I heard a pastor once boasting that the congregation he served had the world’s most uncomfortable pews. I’d never sat on the wooden benches in that sanctuary, but supposedly they were not just cushionless and hard. They were squeezed close together so knees would bump up against the backs of those in front. The seat backs sat at a strange angle, making leaning back impossible.
But this pastor claimed to love his uncomfortable pews. He laughed that it kept people awake when his sermons got boring. But he’d say things like “I don’t think that followers of Jesus should ever get too comfortable. We follow a Savior who not only died on a cross but spent his life loving and serving and teaching. So we better not get too cozy inside the walls of our congregations.”
I’m currently leading a book conversation on Austin Channing Brown’s book I’m Still Here as we prepare for her coming to speak at St. Paul in a few weeks. It’s an amazing book, in large part because it makes many of us uncomfortable. Her stories of living as a black woman in primarily white and Christian spaces in the U.S. expose the realities of the prejudice, exclusion and harm that many of us, simply because of our whiteness, didn’t know existed.
Her words move us beyond our good intentions to see how racism has been woven into our systems and ways of being. It’s challenging to hear. But if we want to unravel this fabric of oppression that keeps entangling all of us, it’s worth the discomfort. It is, after all, a small thing compared to the realities people of color face in daily ways in our country.
As that pastor with the cramped pews said – following Jesus can get us into some uncomfortable situations. Jesus didn’t come just to make us feel good. He came to bring wholeness to the whole of creation, to lift up the lowly and bring down the mighty. He came to heal us. Anyone who has used a pencil to scratch inside a cast, or has done weeks of physical therapy after surgery knows that the process of healing isn’t always comfortable. And anyone who has been sore after a long run knows that growth is sometimes painful.
So for the sake of the healing of our country and in order to build an anti-racist society, where everyone can live into the wholeness that Jesus envisions for us, let’s step into the discomfort and be willing to deal with some of the painful truths about ourselves, our history, and our present. In doing so, we’ll be freed to live with more empathy and action, ready to work together to build a community of justice and wholeness for everyone.