Recently the topic of risk and danger has come up in several discussions of Christian Ministry. Shauna Hyde, who I interviewed along with Chris Surber, has spent the night in tent town with homeless folks and earned the informal title “vicar of tent town.” People have told her she’s crazy. But she manages to live the gospel and build relationships that wouldn’t happen any other way.
Chris Surber, involved in the same interview, is headed to Haiti with his young children. There are folks who claim he is crazy for doing so. He describes some of the comments in his forthcoming book Rendering unto Caesar.
Back in the days when I had a newspaper route (annoying work, but it happened at night, which was convenient), I would regularly stop to help people in the “bad” neighborhood in which I worked. I recall one Sunday morning when I stopped and just kept my headlights on a man who was changing his tire. He was very grateful. When I mentioned this in my Sunday School class it derailed the discussion as people informed me how I shouldn’t risk my life in this way.
Such, I think, would have been the Sunday morning conversation had the Good Samaritan been a Sunday School teacher and reported on his stop on the road to Jericho. His stop, I think, was much more dangerous than my sitting in my car with the headlights on.
In an interview regarding hospitality, the subject of danger came up again. Chris Freet has written a book titled A New Look at Hospitality as a Key to Missions. As soon as we began to discuss hospitality, we had to discuss danger. Strangers actually invited into our home? Perhaps we need to rethink this and use some central location with proper regard for security. After all, in the 21st century we have sexual predators and various violent types among the broad category of people classified as “strangers.”
I have to ask myself whether the 20th or the 21st century is more packed with dangerous people than any previous period in history. I really doubt it. As Christians we claim to be followers of Jesus. It was not entirely safe to do these things when Jesus commanded them. We can’t claim that additional dangers in the 21st century have rendered these commands null and void.
My parents were always hospitable. Many, many times we had guests at the dinner table. You could not visit my parents’ church without receiving an invitation to lunch afterward. My parents would never have considered allowing you to leave unfed. They just never did it. We did this when we were overseas as well. We took people into our home. It was something I felt was normal. How likely are you to get invited out to lunch in a 21st century American church?
And it was not without risk. Once when my parents sheltered a woman and her child in our home the result was that we had to flee as angry people approached intending to kill us. This was eventually settled and we returned to our homes, but there was certainly risk.
We have story after story of missionaries risking their lives and the lives of their children. I was allowed to go on mission trips into the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico when I was eight and nine years old. We’d travel through the mountains, accept the hospitality of the villagers, and conduct clinics. (My father was an MD and my mother an RN.) My task was to carry out the garbage, get supplies and deliver them where needed and to carry messages. Was there risk? Of course there was! What would happen if one of us was injured in these isolated areas? After all, the reason we were there was because medical help was not readily available.
My mother tells a story about me. It embarrasses me a bit. Don’t think that I was some sort of extraordinarily spiritual child. What I’m interested in here is her actions. This is extracted from her book Directed Paths, pp. 51-52.
Even a child is known by his doings, whether his work be pure, and whether it be right.
While we were in the Chiapas mountains, a measles epidemic broke out in the nearby village of Rincon. Many were dying. They sent to our clinic for help. Although nurses and helpers were in short supply, we sent as many as we could to give penicillin and help with treatments. Our older children, Betty Rae and Robert had returned to the states for school. Patty, who was twelve at the time, went to Rincon every day to help. She wanted to be a nurse and this was a great experience for her. The need was so great, the nurses taught her to give shots and helped her to learn how to do treatments. At the time, Henry was only eight but he begged for permission to go help. I knew he could be useful in helping to carry food, water and run errands, but he had never had the measles.
He kept saying, “Mama, please let me go. Patty is helping and I want to help, too.”
“But, Henry, Patty has had the measles. You haven’t. I don’t want my little boy to die.” I told him.
His answer stunned me, “Jesus gave His life for me, and why shouldn’t I give my life for the Chamulas?”
I had no answer to that. The next day, Henry went with the group. He was a great help. He also got the measles which made him extremely ill. We thought he truly was going to give his life for the Chamulas. We provided nursing care, treatments and penicillin, but Jesus did the healing. Henry made it and the glory goes to God.
I believe that many 21st century folks would be horrified by her actions, because I see them react with horror at so much less risky actions. It’s possible some would consider this child abuse. We admire the courage of missionaries at a distance, but are otherwise somewhere between concerned and horrified. I’ve heard the same responses to the idea of people going to help with the Ebola outbreak. Close everything off. Don’t let there be any risk.
Can followers of Jesus say that? I think not! I think the same force of the love of God that had Jesus reaching out, touching, and healing the lepers should drive Christians. The fact of risk is not a reason to quit carrying out the gospel commission nor is it a reason to quit actively loving and helping our neighbors. And it is no reason to allow ourselves to be shut down.
What is right remains just as right under threat of death as it ever is when we’re in complete safety. I know it’s a great deal easier to say that than it is to put it into practice. I don’t proclaim myself a paragon of virtue. I can name so many people who have done or are doing bolder things than I have even considered.
But the call remains the same as it was when Christians faced the lions. Will the American church be driven by fear or by the gospel commission?