O Comforter, Draw Near

Today is Pentecost. It’s the day we mark the coming of the Holy Spirit. One of the names used for the Holy Spirit in scripture is the “Comforter”.  Jesus says, “But the Comforter, even the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.”

In our collect today, we pray that we will be able to “rejoice in (the Spirit’s) comfort.” And at the close of our service today, we will sing the hymn “Come Down, O Love Divine” with the lyrics, “O Comforter draw near, within my heart appear.” So, my hope in this short Pentecost sermon is that each of us will experience the comfort that comes from God.

If you are like me, you are looking for comfort wherever you can get it: Chinese takeout, the piccolo trill of the Wood Thrush, an encouraging headline.  One reason you may need comfort more than ever is the well-documented experience of video-call fatigue. A recent article in Vox called “The Stark Loneliness of Digital Togetherness” nailed it. One psychiatrist said, “Every time you connect to a Zoom call, you are having two experiences at the same time: the experience of reaching, and the experience of what you’ve lost.” 

For me, the absence of touch is the most devasting loss. Studies back this up. The article says,In order to relax, the brain needs to know that it has backup — that someone else is there to help should the need arise. Physical contact is the simplest, most powerful way of communicating that. “There’s nothing more concrete.”’ O Comforter, draw near.

People have always needed comfort, but maybe now more than ever. I have been finding enormous comfort in the work of Willa Cather, whose novels unflinchingly address the sadness and loss of human life, but do so within the context of hope and providence. In her 1913 novel, O Pioneers! she describes her main character’s yearning for comfort which includes an experience of touch.

Alexandra is a strong pioneering woman in Nebraska who through ingenuity and hard work has built up a group of prosperous farms. Her innate personality, as well as the experience of tough decision making in a male dominated culture has led her to hide or downplay any kind of emotional vulnerability. Any yet, she too, like all people, yearns to be comforted.

Cather, quite a strong woman herself, includes this recurring dream – or fancy – of Alexandra’s. “It most often came to her on Sunday mornings, the one day in the week when she lay late abed listening to the familiar morning sounds…. Sometimes, as she lay thus luxuriously idle, her eyes closed, she used to have an illusion of being lifted up bodily, and carried lightly by some one very strong.

 It was a man, certainly, who carried her, but he was like no man she knew; he was much larger and stronger and swifter, and he carried her as easily as if she were a sheaf of wheat. She never saw him, but, with eyes closed, she could feel that he was yellow like sunlight,…. As she grew older, this fancy more often came to her when she was tired than when she was fresh and strong.”

Isn’t there some part of your deepest self that this touches? Even if you’re a tough guy, or if you are the “strong one”, the one on whom everyone else relies, doesn’t this kind of comfort appeal to the child in you? One of our daughters, when she was little, constantly said, “Carr-a me! Carr-a me! Carr-a me!” Which, we did, as parents do.

There is a reason that the hokey “Footprints in the Sand” poem has widespread appeal. Remember it? The author sees 2 sets of footprints in the sand – hers and the Lord’s. But when her life was especially difficult – when she was tired instead of fresh and strong – there was only one set of prints. Asking the Lord why He abandoned her in her moment of need, He replied, “My precious child, I love you and will never leave you Never, ever, during your trials and testings. When you saw only one set of footprints, It was then that I carried you.” O Comforter draw near.

In Isaiah we read, The Lord says “you have been carried from the womb; even to your old age….and to your gray hairs I will carry you. I have made you, and I will bear you; I will carry you and will save you.” (Isaiah 46:3-4)

In our gospel reading for this Pentecost Sunday, Jesus cries out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.”  People sometimes wonder about the Holy Spirit – the very name communicating a kind of virtual rather than physical presence! I’ve found that the easiest way to understand the 3rd Person of the Trinity is to see the Spirit as Jesus’ Spirit still present with us. And his Spirit is most palpably experienced in the presence of grace-filled love. That kind of love quenches our thirst for comfort. Let anyone who is thirsty come to me.

There was an extremely powerful piece on ESPN by Ryan Hockensmith, which feels to me like moment when the Comforter drew near. He recounts an experience he had with baseball cards and a school principal when he was a lonely, hurting boy in the midst of his parents’ divorce. One day, without knowing why, Ryan was called to Mr. Thompson’s office. The principal had called the boy into his office to see if he was doing okay, but Ryan wouldn’t open up. Mr. Thompson, however, didn’t give up.

Hockensmith writes, “my name blared from the loudspeaker again the next day, and I had knots in my stomach as I went back down to the office. The trepidation lasted about 30 seconds.

“Ryan, I have something for you,” Mr. Thompson said, and he slid a 1979 Topps Pedro Guerrero rookie card across his desk to me. Guerrero was my favorite player from my and my dad’s favorite team, the Dodgers. “I’d like to give it to you. Maybe you can hold on to it and remember that if you ever need to talk to someone about anything going on in your life, I’m here.”

The sadness welled up through my body and out of my eyes. It was one of those physical cries, where your brain relinquishes control of your respiratory system and the chest heaves and there’s no slowing it down. When I could finally get out a few words, I asked Mr. Thompson questions he had no answers for: Why are my parents splitting up? Will Dad ever move back home? How do I get him to come back? Can you talk to him and tell him just to come home?

Mr. Thompson listened and nodded. I don’t remember if I ever met with him again, or what I thought later that day or that week. I don’t know when I gave up on the idea that my dad would ever come back again. But I do recall two things from that moment: It was the first baseball card I can remember, and that was the only time I remember crying when my parents’ marriage broke up.”  O Comforter, draw near.

What I hope to leave you with today is the comfort and assurance that Jesus is Someone very strong – so strong he carried the cross and bore our sins in his body, as the scripture says. And my prayer is that He may draw very near to you today – O Comforter, draw near.

Amen.