I took some dumb risks for adventure as a teenager. I worked as the Director of Ropes and Rec for a wilderness camp during college, and on the weekends the staff liked to test the limits of our skills and stamina. One weekend we drove out into the wilderness of West Virgina with a cave map, hiked a few miles into the woods, and started digging at a particular spot off the trail. Sure enough, the ground opened up to a dark, wet cavern. Not knowing anything about the cave or letting anybody know where we were (these were pre-cell-phone days) we set up a top rope and belayed 100 feet or so down inside. After a few hours of spelunking around, we were freezing in our shorts and Tshirts and ready to see the light of day again. We had one pair of jumar ascension devices to get back up the rope, essential tools for ascending slick wet rock faces that can’t be grabbed. My friend Crystal ascended first and got her hair stuck in the jumars. She hung there for awhile before the best climber among us was able to climb up to her and free her by cutting her hair off. The rest of us shivered in the river at the bottom in thin aluminum safety blankets for what seemed like hours while they figured out how to get the jumars working again. Several of our headlamps went out in the process. It was late into the night and we were near hypothermic before we got out of that cavern and laughed our way home with relief.
Today I look to Jesus to discern what kind of risks to take, and how to take them. Jesus is taking risks, but for different reasons and with better results.
Self-centeredness seems to motivate much of the risk-taking in the world. Many people who take risks for adventure—mountain climbers, explorers, stunt-people, world-record breakers—are trying to prove their personal prowess. People who take risks for euphoria, those transcendent feelings that numb other emotions, often end up addicted and in a wake of broken relationships. People who take risks for success—perhaps like the hard-worked employees at Amazon—are driven by the affirmation of an ideal or status or financial “security.”
Jesus is taking risks for others. His motivation for risk-taking is always others-centered. In teaching, healing, dying, and rising, he is risking everything to bring hope to the world, to free us from slavery to self and allow us to find ourselves fully in partnership with our creator for the redemption of all of creation.
In risking to relate to each of us, although we can ignore or reject him, he exposes the smallness and self-centeredness of risking only for our family and friends and people who love us back:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)
“Perfect” according to Jesus, seems to involve a generous and radical love for the whole world. That is exactly what the church is designed to do—to love and include those who aren’t “our own people.” We can’t do it fully on our own as individuals, and that’s why we are organized as a Circle of Hope. Together we risk to relate to the next person who is looking for Jesus, or the next 1000 people. Doing it together means that not everyone has to be a super social extrovert. Some people will clean the meeting space, pay the bills, work the technology. But we do need to talk to each other. In taking the risk together to be a people, we expose the lie of privatized religion and get into the kind of love that Jesus is actually demonstrating.
Jesus doesn’t take risks on his own, either. He looks to the Father for direction, identity, purpose, communion, and rest. In a very real sense, then, there is safety in his risk-taking. Even as he is risking everything, no power on earth or heaven can take him out of the Father’s hand. He is truly safe in that love, the eternal reality of that basic relationship, no matter what he endures. There is safety for us in obedience to God, too. Being “in Christ” brings safety and risk together.
Our country seems bent on ensuring safety these days, a fearful reaction to all we can’t control. Think about the emphasis in the last 50 years on homeland security, surveillance cameras, seatbelt and helmet laws, personal injury lawsuits. Our leaders seem to be obsessed with protecting what’s “ours” and keeping others out. We keep building prisons for a prison population that has quadrupled since 1980. We’ve seen police-state interventions to crime that seem intended to intimidate and silence the populous back into individualized pods. And the market economy gives us lots of toys to play with there, for those that can afford to play.
What’s interesting is that the more “safety”-dazed Americans become, the more people are drawn into high-risk behaviors of all kinds. We’re seeing a wave of feel-good addictions, high-risk sports, gun violence, giant business upstarts. So based on the evidence, it’s clear that human beings are designed to risk; the capacity is in our nature and will be expressed. What we will risk for is the question. Will we follow Jesus in risking for others, in obedience to God? Will we relate with those who are unlike us or who don’t love us back yet? Or are we comfortably numb in our family and friend zones with the comforts we can afford, risking only for our own pleasures or success?
Let’s keep building a church that risks enough to be a safe place to explore and express God’s love for the whole world. Jesus didn’t protect a little piece of the pie as “his”; rather, he claims it all. The Spirit of Jesus can touch our fear and isolation, and empower us to love and relate like that too.