wise witnesses: both with dimensions of faith and the Word that other counselling cannot reach.
But thirdly, and I’m sure you’ve been taught this even if you hadn’t experienced it already, you are to be, in the now famous phrase, wounded healers. This is of course where St Paul is coming from in that spectacular opening to 2 Corinthians: Blessed be the God who comforts us when we are in any affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted of God. Paul goes on to describe what, in our language, might be called a nervous breakdown: being so utterly, unbearably crushed that he despaired of life itself. But this, he says, was to make him rely entirely on the God who raises the dead, so that, with the inner core of the gospel as his one remaining motivation, he was able to get up and bring the same comfort to others who needed it.
And in this he was picking up the deep message of Isaiah 40—55. At the heart of that passage, as I’m sure you know, we find the figure of the Suffering Servant, who in Christian tradition has always been seen as a direct signpost to the Lord Jesus himself, in his lonely suffering on behalf of his people and the world. Part of the point of Isaiah 40—55 is that the people of God are suffering the pain and desolation which somehow brings into focus the pain and desolation of all the world, so that their exile is the focal point of the world’s exile and their suffering is the dark centre of the world’s suffering. The Servant, representing Israel, comes to the place where that suffering is at its worst, and takes its full weight on himself so that first Israel and then the world may be comforted, may be assured that exile is over, may receive as fresh good news the promise of new creation.
And in the gospel message St Paul embodies, and passes on to subsequent generations of wounded healers, this same strange logic of wounded healing, of crushed comforters, of those who are able to hear and understand the pain of the world, the pain of this person now who is pouring out their troubles, because they know it in their own hearts and souls. And sometimes it is as though the only way our gracious God can enable this strange alchemy of human comfort to work is by allowing those he will call to be comforters to be desolate themselves, so that they can sit and weep alongside the desolate, and help them through to consolation.
One of the finest expressions of this I know comes, appropriately enough, in Chaim Potok’s masterpiece of Jewish life, The Chosen. The old orthodox rabbi is explaining why he chose to bring up his brilliant son in silence, a silence which echoed the strange silence of God himself with his suffering people. He speaks about the time he realized that his young son was brilliant but with a cold mind that lacked a soul:
I went away and cried to the Master of the Universe, ‘What have you done to me? A mind like this I need for a son? A heart I need for a son, a soul I need for a son, compassion I want from my son, righteousness, mercy, strength to suffer and carry pain, that I want from my son, not a mind without a soul!’
So, as his father had done with him, he brought him up in silence, only speaking to him when they were studying Torah. And, he says, ‘He suffered and learned to listen to the suffering of others. In the silence between us, he began to hear the world crying.’ Not for the last time, Potok seems to be saying more than perhaps he knows, about the Son of God whose heart and soul would overflow with compassion for the world and carry its pain in the silence of the cross.
I do not know – I don’t need to know – the pains and suffering you have gone through yourselves, you dear friends whom we commission tonight. But I do know that God can and does use that pain, which in itself may be bad and the result of evil actions, our own or others’, but which can like the cross itself be picked up and become a place where the love of God may dwell, the love which reaches out to others in pain and distress. No doubt, in secular counselling as well, there are many echoes and resonances of this same phenomenon. But here, as we are again enfolded within the love of the triune God and before the cross of his only beloved Son, we discover the hidden depth of Christian counselling, even if it remains unspoken through many hours of listening and shared thought: that the pain of all the world was heaped onto the head of Jesus himself, so that it might be removed from others; the chastisement that bought our peace was upon him, and with his wounds we are healed.
So how is that peace, that healing made effective in the actual lives and hearts of men, women and children? Often enough, through the wounded healers, the wise witnesses, the waiting companions whose own struggles and sufferings, often silent and unknown (since the last thing the client needs is to hear about the counsellor’s own difficulties!), are somehow taken up into that same love of Christ, so that we are able to comfort those in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. Comfort, comfort my people, says your God: speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. God’s time is best; God’s word endures for ever; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and gently lead those that are with young. May God be with you and bless you as you wait, as you witness, as through your own wounds you bring healing to God’s people and to the world.