ESSAY

Week 3

Sermon “Risk, Change, and Risking Change”

Matt Alspaugh

March 12, 2017

Introduction

There is this story about a monastery in Europe perched high on a cliff hundreds of feet in the air.

The only way to reach the monastery is in a basket, which was pulled to the top by monks who reeled the basket up by muscle power alone.

The ride up the steep cliff in that basket was terrifying. One visitor got exceedingly nervous about half-way up as he noticed that the rope by which he was suspended was old and frayed.

With a trembling voice he asked the monk who was riding with him in the basket how often they changed the rope. The monk thought for a moment and answered brusquely, “Whenever it breaks.”[1]

Lest you think such difficult to reach monasteries exist only in stories or jokes, the cover of your Bulletin suggests otherwise. This is the path, perched precariously on the side of a cliff, to a Buddhist temple on Hua Mountain in China. If you do reach the top, and go in the temple, there’s a teahouse where you might get a spot of refreshment before working your way back down.[2]

Gina’s Sister, My Sister

Last week, Gina shared stories of her adventurous sister, who just that weekend was rappelling down the side of a hotel building in Las Vegas, who in the past ziplined, and rode motorcycles and generally gravitated to thrilling activities.

Gina’s stories caused me to think of my own older sister, Beth, who herself was drawn to thrill-seeking, but in a different way. She engaged in reckless risky behavior. As a kid, she’d shoplift just to see if it could be done. She graffitied neighbors houses with spray paint on Halloween. She took up smoking, then drinking, hanging around with a tough crowd. Then drugs, car theft, and prison, before she disappeared from the family altogether. A few years ago we received a call from a state coroner. Gradually we learned that she died of natural causes, after having settled into a longtime relationship, and that her final years were relatively, um, uneventful.

What makes people — even in the same family so different, when it comes to risky behavior? We are only now beginning to understand how the brain evaluates risk.[3] Recently, we’ve learned that a specific group of neurons deep in the brain guides how we make risky decisions.

This network of neurons exists in many species, from humans to birds to bees, and these neurons tend to drive most individuals away from risky behavior. But some individuals, like my sister, are willing to gamble, to bet on a big win. These individuals are not so much motivated by the chance to win big, but rather, they are simply less concerned about the costs of losing. Threat of punishment doesn’t demotivate them.

However, my sister Beth’s behavior did affect the rest of my family. We, the younger kids, me especially, saw the price my sister paid for her behavior, and as a result we became rather risk averse. We generally kept our heads down, worked hard, stayed out of trouble. We avoided major trouble. At least I did.

I went to local university — the one offering the best financial aid —  rather than making a riskier move to attend an east coast school. Out of school, I took a job with the phone company — what company could be more secure than the phone company? Romance was risky; I had little of that. Throughout much of my twenties I was a very boring homebody of a person, and increasingly unhappy.

Embracing Risk

In time, I changed. I came to realize that to live is to change, and to change, one must take risks. In fact, choosing not to change, choosing not to choose, is a choice — and that has its own risks.

Would I sit passively while my work world upended around me? Would I settle for an unrewarding relationship? Would I just clock through the days of my life, making no significant changes, just treading water in the sea of change? Such stasis has a psychic cost, and I increasingly had to pay the bill.

I realized that I had to make peace with change in order to make peace with risk. As the poem suggested, I had to see Paris first. I had to cross that frontier into France, and go directly to the Paris of my fears.

So I took the very scary risk of walking through the doors of an unfamiliar church, and discovered Unitarian Universalism. I risked deeper relationships, and one of those relationships led to marriage to Liz. Liz and I took the risk of moving out west. I left my secure job, returned to school and changed my career direction. I risked my career on a series of startup ventures, mostly unsuccessful ones, and then made another even riskier shift, fellowing the call to ministry.

I took a risk with you, and you with me, when I came here as your new minister almost eight years ago.

De Noche Iremos

The song we sang earlier, De Noche Iremos, is from the Taizé tradition. Taizé is a non-denominational Christian monastic movement that originated in Taizé France, a town southeast of Paris. Taizé church services are rich with songs that are sung repetitively, leading participants into a kind of meditative experience.

The message of the song De Noche Iremos is one of seeking, of going into the night, into the darkness, to find the source, the fountain, for only thirst enlightens us. We all seek, in effect, in darkness, in the unseen, for the future is not visible to us. We seek, thirsting, drawn toward that source of light, of wisdom, of completeness.  It is risky in the night, following this thirst. But, this is the journey of change in our lives.

And Now This

As Andy mentioned, I have decided to depart from this ministry with you, and seek the next phase on my ministry path. My last day with you will be July 15th. We will have time before then to reflect on the time we’ve been together, to remember the good times — and the bad times too — and to ponder the changes ahead. We will have time to grieve, for this is a loss for all of us. I will be happy to meet with any of you — member, friend, newly with us, returning — in these coming months. Additionally, I will schedule group gatherings for conversation.

This decision to depart has been a long time coming. It was not an easy one to make. I’ve spent some time thinking about the arc of my ministry with you. When I first arrived as a contract minister, green, unseasoned, new to the parish life, I focused on specific transitional goals – welcoming, growth, social justice.

I realized that this kind of focused ministry was the most satisfying to me. This is the essence of Interim or Developmental Ministry, a specific kind of ministry within our faith tradition. Such ministers serve churches for a brief period of time in between longer settlements. They work with churches on specific goals, helping them address bad habits or unhealthy behaviors that may exist, and helping them imagine a new and more expansive future for themselves. Interim and Developmental Ministers facilitate the space between past and future ministry. They increase the likelihood that the church will do well with the next settled minister.

