Lent is not an easy journey to take. If we've been fasting, whether from food or from Face Book, then we've experienced a self-denial in some form. So practicing Lent gives us pause, and takes us out of our comfort zone.
Wikipedia defines 'comfort zone' as, "a behavioural state within which a person operates in an anxiety-neutral condition, using a limited set of behaviours to deliver a steady level of performance, usually without a sense of risk."
Well, according to that definition, who would want to leave an 'anxiety-neutral' state? Who would want to choose 'risk' over 'no risk'? Who would want to step out of a culture that encourages self-absorption, concern with the frivolous, and avoidance of the needs of others?
In a very interesting article Pau Vidal, a new priest working with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Kenya, talks about the three people Pope Benedict mentioned in his Ash Wednesday remarks. All three people were folks who stepped out of their comfort zones: Pavel Florensky, a brilliant Russian scientist who became an Orthodox priest and was eventually executed by the Russian State, Etty Hillesum, a Dutch Jew who was killed in Auschwitz, and Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. Vidal states, "these three provide a radical testimony of what it means to leave our comfort zones and let ourselves be transformed by the Spirit."
And, as Methodists, who better a role model of leaving our comfort zone than John Wesley himself. Wesley, an Anglican priest, had a good friend from college, George Whitfield. Whitfield was an evangelist who preached to the poor in England and America. After some persuasion, Wesley decided to join Whitfield preaching to coal miners, in the open, in Bristol.
Wesley recounts,"I could scarce reconcile myself to this strange way of preaching in the fields, of which he [Whitefield] set me an example on Sunday; having been all my life till very lately so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order, that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church." (James M. Buckley, A History of Methodism in the United States, vol. 1 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1898), 88-89.)
It has to be noted that, "coal mining was the most undesirable job available to anybody in 18th century England. They and their families lived in abject poverty. They were considered dirty and dishonest and violent. They were not welcomed in respectable Anglican churches.
George Whitfield preached to the coal miners in an open field in Bristol. Good respectable Anglicans considered this an embarrassingly tacky thing to do" (http://www.foundryumc.org/sermons/9_21_2003.pdf.)
But from this point on Wesley's spiritual life takes a sharp turn. Once he stepped out of his comfort zone (preaching to the clean, decorous congregants in beautiful churches) and took to open fields to bring God to the unchurched, outcast, dirty coal-miners, things changed for him. “Up to this point (in his spiritual life) the story is full of anxiety, insecurity, futility. Hereafter, the instances of spiritual disturbances drop off sharply and rarely recur, even in the full records of a very candid man” (Albert Outler, Editor, “John Wesley” (Oxford University Press), p. 17.) Preaching as he did to the miners led to the demise of his career as an Anglican priest, but it led to a spiritual awakening for him and he began to experience what salvation, forgiveness, grace and peace truly mean.
So, again, why would we want to leave our comfort zone? It seems that when we do, the Holy Spirit can work in us, transform us, and great things happen in the Kingdom of God. Wesley found himself preaching to groups as large as 3,000, made up of people who would never have been welcomed in a church. He brought God, education and hope to many who had been overlooked and discounted as unworthy by the ruling classes, and even the church.
Certainly there are risks to this. Wesley was considered a traitor to his class, Anglican priests reviled and resisted him, violent mobs broke up meetings and attacked the preachers.
Will fasting this Lent bring risks for us? Will turning to God and opening up ourselves to the Holy Spirit by leaving our comfort zone change us?
What would leaving your comfort zone look like?
This post is linked to Spiritual Sundays.