Comfort the Afflicted and Afflict the Comfortable: Old First E-pistle 02.08.19

Comfort the Afflicted and Afflict the Comfortable: Old First E-pistle 02.08.19

“If we can’t as a congregation bear disagreement and tension — handle some discomfort — we’ll never do anything. Ok, maybe that’s an exaggeration. But if we cannot risk ruffling any feathers or upsetting any apple carts, our range is going to be awfully restricted. Churches that are committed to making everyone comfortable cannot be committed to anything else.”

Someone heard me recently say something like this. She asked me about it later. She hadn’t heard the whole, larger conversation within which it was said. And I don’t remember saying it. But it sounds like me. And I stand by what it suggests.  

I suspect that I was probably talking about our development project. Permanent, supportive housing, it turns out, brings up a lot of issues. Parking alone can get us going. But there’s buildings and traditions and aesthetics and neighbors and, and, and…

I think we are committed as a church to tackling those issues head-on — being honest and transparent, and trying to create time and space processes that involve and inform everyone before we come together as a church to make decisions.

But on the emotional level, I have been thinking a lot about the tensions that come with such a big and complicated project introducing so much change and uncertainty… I have been wondering in a project like this how much tension is too much (or not enough).

For instance, I would guess that the decision to move back downtown in the mid-60’s generated some agita. Likely, also our earlier decisions to tear down and rebuild or move to new neighborhoods and buildings. I am not too worried about us bearing more stress or even too much stress (we are a healthy community), but since I have never before in ministry done a project like this, these are interesting unknowns that I too am just feeling my way through.

But this E-pistle isn’t really about any specific tension around that project. Rather, I want to step back, and take up a more general or philosophical stance and ask us to think for a minute about the relations between change / growth and discomfort.

Truly sometimes people wish — understandably — for their church to be nothing but comfort. Sometimes people are completely floored that there can be division and disagreement at church — as if sharing a faith means nothing else can divide you!  

As I said, I understand, of course, why people need comfort: life is hard, and we all need solace. Church is someplace one should expect help. But congregations committed to radical “undisturbedness” — they end up completely paralyzed for fear of upsetting people or even just on the threat of one person’s reaction. That’s not “good community,” folks. Actually, growth and power often come from the tensions within the community.

So I want to suggest that we think differently about what comfort could mean at church.

Many of you know what has been called the 80/20 rule at Old First. We hope that you agree with about 80% of what you encounter here. You can count on that, and we hope it gives you comfort.

But 20% of what you confront here… well, it may not be what you would choose. Or it may even rub you the wrong way. That’s a factor of our diversities and trying to meet the various needs of many different people. In a complex and diverse group, no one gets everything they want, and there needs to be give and take. That’s one of the lessons and values of community, I think. Maturity and generosity, I think.

But it’s even more than that. If we are going to grow, as individuals or as a community, we need to take risks and stretch. We need to go beyond what we have done before and try new things. We need to make mistakes. Learn. Dust ourselves off, and try again with our new understandings.

Our Christianity isn’t just some spiritual stasis that insulates us from any discomfort. Rather, it’s about finding the resources, including the courage, to keep going, growing, changing, becoming in faith. So faith is cover or the clothing in which we try  and make our journeys.

And, no matter how good our cover, no matter how appropriate to the climate or protective our clothes, we are trying to walk into the unknown. Alongside of that process of leaning into what is new, there will be uncertainties, jitters, disagreements and disappointments. That’s not just undisturbed comfort. I think it’s the comfort of knowing we can get through and arrive where God wants us, no matter the trials and troubles along the way. Ours is a God who not only goes with us, but who is moving and expecting us to follow.

As Christians, we should worry when we get too comfortable. As our Affirmation of Faith has us saying this Epiphanytide, “we too are foreigners in a strange land.” Lord, afflict us lest we be too comfortable, but provide us enough comfort that we can face any affliction on the road to following you. Send for us as ourselves, that we might become all you need us to be.

See you in church,