Introduction

The name for this blog comes from the Hebrew word merchab. Merchab is a masculine noun that appears most often in the Psalms of the Hebrew Scriptures. It means a broad or roomy place, an expansive place, a wide place. Read more...

December 29, 2008

A CHURCH OF COMFORT AND CONFRONTATION

In his book One Taste Ken Wilber suggests that religion performs two important but separate functions.

Religion “acts as a way of creating meaning for the separate self.” It struggles to help us endure and make sense of the difficulties we inevitably experience in life. Religion seeks to give consolation and strength by promising God’s favour in the present or in an ultimate eternal reward. This is comfort religion.

But religion also serves “the function of radical transformation and liberation.” It “does not fortify the separate self, but utterly shatters it.” Religion serves to destabilize the superficial self by which we attempt to navigate so much of life. It challenges us to open to a deeper more real dimension of our being where we discover the presence of God and our lives begin to be transformed. This is confrontation religion.

Jesus practiced both comfort and confrontation religion, sometimes voicing both in the same breath. Jesus said, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” That is comfort religion. Then he went on to say, “and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate.” (Matthew 23:37,38) That is confrontation.

In the first statement Jesus portrays himself offering protection, safety and nurture for those who would accept his offer. Jesus then denounces those who refuse to heed his call and suggests that their lives are going to unravel. If we refuse God’s gift of comfort, turmoil and chaos in some form will inevitably follow.

Jesus’ teaching tends more towards confrontation than comfort. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 19:23) “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.” (Mark 10:21) “You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?” (Matthew 23:33) “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)

Jesus understood the terrible cost of our attachments. He knew that we spend a great deal of our lives trapped by our defended, grasping, demanding, needy little self. “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” (Matthew 5:39-41) He believed that until we let this little self die, it always gets in the way of our true destiny as beings created to bear the image of God. “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who loves their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:35)

Jesus confronted, often harshly, the empty, dead-end ways we live because he knew the price we pay for following the self-centered demands of the ego instead of taking up our cross and following him. “What will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (Mark 8:36) Jesus confronted the small human ego-self because Jesus knew that the deep purpose of religion was to bring about transformation. He knew that we are destined as human beings to be the light of the world. “You are the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:14)

In my experience, the church works harder at comfort religion than we do at confrontation religion. But comfort without confrontation slips into sentimentalism and never leads to transformation. While confrontation without comfort is harsh and legalistic, replacing moralism and judgment for grace and mercy.

How can the church practice comfort religion, while at the same time confronting the small programs of self-protection to which we all fall prey? What would it look like for the church to call us to a life of deep transforming union with God through Jesus Christ?

If church leaves us simply with the comfort that we’re all ok and everything will work out in the end, the church has failed. Jesus intended us to live radically new lives in this world. He instructed his followers to discover an entirely new way of living. He called those who would be his followers to “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness” and to trust that when we get the kingdom first, every other aspect of our lives will find its proper place. (Matthew 6:33)

Paul understood the radical implications of following Jesus and said that “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (II Corinthians 5:17) The church exists to offer us the comfort of God’s love and peace and then to challenge us to live as “a new creation.”

Too often our vision of the Christian life has been too small. We have viewed the Christian message as final comfort in heaven for those who trust in Christ and persevere in the constant struggle to be moral and do good deeds before they die. Paul understood that God’s vision for our lives goes far beyond this limited picture. For Paul the journey of our lives is a process of radical transformation into the likeness of the God in whose image we were created. “All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” (II Corinthians 3:18)

I wonder if we expect the church to call us to lives of radical transformation. Do we anticipate that our involvement in the community of those who call themselves followers of Christ will confront us with the deep challenge to forsake all our attachments and embrace the liberty that Jesus promised when he said, “if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed”? (John 8:36) Do we look to the church for both comfort and confrontation?

When we experience both comfort and confrontation, we will find within ourselves an expanding security. We will know that our lives are grounded in Christ, that our identity is fixed in God and that we depend upon nothing other than God’s presence to support our identity or give us a sense of well-being. We will be more gentle, more open, more kind, and more gracious.

A community that practices a balance of comfort and confrontation will be characterized by non-violence and an absence of abuse, manipulation and rigidity. It will be an expansive community, open to people wherever they may be in their lives and in their spiritual journey. It will be a flexible community whose only centre is the presence of God in Christ Jesus and whose only motivation is to faithfully follow the leading of God’s unpredictable Holy Spirit. “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8) So we will trust that those around us, desire as much as we to allow God’s Spirit to be fully and deeply at work in their lives.

