I was in Singapore a few years ago, speaking at the annual Interserve Missions event. It was a lovely evening. We gathered around the Bible, and we drank dandelion tea, and we heard inspiring stories of God at work around Asia and the Arab world. We also heard about the ongoing needs and missional opportunities and challenges in those countries. The work is not done yet! It’s not over! It was an excellent evening. Afterwards, though, I talked to the organiser of the event, and she said that she was occasionally frustrated.
She felt that, in Singapore, there were many Christians and churches that were well-resourced, and as a nation they had good political standing with other countries, so they could travel easily … but often the response to the needs of the world was, “Is it safe?”
Safety is a wonderful goal … and an extremely complex issue.
Is it safe? Is it safe to go and serve in Nepal? Is it safe to travel as a Westerner in Tajikistan? Is it safe to visit a church in Egypt? Is it safe to be known as a Christian in Iraq? Is it safe to travel on the roads in Singapore? Is it safe to commute on the M4 each day in Sydney?
The event organiser kept chatting to me. She wondered whether some Singaporean Christians, highly motivated by safety and security as they seemed to be, had actually unwittingly developed a “security gospel” within their church communities, in place of the words and life of Jesus.
It was a probing conversation for me. I remember sitting there and wondering whether I had done the same thing back in Australia. Or am I still doing that, today? Safety is a wonderful goal … and an extremely complex issue. As human beings, we’re wired to protect ourselves and the people we love. It’s an excellent wiring, and it’s our genetic code, and it keeps us alive as a human race through the innumerable strategies we’ve developed: risk management policies and building codes and contingency plans and advances in medical technology. Most of us are thankful beneficiaries of a Western focus on safety and security.
But what if we all paused and quietly asked ourselves about the role of safety and security in our own lives and churches, as followers of Jesus. Is it possible that we are prioritising safety to the detriment of something else? Is it possible that we will not always feel safe? Is it OK to expect some level of un-safety, on a daily basis? Do we think that Jesus modelled safety or security as his highest priority?
… We also have to consider that some of us will be called to “unsafe” places!
Two days before the missions event in Singapore that year (April 2015), there was a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Nepal. Nine thousand people died and 22,000 people were seriously injured, many of whom were in the towns and villages near where Darren and I lived from 1993 to 1996 and 2003 to 2006. Back in those years, Darren and I served with the International Nepal Fellowship (INF), working as physios and training local physios. Also back then, our decision to live in Nepal had been complicated. For ten of those years, the country had been in the middle of civil war, with bombs, riots and strikes a daily occurrence. Our decision to take our three small boys into that environment was challenging! But we also knew about the needs in Nepal. In 1993, there were only two Nepali physiotherapists serving the entire population of 20 million people. The INF literature stated that its mission was to “empower the most marginalised and disadvantaged people through health and community development work.” And if any of us agree that that’s a necessary and needed goal, then we also have to consider that some of us will be called to “unsafe” places! So, back then, the five of us went to live in Nepal for six years …
And then in April 2015, Darren and I were glued to our screens in Singapore, watching the impact of the earthquake unfold, while at the same time trying to contact our friends near the epicentre. The next day, Darren decided to change his flights and fly straight to Nepal instead of coming home to Australia. When he arrived, he was able to serve at Dhulikhel Hospital alongside the incredible, tireless Nepali physio colleagues. He said that it was an amazing privilege to be there during the most devastating natural disaster he had ever seen. During those weeks, the second earthquake occurred and hundreds of the patients were rushed out of the hospital again, for three days, as another part of the building developed cracks and shifted off its foundations.
Nearby, hundreds of thousands of Nepali people lost their homes and their livelihoods, and the recovery and resilience work of INF goes on today.
It’s not a safe world.
I think it’s a natural question to ask. “Is it safe – to go there or to do this?” But I also think that every time we ask it, we need to try and listen to what’s going on within us, underneath the question. We all want the answer to be, “Yes, it’s safe.” We want someone to assure us that nothing awful will happen to us, or to the ones we love, today, or this year. That would be nice! But we also hold in tension the truth that we live in an unsafe world, where hard things happen every single day.
After our time in Singapore, and after Darren’s time in Nepal post-earthquake, we all regathered as a family in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, and we decided that we needed a short weekend break to recover. So we booked a small house on the south coast of NSW, by the water. It was gorgeous. The view was very calming! I remember I walked in and poured myself a cup of tea and I just sat there, staring at the water. Darren also tried to calm down – he headed out on his bicycle, with one of our sons. Then suddenly, within an hour, they were both back at the front door. Darren had had an accident on his bike! He apparently came off over a bump and he now couldn’t move either hand! The next thing we knew, we were both sitting at Nowra Hospital, waiting for X-rays, and suspecting fractures to both his wrists. Three hours later, we were driving home to our quiet house by the water with both of his hands in plasters. It wasn’t as safe as we thought, in that quiet house by the water.
It’s not a safe world. I think for me, I’ve realised that I need to take time to remember that. And then I need to get up again and respond to the gospel of Jesus – to live in this unsafe, needy world, in a way that honours him. And that doesn’t mean that I (or any of us) will do foolish things. But it does mean that we will take risks, and our risk-taking will look different each day. Some of us will serve in Nepal with INF, during civil war, or in the earthquake relief and recovery work that still goes on today. Others of us may choose to use our financial resources to support missional work in Tajikistan. Still others of us may give up the high opinion of others by our daily choices to advocate for, and serve, the voiceless or vulnerable. And we will continue to do all of this because of Jesus’ words in John 15. On the night before he was betrayed, Jesus said to his disciples, “Love each other as I have loved you.” He didn’t say, “Take care.” Or “Stay safe.” Or, “Rest up by the water.” He said, “Love each other as I have loved you.”
Jesus’ costly, “unsafe” love took him to the cross two days later. And it brought about our redemption, and the redemption of the world. So, today as believers in Jesus, wherever we are in the world, we hold tightly to Jesus’ incredible promise (that he spoke, soon after he defeated death forever) – not that we will be safe, but that he will be with us, in this unsafe, messy world.
Perhaps the question to ask is less, “Is it safe?” and more, “Lord, how can we serve you, and respond to you, in this unsafe, broken, beautiful world, today?”
Naomi Reed is the author of My Seventh Monsoon and eight other books. She now serves as an ambassador for the International Nepal Fellowship (INF). For more information, go to NaomiReed.Info and www.inf.org