Lobsters Teach a Lesson to Churches
From our earliest moments, we come into this world needing comfort. From the moment of that first cuddle, we progress through life with its struggles and occasional pain, welcoming moments when a loving action or kind words bring comfort.
People of a certain age will remember the early afternoon radio programme, ‘Listen with Mother’. Partway through the programme, it was usually Daphne Oxenford, who would read a story. This would be preceded with the question, “Are you sitting comfortably?” I recall those halcyon days with nostalgic pleasure. I also remember, once as a young child and having been distressed by a bad dream, I was taken onto my father’s and into his arms as he prayed with me. Panic was replaced with peace.
I wonder what the word, ‘comfort’ brings to mind for you. Possibly, a favourite armchair or a warm bed. In my second pastorate, someone gave our church a settee and armchairs. We put them at the back of our worship area, and they became popular to a Christian farmer, who had already worked long hours before the morning service, and who often slipped in a little late (but as soon as he could) and collapsed into their comfort. Those comfortable items of furniture had a ministry of their own! What is the virtue of hard pews?
There is an interesting verse in the Acts of the Apostles which gives a picture of peace and comfort after a turbulent period of persecution. It comes not long after the conversion of Saul. In the NIV it reads, “Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.” (Acts 9:31). In the Authorised Version of the Bible, where I first came across this passage, the words. “encouraged by the Holy Spirit” are rendered, “the comfort of the Holy Ghost”. The Greek word paraklesis can be translated in many ways, but the ministry of the Holy Spirit is not to wrap us in cotton wool and gently rock us to sleep.
Which brings me back to lobsters! Once killed, lobsters rapidly decay. For this reason, they should be cooked and eaten soon after being killed. Now banned in many countries, lobsters are sometimes boiled alive. I think it should be banned everywhere. It has been said that if the lobsters are chilled and then go into cold water slowly warmed, they relax and fall asleep before the water becomes hot enough to kill them. While this might be true, even writing it makes me feel very uncomfortable. Death by comfort!
My point is, are some of our churches so comfortable that we fail to realise that we are actually dying? We like the hymns or the new songs, we enjoy the sermons (though few seem to bring about much change), and we enjoy being with our friends who share our beliefs. Is it all too nice? I remember first hearing a fellow preacher say that while he delights in hearing an occasional “Amen” of “Hallelujah” as a response when preaching, he would sometimes prefer to hear someone say “Ouch!”.
How can we tell if we are being lulled into a sleep that will lead to death? We could ask, when was the last time that the sermon made me feel uncomfortable because it made me realise shortcomings? We could ask, when was someone last converted in my church? We could ask, how are we being motivated to engage with God’s mission? We could ask, are there visible signs that we are growing in faith and discipleship? We could ask, is church just too comfortable, leaving us complacent?
If your church is too comfortable, then what can be done about it? I suggest you start times of prayer for revival. Make sure that those who preach know that you appreciate being challenged and stirred – at least some of the time. Pray that God’s word to your church will be heard and acted on. Pray for the preacher and the affect of the message while he or she proclaims it. Encourage a time of reflection on the message, and perhaps an exhortation to action, before you move into the closing hymn and go home to lunch.
Editors of news programmes use something called, ‘the dead donkey’. It is a final benign and possibly silly story to end the news programme, so we are not distressed by the bad news. Final hymns and coffee can do much the same but could in fact provide the space to determine the change and/or action as the alternative to the shot of weekly soporific comfort.
Is it time to bring back the “Ouch”? If my words have disturbed you, please do not let them fail to bring about change. Generally speaking, a real revival is long overdue, but it could start in your church – or maybe mine!
Barry Osborne -19th March 2018