“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…”
Isaiah 40, 1-2, 16
“By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us…”
Again and again in scripture we are warned about spiritual danger of “hardness of heart”—the closed mind, the closed heart, the closed doors. Speaking of closed doors, was the Innkeeper a hard-hearted man? The one who had no room in the inn, who had no qualms about turning a woman in labor out into the cold. That’s how he is almost always portrayed in our Christmas pageants. Like the child in our preschool’s pageant said, “Go away! We are full up! We are wall to wall with people!” Is he the Grinch of the Christmas story?–the Grinch whose “heart was two sizes too small.”
The Grinch movie gives us the reason why: because as a child he had been ostracized and rejected for the green color of his skin. That can harden a heart! It is not unlike the heart of another Grinch, Ebenezer Scrooge, who was, as Dickens described him, “Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.” But he too had been wounded as a child by a father who abandoned him, an alcoholic mother abused him. That will harden a heart! Is that not how we protect ourselves when we have been hurt? by building a wall around that vulnerable place lest it ever happen again. Indeed, in my experience, I have never met a so-called hard-hearted person who was not soft on the inside, protecting a wound that has never completely healed. It is interesting to me that in both these classic stories there is a child–Tiny Tim for Scrooge and Cindy Lou for the Grinch–who plays a key role in softening their hearts. I have seen this in my own family, in the wake of my beloved uncle’s difficult death, how the birth of little Julian Grace has softened that very hard place.
What about those hard places? This past week, I read an interesting essay by J. Philip Wagaman, “The Hardening of America,” our changing attitude toward the world, especially toward our adversaries, the toughening of our policies, strengthening of our defenses, the hard line we are taking with immigration, the emphasis on Homeland Security. The author traces this hardening of America back 9/11, one of the deepest wounds we have suffered as a nation. He quotes Condoleeza Rice, who, in the wake of attacks said: “We are now engaged in trying harden the country,” a country that had always been open, trusting, and free, a country that has now come to a common consensus that “the worse thing is to be too soft.” But the risk we run, warns Wagaman, is the risk of spiritual cardiomyopathy. A hardening of the heart. For the same walls that keep us safe inside, are the walls that isolate us from our friends, cut us off from humankind.
Remember the song from the Broadway musical, Hair? “Easy to be hard, easy to be cold, easy to be proud, easy to say no.” It is too easy, this most obvious, knee-jerk, first line of defense. It’s only natural, when one has been hurt, this instinctive, primal, reptilian Grinch response. Remember: “hurt people hurt people.” This how we survived as a species: Survival of the Fittest. And, let me say, just for the record, that I for one would never argue that there is no place for the kind of strength that defends the vulnerable, sets healthy boundaries, says NO when necessary, and practices tough love. I believe in tough love. But even advocates of tough love know there is only so much it can do. Yes, it can modify behavior. It can restrain the wrongdoer. It can contain the criminal. But it cannot change the heart. There are some things that only soft love can do.
In fact, this past week, Jane Stennett passed on to me an article by John Edward Terrell from New Scientist entitled “The Survival of the Friendliest,” about how humankind has survived as a species not only because of our fitness to fight but also because of our capacity for establishing relationships, building community, strengthening bonds, making friends. For human beings cannot make it alone in this world. We need one another to survive and to thrive.
At the same time, I have listened with great interest to the current debate about the CIA’s use of torture in interrogation of terrorists in the aftermath of 9/11. Did it work? Is that what led us to Osama Lin Laden? Some say yes, some say no. I read the testimony of former FBI agent and interrogation expert Joe Navarro who spent 25 years in the FBI, much of that time training others in interrogation techniques. Of torture, he says, “None of it works. “I’ve done thousands of interviews, and I can tell you, none of it works.” He says treating terrorists humanely and empathizing with them works better than abusing them. And John McCain, who was himself tortured as a POW in Viet Nam, agrees.
I don’t want to get into such a hot button issue, but I know it works better with me. Attack me, criticize me, abuse me, and I tend to build a wall, shut down, and withdraw. But reach out to me, be a friend to me, and I will walk on broken glass all the way to the moon for you.
How did Otis Redding sing it? “Oh, she may be weary, young girls they do get weary, but when she gets weary, try a little tenderness…” How did the poet e.e. cummings put it? “Be of love a little more careful than of everything.” I think this is especially true when it comes to the love of God. Hellfire, brimstone, and damnation can scare me into being a good girl and following the rules, but can it change my heart?
I read a wonderful article by Craig Barnes, president of Princeton Theological Seminary, about how most of us come to church already pretty beat up by life: weary. We already know what we are supposed to look like, act like, what the expectations are, what our responsibilities, and all the ways we have fallen short. Do we really need to hear a preacher say: you are not good enough! You have got to do more, give more, be more. He calls it the Bad Dog! Sermon, scolding the congregation because the world is such a mess. And we all sit there, he says, like “guilty puppies.” And all the while we are desperate to hear the extraordinary good news that we are loved, that we are forgiven, that we belong, a word of comfort that can soften the hard places in our hearts. Because there is only so much tough love can do. There are those things that only a soft love can do that.
I read something soft by a young mother named Clara Null. She was having one the hardest days of her life. The washing machine had broken down, the telephone kept ringing, her head ached, the mailman brought a bill she had no idea how she would pay. She was almost to the breaking point when she picked up her little 1 year old boy to put him in his high chair. In the process, she knocked his juice cup onto the floor splattering juice everywhere, making the biggest mess–it was the last straw! She put him in the high chair, and then she laid her head down on the tray and began to cry. She said, “Without a word, my son took his pacifier out o his mouth and stick it into mine.” And she had to laugh. She had to take that baby in her arms and hold him. Her tears turned to joy, and it called forth from deep within her a strength she didn’t know she had. I call that the power of love. When it comes to love, soft is strong. Try it. A little tenderness.
Christmas comes just in time with an extraordinary message of tenderness. Isaiah foretold it, “Comfort, comfort ye my people, speak tenderly to Jerusalem. He shall feed his flock, he will gather the lambs in his bosom, and gently lead those who are young.” And Zechariah foretold it, “The tender mercy of our God will dawn upon us from on high…” How does God come when he wants to intervene in human history, to bring peace on earth, to stop the fighting, to change the human heart? Does he come with an iron fist? Does he come with jackhammer or an AK-47? No. This is how he comes: “and she gave birth to her first born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in manger.”
“Nothing greater can be said,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer from the concentration camp where he was imprisoned by the Nazis. “God became a child. Wait a minute! Don’t speak! Stop thinking! Stand still before this statement! God became a child!…On the weak shoulders of child” rests the greatest power in the world. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, it never ends. Love. Into a world which is in love with power comes Christmas and the power of love.
Take that baby in your arms. Hold him in your heart. Love him– let him love you. Comfort him, and let him comfort you. Let him soften the hard places–the tender mercy of our God.