“Were you Baptist before Lutheran?” someone asked me recently.
No. I was more atheist than anything…which is sometimes like being Baptist (as any faith affiliation is), but mostly not. A closet atheist, but a convinced one nonetheless. I think I was asked this question because sometimes I sing Gospel tunes in worship, or ask for an “Amen” in my sermons.
Lutherans can do that, right?
In one of my theology classes at university (called “Black Theology/Black Church) we were assigned the task of visiting a historically black church on a Sunday morning. For a university that, at the time, was only 6% people of color, you can imagine this was a stretch for many in the class.
Off I went with two classmates one Sunday morning to First Church of God in Christ in Gary, Indiana. We arrived a little early, disrupting a small Bible study taking place in the sanctuary. And when worship started, the small Bible study turned into the small congregation, perhaps only numbering 20 in total. And the little electric organ ramped up and we all stood up and clapped (on 2 and 4), and hands were held high and “Amens” came aplenty and we sang and sand for probably half an hour. No hymnals, mind you. It seemed everyone got the words but us newbies…though we stumbled along.
And then the pastor came with a message, another half hour or so. And then an offering, “the tithe” as it was called. And then more singing. And then a second offering, or “the gift” as it was explained. The pastor must have seen my perplexed face. And then an altar call, where no one was particularly saved but everyone was blessed. And then gone.
And the whole thing was totally foreign to me. Totally uncomfortable. Doubly uncomfortable, in some ways. I felt that my presence was a disruption…this white guy coming to watch. And then I also felt disrupted by the strangeness of it all: I didn’t know the hymns, I didn’t shout “Amen,” I didn’t want to be saved.
And looking back I’m thinking, I’m wondering, if this experience wasn’t one of the big wedges that got stuck in my armor of atheism. It shook me up. It made me feel totally uncomfortable.
And I paid attention to it.
When something forces you out of your comfort zone, there are two natural responses: run or ridicule.
We can run from discomfort, preserving ourselves and what we already know. As Father Richard Rohr has been known to say, “We only want to learn what we already know.” This is true in most all of life, but I see it most clearly in the church where the ruffling of the feathers means the rumbling of the masses. We essentially decide to go find a place that makes us feel more comfortable…at least, for a while. Because nothing is comfortable forever. Evolution is the way of all living things. And even the relative plateau times are really just the cover for quantum leaps of change. Even in times of so-called steadiness, the tectonic plates are shifting underneath it all. Hence why a straw can “break the camel’s back.” Were things not always in flux underneath the surface, a straw wouldn’t have that power.
Or we can ridicule it. Write it off. “That’s not the way we do things,” I say, trying to preserve a sense of “we” that is largely based off of a heightened sense of “me.” Ridicule is a philosophical tool we use to take power away from things that don’t fit in our worldview.
But we have another response that we can use: we can pay attention to the feelings of discomfort inside of us and learn from them. Why do I feel this way? What is the underlying thing, true or imaginary, I’m trying to hold on to? How can this moment teach me?
Jesus employed discomfort as his tool for growth in everything that he did. He caused everyone around him to feel uncomfortable.
The Christian church is going through this extreme time of discomfort. It’s happening at all levels: from the denominational offices to the congregation (and even to the individual Christian). And we can run from it; some are certainly doing that. They’re voting with their feet and their faith. We can ridicule it; some are certainly doing that. “Just keep things the same until you push my casket down the aisle,” is a phrase many pastors have heard and many parishioners have entertained.
Or we can learn from it. We can let it instruct us. We can trust that we catch a better glimpse of God in these moments of discomfort. After all, there must be some reason Jesus used this as his primary teaching tool!
Discomfort is now my friend. We’re not best buddies; I’d like to see them less than I do sometimes. But they always teach me something, usually something about myself and my preconceived notions. Something I can’t learn elsewhere.
And it’s hard to learn these lessons…any other way.