Comfort and Dis-ease

By Stina Kielsmeier-Cook

Comfort croppedWhen I was in college my theology professor, lecturing on the Kingdom of God, turned to me and asked, “So, Stina. When you are older and own a home and have a perfectly good kitchen and dining room and so on, I want to know: Will you spend thousands of dollars updating it? Redoing it?”

When I was the invincible age of twenty-two, the thought of having thousands of dollars to spend on anything—let alone owning a real home—seemed a million years away. And what a silly question: Of course I wouldn’t spend my fictitious money on frivolous home renovation projects. I wouldn’t settle for a domesticated life of fine things.

We were talking about the Kingdom of God, after all. About upside-down priorities—of the last, first. Of giving all that we had to the poor. I never imagined myself wanting comfort; I who grew up with it and never knew life without it. My head and heart were fixed on higher, nobler things.

“No,” I replied to my professor, my voice bold before my classmates. I looked around importantly. “No, I would never do that.”

I smile to myself now as I remember that moment, as I sit here, molded into the couch. My back is sore from carrying my infant all day, from lifting my preschooler in and out of the bucket swing at the park. I grab a box of Honey Bunches of Oats from the top of the fridge; I burrow my hand inside for a fistful of comfort.

Comfort, comfort. I didn’t realize how much I would want comfort, how quickly I would seek it out.

Shortly after college my ideals led me to live in an intentional Christian community in rural Georgia. I remember talking to one of the wizened long-termers (a real radical, in the flesh!) who had served there for thirty years. Over cups of weak coffee from the community kitchen, I told him about my dreams of living prophetically, of selling everything I had to follow Jesus.

Cradling my warm mug in my hands, I asked if anything had surprised him in a lifetime of communal living below the poverty line. And he told me: “I never knew how much I’d crave comfort. I never knew how tied to routine I would become, how reluctant to change.” I choked back my surprise, the coffee sour on my tongue.

I am starting to understand what he meant, now that I live in a neighborhood that is far from desirable on paper—high levels of poverty, crummy schools, home burglaries. When my husband and I were twenty-four and newly in love, living here felt perfect. It rang with some of the soaring idealism I had then: thoughts about God in the city, of loving our neighbors, of fleeing the suburbs. It was easy then to be critical of people older than me—white and well educated—who bought up McMansions and retreated from neighborhoods like mine as soon as they had children.

And yet here I am, thirty-one years old, eating cereal on the couch and circling things in the IKEA catalogue. Being broke, it turns out, is stressful. I fantasize about having money, about being able to buy new clothes. To join a gym. To afford nice things for my daughter. To be free of guilt while tossing a few comfort items into the Target shopping cart: nail polish in trendy colors, a pair of sunglasses. For buying a coffee to go.

And it’s more than wanting material goods; I am unused to being a minority. I am unused to living in an area with high crime. I fear for my kids when sidestepping syringes on our walk to the park. My discomfort with difference, my search to find others who look like me: I feel these primitive instincts disrupting my lofty ideas of life in the city.

We are all seeking our kind. It’s natural and normal for humans to want to be with people who look like them; it helps promote a sense of identity, of connection. Yet, I know that God wants more for us than benign comfort and sameness; after all, Jesus purposely alienated himself from his in-group—devout Jews—by befriending tax collectors, Romans, prostitutes, and foreigners.

I know all this, the parables burned deeply into my psyche, and yet I just want to shut my eyes sometimes—new shoes might help, perhaps, or another cookie.

A former mentor of mine once led a Bible study on Colossians and I’ll never forget his words. “We should never feel comfortable in this world,” he told us. “We are aliens and strangers, we feel dis-ease for a reason. It reminds us that we belong to God and God’s kingdom.”

Dis-ease, I think, as I open my laptop and read another email about a shooting in my neighborhood, as I search the internet for home values in areas that have the city’s best schools, wondering if we’d ever be able to afford the mortgage. I sigh deeply, taking another handful of cereal, finding a small satisfaction in each sweet, crunchy bite.


Stina Kielsmeier-Cook is a writer from the fair and frigid city of Minneapolis, where she lives with her husband and two kids.

