Tuesday, April 11, 2017

A Liturgy on the Comforter

It's Holy Week, and this is the third of a series.

To me, the deepest, most profound, and most encouraging verses Jesus taught during holy week was about the comforter. Indeed, he promised:

I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you. (John 14:18)
And your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you (John 16:22)

Last year, amid my wife’s very deep health issues at the time, I spent a lot of time “visiting” Johns Hopkins medical center in Baltimore.  One night, in the deepest and darkest moments of my concern, I walked to the original dome building of the hospital, where a statue of Christ stands.  It is a replica of Thorvaldsen’s “Christus Consolator” – the same statue that graces LDS visitors’ centers around the world.

But there is a difference.  The statue at Johns Hopkins is not set with the backdrop of the heavens, but rather, in the entrance of a place of suffering and healing.  It is not placed above us, but rather, He stands among us, and the passersby touch his feet, with a hope for healing from him.  Instead of a visitors book nearby where you can get more information from missionaries, there is a book of hand-written prayers, offered by those who seek healing for a suffering family member, or who in gratitude express humble worship and thanks to the One who heals us.

At the base of the statue, it reads, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you REST.” (Matthew 11:28)

As I stood there, late in the evening, with the lights lowered, I realized that I was in a sacred space.  A nurse came by, quietly, touching the feet of the Savior, and left without a word.  As I read the sacred texts there, of hand-written pleas for healing, for gratitude for miracles unseen by the world, I could not help myself, tears rolled down my eyes.

I had no answers for what was wrong with my wife, or whether she would ever be whole again.  My sister had suggested that my wife’s poor health might be the “new normal”, and I was facing a kind of despair that comes from years of unanswered prayers, constant presence on the prayer roll, and endless unfulfilled priesthood blessings.

But there was something in this room, in this sacred space, that gave me comfort.  Something I realized, in that moment, I shall never forget.

I was in a house of healing.  A house founded by a secular atheist, Johns Hopkins, at a time and place where religion and religious healing dominated the day.  The staff at this hospital were doing all they could for my wife, and their care was exceptional, but they had no answers any more than I did.  They could only treat the symptoms, try to get to a cause, but something more had to happen, something deeper, something from within.

And yet, while healing must originate from within, healing is like a precious seedling.  Healing is like the seed of faith – it can be planted, but to nourish it, to help it grow, it needs sustenance from power beyond itself.  Without the nourishment of those around a person suffering illness, whether it be the professionals who care, or the loved ones who are there, healing tends to slow, stop, and reverse itself.

Yet as Jesus taught about the Comforter, he said, “I tell you the truth, if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you.”  Before this dark night in the Dome of Johns Hopkins, I did not understand what Jesus said.  I was confused, before, when Jesus said, “Come onto me and I will give you rest,” yet he knew that he would leave, be crucified, and “go away”.  How can I come unto him when he is not here?

Sure, we speak of the resurrected, living Christ.  We recognize that Christ is a living presence in our lives, through the light of Christ and through the Holy Ghost – and yes, these provide comfort.  But they also are abstract, ephemeral, difficult to recreate at a moment’s noticing – Sure, I have had spiritual experiences, but can I summon one when I am in the dark night of my despair?  Where is the quiet hand to calm my anguish?  Yes, He is the One, and sometimes the Only One.  But even in that night, that dark night, I realized that He…has help.

It occurs to me that Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”  Joseph Smith taught that when the spirit is present between two people, the “understand one another, and both are edified and rejoice together.”

It occurs to me that when Jesus was physically present among the apostles, they all seemed to anchor in him as their charismatic leader, seeking comfort from him, and assurances that the individually might exceed in the Kingdom of God and Heaven. Yet when Jesus promised the disciples, “I will not leave you comfortless, I will come to you”, he then explained how:

“Yet a little while, and the world seeth me no more;…” – (John 14:19a)  The world – the physical realities of human, mortal life – will see Jesus no more.  He will be crucified, he will die.

“…but ye see me: because I live, ye shall live also.” (v19b)  In what way to the disciples “see” Christ?  We speak of the physical resurrection, of the witness that he rose physically from the dead.  Yet for all those who lived after this time, the way disciples “see” Christ is not through physical manifestation, but rather, as Paul experienced, by the revelation of Christ – the personal spiritual experience in all of its forms.

This experience of grace, the personal spiritual experience, provides the change in heart necessary to become One in Christ.  Because we all have gifts differing, our experiences vary, yet in all, we come to the realization that Christ is a living presence for us, and that presence gives us life. Jesus said, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.”

“At that day ye shall know that I am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you.” (v20) We speak of atonement as applying to the far off date, that the realization of this promise of us being in Jesus and Jesus being in us as part and parcel of our future resurrection and exaltation in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Yet “that day” is not so far off.  “That day” was the time when, after Jesus departed from them, they would experience the Comforter, and then “know” that Jesus IS (present tense) in his Father, and thate we ARE (present tense) in him, and He IS (present tense) in us.

Yet all this idea that Christ, and the Holy Ghost – the Comforter – are all within us is perhaps “comforting”, but often not enough.  We have to ask for help in order to get help.  Often we think of this as prayer, and certainly that is part of the equation.  But why did a loving god have his loving son leave us?  Why did the apostles not realize the Comforter while Jesus was with them?  Why did Jesus have to leave in order for them to receive the gift of the Holy Ghost?

In the moment I stood in the sacred presence of the Christus Consolator – literally, “Christ the Comforter”, I realized the answer.  “Whenever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”   We cannot be saved by ourselves.  We cannot heal ourselves.  We need the comforter, the presence of the spirit, not only from within or individual selves, but also, from each other.  That’s why “whenever TWO or THREE are gathered in His name” matters.

In other words, we need each other as humans.  We need not just our humanity, and we certainly don’t need our judgy-ness one for another.  What we need is our divinity.  When Jesus left the presence of his disciples, he made it possible for them to realize that they needed each other in order to be whole.

In the moment we realize where we can find the Comforter, we begin to embrace who we truly are as Mormons.  We are here to “comfort those who stand in need of comfort”.  We realize that Christ has left us to be gods one to another, to allow the holy spirit to guide us in our unconditional love and service one to another.  We have the charge – the god-given opportunity --  to comfort those who need comfort, and in so doing, we not only obtain comfort, but indeed, the presence of Christ is there with us, and we are One.

How does this work?

I have seen in faith communities some amazing ways to bring comfort.  When Pope Frances washed the feet of refugees, prisoners, and muslim children, he was setting an example of comfort.   When people reach out to victims of ecclesiastical abuse, they are providing comfort to those in need. When people stand and defend LGBTQ rights to marriage equality and inclusion, and provide refuge for sufferers of religious policies, they are providing comfort.  When the journalists of the Salt Lake Tribune defend rape victims at BYU in their quest to for justice and fairness without retaliation, they are providing comfort.  When some of our leaders, such as Elders Renlund and Holland, and President Uchtdorf, speak out in support of inclusion and unconditional love, they are providing comfort.  When we do anything that brings us closer together, in our homes, in our work, in our churches, we are providing comfort.  And each time we welcome someone into our home and communities, and share together and listen to each other's experience, strength, and hope, we are providing comfort.

I don’t know if this helps anyone. I know that in a moment, in a quiet dark night in sacred space, I stood at the feet of Christ the Comforter, and realized how much we all need each other to comfort those who stand in need of comfort – that the work of the Comforter is found in our connection one with another.

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