Unwelcome or Uncomfortable?

I really enjoy going to church. I love our church family. I love the sanctuary. I love singing and worship. I love the teaching from the Bible each week. I always feel welcome and comfortable and inspired. Well…almost always.

Have you ever visited a new or unfamiliar group? It need not be a church– any group that is already established, where you are visiting for the first time? It can be a very uncomfortable experience, even if the other members make an effort to be welcoming. There may be group dynamics with which you are unfamiliar; maybe there are rituals or responses that are new to you, as well. Where should you sit? Are you taking “someone else’s” spot? Are you expected to participate? At what level? Should you introduce yourself, or will you be asked to do so at some point? Will others introduce themselves?

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I was thinking about all this in relation to church because of Easter service last week. As we entered, several people greeted us with “He is Risen!”, to which we responded, “He is Risen, Indeed!” But not everyone responded– some were confused. As the service started, a husband and wife introduced this phrase as a tradition, explaining the call and the expected response. They welcomed any newcomers, then they invited us to say it as a congregation. This helped make it a more comfortable experience for any visitors.

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I have visited many churches over the years, and some congregations work hard to make everyone feel welcome, and even comfortable. But there is a difference between welcome and comfort. I have visited some churches where I feel welcome, but not very comfortable. The people are nice, the music is upbeat, but there is a restlessness– sometimes inside my own conscience–that makes me squirm. This can be a good thing– a movement of the Holy Spirit. But it can also be a warning that something is “off” in the worship– the focus is not on God, or the message is not true to Scripture, or there is a tension between members of the group that needs to be resolved.

I have also visited churches where I felt comfortable enough, but I did not feel welcome. I knew all the right phrases to say or the words to all the songs and hymns; the seating was soft, and the room was neither too hot nor too chilly. But I felt closed out by the other worshippers. They did not notice that I was there, and they (probably) never noticed that I did not return. No one introduced themselves or made an effort to reach out, nor did they respond when I tried to reach out to them.

How does any of this relate to prayer? Prayer can sometimes be uncomfortable– confession, supplication, confusion, and even doubt. God is not in the business of making us comfortable at the expense of our own good. Sometimes we need to be made uncomfortable in order to take needed steps to change or move ahead. Sometimes, we need to recognize our discomfort as a warning to look around and reevaluate. And sometimes, we need to be patient in our discomfort, as it is only temporary, and stretches our Faith.

But we should never feel unwelcome in the presence of God. God longs to meet with us, even in our discomfort– even at our worst! Jesus modeled this attitude throughout His ministry. He made many people uncomfortable (particularly the Pharisees!), but all were welcome to come, to listen, and to speak to Him. He took time to talk to people that were often seen as outcasts, but He was just as likely to talk to people who thought of themselves as very important. Jesus SAW people. He acknowledged them, and He valued them. As followers of Jesus, we can feel welcome, AND comforted when we come into His presence.

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But even more, we should follow the example of Christ when reaching out to others. We are Christ’s ambassadors, and if we make people feel unwelcome and unwanted, they may never understand how wide and deep and immense God’s love for them really is. At the same time, we need to be reminded that others may still feel uncomfortable for their own reasons. We should make every effort to be welcoming, but we should allow for the Holy Spirit’s work as well. We should not push people away, but we should be prepared that some will choose to walk away from uncomfortable truth.

St. Francis Visits a Contemporary University…

St. Francis was allowed to visit a 21st century university, which housed a chapel bearing his name. He was both honored and confused by the opportunity. Walking about the campus, he was amazed at the number and variety of students rushing to and fro; they were not looking at the grounds or the sidewalks or at each other– they were focused on their devices. It was a noisy campus, full of the sounds of buses and other traffic, music and podcasts playing, people arguing… Finally, St. Francis arrived at “his” chapel. It was a beautiful building, quiet and simple in its design. It was empty, except for a single student, saying her prayers. At the entrance, there was a plaque with a well-known prayer:

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Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace; 
Where there is hatred, let me sow love; 
Where there is injury, pardon; 
Where there is doubt, faith; 
Where there is despair, hope; 
Where there is darkness, light; 
And where there is sadness, joy. 

O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console; 
To be understood, as to understand; 
To be loved, as to love; 
For it is in giving that we receive, 
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, 
And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life. 
Amen.

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Francis took a seat, absorbing the peaceful stillness, yet wondering at his assignment. Why had he been sent here? Why this moment in time? Taking his cue from the student, he also spent some time in prayer. Then he walked back outside.

He was struck again by the students– they were everywhere, but they were isolated. No one noticed him or stopped to speak. He tried to talk to someone–anyone–but they were all busy and not inclined to pause or interact. He noticed a coffee house across the street. Carefully avoiding speeding buses and weaving bikes, he crossed and entered the shop. It was a little quieter than the commons, but most of the customers were sipping their drinks and staring at screens–personal devices or the huge screen above the counter, streaming the latest news. War, scandal, protests, mud-slinging politicians, all made their appearance, only to be replaced by a commercial break and the next headline. No one stopped in horror at the litany of injustice, death, greed, or duplicity. They simply sipped their lattes and went back to scrolling through their Instagram accounts.