This is the kind of consulting ministry work I feel called to do at this point in my life. It’s risky stuff, for as an Interim or Developmental minister, you don’t know where you might end up in a year, or two years. Heck, I don’t yet even know where I will end up next year — the process of churches and Interim ministers choosing each other doesn’t even open up until May. It’s risky business — but a calculated risk, one that I hope opens up new opportunities for growth and service to our movement.

What About Us?

But what about UUYO? I reflected long and hard on what impact my leave-taking would have on you. Ministerial departures are never easy. But UUYO is a strong and healthy church. There is incredible energy here, a sense of warmth and welcome that is a real blessing and which I’m sure will endure. You’ve loved me, I’ve loved you, and most importantly you love each other. You’re even willing to extend that love to the stranger, to the guest, even to those not physically present.  Particularly this year, perhaps since the election last fall, UUYO feels like it has a new energy, and it’s at a time of strength and health.

Now UUYO’s one-hundred twenty fifth anniversary is coming up next fall. Great plans are already being made for that celebration. While I really wanted to be here to celebrate with you, I’ve come to see that my departure could help shift the focus from the past, the history of the church, to the future, and to new possibility.

Important questions can be considered. Who are you now, and who do you want to become together? What kind of minister do you want for the next phase of change in the church? Yes, you will still celebrate your history, but that history will be considered from a different point of view, perhaps, how does that history guide us in choosing our future?

I have complete faith in your ability to move boldly into the future, with all the risk and change and risky change that entails. I hope in some small way my leadership has helped you, to make this church the bold, vibrant place it is.

There is a verse in the Dao De Ching, number 17 about leadership. It has been a guide star for my ministerial leadership.

This translation is by Stephen Mitchell, adapted:[4]

When the [leader] governs, the people

are hardly aware that he exists.

Next best is a leader who is loved.

Next, one who is feared.

The worst is one who is despised.

If you don’t trust the people,

you make them untrustworthy.

The [leader] doesn’t talk, he acts.

When his work is done,

the people say, “Amazing:

we did it, all by ourselves!”

I hope I have measured up. My desire has been to trust you, to empower you to do the work, to be a part of the Shared Ministry at UUYO. My desire has always been, that at the end of any project or event, even the end of a ministry, the people involved would say “Amazing: we did it, by ourselves!”

An Ethic of Risk

Returning to the month’s theme of Risk — we live in difficult, challenging times. It is beginning to sink in to to many of us that the pathway toward changing our culture and our world is a long and hard road, that we’ve got to be going, one foot in front of the other, walking — working for the long haul. How do we steel ourselves, how do we find the strength for such a journey, of unknown length, unknown difficulty, whose destination is shrouded in darkness?

Sharon Welch, a Unitarian Universalist theologian, asked just such a question years ago:

“What does it mean to work for social transformation in the face of seemingly insurmountable suffering and evil? How can we sustain energy, hope, and commitment in the face of an unrelenting succession of social and political crises?”[5]

This was from her book, “Toward a Feminist Ethic of Risk”.

Working first with the feminist movement, then with social justice concerns in general, she realizes can sustain only by taking risks.

She writes this:

“The fundamental risk constitutive of this ethic is the decision to care and to act, although there are no guarantees of success.  Such action requires immense daring and enables great joy.”[6]

To act with no guarantees of success.

She realizes that we are not in control, that there is no certainty of success, that we take risks in our actions. This is the ethic of risk. She says,

“an ethic of risk … begins with the recognition that we cannot guarantee decisive changes in the near future or even in our lifetime” [7]

Because of the uncertainty, social change is a step by step project, one that takes time. We may not achieve our goals, but we just might be able to set the stage where further actions are possible.

Humility

I recall social activists, risk takers, change artists who have inspired me. One that comes to mind is Kim Bobo, an activist who worked with Interfaith Worker Justice, and who taught me in seminary.  What amazed me was her humor in dealing with setback after setback, a kind of humility in saying “wow, I didn’t know that was going to happen!”, a kind of amazement when even the smallest thing went right, “I couldn’t believe it!” She modeled for us the ethic of risk, of focusing on the effort and not on outcome, of taking the next step on the path.

Conclusion

So we walk on the long road ahead, sometimes together, sometimes alone. We seek the source, that which enlightens us, which is love. We walk, loving each other, loving the world.

The great poet Rainer Maria Rilke tells us:

You who let yourselves feel: enter the breathing

that is more than your own.

Let it brush your cheeks

as it divides and rejoins beside you.

 

Blessed ones, whole ones,

you where the heart begins:

You are the bow that shoots the arrows

and you are the target.[8]

We are that. We let ourselves feel. 

We are where the heart begins.

We, in love with each other,

feel our hearts opening in joy and grief.

We, in love with the whole earth, with the world,

give ourselves to the air, to the sky

and in time, enter the breathing that is more than our own.

Notes:

1 “The Big Book of Church Jokes”, 2009, Barbour Publishing. Yes there is such a book. I don’t own a copy.

2 http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/huashan-teahouse

3 https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/03/turning-risk-takers-into-risk-avoiders/474888/

4 http://acc6.its.brooklyn.cuny.edu/~phalsall/texts/taote-v3.html#17

5 Sharon Welch, “A Feminist Ethic of Risk”, 2000, p. 1

6 Sharon Welch, “A Feminist Ethic of Risk”, 1990, p. 68

7 ibid. p. 46

8 Rainer Maria Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus, Part One, IV