To maintain a balance of comfort and confrontation we must know that our true identity lies in the deep common life we share in Christ. In order to find this true identity we must be people of deep prayer and worship. We must open ourselves daily to the presence of God’s Spirit at work in our lives. We must hold firmly to the depths of faith revealed in our sacred texts and known to us by God’s Spirit. And, at the same time, we must be willing to sit lightly to our own agendas, needs, demands, and pet-projects.

Our identity does not reside in being right. We will always be willing to say, “I may be wrong.” This is not a lack of conviction but a humility that resides in the realistic assessment of the profound limitations of the human ability to know. Our understanding is boundaried on every side by our cultural background, our personal upbringing, ongoing life-experience, and the unique nature of our own personality. This is why we always need to be able, within the context of comfort, to remain open to confrontation. Healthy communities will embrace a diversity of opinion even on important issues. We need to be able to extend comfort to those with whom we may disagree. We need to accept and celebrate the inevitable confrontation that comes from living close to those whose perception of truth may differ from ours.

On the surface, a church that practices both comfort and confrontation may appear to be a confusing and unsettling place. Things will not always be predictable. Life may look untidy, even at times chaotic. But when comfort and confrontation are held in balance there will be a deep core of confidence that resides in the heart of every community member. Each person will know that every other person desires simply to rest and trust in the presence and work of Christ in their lives. We will honour each other’s journey, protecting the right and duty of each person to hear God and to contribute to the conversation of our community according to their perception of God’s word.

Security in such a community does not lie in conformity or even agreement. It resides in a deeper place in which we know that we are bound together by invisible ties of love and truth. We find a deep comfort in our common identity in Christ and therefore can afford to allow all our idols to be challenged and deconstructed within a community whose bonds lie deeper than a masquerade of common life founded on uniformity of opinion.

The only way any group of people can become such an expansive faith community is for each member of that community to be deeply committed to the vision of an open, trusting, life lived in faith and trust in God. There is no program for creating such a community. It can only emerge out of the shared faith of its members. It will only happen when we each assume adult responsibility for our own convictions and are willing to share the truth as we understand it and to respect the truth shared by every other person. As we walk with integrity our journey on in the Spirit, we will walk together as a light to the world and a witness to the comforting and transforming power of love we find in Christ and experience in one another.



3 comments:

ernest said...

Thank you Christopher! I think you have touched on a very important axis between comfort and confrontation that is critical in our individual lives as well as the life of the church. I agree completely that "the deep purpose of religion is to bring about transformation" and that the church has often not done a good job of challenging us to "crucify our old self" as Paul would say. I also have some reflections that your piece has provoked.

I think it is important to emphasize that we do not bring about the transformation. Transformation is God's alone but we can certainly open or close to it. It is very important to ask the question about how we are able to create the space in which transformation can take place. How do we invite people into a deeper life in Christ? I think the delicacy of this dance between comfort and confrontation is illustrated perfectly by the parable of the prodigal son.

In the story the younger son has demanded his inheritance, rejected his father, moved far away, wasted the fortune on debauchery, and at last facing starvation, connives to trespass once more on his father's soft-heartedness by coming home and asking to be treated as a (well-fed) slave. Surely, if there ever seemed a time ripe for confrontation this would be it. This wayward youth needs some tough love and needs to learn about 'responsibility' and 'bearing the cross' so he can get his life back on track.

But to our surpise, and the surprise of the older brother, the father rushes out to meet his son when he sees him still a long way off and does not even let him finish the sob story he constructed. He is welcomed home like a prince and robes of wealth and a ring of authority given to him. The older brother, understandably peeved, expresses his dismay at his father's soft heart, and receives the confrontation we expected for the younger brother.

"Wake up. Everything I have has always been yours. Don't be jealous, can't you see that your brother was dead and now lives. Get over yourself and celebrate" With that the father leaves him stewing outside the party.

In the story each son got exactly what he needed. The younger son had his heart blown open by a generosity that was unreasonable and unjust and undeserved. The older son, it seems, also needed to learn the same lesson and yet he needed his heart opened by being confronted with the prison of scarcity that he had created for himself.

I think you were exactly right when you said: "The church exists to offer us the comfort of God’s love and peace and then to challenge us to live as 'a new creation.'" But I wonder about the implicit separation of these things by dividing them with "and then". I think that is precisely the experience of God's love and peace that transforms. It cannot help but to do so. As Jean Vanier writes in his book Man and Woman He Made Them transformation can take place only when someone has found that part of themselves that is lovable and loved. It is upon finding this place that confrontation begins to make sense. Richard Rohr writes that without an experience of God's love the Bible, Church, and Christianity in general make no sense.

