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Embracing Risk

Rev. Douglas Taylor


(Here is a link to the video of this sermon delivered)

I’m preaching about risks and how it is good to take risks. My spouse looked at me. “You?” she asked a little incredulously. “You are not a risk-taker.” Okay, that’s fair.

If you asked around you would hear from others about some of my better qualities but ‘thrill-seeker’ would not be on that list; ‘risk-taker’ is not the descriptor that comes to most people’s minds when they think of me. I’m okay with that. I’m still going to preach about embracing risk this morning.

I’m talking about risk in a slightly different, but still authentic way this morning. I am never going to jump out of an airplane or go cliff diving or rock climbing without safety lines. That’s not the sort of risk I am drawn to. But those are not the only kinds of risks there are in life.

I will share this story to seal my non-risk-taking bona fides. While still in seminary, I was looking for a congregation in which to do my internship. One congregation in a Chicago suburb gave me an interview but ended up not giving me the position. I later learned they felt I was too trepidatious during the interview, too fearful. I had shared with them my concerns about moving to the Chicago area. I’m not a city person, we had two young children and almost no financial resources. I knew it would be a hard year. I shared this during the interview. They heard that as fearful on my part. I would interpret it as realistic and honest.

A year later I reapplied to that congregation and was given the internship slot. One of their questions during that interview a year later was: what has changed since last time you applied. I had lived for a year in Chicago for my last academic year of study and it had been a hard year. I had been right. One thing I learned is this: perhaps I should not have shared with them my concern for living in a big city as a young poor family. I would have appeared less trepidatious, I might have gotten the job the first time around. But here we are. And perhaps I did not learn this ‘don’t share your fears’ lesson because I just told all of you about it.

Here is why I shared this story, however. I was fearful. I did see moving to Chicago as a risk. I still did it. I was correct in my assessment of the risk – it was a very hard year. Just recently I found a great story that explains the experience I’d had those decades back.

Two children are at a public pool. One child helping their younger sibling learn to jump into the water. The younger one kept hovering at the edge, “but I’m scared,” she would cry. Her older sibling would try to comfort her, “You’ll be okay. I’m right here. You don’t need to be afraid.” But nothing worked until an older lady at the pool swam by and said, “It’s okay to be scared. Do it anyway. Do it scared.” That proved to be helpful advice. Instead of ‘don’t be scared;” “Do it scared.”

I moved to Chicago. I took the risk. I didn’t fall in love with Chicago. I didn’t overcome my discomfort with big cities. They are too crowded, too frenetic, too distanced from nature. I would be trepidatious if faced with the situation again. But I did it. I did it scared.

A Shel Silverstein poem offers a cautionary version of this:

Barnabus Browning

Was scared of drowning,

So he never would swim

Or get into a boat

Or take a bath

Or cross a moat.

He just sat day and night

With his door locked tight

And the windows nailed down,

Shaking with fear

That a wave might appear,

And cried so many tears

That they filled up the room

And he drowned.

The difference is not about who is scared and who is not. The difference is about what you do with your fear. I’m preaching about risks and how it is good to take risks. I will not lie and say I have no fears in my life or that I am a great risk-taker. Instead, I will tell you about the overcoming of the fears we have. This is about taking risks and having courage. I am not talking not about the courage to jump out of an airplane, but of the courage to live your life faithfully and openly.

People talk about fear and faith being opposites. Fear will hold you back and faith will set you free. And that is certainly true, but it’s more complicated than that too. The spirit is diminished when we let our fear rule our actions. But having faith in a situation doesn’t make the fear go away. The fear is just outweighed. Learning to take good risks is an important part of life.

Growing up, I had a very high level of skill at assessing risks. Knowing the risks is not the same as taking risks, of course. Growing up in the chaos of an alcoholic household gave me a keen ability to see the risks, to understand potential consequences. As a child I usually chose to not take the risks. As I matured into a young adult, I worked my way into learning how to jump in the water even though I was afraid – to use that little swimming pool story metaphorically. As an adult, I began to ask not if it was risky, but is the risk worth taking?

One of the teachers I have found to help me clarify this, to help me learn to jump in the water, if you will, has been Brené Brown. I want to share this clip of her in an interview in which she talks about vulnerability and the relationship between vulnerability and risk:

Dr. Brown says “Vulnerability is uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” The risk, in the middle there, is the key piece. There is a cost to being true. There is a risk in reaching out, in wanting to be better. Brené Brown says we need to risk being vulnerable to live more fully. That’s the risk I am talking about.

She talked about difference between the sign language for ‘vulnerability’ rooted in ‘weak in the knees” vs “opening yourself.” There is little risk in being weak in the knees. The good stuff is found in the risk of opening up and reaching out.

We have an old anonymous piece in our hymnal simply entitled “To Risk” (SLT #658)

To laugh is to risk appearing the fool

To weep is to risk appearing sentimental

To reach out for another is to risk exposing our true self

To place our ideas – our dreams – before the crowd is to risk loss

To love is to risk not being loved in return

To hope is to risk despair

To try is to risk failure

To live is to risk dying

When we put it like this, I am a high-end risk-taker! I have shaped my life around risking failure and despair, looking foolish and appearing sentimental, putting my ideas before the crowd – that’s my thing! My ministry is brimming with this sort of risk-taking: with laughter and weeping, hopes and failures, vulnerability and love. 

“Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.” Author C. S. Lewis warns us. “If you want to keep it intact,” he continues, “you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable.”

The question is not: is it a risk? The question is: which risks are worth taking? Which risks are you taking, have you taken in your life? Which ones were worth it? What have you gained and what have you lost? There is always more to risk.

Will you risk associating with people on the margins? Will you risk being an ally? Will you risk telling people they are important to you? Will you risk telling a friend that their off-color jokes are offensive? Will you risk giving shelter to someone in need?

Maybe you don’t want to jay-walk or bungee-jump off a high bridge. Maybe you are scared of heights or large crowds or public speaking. Maybe you are not comfortable getting the vaccine given your immune issues or are unwilling to risk arrest at a protest.

Where is the line for you? What are the issues or situations that are on the edge in your heart? I encourage you to push yourself. Poke at the edges. Just because we are afraid of something does not mean we need to overcome it. Most of the time, fear is a healthy warning; giving us useful information about ourselves and our world.

But there are times when our fear gets detached from what is really going on and we get stuck in our fear. In such cases it is worth it to take some risks. The Spirit will not abide being stuck. You cannot grow when you are stuck. And the good stuff is found in the risk of opening up and reaching out.

So, embrace risks, I say. Live. Care. Try again. Let yourself be vulnerable. Reach out and be loving. It’s worth it. We will get hurt and we will fail and we will surely sometimes lose. But that is not all that will happen. Because the risk is worth it. Follow the spirit to reach beyond your fear. All the good stuff in life is found in the risk of opening up and reaching out.

In a world without end,

May it be so