In this week’s church newsletter, the pastor informs us that the “leadership team” has settled on a new set of “values”. I wasn’t quite sure what was wrong with, say,
“love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind, and love your neighbour as yourself”
but perhaps it didn’t look corporate/organisational enough.
Anyway, the first of the four new values was “everyone safe”, which was elaborated on as follows
We desire to be a church where people are safe physically, emotionally and spiritually.
It sounds all very therapeutic – perhaps it wouldn’t seem out of place in a counsellor’s office – but is it the gospel?
C S Lewis didn’t write Scripture either, and had no formal teaching authority in the church. I was late to his fiction – scared by the White Witch as a young child, it took me 30 years to finish The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – but for as long as I’ve known it this extract has made a powerful impression. Learning of Aslan from Mr and Mrs Beaver, Lucy asks
“Is he a man?” asked Lucy.
“Aslan a man!” said Mr Beaver sternly. Certainly not. I tell you he is King of the wood and the son of the great emperor-beyond- the-sea. Don’t you know who is the King of the Beasts? Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great lion.”
“ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake” said Mrs Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
He isn’t safe, but he is good. There is a profound difference. Aslan, for Lewis, is an image of the Christ who died a wrenching death for us.
We aren’t Christ of course. And yet, we – Christian believers collectively – are called the body of Christ, the bride of Christ. We are adopted as children of God. And Jesus himself described the path of discipleship as a costly one
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
Doesn’t sound very safe to me. It wasn’t for the disciples, most of whom died as martyrs. It wasn’t for Stephen, or Paul….or for Polycarp, St Lawrence, Felicity and Perpetua, or the countless other Christian martyrs from that day to this.
If I put myself in the place of the leadership team, perhaps I could put a constructive interpretation on the words (protection from abuses within a church community), but one shouldn’t have to. Words have meaning, and these words encourage us to think of the church as a refuge, a place of comfort and rest. They aren’t words which speak of a gospel that is intensely counter-cultural (all the more so as our culture moves away again from its Christian roots), or of a call to be rid of sin, or even one that encourages the outward move of evangelism, where all too often what we would face is rejection, indifference, or scoffing. Safety? I think not. We are soldiers of the army of salvation. And while no serious army spends the lives of soldiers lightly, “safety” won’t be one of the highest values.
The writer of Hebrews put it thus
Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.
We are to be resident aliens, never fully at home, never fully comfortable or safe.
It is all too easy to be “safe”. I know it. I’ve probably spent too much of my life there. But it isn’t what God calls as to. It is a call to be up-ended, to turn aside from the things of the world that so easily ensnare, to grow in holiness, and to be formed in the likeness of Christ, despised and rejected as he was. In many ways, it doesn’t seem very attractive. But very few worthwhile things come through “safe” paths.
Isaiah put it thus
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.
Of course, we can look forward to the glorious hope at the end of our journey. And even then, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress portrays an imagery of an arduous journey, until at least we find ourselves safe home. still needing to step in faith.
Then the pilgrims, especially Christian, began to despair in their minds. They looked this way and that, but no way could be found to escape the river.
Then they asked the men if the waters were deep everywhere all the time. They told them that sometimes the water was shallow, but that they could not guide them in that matter since the waters were deep or shallow depending upon their faith in the King of the place.
Then they waded into the water, and upon entering, Christian began to sink. He cried out to his good friend Hopeful, saying, “I am sinking in deep waters; the billows are going over my head, all his waves go over me! Selah.”
Then Hopeful said, “Be of good cheer, my brother. I feel the bottom, and it is good.”
Then Christian cried out, “Ah! My friend! ‘The sorrows of death have compassed me about.’m I shall not see the land that flows with milk and honey.”
With that a great darkness and horror fell upon Christian, so that he could not see ahead. It was then that Christian lost his senses, and his memory failed him, and he could not talk in an orderly fashion of any of those sweet refreshments that he had met with in the way of his pilgrimage. All the words that he spoke were filled with horror, and he feared that he should die in that river and never obtain entrance at the gate. He was greatly troubled by thoughts of his past sins, committed before and during his pilgrimage. It was also observed that he was troubled with apparitions of hobgoblins and evil spirits, which he continually spoke about.
It was everything that Hopeful could do to keep his brother’s head above water. Sometimes Christian, despite all Hopeful’s help, would slip down into the waters and rise up again half-dead. Hopeful continually tried to comfort him, saying, “Brother, I see the gate, and men standing by to receive us.”
But Christian would answer, “It is you, it is you they wait for. You have been Hopeful ever since I knew you.”
“And so have you,” Hopeful said to Christian.
Christian answered, “If things were right with me, He would now come to help me, but because of my sin He has brought me to this snare, and He will leave me here.”
Then said Hopeful, “My brother, you have forgotten the text where it is said of the wicked, ‘There are no bands in their death; but their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men, neither are they plagued like other men.’ These troubles and distresses that you are going through in these waters are not a sign that God has forsaken you but are sent to try you, to see if you will call to mind all the goodness that you have received from Him. You are being tested to see if you will rely on Him in your distress.”
Then I saw in my dream that Christian was in a bewildered stupor for a while. Hopeful spoke to Christian, encouraging him to “Be of good cheer,” reminding him that Jesus Christ would make him whole. With that Christian shouted out with a loud voice, “Oh, I see Him again, and He tells me, ‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you.’”
Then they both took courage and crossed the river, and the enemy was as still as a stone. Christian soon found solid ground to stand on, and the rest of the river was shallow. So Christian and Hopeful crossed over the river and arrived on the other side. As soon as they came out of the river, they saw the two shining men again waiting for them. The men saluted the two pilgrims saying, “We are ministering spirits, sent here to minister to those who shall be heirs of salvation.” Then they all went they along together toward the gate.
Perhaps I often wish it were otherwise, but isn’t the path Jesus calls us to.