Hey folks! I apologize for the radio silence. The last two weeks have been a very full “nationwide tour” – traveling to Vancouver for a week, then MD for a wedding, then to Chicago the next day for another wedding, then to Atlanta for a conference, capped off by speaking at a retreat for CRU at the University of MD. I experienced so much. I can’t wait to share some of my learnings.
While I get my thoughts straightened out, I asked a friend to reflect on and share about his recent experience preparing to go to the Congo for a work assignment. As I prayed for him and his family, there was so much that intrigued me about his mentality and preparations in going to a VERY dangerous place in the world. I asked Jon to write some of this thoughts down. I think you’ll find the example of what it means to consider risk inspiring as well as his writing style – I hope you find as much enjoyment in his wit as I did! So without further delay, please welcome my friend, Jon Lindner!
Risk vs Wonder in the Kingdom
In thinking about risk, I want to begin by quoting a general.
“I’m just as safe on the battlefield as I am in my bed.” — General Tom (aka “Stonewall” Jackson, accidentally wounded by one of his own guys on the battlefield, died of pneumonia, presumably in bed).
Boy, did General Tom nail it or what? How about another Tom?
“Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Apostle Tom (aka “Didymus”, aka “Doubting Thomas”) in anticipation of a trip to Judea where stoning Jesus was all the rage.
As I think about Tom, the apostle, I wonder what was his tone of voice as he spoke these words?
Jesus and his disciples were about to hoof it to the very place where not long before, the locals had tried to stone Jesus, with, you know, stones. In the general’s line, I hear confidence. With Thomas, I sense resignation, though I wonder too if his line might contain a dash of sarcasm. But let’s just say it was resignation.
Why would Thomas, or any of the followers, go where getting killed looked like a sure bet? Why not sit this one out? Catch the Teacher on the comeback? Play it “safe”. Hedge. Why resign yourself to death when there are other options?
Here’s my practically theology-free take: Thomas had a foot in both kingdoms. General Tom’s attitude toward “safety” might have been different from Apostle Tom’s, but, I would submit, Gen. Tom was more confident because of Apostle Tom. General Tom had the advantage of Apostle Tom’s example. General Tom knew how the story ended – resurrection. Apostle Tom was busy being a part of the story. From the perspective of the kingdom of risk, he had every worldly right to worry.
But for both these guys, risk assessment runs heavy to the counterintuitive. If I’m reading them correctly, the general knew, at a gut level, with complete certainty, that he was just as “safe” on the battlefield (where he was wounded) as in his bed (where he died of pneumonia). “Safe” by what standard?
Maybe at this Judea juncture, Apostle Tom had hung around Jesus just long enough that, regardless of consequences, he didn’t want to miss the rabbi’s next move. I wonder if Thomas’ response was not necessarily one of resignation but of acceptance. “Hey guys, in for a denarius, in for a talent. Let’s roll.”
A recent experience prompted me to think a lot about these two men and their attitudes toward risk assessment. They helped me to believe what I know to be true.
In 2010 I visited southern Sudan (now South Sudan). In March of this year, I visited Rwanda, and its famous hotel. During preparations for both trips I was tense and distracted, mostly about packing.
The big worry was: Do the contents of my luggage cover every possible unforeseeable situation? Rabid monkey bite? Check. Putrid water? Check. Diarrhea meds? Check, check and triple check. The day before the Rwanda trip I was so distracted I almost caused a very bad car-truck collision. The other driver’s attentiveness and quick reactions prevented it. I’d pulled right out in front of his speeding car. Broad daylight. Never saw him. That distracted.
My second big worry: Will I bring value to my agency with this trip? My mission is to bring back stories and information that will help willing people see the impact they can make in the lives of extremely poor people. It’s a cool job. Prior to each trip, when friends and family learned where I was going, their big worry was “You’re going to come back in a Ziploc bag.” I basked in their illusions of my bravery.
What I feared was going without electricity. I heart-shape the heck out of electricity. This August, I was asked to go to the Congo. This time, I was neither distracted nor tense. Which is odd because, this time, I had a peculiar sense that I might not come back alive. I later learned I wasn’t the only one with that feeling. And during preparation and planning there were signs — lots of weird signs….
