I sat down near the play area in a local mall a couple of days ago, waiting for a friend, and watched as two young boys fooled around on the jungle gym. Their grandmother kept a semi-watchful eye nearby, engrossed in her supermarket tabloid.
“Do you think we’ll die today,” one boy asked his friend.
“Die! I hope not,” the other boy said. “We’re supposed to go out for pizza tonight. That’s stupid! I’m not old enough to die. You have to have wrinkles first and walk funny, like Grandma.”
“Well, that kid died at Disney World. An alligator got him. And then there were all those people who died celebrating a rainbow or something. I didn’t get it. My mom says nowhere’s safe anymore. Maybe we’ll die right here in front of J.C.Penny’s!”
I stared at the boys in stunned silence. I don’t remember my child, at age seven or eight, ever wondering if she would die on a jungle gym in a shopping mall.
Living in America used to imply we were safer than 98% of the rest of the world. That was before 9/11 and mass shootings that are now so numerous we refer to them in a verbal shorthand–Columbine, Ft. Hood, Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, Orlando.
In the late ’80s I traveled with a small ministry team to South Africa to participate in a church-sponsored reconciliation conference. Apartheid had not ended. Nelson Mandela was still in prison. South Africa was a troubled place.
I got sick on the long transatlantic flight, so when we arrived at our modest hotel in the outskirts of Johannesburg, I went to bed, hoping to join the team a few hours later. They urged me to spend the day resting instead. They would pick me up that evening for dinner.
A few hours later, I felt markedly better and decided to walk to the conference location, which was supposed to be a short distance away. It wasn’t. The walk took me through a strange neighborhood of expensive homes with manicured yards and flowering Jacaranda trees. But each home had a brick-walled perimeter and rolled barbed wire across the top of the walls, like you see outside prisons.
Several minutes into my walk, a late-model Mercedes sedan pulled up alongside me and a well-dressed, middle-aged man rolled down the passenger-side window.
“Madam, what are you doing, walking alone along this road? It’s not safe! Are you a visitor?” He flung open the passenger door. “Where are you staying? Get in and I’ll drop you there.”
I laughed to myself. Oh sure…like I’m going to get into a car with a stranger in South Africa. Uh….no.
“Thanks for the offer,” I said politely, “But I don’t get into cars with people I don’t know. I hope you understand.” I smiled and kept walking.
“Oh, dear, you must be an American,” he said in frustration. He reached for his wallet. “Look. Here’s my photo I.D.. Here’s my business card. For God’s sake, please get in the car. I’m trying to help you.” I looked at him and his I.D., prayed a quick prayer, and climbed in. All those years of Stranger Danger training…out the window.
He returned me to my hotel and, as I turned to apologize for misjudging him, he chuckled and said patiently, “Well, in South Africa you learn that safety isn’t a place or a time of day or the way a certain person looks. It’s complicated. And we’re not doing a good job with safety at the moment. Have a nice day.” And off he went.
My long-ago memory was interrupted when the grandmother at the mall called to the two young boys, to say they were going for ice cream. I sat in the play area, listening to the boring background music punctuated with the smell of caramel corn, and thought, America is a troubled country right now, too.
American is learning South Africa’s lesson–that a place or time of day or particular person cannot make us safe. Guns, people in uniform, and politicians also cannot make us safe.
Maybe “Are we safe?” isn’t the right question anymore. A better question might be, “Are we His?” The world is loud and shouts fear at every turn. Do we have a deep, thriving, intimate relationship with Christ, to siphon off the panic we breathe in every day?
Jesus doesn’t shout louder than the chaos, like a competing bully. Rather, he invites us into the quiet of his presence, away from the panic. He invites us to sit with him until the anxiety subsides. He gives us promises to hold in our hearts, when the world around us makes no sense. Words like:
“Have no fear of sudden disaster or of the ruin that overtakes the wicked, for the Lord will be your confidence.” (Prov. 3:25)
“He is a shield for all who take refuge in him.” (Psalm 18:30)
“Can a mother forget her nursing child? Can she feel no love for the child she has borne? But even if that were possible, I would not forget you!” (Isaiah 49:15 NLT)
He’s never off duty. He never gives up. He’s not afraid. In the end–regardless of what happens in between–he wins. And he settles all scores justly.
Are you his child? Then you’re safe.