Most of us probably have been to an IMAX theater, which is larger than life, and usually shows action movies that draw you into the film. When we lived in Victoria, my family and I went to the IMAX at the Royal British Columbia Museum to see Extreme. We weren’t prepared for what we saw.
We were treated to the most dizzying array of extreme sports featuring some of the most dangerous feats of skill I have ever seen-skiing and snowboarding down steep mountains in the wilderness of Alaska and British Columbia; surfboarding and windsurfing in waves up to 50 feet high off the shores of Hawaii; rock climbing up peaks of smooth stone that went straight up for over a thousand feet.
You get the idea. These were not normal sports. They were extreme sports, performed by energetic, skilled individuals willing to take extreme risks with their lives. And yes, some people do die-think of the skiers who die as a result of avalanches in British Columbia.
Extreme sports involving extreme danger have become all the rage. Some enjoy aggressive inline skating, bicycle stunt riding, sky surfing, ice climbing, skateboarding and big air snowboarding. Others enjoy hurtling down mountain roads in sleds in excess of 120 kilometers per hour, a half inch from the ground, with no breaks. Still others like barefoot jumping-water-skiing barefoot around obstacles, doing tricks, then skiing up a ramp to try landing the longest jump.
Why this fascination with extreme forms of risk-taking? First of all, most people need some adventure. Otherwise life becomes terribly boring.
But we each have different thresholds for adventure. Some people’s idea of roughing it may be hiking in the Canadian Rockies. For others, spending the night at a Motel 6 instead of a Marriott may be adventuresome.
The need for adventure, for risk-taking, varies from person to person. Obviously extreme sports can be dangerous. More people are killed skydiving than curling. But the consequences go much further than extreme sports.
How many people commit crimes to escape boredom? How many people-young and old-experiment with drugs or drink themselves into a stupor for the same reason? How many extramarital affairs grow out of the same need for stimulation? The need for adventure, for taking risks, may be an underlying factor in many of the most heartbreaking tragedies in our country.
And yet, some of the greatest people who have ever lived were risk-takers. We don’t change the world by playing it safe. We don’t improve the lot of people by staying put.
“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, long hours.” These words come from an ad placed in the early 1900s by the explorer Ernest Shackleton-he was looking for men to help him discover the South Pole. The ad drew 5,000 applicants.
Shackleton was once asked, “Why do you want to go to such a forbidding ice-covered continent?” He paused, and then replied, “The fascination of placing the first footmarks.”
You and I can understand that, can’t we? Think of the people who have placed footmarks on our history. The astronauts who set foot on the moon come to mind, but also there are people such as Sir Edmund Hillary, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, Jacques Cartier, Christopher Columbus, Henry Hudson and Captains Cook and Vancouver, and the list goes on.
Think what risk-takers Jesus’ followers were as they proclaimed the gospel throughout the Roman Empire. They constantly faced the possibility of death for their faith. But they still persisted.
If there is any sin that you and I are guilty of, probably it is that we play it too safe when it comes to our faith. Our world has been moved forward by its risk-takers-people who followed their convictions regardless of the odds, regardless of opposition, regardless of the danger. Call it, if you will, extreme faith.
Maybe what we moderate, middle-of-the road, overly-cautious Anglicans need today is a healthy dose of extreme faith.
Maybe we have made being a Christian too easy.
Maybe we need to offer people the opportunity to risk life and limb for Jesus Christ, as did the early church.
Maybe we need to give people the opportunity for danger, as did the great missionary movements throughout the centuries.
We have made being a Christian so convenient and comfortable that our faith has lost its edge. A faith that demands too little will not grab hold of the passion that many people need in their lives today.
Long before there was a Billy Graham or a Billy Sunday, there was George Whitefield, an 18th-century, Oxford-educated Anglican cleric who preached several sermons a day to as many as 30,000 people in Britain and in North America.
At a time when crossing the Atlantic Ocean was almost akin to space travel and with many dying on the voyage, Whitefield crossed the Atlantic seven times to preach the gospel in the colonies. He travelled up and down the Atlantic Coast, from Georgia to New Hampshire, preaching three, four, even five times a day, even though his asthma and heart condition became increasingly severe.
