I will arise and go to Jesus, He will embrace me in his arms; in the arms of the dear Savior; Oh there are a thousand charms. —Joseph Hart, 1712-1768
Christians condemned to death by fire were asked by their anxious families and friends to raise their hands if the suffering was endurable. Onlookers awaited the signal. As the flames began to rise and consume their victims, one by one these noble martyrs waved their hands overhead exuberantly as if to say God’s ecstatic presence met them in the flames. What seemed a horrific death to onlookers was, in reality, a participation in God’s boundless joy. Things are not always as they appear. God, as C.S. Lewis has suggested, is not safe, but he is always good.
During my lectures at the recent Urbana conference, I watched several young Christians grow “wide-eyed” as we celebrated the lives of women evangelists, martyrs and missionaries. Students were awed by the courage of Lottie Moon, who ventured alone to the furthest reaches of northern China. Despite severe opposition, she trained leaders and pastors, built a church and led many to Christ.
The leadership of Frances Willard, president of one of the most successful Christian women’s organizations in America — the Women’s Christian Temperance Union — stunned them. Willard built consensus among women both south and north of the Mason- Dixon Line prior to the Civil War. She succeeded where political leaders of her day had failed, and at a time when women were denied the vote.
Then we celebrated Amanda Smith, a freed American slave and world-renowned evangelist whose life of service made Gospel inroads wherever she went. Men would say they learned more from observing Smith’s evangelistic endeavors than from any other missionary or Christian teacher.
As we honored these heroines of faith, I could see hearts and minds open to the call of missionary work. The lives of these female martyrs and missionaries were compelling, except for one matter — their marital status. Two young women lingered after my presentation to say how much they enjoyed the workshop. Then the inevitable questions were asked: Did these women ever marry? Was I married? They anxiously awaited my answers. I wanted to wave my arms wild- ly over my head as if to say, remember, the fire does not hurt! Christ is more than sufficient. His call always leads to joy. God is not safe, but he is always good! Yet, they seemed torn between marriage and ministry. I often wonder if men feel the same tension.
History is filled with examples of women whose desires for husbands, families and wealth did not rule them. I wanted to take my hesitant sisters to the docks of Rome as Paula sailed to Palestine in the fourth century. Though her children cried and begged her not to leave, she bid them farewell in order to accomplish God’s work. Paula left behind her life of Roman aristocracy so that she might work with Jerome, giving the world a Bible in the language of the day — Latin. Paula purchased the ancient manuscripts and, as she worked with Jerome, her linguistic abilities proved a priceless resource in rendering the biblical languages accessible to her world.
One hundred years before Paula, prominent Christians fled to the deserts of Turkey, Palestine and Cappadocia in a dramatic rejection of the sex, wealth and power that possessed their culture. These Desert Mothers and Fathers, as they are called, sought a life of utter dependence on and attendance to God. Alone in the desert, they battled the illusions of sin, and by fasting from these they attained an interior freedom that created enormous space for God. And, their inner transformation was so profound, they attracted many to the desert life. Through the desolations of the desert they found their truest selves, remade in God’s refining presence. Things aren’t always what they seem.
As Christians, we participate in a long tradition of pilgrims who have shown us that the things of this world are passing away. Through their legacy we understand that our fullest potential is reached when God defines our worth, our future, our vocation, rather than marriage, children, power or wealth. Though our life may endure many challenges and desert desolations, responding to Christ’s radical call to “come and follow me” means our journey will rarely be safe, but it will always be good. For God is very good!