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The Blessing of Discomfort -- Isaiah 58:1-12 (First Sunday in Lent)

There’s a Franciscan blessing that begins like this:

May God bless you with discomfort.

May God bless you with discomfort –

at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships –

so that you may live deeply and from the heart.

Every time I hear or speak the blessing – “May God bless you with discomfort” – I get uncomfortable. It’s an edgy blessing. May God bless you with discomfort. Who wants to be blessed with discomfort?

And it doesn’t stop there. This Franciscan blessing goes on and blesses us with anger– at violence, injustice and the oppression of people. It blesses us with tears to shed – with those who mourn. And it blesses us with foolishness – to believe that we can make a difference in this ol’ world.

Who blesses people with discomfort, and anger, and tears to shed, and foolishness? How could that possibly be a blessing?

Over the course of Lent – as we consider “Blessing for the Journey” – we’ll consider each of these blessings.

Today, we consider the first: “May God bless you with discomfort.”

In today’s Scripture, the prophet speaking in the name of Isaiah blesses the people with discomfort. This is an uncomfortable, squirm-in-your-seat kind of Scripture. The people in this text are already having a hard time.[1] This part of Isaiah (Third Isaiah) was probably written after the exile. Jerusalem has been conquered, reduced to rubble – a significant number of the people have been taken into exile in Babylon, while others are left behind.

And 70 years later, the exiles (their children and grandchildren) get to return home, back to Judah, and they find that those who were left behind basically have been living in the rubble of Jerusalem. And together, they have to rebuild a life, a community. They have to learn to live together, after 70 years of living separate catastrophes. They are a hurting people – and they have to rebuild their whole world.

And one thing they do – to re-assert their identity – is they re-assert their religion. They begin to practice their religion – their ritual – their worship – as their way of re-establishing their identity and relationship with the one true God – the God of Israel. And so they fast, and they humble themselves, and they bow their heads like a reed, and they put on sackcloth and ashes.

And. They expect God to be impressed – to be moved. And when they don’t get the response they expect from God – they don’t get any response – they bring that to God’s attention. Excuse us, God? Have we not fasted? Have we not humbled ourselves? Have you not noticed?

And they get a response: The prophet speaking as Isaiah blesses them with discomfort. He says: Yes, you have fasted, and yes you’ve put on sackcloth, but do you really think this is all that God wants? You fast, but your fasting ends in fist-fights. And while you are busy at your showy fasting, the poor go hungry, the homeless have no shelter, you persist in your ways of oppression, you turn away from your own flesh and blood. This fasting that you’re doing -- Do you really think this is what God wants?

Isaiah lays it all bare – right there – the truth for everyone to see. The truth that no one is saying. Isaiah blesses them with discomfort at all their easy answers, their half-truths, and their superficial relationships.

Isaiah offers them the blessing of discomfort.

In seminary, there’s a learning experience that does this too—that honors discomfort at hard truth – as a part of learning. It’s called Clinical Pastoral Education or CPE. It’s ministry/chaplaincy training that takes place in clinical settings – in a hospital or a hospice. It’s learning by doing – giving real care to real people – and then coming together and doing some real reflection about it. In educational circles, we call it an action/reflection model of teaching and learning.

And the reflection part – if you’re doing it right – involves some discomfort. In the CPE model, you do this learning with a supervisor and a group of peers, who commit to learn together, and sometimes to confront each other with truth. You all go out into the hospital, each assigned to a unit, and you care for folks – you are chaplain to the patients and their families and the staff. And then, you gather almost daily, report back your experiences, and welcome feedback – sometimes uncomfortable feedback – to learn from mistakes, to become more self-aware.

One of the practices and skills that CPE teaches – and insists on – is the discipline and the love to name honestly what is going on in the room. To speak a reality that may be unspoken. To speak a reality that may even be obvious, but that folks may be actively avoiding. It is to lay before another – to lay before ourselves – true things. Uncomfortable things. So that we can live deeply and from the heart.

Now I want to give you a sense of what that’s like: I did my CPE work at UCSF. They are known for being rigorous. (I’m just going to say it, CPE is this combination of a job and a classroom and bootcamp.) I went to the interview for this summer job relatively unaware. It started off OK. And then a few minutes into it, the Director asked me, “Scott, what would a difficult patient be for you? Who would you have trouble working with?” And I thought, and I said, “Well, I guess a patient who was vocally anti-gay.”

And she took it from there, she said, “OK then, I want you to imagine that you’ve just walked into a hospital room. And the patient is yelling the worst anti-gay things you can think of at the nurse who is leaving the room. What would you do?” I thought, and I said something like this, “Well, I would talk to the patient and I would try to calm him down. I’d try to see where he is coming from. Try to understand. I’d ask him why he is in the hospital – how he is feeling – try to figure out what his needs are.”

The Director stared me down, and she said, “WOW.... THAT was avoidant.... You have just managed to talk about almost everything EXCEPT what is actually going on in that room.” (I wanted to crawl under my chair, but there was nowhere to hide.)

She didn’t skip a beat. She said, “Now, I want you to imagine that you walk into a room where a patient is yelling racist things at a nurse as she is leaving. What would you do?”

