Last spring I promised my kids a visit to a new playground. It was early evening when we pulled up to the play structure in an urban Virginia neighborhood a mile from our home. A group of about 20 school-aged children were laughing and goofing around on the grass. How refreshing, I thought, seeing children outside playing—a sure sign of strong community. While my daughters flew down the slide, the gaggle of children transitioned to the adjacent field and began cheering. Several of the older youth held up cell phones, recording some interaction taking place amid the group. I took a closer look and noticed two smaller children on the ground, gripping each other in the fetal position, grasping each other’s hair in their fists. They were fighting.
“Hey, what are you guys doing?” I spoke in a loud but casual voice as I jogged over from the playground. Everything became silent as the circle opened up to reveal two young girls, still engaged in their bout. “Hey, stop that!” The kids looked at me as if to say, “Who are you, and why do you care?” Some of the older youth put their phones down and stopped recording. The rivals released their grips, brushed off, and stood up.
“Don’t fight here by the playground. It’s a bad example for my kids.” Although lame, it was the quickest explanation I could come up with. No one verbally responded to my effective yet weak rebuke. They just meandered away to continue their game elsewhere.
An older gentleman saw the interaction and called to me from the sidewalk. “What’s going on?” I explained what I’d seen, and he confided he’d recently seen a story on the news about children fighting, recording it, and posting it online. Some were seriously injured participating in this “game.” I hadn’t heard of the phenomenon, though I wasn’t shocked. “Did you hear the shooting around the corner?” he asked. “The police have it all roped off. A lady was shot an hour ago.” That was about 15 minutes before I’d arrived at the park. “It’s not safe,” he continued. Before he walked to his home around the corner, he urged me to head home while there was still light.
Need for Light
Instead of rushing off before dark, all I could think about was this neighborhood’s need for light. I wanted to stay. I wanted to call all my friends who live in “safe” neighborhoods and say, “Hey, God needs more of his people here.”
Having lived in Mozambique as a child during the country’s civil war, I am no stranger to the effects of violence. Several times our family drove through rebel territory to reach an international border. Rebels frequently attacked convoys. We passed vehicles, still hot and smoking. But driving to the border was a necessity. While my parents knew it wasn’t safe—or certainly not as safe as suburban Denver from where we’d come—it was where God had placed our family.
Throughout history, Christians who’ve left behind financial and physical safety for the sake of God’s call have made a major impact for his kingdom. As Pulitzer-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof observed earlier this year, “A disproportionate share of the aid workers I’ve met in the wildest places over the years, long after anyone sensible had evacuated, have been evangelicals, nuns, or priests.” While he readily admits he has little in common theologically or politically with evangelicals or Roman Catholics, Kristof has been “truly awed by those I’ve seen in so many remote places, combating illiteracy and warlords, famine and disease, humbly struggling to do the Lord’s work as they see it.”
God’s call to “go into all the world” isn’t just answered in the jungles of the Amazon or the polluted cities of China, but also in the poverty-stricken housing projects of the American inner city, the immigrant London neighborhood, the neighborhood in a “bad” school district one mile from home. Christ’s followers know such places need his witness, but we are reluctant to go because it’s not safe.
Good Thing Gone Bad
Have we adopted safety as a supreme cultural idol? Even within Christian culture, safety seems to be an acceptable idol. We cling to it in order to shield ourselves from pain, criticism, and fear of the unknown. We rely on it for strength and peace of mind. Much of our mental energy is directed toward staying safe. Safety is a good thing, to be sure, but it morphs into an idol when we pursue it above the commands of Christ and the leading of the Spirit.
Good things like financial security and healthy living can easily become idols too, but safety—perhaps more than the others—is something that cannot be measured. We can read a bank statement or calorie counter, but we can never know how safe we are. We can only know what God has promised—not that we will be physically safe, but that he will be our provider and sustainer no matter what. In other words, there is only one safe place.
Nearly 150 people were killed earlier this year at a university in Garissa, Kenya. Some of the murdered students had been participating in a prayer meeting sponsored by the local Christian Union. The day after a pastor from the region wrote:
This attack has strengthened our conviction and resolve that the safest and securest place to be is at the center of God’s will. As it has been said, “Peace is not the absence of trouble but the assurance that God is with us no matter what.”
Crime statistics, school ratings, and online reviews all have their place, but they ought never overshadow the Spirit’s call to penetrate dark places to be a light for Christ’s kingdom. Yes, this perspective runs counter to the world’s modus operandi, which says, “If it isn’t safe, make every effort to get out.” But for the Christian summoned by the Spirit, the call is to go and be a tool in God’s hands for spiritual transformation. This doesn’t mean recklessness or foolishness, but it does mean the ideal of safety must never stand in the way of humble confidence in our true safety, Jesus Christ.