So what about the true insight that the church often seems to be in the business of comfort rather than confrontation? The church needs be a consistent witness to the steadfast love of God in Jesus Christ that endures forever which both comforts and transforms. Sometimes that looks like rushing to meet the younger brother and sometimes it means confronting the older brother. I don't know if there is a way to prescribe which action is appropriate at which time other than to open ourselves to the transforming love of God.

Sometimes, our own ability to see the brokenness of another's life or being taken in by a strong persona prevents us from offering the comfort someone needs to start the healing journey. I think that is what I struggle with as a person who errs on the side of confrontation. Pain needs to be acknowledged, sometimes in ways that are uncomfortable for us who feel like we are pandering to weakness.

At other time's our fear of hurting another's feelings prevents us from offering the confrontation they need to see things in a new way. Pain needs to be digested once it has been acknowledged and not let fester and become a story of identification.

I think the reality of church is that it is a community of people who are all at very different stages of the journey. Some need to discover for the first time the inner knowing that God loves them and others need to take that stirring and continue to work with it and go deeper and deeper into it. A community that knows the love of God well will inevitably attract people who are looking for the same thing but haven't found it yet. This is a challenge because in the end each of our transformation is bound up in the way we engage each other.

I think the only way to engage each other is in relentlessly letting go of who we want the other person to be. Sometimes we comfort because we want to be comforted and sometimes we confront because we need to be confronted. But, just maybe, if we can take a step back, put aside our wants and desires, and see who the person in front of us really is, then we will be moved in the right direction.

CHRISTOPHER said...

Ernest,

Thank you for your beautiful response to “Comfort and Confrontation Religion.” The blog etiquette police tell me that bloggers are not supposed to respond to comments with comments of their own. But, since my “blog” already violates most of the blog etiquette regulations (posts are way too long and sporadic), adding another infraction to my crimes will not change anything. I want to respond to three things in your comment:

1. Your application of the “parable of the prodigal son,” is brilliant. In fact your portrayal of the bargaining scheming younger son is even stronger in the Greek. What the younger son actually plans to ask the father is to be treated as a misthon (servant) not a doulos (slave). The difference is important. As a misthon the son would preserve some personal autonomy, dignity and rights. He would possibly live on his own and might even be paid a small salary. As a doulos he would forsake all rights and become the property of his master.

When Paul portrayed Jesus as the pattern for us to emulate, he used the word doulos. (Philippians 2:7) When he described his own relationship with Christ, Paul said he was “a doulos of Jesus Christ.” (Romans 1:1)

The calculating younger son in Luke 15 is not interested in being a doulos. This is a problem for many of us in the church. I am perhaps willing to be a misthon, maintaining some of my rights, getting some rewards for my efforts, an occasional stroke or word of flattery for my selfless service on behalf of the Gospel. But it challenges me to be a doulos with no right to expect anything in return for my labours. When I comfort or confront, I must search my heart deeply and ask – am I doing this as a doulos, simply in response to the inner urging of Love? Or am I performing this action as a misthon, hoping there will be some payoff at the end of the day.

Those of us who are in “professional ministry,” or who are in training for such a call, need to be brutally honest with ourselves. We must be willing to see what truly drives us. As another year ends, parish clergy are counting attendance and offerings and evaluating their performance of the past year. I have to wonder whether my concern for numerical growth in attendance and offerings at church is really driven by my desire to be faithful to God’s leading in my life or whether it is simply my small self wanting to be seen to be “successful.”

Either comfort or confrontation given in order to make my church “successful” will always bring violence and abuse into the community. When I am attached to outcomes, I am not free simply to respond to God’s call. Without this freedom, no true Christian ministry will take place. A church that is driven by my need, no matter how big that church may grow, will be built in the image of my small self and will always fall short of the transforming power of God’s love. A church that grows through guilt, manipulation, pressure, or demand may increase in numbers and budget but will shrivel in Spirit and light.

2. The question of the sequence or unity of comfort and confrontation is difficult and of course ultimately impossible to answer. You say, “I wonder about the implicit separation of these things by dividing them with ‘and then.’” But you go on to cite Jean Vanier who you say argues that “transformation can take place only when someone has found that part of themselves that is lovable and loved.” “Then” or “when,” sound similar to me. I think you answer the conundrum beautifully two paragraphs later when you say, “I don’t know if there is a way to prescribe which action is appropriate at which time other than to open ourselves to the transforming love of God.”

