In the Book of Esther (I LOVE that girl!), Mordecai tells her she must go to the King to save her people, a life-threatening proposition for her. He asks her to consider that this may be God’s calling, “Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” And her reply? You gotta love this! “And so I will go to the king, which is against the law, and if I perish, I perish!”
So often, God calls, and we’re afraid to answer. If we choose to ignore him, he may eventually go away, but the loss will be ours, not his because he will find someone else. Yes, a call from God probably is risky. He’s a risk expert. Remember, he took the ultimate chance by giving us free will to tell him “No”. He has also provided examples of many Risk Takers to lead the way. Not the least of which was Jesus. Of course, if you think Jesus is too difficult to emulate, you could start with any of the misfits he hand-picked to follow in his footsteps.
When I think of the question we are all called to answer: Is saying “Yes” to God worth the risk? – the first thing that comes to mind for me takes me back sixteen years. In January 2005, my husband and I were given the opportunity to go to Belfast, Northern Ireland, to spend a year working for Habitat for Humanity. Life in Belfast was full of blessings, many of which were realized from lessons learned only reluctantly (the story of my life, really).
We lived close enough to the City Center to walk there on occasion. One morning, I walked to the post office to mail some letters before going to work. My time was limited, so I was in a hurry. By then, the route was so familiar that I barely noticed the things that had taken my breath away just a few months earlier: The iron gates dividing the Protestants from the Catholics and the murals telling each side’s pain and suffering during the “Troubles”. They no longer seemed quite so shocking.
On this day, God taught me a most profound lesson on the streets of Belfast. I was about to meet Bernie, my alcoholic teacher, on my mission to tick off another task before work when I noticed a woman lying on the sidewalk. People passing her seemed to be oblivious to her. I even saw some crossing to the other side of the street. And here’s me as I walk past her, “I wonder if she’s alive”. But did I stop? No. And then came that “Holy nudge” I knew so well.
Dang it! Not now. “Lord, don’t you have other heathens to reckon with?” I must have walked another five minutes before God got the best of me. I guess I thought I could out-pace him. I kept hearing, “Go back”. That’s all. Nothing about what I was supposed to do once I got there. No. That would have been too easy.
Fine. So, back I went.
As I sat down on the cold sidewalk beside her I nudged her but she didn’t move. Oh my God, I got a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach. What if she was dead?! What if I stepped over a dead woman without a thought of her humanity?
I nudged her again. She slowly opened her eyes and I could tell she was intoxicated. “Come on, Love. Sit up.” (that’s what they say in Ireland. They call everyone “Love” even if they don’t know them).
She looked at me and angrily responded, “Leave me alone!”
“No, come on, you can’t stay here. It isn’t safe. Sit up.”
She managed to sit up and stare at me.
“What’s your name?”
“Do you have a home, Bernie?”
Now I’m wondering what I am going to do with her. Being unfamiliar with Belfast I didn’t know where to take her. “Are you hungry? We’ll go get something to eat.”
“No. You got a fag?”
“No, sorry, I don’t smoke (are you ready for this?). It’s bad for your health.” That caused both of us to laugh. It was such a ridiculous response.
Then she looked me straight in the eye and said, “Look at me! No one wants me. It’s no use. It’s no use. Just leave me alone!”
“No, Bernie, that’s not true. I am looking at you and what I see is beautiful. Now, come on, let’s get you someplace safe.” Then, as I struggled to help her up, I prayed, “A little help here, Lord!”
Just then (I’m not kidding), a van pulled up, and a young man got out. Bernie recognized him, “Here comes the welcome wagon.” We both laughed again. The man, calling her by name, very gently and lovingly got her in the van and climbed into the driver’s seat. Wait! He was interrupting my “Good Samaritan” moment! Not sure what to do, I quickly wrote down my phone number, “Please, would you give her my number if she wants to contact me?” He assured me he would and drove away. After they left, I resumed my walk to the post office, at a slower pace, though, and still a bit stunned.
“Lord, what just happened? You stopped me dead in my tracks and sent me back to help her. Now I’m certain I’ll never see her again. What was the purpose of all of this?”
No answer. I sensed he was going to let me struggle with that one for a while. Except he did fire a Matthew 25:41-43 warning shot at me! As I continued to walk in silence, I could feel God speaking to my heart, “Linda, next time, don’t pass me by.”
A few weeks later, I broached the subject with God again, “Come on, Lord! You’re killin’ me. I know you aren’t finished with this lesson.”
And then came my answer, “Oh, Linda, you poor thing! I didn’t send you to save her, I sent her to save you – from your indifference.” (Ouch! I should have left well enough alone!)
Soon my next risky adventure came along. I was walking down Falls Road behind a woman and a boy about four years old. It didn’t seem to concern her that I was right behind them when she suddenly reached down and smacked the little boy on the face. I have no idea why. He said something, and she hit him again. Amazingly (or not so amazingly, I suppose), he clearly was not surprised by the abuse. Then, they crossed the street, and I continued toward home, just a block away. I didn’t get there, though, because I knew instantly that voice I had heard so clearly before would strike again. But I got a jump on it this time, “I know, go back!” I crossed the street and headed toward the woman, unsure how she would respond to the intrusion. What would stop her from striking at me if she hit her own child?