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How Much God Loves Us

By John Bryant
waterHe was born with cerebral palsy and he has it all the way up until he is completely underwater, when, he says, his whole body is pleasantly different, his limbs smooth and loose and elegant. I hold him under his arms in the pool and he can walk and tell me everything.

He takes three quick steps and can feel the surprise in the way I hold him, and his whole body shakes like a bird in your hand. I’ve never felt a whole body pulse with joy—all hair and fingers and toes—like he is still in the furnace of creation.

When he is done, we float him to the edge of the pool, and I leap out and dig under his arms and we lift him out into his great quivering weight and into the wind and the sun, and the length of his body contracts like a drop of water back into what is wrong. We lay him on his chair and towel, his great knobby knees and his furled, funny, complicated posture.

We push him in his wheelchair back to the cabin, wheels caught and muscling through gravel.  We feel him slip in his chair. We stop. My friend holds him at the knee, and I hold him from the back under the arms, and on three I lift him up to my chest, high as I can, up to the sun like an offering, then back into his appointed place.

I pause, take a step in front of him, just to see him. The sun is in his eyes. His face wide, flat, simple. I tell him we’re close and his spine curves out like a plant growing to the sun, leaving a hollow space between his back and the chair. I push him, tell him about my wife. He smiles, his head tilted at the crook in his neck, his eyes always turned up in reference to something coming up over the hill no one else can see. [Read more...]

Listening to Simone

By Christiana N. Peterson
lady-in-pewThe woman stands in the entryway of our common building just before Sunday worship begins. It’s not a sightly place, but it has every necessity for common intentional community life: a kitchen, a large meeting space, tables and chairs for worship and meals, a bathroom and a prayer room.

At first, the woman seems to fit right in with our unfussy crew: round spectacles, hair in a frizzy bob, a shapeless dress, oversized shoes. I immediately feel an affinity with her.

But I am also wary of her. Something tells me that she has intentionally obliterated anything outwardly lovely in her appearance. This both draws me in and annoys me.

Because I think I know her type. They come through intentional community sometimes: idealistic, stringent in their belief system, radically unusual in their dress. Community hoppers who bounce from church to church, intentional community to community, never satisfied with what they find and always criticizing. Not one of those again, I sigh. [Read more...]

Honey, I Want a Tattoo

By Brad Fruhauff

Matching TattoosIf Katie had had a tattoo when we met, I probably would have married her thinking it quirky or even, perhaps, kind of cool. But when we married her only unusual body mod was a tasteful nose ring.

Fast forward twenty years. Out of the blue she says to me: “I want a tattoo.”

My first response was not, “Oh, that would be quirky and even, perhaps, kind of cool,” but something more like, “What, aren’t you happy in our marriage?”

The response in my head, at any rate. Out loud, I did what I usually do when I’m uncomfortable: grunted noncommittally and changed the subject.

My reaction surprised me. When I thought about it, I didn’t have moral objections, and I wasn’t convinced myself by the social objections. Why was I so uncomfortable?

Working out the answer took me on an unexpected psycho-spiritual and theological journey. [Read more...]

Learning Detachment in the Attic

By Elizabeth Duffy

attic1When my cousin became a Dominican sister, she gave away all of her belongings. My sister and I were invited to come and shop in her closet and salvage any clothes we wanted before they went to charity. More valuable items she bequeathed to family members, and I was the lucky recipient of a pretty pair of lapis lazuli earrings, as well as a Honda Civic, which I, in turn, drove to Rhode Island to discern my own calling to join a religious community there.

Ultimately, I didn’t stay, but I met my husband’s sister there, and she set me up with the man I would marry less than a year after my return.

I never had it in me to give away all that I own, such a sad and rich young woman was I.

So little has changed.

My husband and I have just cleaned out our attic. Everything that was in there is now gone, so that we might begin the process of converting it into another bedroom for the kids, who now sleep stacked like sardines in the two bedrooms upstairs.

What became clear as we went through the piles is that, contrary to all my big talk about detachment and anti-materialism, I’m the packrat in the family.  I’m the one with fourteen Sterilite bins in the attic. [Read more...]