I’ve had a couple of friends recently tell me that they just don’t feel “comfortable” at Church. For each of them, that means something slightly different…but it’s got me thinking.
As the world continues to speed up and digitize all around us, any of one of us can start wondering about spiritual and religious stuff: “why would you ever want to spend your time doing that?!!”
Especially when faced with conflict or contradiction within the community, the one option that seems to make sense to many is giving up on them entirely: Why would I continue to do this if I’m not completely comfortable there?
The Christian writer John Backman, a member of our dialogue group and a man who identifies as queer, offers some interesting thoughts in this regard. After making the case for personal worship – scriptures, prayer – as a way to expand the mind, Backman concludes these individual practices are still insufficient: “It is possible to read Genesis to Revelation and still live inside our own heads, because we draw only from our own encounters. Hence the practice of community. In the interchange with a group of people, we are confronted with worldviews and frames of reference that we never could have imagined ourselves. We find entirely new ways of viewing old truths. We open up still further to the possibilities of truth and the value of ‘I could be wrong.'”
He goes on to describe how even after spending decades studying and exploring his faith, the people of his own Episcopal parish have “introduced me to approaches that never would have crossed my mind.” After giving several examples, he says, “some of these encounters upset my theological applecart from time to time, and I did not feel a need to accept any of the approaches wholesale. Ultimately, though, they have led me to a richer, more complex understanding of my faith – and a respect for an even broader range of opinions.”
Any group of people could potentially work in this way, he admits: “Community, however – the dedication to a specific group of people, come what may – provides a safe place for the virtues to blossom in our soul. By nurturing that safety, we facilitate the willingness to risk. By persisting with people we may not even like, so as to cultivate their growth and our own, we foster our ability to love. By conflicting with others, then working out our differences, we come to see ourselves as one person in a group, and so we grow in humility. At the most basic level, our living in community is simply our commitment to love fleshed out in a specific time and place.”
In other words, we go to Church to do something more than “feel comfortable.” We go to be stretched, challenged and pressed in ways we may not otherwise be. In the LDS context, Eugene England put it this way:
In the life of the true Church, there are constant opportunities for all to serve, especially to learn to serve people we would not normally choose to serve—or possibly even associate with—and thus opportunities to learn to love unconditionally. There is constant encouragement, even pressure, to be “active”: to have a calling” and thus to have to grapple with relationships and management, with other people’s ideas and wishes, their feelings and failures; to attend classes and meetings and to have to listen to other people’s sometimes misinformed or prejudiced notions and to have to make some constructive response; to have leaders and occasionally to be hurt by their weakness and blindness, even unrighteous dominion; and then to be made a leader and find that you, too, with all the best intentions, can be weak and blind and unrighteous. Church involvement teaches us compassion and patience as well as courage and discipline. It makes us responsible for the personal and marital, physical, and spiritual welfare of people we may not already love (or may even heartily dislike), and thus we learn to love them. It stretches and challenges us, though disappointed and exasperated, in ways we would not otherwise choose to be— and thus gives us a chance to be made better than we might choose to be, but ultimately need and want to be.
In an age when we can tailor-make our news to confirm everything we really believe, maybe we need to remind ourselves that real community isn’t (and shouldn’t) be like that. Rather than clean-cut, airbrushed experiences, communal worship can be welcomed in its challenging, stretching, messyness.
And maybe that’s what it takes to really prepare us for what lies ahead. Maybe that’s what these bodies and minds need in order to “crucify” the parts of us that are ungodly and allow ourselves to experience what C.S. Lewis describes as God’s deeply uncomfortable renovation process:
Speaking of this life, Joseph Smith was quoted as saying, “You will have all kinds of trials to pass through. And it is quite as necessary for you to be tried as it was for Abraham and other men of God… God will feel after you, and He will take hold of you and wrench your very heart strings and if you cannot stand it you will not be fit for an inheritance in the Celestial kingdom of God.”
So what do you think? Are there legitimate reasons to stick with something that feels uncomfortable now – a marriage, a Church, a job?
I promise to post every comment that comes in.
 I highly recommend John’s book here or on Amazon: Backman, J. (2013). Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart. Skylight Paths Publishing: Woodstock, Vermont. (p. 55-56)
 John Taylor recalls the words of Joseph Smith to the Twelve. JS manual page 231
Can you share a few thoughts about the difference between feeling comfortable and feeling comforted?
“Comfortable” is a word that for me means – not feeling anxious or anything you don’t want to feel. It’s something that can typically be sought or experienced in isolation.
“Comforted” at least for me, is something inherently relational (not in isolation) – and reflecting the presence of positive things such as peace and sweetness (rather than just the absence of negative alone).
The former is what I sense increasing numbers of people insist on needing to feel at Church…while the latter is what perhaps you’re suggesting we really ought to aim for? (which, as many of us have experienced, can definitely exist alongside levels of comfort – e.g., “I was a little uncomfortable and challenged…but felt peace!”).
I’m curious why you asked – and what you think?
I think people are more willing to feel uncomfortable when they already feel comforted. If someone is upset about being uncomfortable, one way to change that is to tell them they are wrong to be upset about it.
Another way to maybe change that is to tell them that it’s ok to be upset about it–being uncomfortable is a lot of work and can be a pain–and that they are loved no matter how uncomfortable they are willing to be and loved no matter how upset it makes them and that they are loved if they decide its not worth it to be uncomfortable.
I think that when people are convinced that they are loved and that they are being comforted, they will be much more willing to feel uncomfortable.