One member of our away team refused to travel to Goma, which complicated travel plans. Interior travel in Congo is something of a crap shoot. Forget road travel. What roads? The only “airlines” in country are operated by the UN and another carrier, which flies only humanitarian aid workers and then on a pretty much catch-as-catch-can basis. Goma borders Rwanda and relationships between that country and Congo are strained. Rebels occasionally lob rockets into Goma. Shelling closed the airport for a bit the week before our mission and I learned that my agency had evacuated our Goma team for maybe a couple days as a precaution. They were back in town and at work. Signs?
In any case, the weird feeling dogged me. At one point, my daughter hugged me and said “I’m going to miss you. You’re going to be gone for a really long time.” This from a woman who lived in China for two years. We saw her only through the digital fog of Skype — when the connection could support visuals. But I was going for two weeks. I always go for two weeks. So why did she think it was going to be gone a “long time”? Cue ominous organ soundtrack.
Then, as plans continued, it looked like two weeks might go into OT. It was no longer clear how long I’d be “gone”. Another sign?
My weird feeling had no reasonable basis. My agency has an excellent security assessment team. They do not send amateurs like me into high-risk areas without calculation. And my own evaluation was that I would rather take my chances in Goma than Detroit. I feel far safer in Kigali than West Baltimore.
Anyway, this time I didn’t worry about what I packed. And bringing back value, good stories? Maybe I wasn’t coming back. I was calm. The calm that comes from the sort of resignation or acceptance that I imagine Apostle Tom may have had prior to the John 11 trip to Judea to see Lazarus’ tomb.
That and simple observation suggests General Tom had a good grip on reality: You’re as safe one place as another. Why? Because you’re not “safe”. Not the popular definition of safe. Safe is a feeling, an illusion, effective only in the kingdom of risk. In the Kingdom of wonder, you’re not safe, you’re saved.
Turned out, the premonitions, if that’s what they were, weren’t about not coming back, but about not going. The trip was cancelled the day before I was to leave. Throughout the three or four weeks before the planned departure, what impressed me was calm. Not “the peace that passeth understanding.” I’ve experienced that. This was different.
Just calm. I wasn’t happy about the prospect of dying, especially in a place with no wifi. What if I couldn’t Facebook my last moments? All that drama lost to the ages. But I wasn’t afraid. It felt something like resignation. No sadness, no melancholy.
And just so we’re very clear on this: the calm was not an act of my will or reason and certainly not piety — of course, if you’re open to believing I’m brave and pious, please go for it…as long as people don’t start, you know, expecting it of me all the time.
I think I might have had a General and Apostle Tom moment. Intellectually, at least, I could not agree more with the general. Experientially, the apostle’s response resonates with me. I think I know why that is.
As Christ followers, we walk with a foot in two kingdoms: the kingdom of risk; and the kingdom of wonder. The kingdom of risk is the kingdom of the world. The Kingdom of wonder is the Kingdom of Heaven. In the one, we worry about what we might lose. In the other, we wonder what marvel will be given us next. If our feet land inside the border of wonder often enough, over a long enough period of time, it affects us. Simply reminding yourself or being reminded that God is present everywhere, always begins to have an effect on us. (See Dallas Willard and Frank Laubach for more on this.) One effect is that that we calculate loss differently. Loss begins to take on a different meaning or no meaning at all. “To live is Christ; to die is gain.”
I think General Tom’s Heaven foot bore more weight than his world one. I’m inclined to think the same of Apostle Tom — whether he knew it or not. Both men seemed to evaluate risk from an other-world perspective. Both men found deep comfort in the one truly safe place so eloquently mapped out by Job: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.”
For me, this episode, the calm in the face of the prospect, however unlikely, of death, was a curious gift. Like the God of the universe whispering in your ear, “Son, you do have a foot in my kingdom. Come all the way in. You’ll love it.”
Last interesting “sign”: The day after I returned to work, a colleague who expected me to be in the Congo saw me and said, “Hey, you are back. I walked past the meeting room yesterday, when I looked I saw you and I thought, ‘Oh, I just saw a ghost.’”
Maybe she did.
Ghosts: Safe, and nothing left to lose.