Coming out When It’s Safe
I distinctly recall being traumatized as a child by the guest speaker who explained to my kindergarten class that strangers were on the prowl. “Keep your car window rolled up, don’t play outside alone, don’t talk to strangers—because people will grab you and take you away!” I was terrified. I immediately burst into inconsolable wailing in the middle of the presentation, pleading for my mom. Fortunately, my mom was the music teacher, so my helpless kindergarten instructor delivered me to my mom’s classroom. I latched onto my mother’s legs and vowed to never let go. From that point on, I was pretty certain that every stranger was secretly plotting to yank me away from my mom. The need for safety is at the core of our human experience. Certainly fear functions as a survival instinct when we are vulnerable and exposed—but fear develops and evolves over time. We become fearful of things that remind us of past trauma, we fear that which seems foreign, we fear things that seem to threaten our worldview. When we are seized by fear, we flee to what feels safe and secure. We lock our doors, barricade the windows, and keep strangers out.
This is part of what I find so baffling and captivating about the ministry of Jesus. Jesus is rarely, if ever, concerned for his own safety. In moments where fear could easily creep in, the Son of God resists fear. This is part of what compels him to dine with sinners, touch the unclean, subdue a storm, and peacefully endure betrayal. Jesus’ ministry does not emerge from fear. Rather, his ministry emerges from love; that is, perfect love that drives out fear. In his perfect love, Jesus actively lowers the barricades and makes himself vulnerable.
Thus, I find it equally baffling that the disciples of Jesus are so often the most protective and guarded people I know. Sometimes we live as if the world is out to get us. So what if it is? How did Jesus respond to such dangers? It seems that Jesus was more concerned for the safety of those perceived as dangerous than he was for himself. Jesus was intent on creating a safe place for the marginalized, and the only way he could do that was by lowering his defenses. Jesus crafted his teaching in a way that would challenge social barriers and draw people into more meaningful relationships. This teaching coupled with his unparalleled hospitality made Jesus the safest place on earth. Now, this safety extended by Jesus could not and would not actually spare your life from danger, but you would no longer have to fear the dangers of this world. You would be free to be fully known by Jesus, and fully loved; fear would take flight. And when fear takes flight, we are free to become the people God created us to be.
I have recently tried to replicate this type of ministry in my classroom. I wondered what it might look like if I created a space where my students would feel safe to be fully known and fully loved. Creating this space requires a shift in teaching. I hold the power from the podium—I set the standards for the class. My teaching will either push students away or welcome them in. Undertaking this kind of goal in the classroom requires a lot of work on my part. I have to try to anticipate the lives of my students. Who are they? Where do they come from? What has their experience of Christianity been like so far? What secret wounds do they bear, and what are their greatest fears? With these questions in mind, I began to craft my lesson plans in a way that would open doors.
Setting out to treat every classroom as sacred ground, I gradually transformed my words, my interpretive process, and my in-class activities to engage my students where they are. It was not long before I began to experience the results. In the past several months, I have had dozens of students open their lives to me. I have been deeply humbled and honored to listen to their stories of hurt, betrayal, and frustration. Students have opened up to me about their arduous journeys in a world that is so often hostile to “strangers”. My LGBTQ students have cried in my office. My immigrant students have told me their stories of rejection and abuse. Students from all different backgrounds have found a safe place with me because I am channeling THE safe person in my work.
Here is what I have found so far: I cannot provide a safe and hospitable space for the people around me if I am distracted by my own fears. All anybody wants is to be fully known and fully loved in a safe space. I have to actively diminish my fears in order to tend to the needs of others. I have also found that if my classroom is the only place they hear the gospel all week, and yet they do not feel safe with me, I have failed to represent Christ. I think these same principles can be applied in a multiplicity of ministry contexts. Sometimes we become so preoccupied with protecting our own, that we neglect those who do not yet feel safe in our midst. The necessary level of empathy and conscientiousness requires intentionality and ruthless dedication—but it is absolutely essential if we want to be Christ to the world. We must swing open our doors, take the barriers down, and extend fearless love to all so that we can all become the creatures God intended for us to be.