As some of your know by now, I will be traveling to the city of Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in May. I’ll be going as part of a team sent out by Presbyterian Reformed Ministries International to conduct a week-long training event for pastors and church leaders there. I’m excited about what God might do there, but at least as often as I feel excited about the trip, I also feel frightened by it . . . honestly, very frightened.
I’m not very much frightened by the obvious things. Flying doesn’t frighten me, though being cooped up in an airplane for fourteen hours is not a very appealing thought. I’m not especially afraid of getting sick while I’m there. It might happen, but I’ve traveled to non-Western countries before, and I know the precautions and remedies. It just isn’t something that scares me much.
I don’t find myself fretting about getting caught up in violence or political unrest. It’s true that in the far north of the DRC the political situation is very unsettled and that there have been episodes of terrorism and violence in recent times. But that’s a long way from Lubumbashi which is located in the extreme southern tip of the DRC.
Still, I confess that I wrestle with a lot of fear about this mission trip, enough fear that I have seriously thought of backing out of it on several occasions. And I’ll tell you what it is that frightens me most. I’m afraid I’ll fail in the work. This project is complex. There are so many details. True, I am not responsible for all of the details. But I am responsible for some of them, and, as some of you folks at Venice Church have already learned, managing details is not my strong suit.
What if I fumble some important details? It could cause problems, maybe serious problems. That’s when I remember that I don’t have to go on this mission trip. I could just decline to go and leave this mission project for someone else to do. That way I won’t have to worry about failing at it. If I don’t try to do it, I won’t fail. That’s logical, right? Right!
Well, of course, it’s logical, and that’s why that line of reasoning is so insidious. It is immaculate logic that the best way to avoid failing is to avoid doing anything that is at all difficult or risky. If you avoid anything that is hard or unsafe, you can be pretty well assured that you will achieve your goal of not failing. But then that isn’t really much of an accomplishment, is it?
The faithful Christian life is not one that is dedicated to the avoidance of failure. Avoiding hard and risky projects is not the path that leads to fruitful, Christian discipleship. It is, in fact, the opposite of faithful discipleship. Jesus rejects safety and ease as acceptable goals for his followers: “Then Jesus called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” [Mark 8:34-35] And let’s remember that for eleven of the twelve apostles—and for uncounted millions of Christians since the time of the apostles the loss of their lives was a literal reality.
We North American Christians can be almost obsessed with safety and security. We are deeply risk averse. It is not coincidence that North America is one of the few places on earth where the Christian church is not growing. In most places in the world, following Christ is recognized as an inherently risky activity. For most of us Americans, such a thought probably seems a bit strange. But the Gospel has always been at its most vibrant where the people of Christ have pushed beyond the boundaries of comfort and safety, where Christian disciples have embraced the hard and dangerous life of denying self, taking up the cross, and following Jesus radically and with abandon.
Here’s how Pastor David Platt describes the calling that Jesus placed on his first disciples: “Ultimately, Jesus was calling them to abandon themselves. They were leaving certainty for uncertainty, safety for danger, self-preservation for self-denunciation. In a world that prizes promoting oneself, they were following a teacher who told them to crucify themselves. And history tells us the result. Almost all of them would lose their lives because they responded to his invitation.” (in Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream, p. 12). And as Platt points out, the calling of Jesus upon his people hasn’t changed from those earliest times. Jesus is still Jesus, and his calling on us is still radical.
Platt goes on later in his book: “Radical obedience to Christ is not easy; it is dangerous. It is not smooth sailing aboard a luxury liner; it is sacrificial duty aboard a troop carrier. It is not comfort, not health, not wealth, and not prosperity in this world. Radical obedience to Christ risks losing all these things. But in the end, such risk finds its reward in Christ. And he is more than enough for us.” (Radical, p. 181). A life that does not embrace risk is never fully Christian. Refusing to do things that make us uncomfortable, declining to do things that are difficult – such an approach to life will not lead us closer to Jesus but away from him. Jesus hasn’t stopped expecting his people to do dangerous things. Risky discipleship isn’t just for the underground church in China. If Jesus still calls Christians in Africa to share the gospel with people who might kill them for doing it, why would we think that he no longer expects us to do dangerous things?
So, today, I am throwing my very real fears aside and booking my flight to Congo. God help me! I’ll say “yes” to him, and let him sort out the matter of success. Pray for me! I’ll be praying for you. Let me know what crazy thing he calls on you to do. And have no doubt about it; he will call on you.
©2014 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved
Sermon #8 — “I’m Afraid: Fear, Faith, Fulness” — Matthew 8:23-27
Sermon #9 — “I’m Afraid: Expecting Too Little” — Matthew 8:18-27
BIBLE NOTE #18–Matthew14:22-33: Adventures in Water-walking with Jesus