How many times have we heard the phrase, "Safety first"? We use it with young children, teaching them to look both ways before crossing the street and helping them to understand why they need to wear a helmet when riding a bike. It's an extremely helpful phrase for people who work in dangerous occupations where failure to pay attention to safety precautions can result in injury or death. It's a wise slogan when we're doing something potentially dangerous like flying on a zip line or playing around water or fire or jumping on a trampoline. We use it to remind ourselves to be careful, to take the necessary steps to keep ourselves safe. Safety first. Absolutely.
Is is possible to take it too far?
I recently had the opportunity to hear Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori speak at the 25th Preaching Excellence Conference in Richmond. In her address, she talked about the "excessive attention to safety and security" here in North America. She attributed part of that to our accumulation of stuff. When we're busy protecting all the things we have stored in our "barns" then everyone we meet becomes a potential threat, especially the people we don't know. Her response was to suggest that we have to let down some of that vigilance. "Without vulnerability, there can be no real love of self, God, or neighbor," she said. In order to love, we have to take risks. In order to be successful we have to take risks. In order to be alive, we have to take risks.
I believe that in this country we have turned safety and security into idols. We have taken the idea of "Safety first" literally. Safety comes before everything else. It's at the heart of the discussion about gun control. It's behind the Patriot Act and all this eavesdropping on conversation. It's why we have gated communities and home security systems and intensive airport security and endless forms of insurance. Some of these things are good, sensible protection, but I wonder if we take it too far. For those of us who are Christians, I wonder what our obsession with security says about our relationship with God.
I've been reading Scott Bader-Saye's book, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear. It's been sitting on my shelf since I bought it a couple of years ago when I was still in parish ministry but have only just found time to read it. I'm only half way through, but I find it very helpful in exploring this addiction to safety and the fear that lies behind it. I struggle a lot with why bad things happen to good people and how God could allow things like the Holocaust and genocide and child abuse and myriad other things that seem too tragic for a good God to allow. At times I think I've come to some place of resolution and then something like the Newtown shooting occurs and I'm back to the drawing board. Seems like there's been a lot of those events lately.
Scott Bader-Saye says, "God provides. God redeems. But God does not always prevent." Ah yes. No matter how much I want God to prevent. He goes on to say, "God promises to provide. God promises to redeem. God does not promise that nothing bad will ever happen to us. In fact, Jesus promises that if we follow him, the world will persecute us just as it persecuted him. If anything, we are promised suffering, but we are also promised a way through it." That doesn't sound like much in the face of tragedy. Thanks, God. I appreciate the suffering. Got anything else for me?
When I'm honest, I have to admit that I just want God to make everything easy for me and for those I love. I want to be safe and secure and never have to do things I fear or don't like. Selfishly I want God to work things out according to my plan. But time and time again I have learned that my plan isn't necessarily a good plan. It's often selfish and frequently wouldn't even be the best thing for me. The best conclusion that I've been able to reach is in agreement with what Scott Bader-Saye is saying. God redeems everything. Maybe not in the way I want. Maybe not in the time frame I would prefer. Eventually, God redeems everything.
Believing that is how I can find courage in this culture of fear that tells me my neighbor is different and scary and would just as soon take my stuff or my life. Instead of insuring my security with more and more and more protection, walls, gates, and locks until I'm burrowed down deep in a cave where no one can harm me, I can choose to take some risks. Maybe I'll lose some stuff. Maybe I'll be killed. But I'd much rather live trusting that God is going to provide and redeem than frantically relying on my own strength and resources to prevent anything bad from happening.
It's been scary to me in the past few years as I left my comfortable parish job and stepped out into the world where health insurance and pension funds aren't provided and where I'm not sure how I'm going to pay all the bills. And yet I'm grateful because it's forced me to rely each month on God's providence. Kicking and screaming all the way, I learn that there's enough. Often just enough, but enough nevertheless. I want to know how the bills are going to be paid in December. God says, here's enough for June. I am reluctant to let go of fear and my strong need for security. When I do, though, I am blessed with abundance that only God can provide.
I still apply "Safety first" when I'm getting into a car or preparing to do the Ropes Course, but I don't have to put safety ahead of risks when it comes to other areas of my life. Putting love first seems like a better way to live. More joyful. More abundant. I'll leave the rest to God.