It isn’t supposed to hurt, my yoga teacher said.
This is exercise, I told her. Of course it’s supposed to hurt.
She shook her head. Pain isn’t the same as effort, she told me. It’s OK to be uncomfortable, but it’s not OK to be in pain.
It’s OK to be uncomfortable. It’s OK for new poses to make your legs shake. It’s OK to breathe so deeply that your chest burns, and to hold a pose until you think you can’t hold it another minute.
But that’s not the same as being in pain.
Yoga shouldn’t hurt.
And neither should church.
How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts!
My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD;
my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.
One of the primary motifs in the book of Psalms is “God as refuge.” In Psalm 84, the lectionary psalm for August 26th, the psalmist finds shelter in the house of the Lord, where “even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young” (Ps 84:3). The house of the Lord is a place of rest, hope, and rejuvenation. The house of the Lord is a place of safety.
For many of us, though, the house of the Lord doesn’t feel safe.
We were taught, though, that church shouldn’t feel that way. Church shouldn’t be “comfortable.” Community is messy, they told us. Church isn’t about you, they told us. Church isn’t about feeling good, they told us. Church is about commitment, even when it hurts, they told us.
So we show up to churches that are causing us pain, because we internalized the message that religion is about sacrifice. We don’t have language to distinguish between healthy discomfort and harmful pain.
Yoga can be hard. That doesn’t mean it should hurt.
Church can be hard. That doesn’t mean it should hurt.
Happy are those whose strength is in you,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
They go from strength to strength;
the God of gods will be seen in Zion.
Lots of things are uncomfortable about yoga. I’m bored. I can’t keep my balance. My muscles are sore. I have terrible balance. I’m awkward. I can’t focus. It takes strength to show up on my mat, day after day, and developing strength is uncomfortable. But when I show up and listen to my body, I learn the difference between strengthening discomfort and damaging pain.
Because church can be uncomfortable, and that’s not always a bad thing. Just because church should be safe doesn’t mean that it’s easy, any more than yoga is easy even though it’s rejuvenating.
Church is uncomfortable because loving people who are different from us takes work.
Church takes effort because we’ll mess up, and saying “I’m sorry” is painful.
Church is work because sometimes we’re bored, or tired, or disengaged, and it takes grit and gumption to roll out of bed.
Church is hard because sometimes we’re mad at the pastor, or in a crisis of faith, or in a fight with the elders, or wrestling with theological difference in our community, and it’s easier to cut and run than stay and learn from people we disagree with, and help them learn from us.
But there’s a difference between pushing your spiritual muscles towards growth, and squeezing your soul into harmful narrow spaces. And you are the only one who knows your body. You are the only one who knows which one is which. You are the expert on what your soul needs.
Yoga shouldn’t hurt.
Church shouldn’t hurt.
And it’s OK to leave a church that hurts.
When our church has been spiritually abusive. When our faith has changed drastically and we can’t find meaningful community to join us on our new journey. When the way we worship has shifted towards a more contemplative, charismatic, high church, low church, or unchurched model.
When church is no longer a shelter, it’s not selfish to go seeking refuge.
God never asks us to stay somewhere that is harming us.
A healthy church is work, just like a healthy yoga practice. A healthy church is a mix of resting and muscle-stretching. A healthy church is a rhythm of giving and receiving, coming in and being fed and coming in and leaving empty.
Tune in to your spiritual body this week. Listen to her signals. Learn how to stay steady in uncomfortable positions and stretch those spiritual muscles. Learn how to show up even when it’s a little uncomfortable.
And give yourself permission to walk away when church hurts.
The LORD is near to the brokenhearted,
and saves the crushed in spirit.
The LORD redeems the life of his servants;
none of those who take refuge in him
will be condemned.