Monday, February 05, 2018

Uncomfortable, by Brett McCracken

Where does one even begin? I don't feel remotely qualified to write a review of this book because it's on a topic that I struggle with myself. The subtitle of Uncomfortable is "The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community." Isn't that the truth!? Being a part of the Body of Christ is everything the title declares. There is no denying that joining one's self to a church is an absolutely mortifying thing sometimes. Yet, as Christians, we are called to be a part of it. That is also an unavoidable and undeniable truth. The church is something that Christians both long to be a part of and are simultaneously filled with dread about. There aren't many more things that I can think of as being a huge struggle in my Christian life than that being a church member. But I am one, I am one!

Uncomfortable is the sort of book that hits you between the eyes and challenges you to think outside of yourself and your personal preferences as to what any given church should look like. McCracken writes to challenge the Christian to think about their calling in Christ to be joined to the Body and to prepare to be uncomfortable with that calling. It's a book filled with scripture, history, quotes from Christian leaders, and tales of some of McCracken's personal experiences. He writes honestly, sharing his own struggles with the Body and how he has had to work to overcome various difficulties. He also writes with humor and sarcasm making him easy (for me) to read. He paints pictures of what the perfect church would look like to his way of thinking while acknowledging he isn't permitted to think of the church in terms of his preferences but in terms of God's design. There's a laugh and an "ouch" in this book and both are incredibly necessary.

I marinated in this book awhile. I read only a chapter or two a day at first, because I wanted to take it in slowly. I worked through the first half of the book at a reasonable pace and then, by the time I had arrived at Part II, I was struggling with my own feelings towards my own church home and family. You know how it feels when you are really focused on learning to be obedient unto the Lord and He's feeding you good things through some outlet and all of the sudden you start struggling with the very thing you are learning about? That was me and that was this book. For a few weeks I could barely read it because I felt I was in such a huge battle with my own beliefs. I hated Uncomfortable but I needed it, too.

The simple fact is that life within the church is not easy. Any way you slice it, it's imperfect. Yet miraculously it is Christ's bride (Ephesians 5: 25-27; Revelations 19:7-9)! I marked lots of passages within the pages of this book and I'll share some of them below, along with a few thoughts. I won't share everything I marked, because I marked quite a few spots as being impacting (to me, personally).

"If we always approach church through the lens of wishing that were different, or longing for a church that "gets me" or "meets me where I'm at," we'll never commit anywhere (or, Protestants that we are, we'll just start our own church). But church shouldn't be about being perfectly understood and met in our comfort zone; it should be about understanding God more, and meeting Him where He is. That is an uncomfortable but beautiful thing." (Introduction, page 24)

As you can see, that quote was in the Introduction and at that point I wasn't dealing with my own mental battles. I was just warming up to enjoy the ride.

"This book is about the comforting gospel of Jesus Christ that leads us to live uncomfortable lives for Him. It's about recovering a willingness to do hard things, to embrace hard truths, to do life with hard people for the sake and glory of the One who did the hardest thing." (Introduction, page 25-26)

That's a true thing, isn't it? Christ did the hardest thing and we think we have the hardest thing to do. "Yeah, but . . ." is such a stupid thing to say to God.  In the Garden of Gethsemane the Lord prayed that His people would be one just He and the Father are one. We are meant to be united. That's not an easy task. Show me the person who thinks its easy and I'm likely to think very little of that person's church experience. If being a part of the church is easy for you, then I'm inclined to think that something is seriously wrong within your particular church body or seriously wrong with you for not feeling the holy challenge. Being one with other Christians feels like the impossible dream sometimes. The hope is in knowing that all hard work is worth it because, in the end, we really will be one and the struggles we know now will be no more. Then we will worship the Lord in unity and in peace. Life on earth is a muddle. Eternity has already been sorted out and that's where the joy in the journey can be found right now.

We don't like to think that way though, do we? Humans seem to have a desire to want to believe that if something is hard then it's bad. They willingly ignore the fact that the cross symbolizes death-to-life. We must die to live. We must fight to breathe. We must struggle and bleed and die ourselves so that God's glory can be made manifest within us and through us so that others can know the love of God. That means death to self before those in our church and also death to self before the world who loves to mock and cajole us for our beliefs.

"There is a reverse correlation between the comfortability of Christianity and its vibrancy. When the Christian church is comfortable and cultural, she tends to be weak. When she is uncomfortable and countercultural, she tends to be strong. I believe the latter is how she was meant to be." (Chapter 1, Embrace the Uncomfortable, page 32)

Right now there is a huge struggle even between Christians who are embarrassed by the Gospel for a myriad of reasons and who want to appear more "relevant" to the culture. Hang Scripture! How can Scripture be helpful if it hurts people to apply it to their lives!? We demand answers. We resent the embarrassment that the Bible demands that we endure with obedience. We're in a perpetual state of face palm when we hear people who claim to be Christians speak out loud. Really, the Christian life seems to be too much, too often.