On the last day of his life Whitefield was so exhausted that he simply wanted to go to bed, but the crowd would not let him depart without a sermon. So he preached one last time, then went inside the inn, collapsed on his bed and died that night-one of the greatest evangelists since St. Paul.
George Whitefield risked everything for Jesus. He held nothing back. He gave and gave until he had nothing left to give. The words of the old hymn sum up his life: “All for Jesus! All for Jesus!”
Did you know there have been more Christian martyrs in the 20th century than in all the previous centuries of Christianity put together? The number of Christians who have died in the old Soviet Union, the Communist Eastern Bloc, Mao’s China, and parts of Asia and some Islamic countries far outnumber the early church martyrs of the Roman Empire. Even today, Christians continue to die simply because they are Christians.
If you read Margaret Wente’s recent column in The Globe and Mail (24 December 2011), you know that being a Christian can cost your life in some parts of the world.
- In Egypt, tens of thousands of Coptic Christians have fled the country. Twenty-seven of them died when security forces opened fire on a crowd of peaceful demonstrators who were protesting church burnings.
- In India, Hindu activists invaded a Christian church during worship and attacked the pastor for allegedly trying to convert Hindus to Christianity by offering them bribes. What was the alleged bribe? A young Hindu man who loved a Christian girl was willing to convert to Christianity and be baptized in order to marry her.
- In Pakistan, a Christian mother was sentenced to death for blasphemy. What was her crime? She was drinking water from a well reserved for Muslims only and allegedly making derogatory remarks about Mohammed. This woman is so frail she can barely stand, and a Christian cabinet minister who tried to defend her was assassinated last March.
- In Nigeria, a number of church have been bombed, including one on Christmas Day.
- In Uganda, on Christmas Eve, Islamic extremists threw acid on a church leader and partially blinded him.
- In Indonesia, the leading bishop complained of mobs burning and ransacking churches with impunity.
- In Iraq, two-thirds of a once thriving Christian population has fled the country. Some experts predict Christianity in Iraq, and even in the Holy Land, may soon be extinct.
Here we are in our comfortable pews, listening to the sounds of a million-dollar organ, surrounded by magnificent stained glass, while Christians around the world are dying for their faith-dying because they are Christians. They know the cost of discipleship. They know what it means to take up the cross and follow Jesus. They understand the price to be paid to be an effective witness for the gospel.
Yes, maybe we Canadian Anglicans have it too easy.
If pollsters and pundits are correct, Canadian society is becoming less Christian with each passing year. And yet, we sometimes act as if the world is the same as it was back in 1955-when more Canadians attended church than people in the United States.
We don’t seem to get it-that there is a world out there that still needs to be saved by men and women with adventurous spirits who are committed to Jesus and will follow him regardless of the cost.
In the Old Testament, in 1 Samuel, chapters 1 to 2, we read of Samuel, whose parents had left him at the temple to serve as an assistant to the priest Eli.
At the age twelve or thirteen, Samuel gave his life to serving God (1 Samuel 3:1−11).
One night, as Samuel lay in his bed, he heard God speak his name. At first he thought it was Eli calling him, but Eli realized it was God.
So Eli told Samuel, “Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, ?Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’ ”
And the Lord spoke to Samuel: “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.” In other words, God was saying to Samuel, “I’m getting ready to cause some excitement in this land and I want your help.”
That is God’s call to every generation: “I’m getting ready to cause some excitement in this land and I want your help.”
And, if enough young people-and enough older people-answer, as did Samuel, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening,” then exciting things begin to happen.
Suddenly extreme adventures seem somewhat irrelevant. Suddenly you are in tune with the mind and heart of the universe and every day throbs with the excitement of being alive to God. You want to give yourself to God wholeheartedly because the religious journey, the Christian journey, is the most adventurous experience anyone could ever undertake.
In the middle of the 19th century, a missionary society wrote to Dr. David Livingstone, deep in the heart of Africa, and asked, “Have you found a good road to where you are? If so, we want to know how to send other men to join you.”
Livingstone wrote back, “If you have men who will come only if they know there is a good road, I don’t want them. I want men who will come if there is no road at all.”
Jesus Christ is looking for men and women like that today- people who will come if there is no road at all.
Better than extreme sports-more exciting than the most thrilling adventure-God is looking for men and women who have extreme faith.
Will you answer the call?
The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.