Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Un-Comfortable Words of Jesus

"IN a united Christian home, where everyone seeks to obey God in all things, the suffering when it comes will be alleviated by a common dedication-an alleviation denied to those families where no such common dedication is known. But the real heartbreak comes when members of a family, though united in their love of God, fail to see eye to eye and one does something that aggrieves the others. In families where husband and wife pray together (and not separately), where parents pray with their children (and not only teach them to say their prayers), this misunderstanding is much less likely to arise. Nevertheless it may arise; and should such a moment come, we must respect the integrity of the one who makes what to us may be a wrong decision in the conviction that so far as he is concerned and so far as he can discern the divine will, he must obey God rather than man."

-Former Archbishop of Capetown Joost de Blank, Un-Comfortable Words. Longmans, Green, and Company (London: 1958). (All italicized emphases are original to the author.)

Someone a while back recommended the above book to me. It is out of print; so, one has to order it from a used book dealer like ABE books or Alibris. I would imagine if one is in England and has access to a good SPCK bookstore, they would likely have a copy. The person who recommended the book did so at my request for ideas for a Lenten adult study series.

I have just finally gotten around to reading through it, and I must say that there are very few short books of this theological depth being put out anymore. There are a lot of short theological reflection books in the nebulous Chicken Soup for the Soul spirituality genre out there, but those are mostly just theological fluff.

This book is quite interesting on a number of levels. One is that the title is a play on a phrase from the Book of Common Prayer tradition of the priest saying the "Comfortable Words" after the Confession and prayers. You only get them in the Rite I version of the 1979 American Book of Common Prayer, and even then they are not referred to specifically as the "comfortable words."

One has to go back to the 1928 Book of Common Prayer or some earlier version to hear the priest physically say, "Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all that truly turn to him..." In the American Rite I Eucharist service, the priest only says, "Hear the Word of God to all who truly turn to him..." and even then that whole bit in the Rite I service rubrics is technically optional because the directions are clearly, "A Minister may then say one or more of the following sentences..." I have been to many a Rite I service where the Priest omits that bit entirely and jumps right to the passing of the peace and announcements, which always irritated me because that is a very central part of the traditional Anglican liturgy from 1662 onwards. 

This is probably why many an Episcopal priest these days would completely miss the double meaning of a book entitled Un-Comfortable Words because it is a play on the 'Comfortable Words' from the traditional prayerbook liturgy that the 1979 Book of Common Prayer saw fit to denude from the liturgy proper for reasons of which I can guess but am not entirely clear. 

As is evident, the play on words in this book is a challenging bit on Jesus' uncomfortable words. The opening quote above, coming from an Apartheid Era Archbishop of Capetown in a chapter entitled, 'Family Loyalities,' is saying something. Jesus sometimes has uncomfortable words for us. It is not all warm, fuzzy "God is Love" stuff. (In fact, Jesus never said anything of that sort.) Case in point: do you pray with your spouse? Do you pray with your kids? 

Think on the words of Jesus from the opening of the chapter of this book: 

"If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple."
-Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew 14: 26

That doesn't sound like warm, fuzzy inclusive Christianity to me. 

Food for thought...