Comfort and Joy

Allan Reeve always gets me thinking.

My favourite memory of Allan is of him standing at the front of Danforth Baptist Church, ripping up a $20 bill as he urged us to “spit in the eye of the Tin God” and break the power money has over us.  Allan is also the man who inspired me to give up a real vice for Lent – like fear, or despair or lethargy — rather than waste the occasion with a mere chocolate abstention. (If you’ve never tried it, I can attest to the transformative power of such a Lenten fast.)

Many years ago Allan and his family moved to Fenelon Falls, where Allan serves as a United Church minister. Now it’s his weekly blog that keeps me on my toes.

Two weeks ago, Allan’s posting “Comfort or Joy” had me heading for my Bible. In this blog, Allan contends that “If it’s comfort we seek – then it’s joy we trade in exchange.” He observed that Jesus had to push past the comforts of home, security, even an established moral code, to achieve – not happiness – but joy, and we needed to do the same.

A different sort of comfort

Allan’s thinking made sense to me. But I wondered, then, how the idea of “comfort and joy” became so firmly rooted in Christian thought. The first mention of the phrase “comfort and joy” I discovered was in Jeremiah 31, when God promises to re-unite a scattered, oppressed and impoverished people, and redeem them from “the hand of those stronger than they.” And on that day, He says, “maidens will dance and be glad, young men and old as well. I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.”

All through the Bible, God promises his people comfort. But it is not the comfort of cozy evenings or money in the bank. It is urgent help to those who toil working cursed ground; to those alone in alien lands; to the afflicted, the lonely, the inconsolable; to those who are surrounded by enemies; to those whose homes are in ruins and whose land has been laid waste; to those who grieve the death of their parents or their children; to those who walk in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

The comfort that can co-exist with joy.

It’s impossible to read these promises and not think of Haiti. I confess that, at this moment, I find the possibility for any sort of real comfort for the people of Haiti unimaginable. The pinpoints of hope I spot in the news photos – a woman setting up her food stall, a nun surrounding by singing women – seem so small amidst the enormity of the sorrows.

But I have also observed that imagined sorrows are not the same as real sorrows. I think of our friend Queenie, preparing to celebrate her 93rd birthday after overcoming many life-threatening illnesses, starting as a young woman. And I remember her answering my question, “Can there really be joy in suffering?” by saying, “Joy in suffering? Absolutely. AB-SO-LUTE-LY.

I find this a great mystery. I would love to hear of your own observations about “comfort and joy” amidst suffering, although I know these stories may be too tender to tell on-line. But if we see each other, let’s talk about this. And if you read something helpful elsewhere, add the link in the comments section.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “Comfort and Joy

  1. Tom Balke

    Hi from Worthing, UK. Thanks for your reflection on comfort and joy. There are varieties of joy; deep joy (for lack of a better term) takes on a different dimension than a joy in the material. We as Western Christians are often indistinguisable from our surrounding materialist culture. How then do we live, hope, or experience joy any differently? Might there be joy in turning swords into ploughshares, caring for the widow, or setting the captives free? ….When asked ‘what should our church be like?’ 1/3 of the elders at our church said: ‘a comfortable place.’ Sure lets be welcoming to a variety of people. I am not sure that being comfortable is Biblical (it is interesting that churches in other lands make sure to have a theology of suffering in their doctrinal statement). At the same elders meeting people did not know that the word incarnational meant. How about incarnational comfort and joy?

  2. Christine Robertson

    I have a friend who gave up complaining for lent. She realized then, that it was simply a bad habit and served no useful purpose. Dying to complaining increased her joy and her beloved others’ comfort.

    Indeed one “cannot but think of Haiti” in terms of Jeremiah 31.

    Following Christ is to encounter the paradoxical world of gaining by losing, living by dying ,and finding joy when comfortableness is stripped away.

