When safety is our highest goal, we betray a fear of life and, deeper still, a lack of trust in the God of life. Then we’re well on our way to becoming our own gods. Why? So we can control our own lives and the lives of those around us. (Note: I’m talking about life in general here, and not mainly at all thinking about the present mess of a pandemic. Most of this was originally written pre-pandemic. You’ll recognize what’s more recent.)
Law-based religion is wrapped up in those three constricting ribbons. Fear that if we don’t keep all the right laws, we’ll be lost. An unwillingness to trust the God who through his Son has done the work of salvation. An arrogance so blinding that we actually think that we can save ourselves. A deep desire for the control we’d gain if we could demand what we’ve earned rather praising God for what we’ve been given. A longing for control over others we think we’ve bested in religious rule-keeping. To trust in God’s grace means to stand alongside all who hope only in grace–shoulder to shoulder, above no one. Ah, a bitter pill, God’s grace. Amazing indeed. But it’s not safe. It’s deadly to pride.
We long for the “safe” way. The one-talent man in Jesus’ Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25) should be our patron saint. Afraid of his master and desiring above all to be “safe,” he buried what his master gave him. We’d call him smart and conservative. We’d honor him for being careful in his ritual, fastidious in his life, flawless in his law-keeping. Jesus called him a “worthless servant.” He made God sick.
The illusion of safety, along with its three ribbons, shows up everywhere. Full of ourselves, we’re sure that if we follow the right books on child-raising, eat the right stuff, adhere to the right exercise program, be afraid of all the right things (Twinkies and cigars, for example), adopt exactly the right strategy to control our business, our families, our lives . . . If we do it all right, well, then we’ll live to be a prosperous and healthy 120. Seeing our own deaths as largely theoretical, we deep down think we could live forever right here–if we did everything right. No one has yet, but we just might. With complete confidence in our ability to plan, control, and execute, we trust ourselves with a faith dwarfing the magnificence of the finest cathedral.
Oh, and have you noticed? If dealing with the present pandemic doesn’t make folks more insufferably arrogant, it tends to make them more gracious and, may I say on the eve of this Thanksgiving, more grateful. On one hand, it’s wise to be appropriately cautious. Masks at the right time? Yes. Distancing? Yes. But could we work to find a little common sense as we’re looking for reasonable safety?
I’m not wearing my mask in the shower. (I don’t think I know anyone who does, but sometimes I wonder.) Outside on a walk? Not me, thanks. Unless I’m running shoulder to shoulder with folks in a marathon (and I most certainly do not plan to), I refuse to sniff mask-sweat instead of the great outdoors. If you jog up to me for a visit, let’s follow the rules. We can stay apart or pull up our masks to have the unique enjoyment of missing more than half of what we each say. (And fault me if you will, you’ll have to make your own decision about what to do when your grandchild runs toward you and launches into the air, but I plan to catch mine.)
I really have been trying to be careful. I bet you have, too. But folks who think or seem to think that anyone COVID catches or who catches COVID just hasn’t been careful enough—ya know, like them—is likely a self-righteous twit who would do us all a favor by quarantining a lot, even if the virus disappeared tomorrow. Jerks are more dangerous to the common good than viruses. (And, I’m tempted to say, if there’s any justice, more likely to get sick.)
Living wisely surely means often exercising some caution and care, but Eileen Guder’s words are also well taken into account; stodgy by nature and “default safe” to a fault, I need to hear them, and they make me smile: “You can live on bland food so as to avoid an ulcer, drink no tea, coffee, or other stimulants in the name of health; go to bed early; stay away from night life; you can stay off the freeway, avoid all controversial subjects so as never to give or take offense; mind your own business; avoid involvement in other people’s problems; spend money only on necessities and save all you can. You can do everything the safe way and still you can break your neck in the bathtub, and it will serve you right.”
Apart from God safety is a myth. Real faith is soul-deep and joy-filled; it’s not a makeup veneer slathered on to disguise a face—and a life—filled in fear. Living life focused on never making a mistake just might be one of the biggest mistakes of all.
Copyright 2020 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.