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.

Blessed Are the Peacemakers..

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” (Matthew 5:9)

Matthew 5:9

We live in a time of conflict. Wars, protests, upheaval, domestic violence, gangs, shootings, and more leave us praying for peace.

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Today is a reminder of violence. “Good Friday” is filled with reminders of torture, injustice, and brutal death on a cross. There is almost nothing about this day that suggests “Peace.” And yet, it is because of this day, and this cruel and violent death, that WE can have peace with God. Jesus made peace for us by suffering at the hands of corrupt and brutal men. He could have fought back. He could have called down legions of angels to avenge each cut and bruise He suffered. With a breath or a single word, He could have slain the entire Roman Empire, freed the nation of Israel, and claimed victory and “peace.” He could have avoided the violence of beatings and death. He could have appealed to Pilate, who already was inclined to release Him. He could have argued with the Sanhedrin, or said whatever they required to secure His pardon and avoid the cross. He could have run away in the Garden, and stayed hidden and given up His ministry for safety and “peace.” But He didn’t. He didn’t fight back, He didn’t argue, He didn’t plead. He healed the ear of one of His arresting officers. He welcomed one of the thieves crucified next to Him into the Kingdom of God. He made provision for His mother’s well-being. He forgave those who accused Him and crucified Him–even from the Cross!

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Jesus said that those who make peace will be called the children of God. Not those who seek peace– those who make peace. There is a difference. We tend to seek peace through avoidance. We isolate, insulate, hibernate and alienate, all in attempting to find peace. We avoid conflict. We avoid attachments that might cause us heartbreak or betrayal. Even in our prayers (and I’m speaking from personal experience), we ask for peace without pain or involvement. We want God to shower us with peace and protection, but we don’t ask for the courage or the strength to “make” peace.

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Making peace involves reaching out, taking risks, being willing to suffer misunderstanding, conflict, and injustice. It means that we will “take up our cross” and be willing to die to our own comfort and safety for the sake of Christ. That does not mean that we are to be combative, aggressive, abusive, or contemptuous. But, like Jesus, we are to stand firm, even as we offer open arms to those who disagree with us, mock us, even persecute us. True peace is a gift–first from God, and passed on to others who do not deserve it. It is a gift of Grace and Love. The Children of God should be makers of peace, not avoiders of conflict. We need to meet violence and aggression with strength of purpose and positive action. And that should be reflected in our prayer life as well.

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How can I make peace today through prayer and service? What cross can I bear for the sake of Christ, and the Cross He bore for me?

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