  3. Elizabeth Sherk

    “I’m trading my sorrow, I’m trading my pain, I’m laying them down for the Joy of the Lord.” In my work as Suzuki Teacher, I am reminded of another destructive vice to give up, not just at Lent, but as a daily practice, the habit of anger. Dr. Suzuki wrote a book “Ability Development from Age Zero”, the premise of which is that all good human abilities can be nurtured to a high level in all human beings if we are nurtured well from infancy by wise & observant adults. All human abilities are developed through imitation & repetition, both the constructive & the destructive.
    The cycles of our lives, the yearly, the seasonal, the monthly, the weekly, the daily, the liturgical calendar give us a context in which to practice the relinquishment of negativity, irritability, rage & outrage, & to replace these anger habits with serenity, good will, good cheer, friendliness, doing the next small goodness/kindness/comforting act that comes to hand.

    Thank you, Joy for starting the experiment.

    Elizabeth

  4. Elizabeth Sherk

    I will post all the words of the old English carol
    God rest ye merry, gentle folk before this month of Christmas, Epiphany & Stephen’s martyrdom is past.
    The Gospel is the good tiding of comfort & joy. For all people. What do elders mean when they say that they want their particular congregation to be “comfortable”? I think they mean that they want the people in their community/their faith community, their worshiping community to be welcoming of all, able to hold respectfully & listen attentively to diversity, and to be active agents of help & healing to whoever comes their way.

  5. Jamie Perttula

    I wonder if our concept of comfort is the problem. Do we think of comfort as a state in which we have no worries or challenges? A state in which we are sheltered from any kind of problem or issue or question? Isn’t comfort something we give to a hurting child, a mourning friend? I don’t think comfort and joy are opposites at all – at least not biblical opposites. In fact, doesn’t giving comfort bring joy to us and others. (Joy – I’m not really a blog person, but I’m intrigued enough to actually respond. Thanks)

  6. Paul Dowling

    Like Jamie, I’m not normally a blog person but also find this intriguing. Have you read Dominique Lapierre’s novel City of Joy? It has been a few years since I read it but I recall at first thinking that the title was intended to be ironic, since the City in question was the slums of Calcutta; but I found that the novel instead describes the real life joys of slum dwellers.

  7. okay, so how about an uncomfortable kind of comfort?

  8. elizabeth sherk

    All the words of the old English Carol:

    on the very last day of the New Year Month

    God rest you merry, gentlemen,
    Let nothing you dismay.
    For Jesus Christ our Saviour
    Was born upon this day,
    To save us all from Satan’s power
    When we were gone astray:
    O— tidings of comfort and joy,
    comfort and joy, O—tidings of comfort and joy!

    In Bethlehem in Jewry
    This blessed babe was born,
    And laid within a manger
    Upon this blessed morn;
    The which his mother Mary
    Nothing did take in scorn:
    O—Tidings of comfort and joy….

    From God our heavenly Father
    A blessed angel came,
    And unto certain shepherds
    Brought tidings of the same,
    How that in Bethlehem was born
    The Son of God by name:
    O Tidings of Comfort and Joy….

    “Fear not,” then said the angel,
    “Let nothing you affright.
    This day is born a Saviour,
    Of virtue, power, and might;
    So frequently to vanquish all
    The friends of Satan quite”:
    O Tidings of Comfort and Joy…

    The shepherds at those tidings
    Rejoiced much in mind,
    And left their flocks a-feeding
    In tempest, storm and wind,
    And went to Bethlehem straightway
    This blessed babe to find:
    O Tidings of comfort and joy….

    But when to Bethlehem they came,
    Whereat the infant lay,
    They found him in a manger,
    Where oxen feed on hay;
    His mother Mary kneeling,
    Unto the lord did pray:
    O Tidings of Comfort and Joy….

    Now to the Lord sing praises,
    All you within this place,
    And with true love and brotherhood
    Each other now embrace;
    this holy tide of Christmas
    All others doth deface:
    O Tidings of Comfort and Joy…

    ( first version in the Oxford Book of Carols p. 224 & 25)

    God rest you merry gentlemen,
    Let nothing you dismay,
    Remember Christ our Sviour
    was born on Christmas Day,
    To save ppor souls from Sastan’s power
    Which had long time gone astray,
    And it’s tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy:
    these are tidings of comfort and joy…

    From God that is our Father,
    The blessed angels came,
    Unto some certain shepherds
    with tidings of the same:
    That there was born in Bethlehem,
    The Son of God by name.
    These are tidings of comfort and joy…

