This is a conversation (reconstructed, I can’t remember the actual words except for the three key words in the title of this blog post) that I heard reported to me years ago. It took place between two people of my parents’ generation, both of whom had grown up in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. One had stayed in it; the other had left:
Person Who Left: I’m quite happy with my decision to leave the church; we find a great blessing from attending our local Anglican church.
Person Who Stayed: You’re just happy belonging to the Anglican church because it doesn’t demand anything of you — it’s a comfortable pew.
How those words have stayed with me … the phrase “a comfortable pew,” spoken with a mixture of censure and envy by someone who was a lifelong member of the Adventist church but often found its demands burdensome. Coded into that phrase was the tension — so prevalent in my extended family growing up, and in my circle of friends and acquaintances even now — among those of us who grew up in our tight-knit community: the tension between those who left and those of us who stayed.
The implication in that phrase was that if you left the church, it was because you found it too hard and you were looking for something easier, more convenient. A comfortable pew on Sunday morning in a less demanding church, or maybe no pew at all … maybe your own sofa on a Sabbath morning, drinking coffee and doing the crossword instead of subjecting yourself to the hard discipline of going to church.
After 51 years attending church (and I mean that quite literally; I was born on a Saturday and I think my parents took me to church pretty much the next Sabbath), I finally got tired of sitting for over an hour on hard pews, and made myself (and Emma, who reached this decision much earlier in life) a couple of comfy pew cushions, pictured above. They’re great. They have increased my enjoyment of church and my sermon tolerance about 100%.
I am still sitting in the same pew I have been sitting in virtually all my life, more or less. It is now, at least literally, a more comfortable pew. In some ways it’s a more comfortable one metaphorically, too; in other ways, less so.
I’m still trying to pick this metaphor apart. How comfortable are we supposed to be in church? I’m long past thinking, if I ever did, that the raw rubbing of hard wooden pews on a bony bum like mine adds any spiritual benefit. But what about the raw rubbing of hard doctrine on the bony soul of a spiritual questioner? Sorry, I may have just hammered that metaphor into the ground.
I sit on my comfortable new pew cushion and think about this, week after week.
When the person I’m quoting above used the phrase “a comfortable pew,” I know it was shorthand for “a religion that demands less of you.” The Anglican church, after all, didn’t require its members to worship (and abstain from work) on a day that was out of step with the rest of the world. It allowed them to drink in moderation, even smoke if they wanted to. Dancing, playing cards, wearing jewellery, eating pork — all these things were forbidden; all these things made our Adventist lives “hard” (despite the fact that we’d chosen to belong to this group freely). The comfortable pew down the road didn’t make any of those awkward demands. It was, presumably, much easier to be Anglican, or United Church, or some other, less weird religion.
I personally think that religion should be demanding, though maybe not in those particular ways. Actually I’ve never found most of those things to be all that difficult, probably because I grew up as one of the “peculiar people” so drinking, eating pork,etc., were never part of my culture. (I could go into quite a diversion here about these “Adventist distinctives,” and how some of them make great sense to me and others no sense at all, and what my attitude towards them is, but that’s not really the story I want to tell here).
Sometimes I think it’s easy to focus on the superficial aspects of our distinctive denominations — whether that’s an Adventist focusing on not eating bacon, or the aforementioned Anglican getting all tied up in knots over whether the priest is wearing the correct liturgical dress for the event and whether their church uses the BCP or the BAS. I think the things that make our pews uncomfortable should not be these surface details, but what Jesus called the “weightier matters of the law.”
Why should our pews be uncomfortable? They should be uncomfortable enough to
- force us out of our comfort zones to love and help those who are different from us.
- question our assumptions about who “deserves” God’s grace (hint: it’s nobody).
- do something active to help others rather than just tsk-tsking about how bad things are in the world, or in our community.
- learn to pray, worship and love people whose personalities and politics are very different from ours (this is a tough one!)
- give us some of our own wealth, means and comfort to help people in need.
- speak out against injustice and cruelty.
If your religion doesn’t challenge you to do at least some of the things on the list above, then maybe your pew is a little too comfortable!
On the other hand, as a lifelong churchgoer, I think there are ways in which we should be comfortable in church. Our pews should keep us comfortable enough to:
- share our hurts and our joys with the people in the pews around us and know that we’ll be heard and loved.
- say what we really think in a discussion or Bible study, even when we’re struggling with doubts, and know that we won’t be condemned.
- and, yeah, sit through the service without our bums hurting.
I respect that there are people who will never find that kind of comfort in their church, or my church, even if I wish that weren’t the case. And I respect the decisions of those who’ve left, understanding that it’s not always about “comfort” but a myriad of other things (reasons which are interesting in themselves, but, again, would make this blog post even longer than it is!).
For myself, I spend a lot of time trying to figure out whether church is making me comfortable and uncomfortable in all the right ways. When it’s not, I might wish the church would change — I might even try to nudge it in the direction of change — but I also need to look at what I can change in myself. It’s probably not going to be as simple as sewing a couple of pew cushions, but they’re as much a symbol as they are a butt-saver. They represent the fact that despite some discomfort, this is where I am and where I’m staying, and I have to make it work for me as well as for those around me.