Monthly Archives: August 2017

Should the Church be safe?

I ran into this quote the other day:

“When a great ship is in harbor and moored it is safe.

There can be no doubt.

But that is not what great ships are built for.”*

I love the thought on many levels, particularly as I nurse a well-earned finger injury (from white water rafting) that is making typing this a bit challenging… that and being in the passenger seat of our car after two weeks and five thousand miles on the road.  All of which is worth it because time won’t remember the pain from the injury… or the frustration from long car days.  It will remember the country we have seen, the shared memories of family experiencing adventure, and the wind in our faces and the salt in our hair (so to speak).

I think these kinds of thoughts every time I watch Meredith (kid #3 of 4) scamper up the side of a cliff (something she has uncanny good skill at doing) and I’m struck by equal parts admiration and fear.  At age 5 she was already able to climb places that I cannot, and I know I won’t be able to save her if she gets in danger.  More than once I have worried that the very skill she has may be the death of her… but I don’t want tame children.  I do not wish to raise a harbor dwelling family.  They were born for the open ocean.  At a very early age, I remember we started flipping chairs to keep her from climbing up them… and she found other things to climb, so we put them back and figured we might as well let her get good at it.

I love the thought of not staying in safe harbors for my children’s sake and a desire to parent them in a way that invites them to sail the seas and not be moored at harbor for the sake of my fears.

But this is not where my mind stayed as I reflected on that thought.  I quickly began to think about safety and “open water” for the Church. (Vocational hazard… you should have seen that one coming, though the reflection will certainly apply much farther afield.)  In seminary, I remember discussing in Christian Education classes the need to create safe space for education.  The general argument is that if space wasn’t safe people were less receptive to learn… or venture thoughts that enhance the conversation (becoming the “teacher”).  And I bought fully into the argument.  (I still do… sort of… but you should have seen that coming as well.)

My sense of ecclesiology (reflection on what it means to be church) incorporated the idea that we needed to be a safe space.  In this sense, our Sanctuaries really are a sanctuary where people feel safe and can breath deep freed from many of the fears they experience in other settings.  Here we create a space that invites vulnerability, sharing of diverse opinions, and honest hard reflections about our lives while trusting in the grace and love of God and the community that follows in the way of Jesus.  

But then I got caught up.  I got caught up by that last phrase: follows in the way of Jesus.  If a church models itself on discipleship than we take Jesus as more than a model of what it means to be God, or what it means to be human, but also how we go about forming our lives in his way.  And Jesus…. wasn’t a harbor dweller.  Jesus did ministry on the move.  Jesus didn’t go looking for conflict (well, not all the time) but didn’t avoid it either.  And Jesus didn’t hold back his thoughts because they would make people uncomfortable, or even unsafe.  In fact, paying attention to the early “followers of the way” it was decidedly unsafe.  It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Annie Dillard:

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions.  Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?  Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?  The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.  It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.  Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.  For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

Our lives aren’t lived in the harbor.  And while there is a time and place for rest… we all need rest now and then, and people to care for us and love us if we are going to learn to walk the way of Jesus we need learn to walk that way in an unsafe world. Artificially safe spaces may not actually prepare us in helpful ways for the world.  Which probably has a lot to do why Jesus wanders around the world waiting for teaching moments to present themselves.  Feeding the five thousand is not a hypothetical moment… and the storm tossed boat is a far cry from a simulator exercise.  The very gritty, decidedly unsafe school of Jesus created apostles who – despite their humble beginnings and struggles throughout the Gospel accounts – became great ships standing stall, harnessing chaotic winds and sailing the entire world with good news… in the way of Jesus.  I quote A. B. Bruce often in this regard when he remarks, in The Training of the Twelve, that the Sanhedrin marvels at the audacious faith of Jesus’ disciples, now become apostles.  They had become people of strong nerve who risked failure in change and were not easily daunted.  They were people of rare courage (all of sudden… or maybe not so sudden) “till at length they could do what was right, heedless of human criticism, without effort, almost without thought.”

This is the life we in training for… the Church is in the business of building just such great ships to sail the chaotic waters of life.  And safety may have its place… but if it’s our top priority then I would argue we will not fulfill our mission.  The Church in its gathered state must be a proper training ground in the use of crash helmets and life jackets so that the Church in its scattered state can overcome fear to be authentic, vulnerable, grace-filled agents of God’s truth and love.  We will need to put the chairs back on the ground so we can get good at climbing.  

If we cannot speak the truth in love to one another, how will we claim our prophetic role and speak truth to power?

If we cannot risk speaking our doubts out loud and wrestling with what we truly believe – and not just what we feel we are supposed to think – then how will we be a resource for hope to people who feel lost… let alone find ourselves willing to risk talking to them at all?

If we cannot be challenged by people who think we are wrong or confront different opinions in passionate disagreement and still remain in a covenantal relationship as the people of God, how can we claim to be honest about who we are?  How can we follow the one who – on the cross itself – offered forgiveness to the very ones who killed him for what he believed?

If we are not going to get our hands dirty, and tire our legs, making “good theology” go to work in our pews and classrooms AND our neighborhoods and communities… then what ARE we doing… enjoying free music and some benign pop psychology masquerading as the Gospel?  

We are meant to be in the business of letting God build us into great ships and set us to sail in the open waters of life… we are co-workers in THAT kingdom.  So let’s get to it.


FYI I think this applies as well for school classrooms and job internships and… basically everywhere. 🙂

As for the quote which I *’ed, in searching the internet I found the quote attributed to Clarrisa Pinkola Estes and I found it in a post from her you can see here:

As for if she is using it or “wrote” it I do not know, it seems like it links back to the briefer quotation, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”  This quote, according to the following article, is best attributed to John Shedd in a 1928 collection of sayings.