"Reflecting the truism that "to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (Phil. 1:21), these martyrs lost their lives but also gained. And so it is for all people of the cross: visible loss for invisible gain, present suffering and future glory. This is the offense of the cross. Not only that a God would subject Himself to such weakness and death, but also that such a perceived folly would become the pride of His followers." (Chapter 2, The Uncomfortable Cross, page 46)

It's one thing to know in your head, with your mind, that we are to expect trials and tribulation on earth and count them only as "light momentary afflictions" (2 Cor. 4:17-18). It's an entirely different manner to actually be living with such affliction before a sneering public. The struggle is even harder when there are those within the Body itself who sneer with the world and chide you for being blind because you aren't following all of the political winds of the day. It's hard work to be a Christian and to remain committed to the church. This is to say nothing of staying committed to the cross. I've been spending more time on Twitter these days and the number of Christians who accept a watered down, more convenient truth could prove rather frighting. The masses are definitely running from the pews and they will continue to do so I am sure. The question is: will I stay in obedience to Scripture or will I run too? There would seem to be a lot of reasons to run. That doesn't excuse me to do so though. Scripture is clear about the fact that we are called to stay, even though we might not always identify with the church and/or struggle to fit in.

A charge delivered by non-Christians is one thing but it is infinitely more damaging and painful when a fellow Christian turns from the faith and the church and takes on the world's chatter. The common cry these days among just about everyone and for just about every reason is that the church and fellow believers are not to be trusted because they are hypocrites. McCracken addresses this issue as well and a stand out passage for me was this:

McCracken quotes Erik Thoennes, a professor at Biola University and elder at Grace Evangelical Free Church in La Mirada, California.

"There's this idea that to live out of conformity with how I feel is hypocrisy; but that's a wrong definition of hypocrisy. To live out of conformity to what I believe is hypocrisy. To live in conformity with what I believe, in spite of what I feel, isn't hypocrisy; it's integrity."

Sticking with the church, showing up week after week when you just don't feel like it feels like a waste of time. It doesn't feel like we're going to get a lot out of the experience more often than not. But the idea that McCracken is promoting with this book is not that we seek out preferred experiences but that we join with a church to learn to be more like Christ. The way that we do that is to join to the Body and practice service, generosity, commitment and sacrificial love. It's not going to be easy and any honest person will testify to that. But anyone who believes that God means what He says in scripture about the church being His bride will continue on, believing that there's a hidden purpose and a good end in store.

Uncomfortable is a book that offers hard encouragement. There is no wiggle room for escape from the church within these pages so don't be looking for it. Our life with the church is a story of commitment, even when times get hard and, yes, even when it feels somewhat foolish to be a part of things.

"We've become so bored with our story, or just ignorant of it, and so naturally others have too. We're a bride who forgets why she fell in love in the first place. We're a bride who often takes off her wedding ring in public. We've lost eyes to see the loveliness of the covenant we are in because we're too preoccupied with how skeptical onlookers see us. We assume the only way hipsters and seekers and anyone else might like us if we offer a "safe place" Christianity, one with endless caveats, asterisks, apologies, and trigger warnings (and fair-trade coffee).
Yet seeker-friendly and hipster Christianity failed to invigorate contemporary Christianity because they've been too embarrassed to lead with the admittedly uncomfortable truth that a Christianity with no teeth, no offensiveness, no cost, and no discomfort is not really Christianity at all. It attracts the masses to something vaguely moralistic and therapeutic, but mostly just affirms their "eat whatever fruit you want" freedom and status quo comfort." (Chapter 14, Countercultural Comfort, page 187)

If you're feeling tempted to walk away from the church, will you read this book? If you're committed to a local church, will you read this book? There is something in this for everyone and mostly it's to affirm an undeniable truth: being part of your local church won't always be fun. Being a part of the church will be one of the single most stretching experiences of your Christian life, but through it and by it you will become more like Christ as you learn to die to self-preferences for the glory of something - Someone - greater than you. That is an uncomfortable fact we must live, but live it we must. To the pain. To the death.


Barbara H. said...

I am nodding in agreement with all these quotes. I get so frustrated with people leaving the church because they have conflicts with other people and instead they think everything should be warm and cozy and heavenly. And I think, "Why do you think all those admonitions in the epistles to forgive and forbear with one another are there?!" It's not always going to be warm and cozy this side of heaven. Looks like I need to put this on my TBR list.

Joy said...

So insync with what’s been taught at our church lately. Ok, I’m just gonna say it, but loving the Church is one of the earmarks of a true believer. If I’m having a hard time loving my brothers and sisters in Christ, it’s an indication that I either have some deep bitterness/anger that needs to be addressed or maybe I don’t like the Church because I’m not the Church. As a believer, I realize my need for the mercy grace and forgiveness of Christ and can then pass it on. It covers a lot. It is so hard but so worth it.

Susanne said...

This sounds challenging and very good.

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