“I don’t like this, Lord. Please help me out! What do you want me to say?” It felt very awkward, but as I approached her, I simply asked, “Do you need help? Do you want someone to talk to?” She gave me the stink-eye and brushed past me and the little boy stuck out his tongue at me. Cute.
I assumed they lived close by. Maybe I would see her again. Perhaps she would knock on my door one day. But that never happened.
After our year in Belfast, we returned home to settle back into our former lives, to business as usual. I found a beautiful trail nearby to begin running again. I loved the beauty and serenity there. At times, I encountered a few cyclists along the way and occasionally a scary dog, but I was usually alone.
One day, I noticed someone coming toward me. He was walking alongside a bicycle with a chain of baby bike trailers behind it. It’s funny how you can suddenly become acutely aware of your surroundings. We were approaching each other in a secluded area of the trail. Trees blocked the view of the road, and no one else was nearby. I ran a little faster and offered a “Good morning” as I passed. I’m sorry to say that, as we approached each other, I did not feel less threatened because I gave my trust to God – I felt less threatened because I was confident I could outrun him –okay, and someone else was approaching on a bike. As we passed each other, we both said “Hello”- but he did something I did not, he stopped to talk to the man; the man who is our brother; the man I should love and respect because of his dignity as a child of God – no different than me. I was feeling pretty crappy right then. So, I went back, and we spoke for an awkward moment.
Then, my emotions kicked in – or God kicked me (whatever). I said goodbye and ran quickly to my car, drove the three miles home in a cloud of dust, and woke my husband to enlist him to help me pack up a cooler and some money to take to my soon-to-be new friend. We found him by the river – fishing. He was amiable and enjoyed telling us about his travels, and he allowed my husband to take a picture of us:
Here’s what makes me so sad. Look closely at this picture. He didn’t want me to touch him because he hadn’t had a bath in a while. Yeah, I knew that, but after running for an hour, I was pretty smelly myself! There we were, two smelly, beloved children (and one worm) of one AWESOME God!
From these three very brief incidents, I learned volumes about risking and reaching out to others: That the outcome may not be ours to know and the unexpected blessings we receive from it.
These were momentary encounters with hurting people that I fancied myself saving. Truth be told, they actually saved me. We weren’t meant to have ongoing relationships that would last a lifetime. None of them would call me years later to tell me they named their first-born child after me or invited me to their college graduation. God was working quietly and without fanfare on my hardened heart, which he somehow knew was not beyond reach. It would just take time.
There are signs all around us of man’s inhumanity to man. Violence against our brothers and sisters never seems to abate. We strip our fellow human beings of their dignity when they are suffering, and we refuse to involve ourselves in their lives. How easy it is to ignore the misery of others! But when God teaches us to “see” with our hearts, there’s no going back.
Honestly, I’m not sure I will ever stop gauging my compassion by my sense of safety. But, I pray for the grace to let go of my fears so that I can reach out freely – out of love instead of guilt – like Sister Karen Klimczak.
Many would say that Sister Karen Klimczak should have paid closer attention to the dangers surrounding her. For years she ran a transitional housing program in Buffalo, New York, for men being released from correctional facilities. Her selfless, heroic work ended with her murder on Good Friday of 2006 at the hands of one of the very people she had cared for. Ironically, Sister Klimczak, like Jesus, believed that “people will die if we don’t reach out”.
Fifteen years before her murder, Sister Klimczak dreamed (or had a premonition) that she would die violently. Just before Holy Week of 1991, in her personal journal, she wrote the following words to the person who would take her life:
Dear Brother, I don’t know what the circumstances are that will lead you to hurt me or destroy my physical body. No, I don’t want it to happen. I would much rather enjoy the beauties of this earth, experience the laughter, the fears and the tears of those I love so deeply! Now my life has changed and you, my brother, were the instrument of that change. I forgive you for what you have done and I will always watch over you, help you in whatever way I can. Continue living always mindful of His Presence, His Love and His Joy as sources of life itself – then my life will have been worth being changed through you.
Sister Klimczak’s advanced warning that she would meet a violent death didn’t stop her from championing the world’s outcasts. Instead, she continued doing what she knew she’d been called to do for as long as she could.
“You leave your fingerprints on everything. We need to be people who leave imprints of peace wherever we go in our world.” Sister Klimczak
Fear does not protect – it limits – it limits the blessings and grace God longs to pour out on us and those we reach out to in his name.
Richard Rohr in his book, Job and the Mystery of Suffering, explains risk beautifully:
There are two things that draw us outside ourselves: pain…and…beauty. Those – pain and beauty – constitute the two faces of God. Whenever we see true pain, most of us are drawn out of our own preoccupations and what to take away the pain. I think we are rushing not just toward the hurt child, we are rushing toward God. That’s why Francis could kiss the leper. That’s why so many saints wanted to get near suffering – because, as they said again and again, they met Christ there. It saved them from their smaller and untrue self.
Jesus’ Matthew 25 challenge is always right in our midst: The poor, the homeless, the lonely neighbor, the crotchety checker at the grocery store, and the elderly are left to die alone in nursing homes. If only we would embrace the vulnerability that allows us to dare bravely for the sake of others, what a different world we would create.