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Back in the summer of 1963, one year after I was born, the Anglican Church of Canada commissioned journalist and TV personality Pierre Berton to write a book reflecting on the state of the Canadian Church in the 1960’s. The runaway best-seller was titled “The Comfortable Pew.” A mere sixty years later, the church Pierre Berton describes in his book bears little to any resemblance to the one he described back then.
Listen to this excerpt:
One of the minor phenomena of the post-war North American continent has been the so-called “religious revival.” Statistically it is impressive. Films, books, and articles dealing with religion are such sure-fire successes that the cliche phrase used in a thousand magazine titles “How I… Found God” has become a classic joke inside and outside of the trade. Columns of religious advice help to sell newspapers. Millions appear to have been influenced by Norman Vincent Peale, Billy Graham, and Fulton J. Sheen. The Church itself has never been financially stronger. In Canada its property values have passed the one-billion mark, its annual income the one-hundred-million mark. The church-building boom, especially in the suburbs, is easily observable: in Metropolitan Toronto, for instance, two hundred new churches have been erected in a decade. The polls reveal that almost everybody – some ninety-four per cent – believes in God, accepts the doctrine of the virgin birth and life after death, and is convinced of the power of prayer. Everybody in short is a Christian.
This is the Canadian context I grew up in and the one that many of us are familiar with but it is not at all the context I have ministered in over the last 28 years. In fact, I can’t think of a time in my leadership in the church when I felt “comfortable” in the way Pierre Berton describes the church of the 1960’s, those days when our Sunday schools were bursting at the seams and going to church was synonymous with being a good citizen.
If the 60’s were the era of the comfortable pew in Canada, the 2020’s are decidedly the era of the uncomfortable pew. But instead of lamenting this, we should be celebrating it because as our series on metamorphosis is teaching us, being uncomfortable is part of the process of growing and emerging.
In our scripture reading this morning, we hear that faith is about trusting in what we cannot see and that can be a very uncomfortable thing to do. Before a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, before it realizes what it is becoming, it has to go through a more than a few stages of discomfort. As Maya Angelou once said “We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.”
It is a hard thing for a caterpillar to become a butterfly. It is a hard thing for a once comfortable church to become something it can not yet entirely see. It is a hard thing to trust in a future we do not yet know. And yet, we actually never know the fullness of what God has in store for us in the future but if the caterpillar has anything to teach us, it might be something quite wonderful.
One of the favourite books in our house back in the day when bedtime stories were a nightly occurrence was The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. I never really thought about why the caterpillar was so hungry and ate so much until I heard Carla talking last week about the process of metamorphosis a caterpillar undergoes to become a monarch butterfly. One of the first things she talked about was how once the little caterpillars burst out of their tiny eggs they start to eat and eat and eat sometimes doubling their size from day to day until they are large enough to become a chrysalis.
Those of you who are familiar with the story of the very hungry caterpillar will recall that after he has eaten an increasing amount of food every day of the week, on the seventh day he eats through one piece of chocolate cake, one ice cream cone, one pickle, one slice of swiss cheese, one slice of salami, one lollipop, one piece of cherry pie, one sausage, one cupcake and one slice of watermelon. That night he has a stomach ache. He is uncomfortable. The very next day, he enters into the next stage of his life, he becomes a pupa. It’s in that pupa or chrysalis stage that the caterpillar doesn’t just leave his old comfortable life behind, he literally dissolves and reassembles into something new.
Something I have observed over and over again in the life of various individuals in the church is that when they feed on the word of God and they digest more and more of what is at the heart of the gospel, when they feast on unconditional love and are nurtured by the best of our communal life, sometimes they become quite uncomfortable with the life they have been living. Their former life begins to dissolve and they are reassembled. Sometimes people end up leaving their jobs. Sometimes people leave behind addictions and other harmful habits. Sometimes they break free of restrictive relationships. Sometimes they come out as a gay or lesbian or transgendered. Sometimes they simply dare to live into a future they have not yet fully seen. In the words of our children’s time today, their faith grows to the point where they trust with their shoes on.
The process of spiritual transformation almost always involves becoming uncomfortable enough to come out of once comfortable places.
I confess that as I have been thinking about our annual general meeting today, I have been feeling uncomfortable. We’ve done a lot of the last several years to change our way of being church. In worship, getting up and out of our comfortable pews to engage in spiritual practice stations is something we don’t think twice about anymore. We’ve embraced a call to serve the community more broadly through our thrift shop. We’ve actually realized that the Thrift Shop is a ministry in and of itself. It doesn’t have to be about recruiting people to join our congregation to make it a ministry, although it’s really great when they do. This year we’ve started another outreach ministry to the community, through our café project. I remember when I first proposed this idea to our Council about 13 years ago they looked at me as if I had lost my mind. Now it makes total sense to us that this would be a form our ministry would take. We have book studies and meditation groups and yoga and Pilgrims’ Path that attract people both from our congregation and from the community beyond. We are making plans to take more of what we do inside the building to make it accessible outside the building, like the prayer wall at our front entrance.
All of these are new forms of ministry, new ways of doing ministry in our changing world. But here’s what’s making me uncomfortable these days. I’m beginning to feel uncomfortable about the number of children we have coming on Sunday mornings. I’m beginning to feel uncomfortable with the size of our in person Sunday morning worshipping community in this post-Covid reality. I’m uncomfortable with Sunday morning form of being church that doesn’t seem to well serve our current context. I’m uncomfortable with not knowing a lot about what to do about that. It feels very uncomfortable to stand here and admit that to you.
And yet, if faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not yet seen and if it was by faith that our ancestors endured great hardship to create the very first church communities and if the only way for a caterpillar to become a butterfly is by getting uncomfortable, I’m okay with my discomfort and my unknowing and I hope that you are too. Because it may just mean that God is calling us to be reassembled in new and beautiful and even freeing ways.
One of the things that is likely to get repeated again in this series on metamorphosis is the way that before a caterpillar forms a chrysalis, before it dissolves into goo, before it begins to grow the wings that will make it fly, it already carries within it the cells needed for transformation. They’re called imaginal discs. I like to think that we too have imaginal cells within us. Perhaps they are the stories of faith that have passed on from one generation to the next that have shaped and formed us and are becoming the way we are telling the story of our faith in our generation. How that story will carry on to the next generation is yet to be made fully known but if we believe that story is within us and is worthy of passing on, we will find a way.