March 2, 2016

Safety First

“Trust is the always fragile bloom that we must guard and love and work to keep alive.”

Bill Knott

It seems an odd way to begin a conversation—with an announcement of what need not be. But many of the talks I have these days would go no further without it.

The voice on the phone cracks slightly, and the words trail off to mumbled sadness and postponement: “Some other time, I’ll tell you what’s really troubling me.” And yet it is the real reason for the call.

The friend in the church foyer studies the carpet pattern as her face takes on the grimace of a story she worries she shouldn’t tell, though it feels urgent, awful, threatening. Even when we lower our voices to a whisper, she wonders if the walls have ears.

A colleague sits on the edge of a chair, eyes brimming with unwanted tears about some matter, personal or professional, that drives him from his cubicle to walk the halls, seeking solace and security.

Slowly, haltingly, after too many fumbles and miscues, I’ve learned to say the thing each conversation seems to need: “Fear not” (Luke 5:10), or as the original language intended, “You can stop being afraid now.” “This is a safe place. You won’t get hurt here.”

Intriguingly, it is one of the most frequent conversation starters recorded in the Bible, for fear appears to be the entry point of too many interactions. When angels meet humans, when Jesus performs miracles, when strangers encounter each other, and even when believers gather for fellowship, the words must still be said: “You don’t have to be afraid here. You are safe here.”

We could, if we wished, indict the situations that provoke such anxiety. We could critique the power structures, the attitudes, and the oh-so-unsafe encounters that have made the whole world wary, and caused the distrust all too apparent in Christ’s body. Sad as it is, fear is the norm. Those who aspire to some better reality must own the responsibility for creating relationships, structures, and conversations that deliberately reverse the tide toward even greater wariness. Unless we say—and mean—“This is a safe place. You won’t get hurt here,” the wounded and betrayed will naturally expect what they have found almost everywhere else.

Believers are believers just because at some sacred moment we placed our trust in what we couldn’t see—the grace of God—and yielded up the control of our lives that sin and fear insist we keep. But faith—in doctrines, practices, and mission—won’t long survive the deadly cold that freezes dialogue and safe discussion. If I have no place to practice open-heartedness—no “safe room” where what is said is bound by pledge to never leave the premises—my faith will likely wither like a daffodil entombed in ice. In this broken world, and in a church filled up with broken people, trust is the always fragile bloom that we must guard and love and work to keep alive.

How do we become safe persons? How do our congregations grow into safe places? Like every other godly virtue, by practice—long and patient practice. At this moment, and in His church, safety is the first task of “the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5, NKJV). We are never more like Jesus than when we protect the fearful, hold the lonely, and create the spaces where the bruised find both salve and salvation.

So here’s a call to start practicing what we are still learning how to preach—that church must be the safest place there is. Only through persistent effort, with both better days and worse, will we become the fellowship into which Jesus may safely call all those now listening to His voice.