I am reminded of Thomas Merton’s comment in his beautiful “point vierge” passage in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander where he writes, “I have no program for this seeing. It is only given.” I so want to find the “program.” Tell me the plan for success. I promise I will follow it to the best of my ability if only it comes with some assurances. But, of course, there are no assurances. You are absolutely correct the only program is “to open ourselves to the transforming love of God.” I am not called to follow a plan, program or prescription. I am called to follow a Person, the Person of Jesus, working in my heart by God’s Spirit.

This is no cause for despair. Merton’s quote concludes with the beautiful assurance that “the gate of heaven is everywhere.” The only “program” is to keep our eyes open, watch for “the gate of heaven,” and when we see it, walk through. God’s Spirit is opening the way all around us. When we pay attention we will see where the Spirit is leading and will be carried along with gentleness to share in the good work of sharing in God’s creative process.

3. This brings up the third point in your comment upon which I want to comment. In your second paragraph you imply the question that is almost certainly the single most important question for the church. How can we “create the space in which transformation can take place”? You answer your own question in the last paragraph when you say, “the only way to engage each other is in relentlessly letting go of who we want the other person to be.” Surrendering our expectations, demands, needs, wants, desires is the program for creating the space in which true human thriving can take place.

Like every discipline in the spiritual life, this must begin in my own heart before it can expand to embrace others. Can I truly let go of my expectations for my own life? Can I lay down my agendas, needs, wants, demands? This is the problem of the older son in the parable of “the prodigal son.” He expected his life should turn out differently. He thought that all his hard work, steadiness, loyalty, and discipline should earn him a special reward. When his expectations were not met, the true nature of his heart was revealed.

When I work hard in the church and the results fall below my expectations, it is always tempting to look around for someone to blame. I hear clergy saying, “The problem here is that people are just lacking in commitment.” “They are unwilling to change.” “If only they would contribute more time, more money, more energy, the church would be a different place.” “I can’t be expected to do it all alone.” Behind all these laments is a consistent theme – “You have let me down.” The “you” may be the people in the church, or may even be God. It is as if, the church and God exist to meet the needs of the clergy.

As you correctly imply at the end of your comment, this patter is power by projection. I look to the church, to my parishioners to meet a need in me that I feel God cannot or will not satisfy in my life. My sense of self and identity are centered in the achievements of “my” church, rather than in the depths of my relationship with God. This is a recipe for burnout, bitterness and ecclesiastical disaster.

I must surrender my expectations. All that God asks of me is that I open, open to God, open to the inner depths of my own being, open to the people around me and to the world God has created and asks me to love with the tenderness and grace with which God loves me. You are absolutely right, what the father in the prodigal son parable gives is a “soft heart.”

The more I open to and embrace the realities of my life as they are, the more I create space for people to expand. Suddenly, everyone can breathe. They are not here to fulfill my hopes and dreams of building a successful church. They are here to join me in listening to God’s Spirit at work in their lives and following wherever that Spirit might lead. I do not know what this will look like in the end but it is a program that allows me to live the fullness of life for which I was created.

As I know you know, this requires consistent, faithful spiritual practice. For me, as I start each day in prayer, I choose to begin by letting go. I choose to lay down all my little agendas. I choose to allow my ego to die and to express my intention to surrender over and over to the presence of God. Without this regular discipline, I know that my little programs for my happiness will begin to reassert themselves. I will start to use people to achieve the outcomes that I believe will bring satisfaction and contentment into my life. This is the way of death and destruction. Jesus calls me to the way of life and hope.

Thank you for your willingness to stay open to this way of life. May God bless you deeply as you continue to open and soften and lay down your life for the love of Christ.

Christopher

Rob Holloway said...

"Jesus calls me to the way of life and hope" quote from Christopher.
I'd see that as a beacon of Light for all of us to carry in our hearts and our daily life.
Certainly I'm the unwashed in terms of one trained or being trained in God's Ministry of being a pastor to a flock.
I do though carry the same challenges in as one becomes part of the organization that measures ones job performance and its success markers then how do I ensure God's message of hope to the flock is carried. My challenge is to know HE will deliver without me worying about the organization annual measurements.
As a trainee I can still challenge because I do not yet have the organization on my back to worry about.
For the three of us , it is enough to train you, teach us, listen and carry the same message and hope in our lives.
My mumbles for the day , washed I am now.
Rob