I was still reeling, but I said, “I would tell him that that kind of conduct is not allowed in the hospital. That in the hospital everyone is entitled to dignity and respect – patients and nurses and doctors. And that the hospital has policies that protect everyone from being yelled at and harassed like that.”

She just let me sit for a moment. And then she said, “Scott, you need to spend some time thinking about why you responded to those two situations differently.”

And then she said, “Scott, you don’t do the patient any favors by letting them be comfortable acting out of their own homophobia and their own racism. You are not helping anyone. You’re perpetuating a system where the nurse keeps getting harmed. And you’re not helping the patient advocate for the care they need – because how do you think that the nurses – even the best nurses – will respond to someone who is acting like that?”

This was not the best job interview I have ever had. But I left convinced that if they would have me, I would learn with them – because she blessed me with discomfort, at my easy answers, my half-truths, my superficial relationships – discomfort at my own avoidance. In one short hour, she laid bare my lifelong pattern of avoiding hard things at the expense of truth and healing and deeper relationship.

Discomfort is an essential part of growth and learning, because it doesn’t let us stay stuck. Discomfort is an embodied signal that something is not right in the world – not right, in our community – in our family – in our life. Discomfort is an embodied alert that something is in need of attention, and correction, and care.

Discomfort is an essential part of our anti-racism learning here. For those of us who are white, we’ve learned that there are a lot of things about race and racism that we white folks just don’t see.[2] We typically don’t see ourselves in terms of race. We don’t see how the systems we inhabit benefit us all day long because of race, and we don’t see how those systems harm people of color. We don’t see because we don’t have to. We can move through the world – benefitting – with our easy answers, our half-truths, and our superficial relationships. And when all this is put into plain view – it is uncomfortable. Robin DiAngelo and others call it “white fragility.”[3] It is uncomfortable. And absolutely necessary. We have to name what is going on in the room if we are ever to be a part of its repair – if we are ever to change – if we are ever to stop hurting people – if we ever are to live deeply and from the heart.

That’s also true also in our families and our communities – even in our life together as a church. In our families and communities, there can be a tendency not to name what is going on in the room, particularly if we sense that it’s going to make folks uncomfortable, if it might trouble the waters.

Maybe it’s a need that we have never voiced.

Maybe it’s a hurt or a grudge we have been nursing for far too long.

Maybe it’s a way of living that is causing harm.

Maybe it’s a communication that’s long overdue.

But not naming it isn’t helping anyone. It’s keeping us stuck.

Writing about Lent, Joan Chittister says, “There is a natural inertia built into the human condition that seeks the comfortable, the familiar, the secure.”[4] Lent stirs that up. “Lent takes us from one growth point to another.” It may be easier to live in the false comfort of easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships – but Chittister says: “To live for lesser things is to risk not really living at all.”

Lent gives us the opportunity to live into this blessing of discomfort. Lent is at its essence a journey with Jesus to the cross, a way that passes through Holy Week, that rests at a table where betrayal sits and sups, and that then passes through Gethsemane and a trial and a cross. It is a way full of discomfort.

This year, we’re thinking of this Lenten journey as a way of blessing. To bless is to infuse the world with good. The way of Jesus infuses the world with good, as it blesses us with discomfort at the things that are keeping us stuck, at the things that we are not doing or saying, at the things that keep harming ourselves and others. Lent invites us to see these things and name them plain.

And so I just want to offer a few questions for our prayer, questions for you and for me:

· What are the easy answers that you are clinging to?

· What are your half-truths? Where does it feel hard and scary to move into the whole truth? The full truth?

· What are your superficial relationships? Those relationships that may be on hold or stagnant until you choose to go deeper? Your relationship with family? Or friends? Or the church? Or the poor?

· In your life, and in our world, what’s going on in the room, that’s not getting said?

And I also want to say this, Lent doesn’t ask us these questions just so we will feel uncomfortable. The blessing of discomfort is specific – its not just discomfort for the sake of discomfort. It’s discomfort with easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, and its purpose is so that we may live deeply and from the heart. The purpose of Lent is to invite us into the life of Christ to travel the hard but true path that leads through the cross toward resurrection, so that we may live deeply and from the heart.

And that’s what the prophet who speaks for Isaiah says to the people. He lays their stuff bare. You fast, but while you fast, you quarrel, and you oppress, and the hungry go without food. Is this what you think God wants for you?

No, no. God wants so much more for you. This is what God wants – that you loose the bonds of injustice – so that all may be free. That you share your bread with the hungry so that everyone has enough. That you stop hiding yourselves from your own kin – so that your relationships will go deep.

And then, and then, the prophet says:

If you remove the yoke from among you, if you offer your food to the hungry, if you satisfy the needs of the afflicted,

then your light shall arise in the darkness

and your gloom be like the noonday sun.

God will guide you continually and will satisfy your needs in parched places and make your bones strong. Then you will be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

Then, you will know what it is to live deeply, and from the heart.

In this season of Lent,

May God bless us with discomfort –

at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships –

so that we might live deeply and from the heart.

© 2021 Scott Clark

[1] For background on this Isaiah text, see Christopher R. Seitz, “The Book of Isaiah 40-66,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. vi (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001), pp.493-99. [2] See Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2018). [3] See id. [4] Joan Chittister, The Liturgical Year (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2009 Kindle ed.)

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