“Williams Milby,” we are told, “had the gift of comforting. He carried with him, not by his will, it seemed, but by the purest gift, the very presence of comfort. And yet even as it was a comfort to others, it could be a bafflement and burden to him. His calling, and the respect accorded to it, admitted him into the presence of troubles he could not mend.”
Wendell Berry, in these perceptive words, has given us a way of understanding much of our vocation as Christians in a world that groans in un-wellness and pants after soothing comfort.
For one, he spies out the contradiction a carrier of Christ might feel as he or she wades into the swampy waters of others’ uncertainty and anguish. ”Baffled and burdened” is what it feels like to creep into fragile situations that scream for anguish alleviation. To the carrier that is.
But comfort, relief, soothing---these come mysteriously to those we approach, often at least. And thus we have the dynamic of our “in-goddedness” in action on this planet. Christ dwells in us. Others may hear from him through us, experience him in our touch or speech, while we feel “baffled and burdened” and never quite sure whether we are doing it right or not.
Paul felt that in Corinth. Fear and trembling was the gift his stomach got as he arrived to preach. “A demonstration of the Spirit’s power” is what the church at Corinth got when they heard the “baffled and burdened man.” (cf. I Corinthians 2:3-4 if curious)
And of course it is the Spirit of the Resurrected Christ that we carry into a multitude of circumstances for so many of them for us are like those for Williams Milby who found himself in “the presence of troubles he could not mend.”
Flood Level Troubles and Droughts of Compassion
Ours are clearly anxious times. And angry. Despairing even too. Though we may be in drought conditions when it comes to warmth, peaceableness, or even simple, patient listening, most of us know plenty of folks experiencing flood-levels of seemingly un-mendable troubles.
But because troubles are un-mendable doesn’t imply that we shouldn’t get those troubles on us. That we shouldn’t be admitted into the presence of them, and seek as possible to to walk alongside the lonely, scared, angry, ostracized, or discouraged. Of course burden-bearing means our own backs might hurt too.
Ideally though, inadequate as we may conclude we are for our tasks or the troubles that make a claim on us, we’ll not shrink back from the calling to be a community, as churches in the world, of mutual responsibility, preoccupied, not with the preservation of our own personal peace, but with the well-being and flourishing of those around us, growing in a willingness to let ourselves be sent to and drawn up close beside our neighbors, mired though they may be in their own “troubles that cannot be mended.”
It’s often terrifying to face the prospect of sitting across from someone whose been battered by unimaginable horror. We tremble to imagine how we may be exposed as insufficient. We may stay away for fear of saying the wrong thing or of rummaging through the junk drawer of our minds for a suitable something to offer, and coming up woefully short.
Never Acting “On Our Own Steam”
At such times, it’s reassuring to recall that “feeling baffled and burdened” isn’t remotely uncommon for those who are willing to get up close to the worst situations. But we are NEVER acting solely on our own steam. For we “no longer live, but Christ lives in us.”
We are, as Dave Hansen, aptly described “parables of Jesus.” A parable, he reminds, is an extended metaphor. And a metaphor takes something we do know about to help us understand more pointedly something we don’t know so much about. “Ol’ Bill is crazier than a road lizard” might not be politically correct, but gives us some insight into Bill’s wild personality. “Careful of that manifold, it’s hotter than a fiery cracker” is the mechanic’s way of warning my teenage friend and me, just how dangerously elevated in temperature my 1986 Subaru’s engine had become!
Well, as extended metaphors of Jesus, or parables we are privileged to carry our sympathetic, comforting Savior into the presence of “troubles that cannot be mended”. It’s hard for folks to know what Jesus is like since they can’t see him and all, but when you come with a casserole to the door after a devastating loss that your friend Linda has sustained, and you sit and weep with her tenderly or listen to her rage against a providence she cannot but find hateful at the moment, Linda may just come to see more clearly that this Jesus, “a man of sorrows, acquainted with many griefs,” is quite reliably near to “crushed in spirit” after all.
All you felt, was unsure, nervous you were going to botch things up, and “baffled and burdened” by the weight of her distress. But the recipient of the metaphor, Linda, got to experience the very life of Jesus in the middle of her un-mendable troubles. You knew, like the apostle, “fear and trembling”, she got “a demonstration of the Spirit’s power.”
We are never admitted into the presence of un-mendable troubles on our own steam. As carriers of Christ, we walk into them expecting his life and presence, the most needed salve of all, to become vivid, evident, and consolingly apparent.
It is for us to remember King David’s reassurance....
“When I called, you answered me. You made me bold and stout-hearted.” (Psalm 138:3)
And then to walk into the un-mendable troubles of our neighbors, friends, and even enemies, expecting we’ll be given courage to steady our shaking knees and stout-heartedness to stop our affections from shrinking so that we may be instruments through whom Christ demonstrates that he is indeed the One who “daily bears our burdens.”
Contact Eric Youngblood, pastor of Rock Creek Fellowship on Lookout Mountain, at email@example.com