It's a funny phrase we Christians use - "I go to church." For some of us it means that we show up on Sundays (or Saturdays). That might happen regularly. It might happen only at Christmas and Easter or for funerals and weddings. For some of us, "I go to church" means more than just participating in worship. It means we participate in other gatherings or ministries that go along with being a member of a congregation. No matter what our level of involvement, to say that we "go to church" always includes our coming together with others who claim the title "Christian."
Our reasons for "going to church," stem from all sorts of motivations. Many of us were taught when we gather and worship we give glory to God. That is the churchy reason we go. The more immediate (and perhaps more honest) reasons we "go to church" may run the gamut from finding strength or support for whatever life is dishing out to us to less salutary reasons like the need to be seen. For some "going to church" is about fear or duty or habit. For some it is about entertainment. For some it is about our friends. For most of us it is not any one thing but a mixed bag of reasons.
And into this hodge-podge of motivation steps the pastor. Some of us who stand before congregations on Sunday were exposed in seminary to the adage that our role, once in the pulpit, would be "to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." When the Church (through worship, the sacraments, the community, or even the pastor) brings comfort to the afflicted, it can take the form of a welcomed positive change. We call it transformation. But what about when the comfortable are afflicted? Might that not also be about transformation? It could be, if what being afflicted means is having our comfort challenged or its source questioned.
I wonder, though, why anyone would open up to something that might feel neither positive nor good. For some the answer could be that it's Biblical. For others it might be that life's not all about us. And for still others it could be because we have faith in a Jesus who, even now, is working to transform us and the worlds we continue to create - worlds in which there are winners and losers/ insiders and outsiders/ us and them.
Many of us have experienced Jesus as an agent of comfort. He certainly is portrayed in Scripture that way. But Jesus is said to have afflicted the comfortable as well. He challenged those with power who, to their own advantage, defined the rules of the game of life by which everyone had to play. He did this as he taught about a new world order that he called the Reign of God. In it the rules were God's rules not the least of which were that there would be no outsiders/ no losers/ no us and them.
Those in power were not interested in being afflicted. They did not want their position questioned. They liked their lives the way they were and did not want to be challenged. They were like many of us.
Welcoming comfort and resisting challenge are innate human tendencies. But if individually, societally, and as a species we are to be transformed into a people, a society, a species that is more and more pleasing to God (as God is known to us in Jesus), then we might do well to do two things. First, we might remember to give thanks for comfort whenever we are fortunate enough to experience it. And second, we might take a deep breath, surrender some of the excess of our comfortable lives, and move closer to harmony with the teachings and life of Christ.
In our culture, for most of us that will include letting go of the hegemony we give to individualism. It may mean refocusing our concerns away from our 401Ks. It may mean becoming willing to admit our addiction to consumption and to the things that own us. It may mean confessing that we are willing to look down on our brothers/sisters (and other species) rather than be their keepers when it suites us.
If we want only to be comforted, maybe we should give further thought to why we "go to church." If, however, we Christians were willing to accept not only the transformation that comes from being comforted, but also that which comes from being afflicted, we might become agents, along with Jesus, of God's change. "Going to church" could then require little more than opening our eyes each day to this ever-changing, marvelous world that God continues to create and of which we are a part.
Leigh Waggoner is priest at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. She can be reached at 565-7865, or firstname.lastname@example.org.