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The door opened to admit the student he had seen earlier in the chapel. She glanced up at the big screen, shook her head, and ordered a coffee. She found a table, and sat down. The coffee house was busy; it was the last empty table. She smiled as another student came in. She invited the other student to sit with her. She started a conversation. At first, the other student was jumpy and disinclined to talk. But soon, the two students were chatting. The sound of it attracted attention. Some customers were bothered by the new noise; others were intrigued by the sound of real conversation– even laughter! Two other students brought their chairs and drinks over and joined the conversation. They spoke of missing their families, of struggling with certain classes, and enjoying others. They spoke of future plans, and the obstacles that stood in the way. They spoke of fears for the future, as well. Francis noticed that one student listened from a distance, but did not join the others. He seemed weary and despondent. Francis walked over and asked if he could just sit at his table for awhile. The young man was startled, but said, “Suit yourself.”

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Francis sat in silence, his head bowed. Finally, the young man spoke quietly. “I saw you watching that girl. Just a word of warning– she’s a nut job. She comes in here about once a week, talking nonsense. She’s not even a student here.”

“And yet, I saw you were also watching her. She intrigues you.”

“I don’t know how she does it. She comes in here, talking about love and joy and faith, and people listen to her. They eat that stuff up. Don’t they know it’s all garbage? Look at the news! But she comes in, all smiling and happy– she’s crazy.”

“But she still intrigues you. Could it be that she is at peace, and you are not?”

“Peace?! Peace is nothing but an illusion. Power is what counts. Action. Look at her– she’s not doing anything to make the world better, and yet she acts like she’s got all the answers. It’s sickening!”

“Why do you keep watching her?”

“I don’t even know. She’s so stupid. She’s all wrong, and she acts like everything is fine.”

“Have you spoken to her? How do you know what she thinks and feels?”

“I’ve told you. She’s crazy. I don’t want to talk to someone like that.”

“Are you afraid?”

“Afraid of what?”

“That she’s not as crazy as you think. That she might laugh at your thoughts, the way you laugh at hers. That she won’t talk to you, like she talks to the others… Maybe you’re afraid of what you would say.”

“What do you mean?”

“What would you say to her if she spoke to you? Would you listen, or would you argue? Would you wipe the smile off her face and take away her joy and faith? Would you make the world a better place by winning your argument with her?”

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The young man was at a loss for words. He suddenly noticed that other conversation had stopped. People were looking at him– even the young woman he had been talking about. His face turned red, and he jumped out of his seat and dashed out of the coffee house. The group dispersed, and Francis was left alone with the young woman.

“He may be right, you know,” she said with a wry smile. I don’t think I do enough to make the world a better place. I just sit and talk with people, and listen, and pray. It’s not much. Not enough to make a real difference.”

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Francis put a hand on her shoulder and shook his head. “It is enough in God’s economy to be available. To be humble and willing and faithful. Keep up the good work. And may God bless you.”

If You Only Knew…

36 One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table. 37 And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” 40 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.” 41 “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Luke 7:36-50 (ESV)
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The Pharisees in the New Testament seem to spend a lot of time judging and criticizing everyone. They rail at Jesus for healing people on the Sabbath, they grumble about His disciples not following the ritual hand-washing customs, and they are constantly critical of Jesus for “hanging out” with sinners and undesirables. We shake our heads and lament how narrow-minded they were. But I have to wonder what would happen in today’s world if Jesus were walking among us today. Would He “hang out” at our churches? Would He praise those who spend their time pointing out the hypocrisy of others? Would He be a “social justice” warrior?

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Many of Jesus’s miracles were done quietly and without pretense. No one criticized “what” Jesus was doing. No one said, “you shouldn’t be healing people,” or, “how dare you turn water into wine.” Instead, they criticized “how” Jesus did His miracles and what He said about Himself, others, and God. In the book of Luke, we have a story that doesn’t even involve a miracle. Jesus was invited to be the guest of a Pharisee. Jesus didn’t turn down the invitation. He didn’t start out criticizing the host or the food. But when a woman crashed the party– a woman known all around town for her sinful ways–and made a scene, Jesus didn’t recoil in horror, order her to leave, or stop her from making a fool of herself. The Pharisee, believing that he had “unmasked” Jesus as a charlatan, concluded that Jesus didn’t “know” what sort of woman she was. But Jesus, breaking His silence, ended up “unmasking” the Pharisee, instead.

