Enough with the Christian cliches, people.
An unexpected heart attack just snatched the life of a dear friend, so I'm feeling a little raw.
A warrior and a storyteller, she worked fearlessly as a nurse in the refugee camps along the Thai border. Cambodians like my wife, found refuge in her care when they stumbled out of the jungles on the run from the Khmer Rouge regime.
For that I will always be grateful.
Knowing the dangers, my friend and her husband then chose to relocate into Cambodia in the early 90's - a time when pockets of the country were still under siege from the communists. To better serve the poor, they moved into a slum.
It was not comfortable. It was not sanitary.
And it was certainly not safe.
But they knew God had called them to be there. Just like the Israelites who knew that there were terrible giants in the land, but still heard God's invitation to enter (Numbers 13). The people of God were under no illusions that they would be "bullet-proof".
They knew there would likely be casualties.
Things turned dangerous when my friend suffered a miscarriage in the slum. In the midst of her convulsions, her husband fell and sustained a serious head injury. Eventually, they were evacuated and found physical recovery after years of rehab.
You'd think at this point, they would give up and live a comfortable life. But no. They recovered from those trials, only to return to Cambodia again. They adopted a little girl from an orphanage and continued serving and researching in the fields of child protection and trafficking. More trials came, including cancer (more than once), betrayals and all manner of crap.
You don't need to hear the whole litany of woes.
If you were to say to this couple (as someone said to me this week), "The safest place is in the center of God's will," I suspect they would laugh. Partly because they are a couple of the most hilarious, fun-loving people you'd ever meet, (the fancy dress parties - oh the fancy dress parties!) And laughter comes easy to them.
But mostly they'd laugh because they know first hand it is NOT true.
This family poured out their lives for God and the Cambodian people.
Tears are welling up in my eyes now because I recognize a hard truth. Their beautiful service didn't earn them any kind of magical protection. If anything, they have been much more in harm's way - much more battered and torn than others.
The safest place is NOT in the center of God's will. The center of God's will may, in fact, be one of the wildest, most dangerous places you could imagine. He never promised you a rose garden. He never even promised to spare your life. You could definitely be killed in the battle.
Unlike my saint-like friends, I'm a wimp. And I hate pain and discomfort. Without a theology of suffering - I would have given up this game a LONG time ago. What puts things in perspective for me, is the reminder that I follow someone who was beaten, mocked and ultimately executed. And then invited me to take up MY cross. As Paul demonstrates, there is a cost in following Jesus...
"Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches." (2 Cor 11:24-28)
We live in this deluded "therapeutic" culture, (even in missions/ministry circles), where plenty of folks will tell you that you shouldn't have to suffer.
We've allowed a healthy doctrine of self-care to negate a theology of suffering.
Self care is meant to sustain us in the battle, not become an excuse to avoid the battle.
Yet we hear it all the time: "You DESERVE comfort. You deserve perfect health. You deserve this and that."
What complete rubbish. What lies and distortions. Are those words you would say to a soldier in battle? Would you say them to a political prisoner? Or a sailor in the midst of a vicious storm?
When the focus is on ourselves, this pursuit of what WE deserve makes sense. But when you step back and look at the wider battle - the cause - the journey - the vision - the Kingdom of God on earth! - then this grasping after safety and comfort seems ridiculous.
Only the bigger picture gives meaning to our suffering. Without that vision, we've no reason to pay the cost.
Like the metaphorical ship in a harbour - yes there is safety to be found in calm waters. But our ships were never built to float idle in a harbour. These ships were built to sail the wild seas. And at times, our vessels will be battered by relentless storms. Along the way, a few of us will probably be lost overboard. That's the hard truth.
So what does God promise through these trials?
His promise is simply this: He will never leave us or stop loving us.
But it's enough.
He is with you in the storm. He. Is. With. You. Because He loves you. And He will never stop loving you.
This week a husband has been robbed of his wife. Three daughters mourn their mother. And so we weep. We weep with both bitterness and joy.
She didn't live a safe life. She fought the good fight. She lived a wild, and vibrant, and FULL life of service to the poor.
And I know she wouldn't have had it any other way.
[NB. A Memorial Fund has been set up to honour my friend's beautiful life and help cover funeral and other costs for the family.]