    Go, fear not, said God’s angels,
    Let nothing you affright.
    For there is born in Bethlehem,
    Of a pure virgin bright,
    One able to advance you
    And throw down Satan quite.
    And it’s tidings of comfort and joy…

    The shepherds at those tidings,
    Rejoiced much in mind,
    And left their flocks a feeding
    In tempest storms of wind,
    and strait they came to Bethlehem
    The Son of God to find.
    And it’s tidings of comfort and joy…

    Now when they came to Bethlehem,
    Where our sweet Saviour lay,
    they found him in a manger,
    Where oxen feed on hay.
    The blessed Virgin kneeling down,
    Unto the lord did pray.
    And it’s tidings of comfort and joy…

    With sudden joy and gladness,
    The shepherd were beguiled,
    To see the Babe of Israel,
    Before his mother mild,
    On them with joy and chearfulness,
    Rejoice each mother’s child.
    And it’s tidings of comfort and joy.

    Now to the lord sing praises,
    All you within this place.
    Like we true loving brethren,
    Each other to embrace,
    For the merry time of Christmas,
    Is drawing on a pace.
    And it’s tidings of comfort and joy.

    God bless the ruler of this house,
    And send him long to reign.
    And many a merry Christmas
    May live to see again.
    Among your friends and kindred
    That live both far and near
    And God send you a happy New Year,
    Happy New Year
    And God send us all a Happy New Year!

    (This version was sung in the 1800’s in the streets of London and is reprinted in the Oxford Book of Carols exactly as it was printed on a broadside by J. & C. Evans, Long-lane, London 50 years earlier. So it has a long tradition among us!)

    I, Elizabeth, think it is one of the greatest songs we sing. And it cheers me & comforts me at all seasons of the year whenever it comes to mind.

  9. Paul Connelly

    I’m not sure where I’m going with this, but ever since I first read the original blog entry and the early responses, I’ve been musing about attitudes towards “comfort” and what that word means. I understand there’s some ambivalence about the concept. I mean, comfort is usually better than its opposite, discomfort, but isn’t discomfort the appropriate response when we’re confronted with the wrongful things around us?

    My thoughts seem to have gone away on a tangent, something like this. Over the last few years, I’ve helped coach various boys’ lacrosse teams. And I’ve realized that one of my major tasks was to expand their comfort zone. For example, when someone is learning to play lacrosse, they tend to trot along awkwardly, keeping their eyes on the ball in the stick, not really aware of anything else. Over time, as the comfort level grows, the player relaxes a bit, can run without looking at the ball all the time and starts looking around for the possibilities of doing something with it.

    But as soon as someone comes along to check the ball carrier, then there is immediate regression. The player tenses up, hunches his shoulders, turns away from the challenge, loses his vision of his surroundings and despite an effort to focus on protecting the ball, becomes more vulnerable to losing it.

    This is where the coaching comes in. During practice, we try to get the kids to keep their head up, instead of turning away to look around for teammates who can help, cooperating with others to overcome the obstacle. If the practice is successful, then the games become more joyous. The kids overcome the challenges, learn confidence in their skills and look outside themselves to help each other. They become comfortable in a wider range of circumstances.

    And I wonder if that’s a lesson with a wider application. Maybe the challenge is to be more comfortable with ourselves in more situations so that we can respond appropriately. I mean, that seems to be one of Jesus’s greatest skills. In almost every situation, he was able to meet the challenge, whether it was with the scholars in the temple when he was just a child, when someone asked for a miracle, when debating with the Pharisees about who is my neighbour, talking with the Samaritan woman at the well, responding to people who complained he didn’t keep the Sabbath, even engaging Pilate on the question of the real meaning of power, he was always comfortable in himself. He was focused on being genuine, being authentic, on responding to the person right in front of him.

    I think we all can agree that the “comfort” of stasis or lethargy is a bad thing. But rather than concluding I need to embrace discomfort as the only alternative, I wonder if I should instead focus on expanding my comfort zone. That way, maybe I stand a better chance of being “in the world, not of it.” I can respond in the moment, with genuineness (is that a word?) rather than being thrown off balance by the challenges I meet. After all, being permanently off balance is not very comfortable either.

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