My inner pride over the congregation I serve (99% white) taking on questions around race, racism and Christian faith is beginning to bubble over. Our guest for the first of four weeks in our annual Mission Month was the Rev. Dr. Joseph D. Small, former director of the Office of Theology and Worship for my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He caused my breast to be filled the air of pride by encouraging us in our willingness to talk about an issue that so many white congregations are afraid to talk about. But he also cautioned us.
“This is a great first step,” Dr. Small said to a crowd of 30 or so gathered after worship on Sunday, “but it’s not the whole ballgame.”
As I sit in my Monday morning “office” (a local coffee shop) and reflect on this weekend and wonder what the weeks ahead will reveal, I am catching up on some of my reading, which includes The Christian Century. It has this section called “Century Marks” and includes funny and disturbing news blips and a cartoon or two. In one called “Note to self,” the archbishop of Canterbury (the closest thing to a pope the Anglican communion has), Justin Welby, is asked what he would write to his 14-year-old self. He responds:
You are rarely good at anything, a fact you know well and worry about. But don’t worry—it does not measure who you are. Keep on dreaming of great things, but learn to live in the present so that you take steps to accomplish them. Above all, more important than anything, don’t wait until you are older to find out about Jesus Christ and his love for you. He is not just a name at chapel, but a person you can know. Christmas is not a fairy story, but the compelling opening of the greatest drama in history, with you as one of millions of players. Life will often be tough, but you will find more love than you can imagine now.
With my love to you,
I was touched by this sentiment and wondered what I would tell my 14-year-old self…
Life is nothing like you imagine, and it is definitely not as scary as it may seem to you right now. Your dreams are the stuff of hope, the very thing that continues to change the world. But hope un-lived is not hope, but just a dream. Don’t be afraid to take risks for things you feel burning in your heart. Don’t be afraid to take risks when it comes to loving other people, even if they are not able to love you back. You have more to give to the ongoing drama of hope-filled lives unfolding than you realize now. So don’t be afraid. Live into the hope God has given you. Take some risks.
That’s a first crack at such a letter. One thing I have realized is that, despite what my parents might say, I lived my life pretty safe. I was very in the moment (and still am, sometimes to my detriment), but still pretty safe. My life stayed safe until I made the decision to risk a lot (or so I thought) to go to seminary and learn about the art of pastoring—a journey I am still very much on. I wrestled with that decision for 10 years. I remember vividly the night I made the decision. I also remember when I told my parents that I wasn’t going to law school, and instead going to seminary. Their concern was valid, but their support was surprising.
I have learned there is a strong connection between risks, faith and opportunities. Faith, both in general and Christian faith specifically, requires taking risks. Jesus risked everything to reveal to the world there is another way than what the powers that be will tell you—a way to be free, even in the midst of oppression; a way to love, even when hated; a way to be, even when others try to stop you.
I often feel myself falling back into my old 14-year-old self, playing it safe (despite what my wife might say). My inner 14-year-old self pulls me back more often than most people who know me might realize. I’d like to say I am a little wiser now and better able to discern positive risks and negative risks. But often it is God’s still, small voice that speaks gently to my soul and calls me out of my nagging risk-aversion, and reminds me that a faithful life is often a life of risk-taking and a willingness to be stretched to the limits by God’s love for me and others. It is humbling and exhilarating at the same time. And, it is something with which I continue to struggle.
So what would you write to your 14-year-old self? Would you warn her? Would you encourage him? Would you encourage the former you to take more risks? Or maybe be more calculating in risk-taking?