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Jesus “knew” what sort of woman made such a spectacle of herself–one who needed compassion and forgiveness. Jesus knew exactly “who” and “what” she was. But He also knew who created her, loved her, and wanted to redeem her to become someone better. Moreover, He knew what kind of man Simon (the Pharisee) was. He started out with a parable about cancelled debt and a question. Simon answered the question correctly, but he had missed the point. Simon “knew” the woman was a sinner; he didn’t recognize that he was a sinner, too! Simon thought he was smarter and holier than Jesus. He didn’t know himself, and he didn’t recognize Jesus as God in the Flesh.

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How often I make the same mistake! I think I “know” who God wants me to love and honor– those who say all the right words and wear the right clothes and belong to the right church. But if I want to follow in Jesus’s footsteps, I will have compassion on the people who most need it; I will be ready to forgive those who owe me the most; I will spare judgment where I do not “know” all that God knows about someone else.

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It is easy to lift up in prayer those I admire; those to whom I am already close. It is more difficult to pray for those who persecute me, or taunt me about my belief in Christ. It is difficult to withhold judgment about why they may dislike me or why they distrust Christians in general. It is tempting to pray for their “exposure” or punishment, rather than their well-being. It may be unpleasant to spend time with them or take them seriously. But it is essential that I do, with God’s help, what I would not do in my own pride and limited knowledge. Otherwise, like Simon, I am showing only how little I love the one who died for me– and the person I choose to hold in judgment and contempt.

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I have a lot of work to do in this area. Just today, I read a news snippet about a political office-holder; one with whom I heartily disagree. My first instinct was to pray that she be ousted from office in the next election, and publicly scorned. And perhaps that will happen. But my first priority should be to pray that she would be protected in her current role as public servant, and that God would give her wisdom and discernment in the months ahead. Not because she is a “better” person; but because Jesus died for her. If she were the woman in this story, would I be another Simon the Pharisee? I pray not.

We Like Us

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I’ve been very blessed with a large extended family–in-laws, cousins, step-cousins, half-cousins, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, second cousins–well over 600! (and counting). I’ve spent a lot of time recently attending family events, and each one has been happy, encouraging, and invigorating. I know that is not always the case in families. Some families argue; some won’t even speak to each other. And there is not perfect harmony, even in the best of human families. We’ve had divorces and divides, too; but mostly, as my one cousin is fond of saying, “We like us.” We like belonging to a family, but even more, we like belonging to our family. As our family grows, it is becoming more diverse, and we like that, too. Many years ago, most of our family members were farmers from a small area in southwestern Michigan. Now, our family includes truck drivers, mechanics, teachers, architects, coaches, doctors, office managers, car salesmen, nurses, dispatchers, accountants, chefs, shopkeepers, ministers, photographers, cosmetologists, pet groomers, medical transcriptionists, cinematographers, artists, dancers, contractors, factory workers, and yes, some farmers, too. We have family members with varying skin tones and ethnic backgrounds, and differing physical and mental abilities. And we LIKE “us.”

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Jesus likened the Kingdom of Heaven to a family– it is made up of many members, but we are all brothers and sisters “in Christ.” And, like a family, we are supposed to like “us.” More than that, we are supposed to LOVE one another! We are to be there for each other, in good times and bad; in mourning and in rejoicing. “For better, for worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health..” It shouldn’t matter if our brothers and sisters live close by or halfway around the world; whether they belong to our local congregation of “that other church across town.” And it SHOULD matter when we see some of our family members being persecuted or facing hardship while others live in comfortable apathy.

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But Jesus went even further. We are to love those who are not “US.” We are to show love and mercy to those who don’t “belong.” We are to reach out to those who dislike, despise, and even persecute us. The way we treat each other as “family” and the way we treat those “outside” will either attract or repel others, and it will show whether or not we have learned to love as Jesus did.

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God “Likes” us. He wants to share life with us –any of us who will respond to His call. And God LOVES us. He treats us with the same compassion and love, regardless of who we are or what we’ve done, or how we’ve responded (or failed to respond) to His outreach.

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Clearly, there are those who do not like us; who do not wish us well. And God does not call us to be victims, dupes, and doormats for abusive relatives or strangers. We are to Love– but wisely, and with the strength of God. Liking someone does not obligate us to betray our conscience, or enable abusive and immoral behavior in others. Loving someone may mean setting boundaries where they are needed. But it also may involve tearing down false walls of fear and “inconvenience” that we’ve been using to excuse action.

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Who can we reach out to this week, extending the kind of welcome and acceptance we give our family? How can we begin seeing more of “us” in the people we meet, and less of “them?” And, if there are family members (either our birth families, or our church families) with whom we have a broken relationship, are there ways we can make a move to try to mend fences? How can we set wise boundaries, while tearing down false ones? One sure way is to begin praying– pray for those we meet, whether or not we consider them “family.” Pray for those who have hurt us– and those we have hurt. Pray for those who seem different and hard to understand or accept. Pray for God to bless them, encourage them, meet their needs– Pray that God will give us wisdom, opportunities, and strength to reach out.

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