Incredible how our history, the civilization of which we are a part, began with a 3,000 year old story of a seventy-five-year-old man with a barren wife. But that is where it all began, the way we think and feel, the way we picture life and live it out.
“So Abram went” – three of the boldest words in all of history. They signal a complete departure from everything that has gone before in the long evolution of culture and sensibility. Out of the land of Sumer, civilized repository of the predictable, comes a man who does not know where he is going but goes forth into the unknown wilderness under the prompting of his god. Out of Mesopotamia, home of self-serving merchants who used their gods to ensure prosperity and security, comes a wealthy caravan with no material goal.
Out of ancient humanity, which from the dim beginnings of its consciousness has read its eternal truth in the stars, comes a party traveling by no known compass. Out of the human race, which knows in its bones that all its striving must end in death, comes a leader who says he has been given an impossible promise. Out of mortal imagination comes a dream of something new, something better, something yet to happen, something —in the future.
And the New Testament calls that “faith,”the willingness to risk, to leave nation, tribe and family, that is, to leave the safe, the secure, the known, on behalf of a dream of a new and better future. “By faith Abraham went out, not knowing where he was going.” This old faith, which has given us our civilization, and country, and way of life, began not with creedal statements or philosophical speculations nor with ethical imperatives. It began with a man who felt deep within the compulsion to leave the settled and secure urban existence of Ur, leave his ancestral home, all that was familiar and reassuring, to go out into a dream and an adventure, to go out not knowing where he was going, for he sought something better, a city whose architect and builder is God.
And it was the same faith and vision which fired a young carpenter, a son of Abraham, to leave family and familiar village to confront strangers, fishermen and tax collectors, and challenge them to go with him to shake the world.
It is the same faith which charged up a Paul and Barnabas to march across the map of the Empire, to risk their lives that others might learn the same courage and hope.
He went out, not knowing where he was going. And it is that kind of spirit that made our country what it is. But that raises a question for us in our time. Are we still a people of that kind of faith? Or are we not increasingly a people who put security and comfort before risk and adventure?
Understandable, given the uncertainty and new sense of vulnerability following 9/11. It is an unpredictable, threatening, constantly changing world we live in and the drive and passion for some safety, some secure harbor for the body or mind, is completely understandable. But there is a problem here also. The passion for security can lead to the avoidance of necessary risk, the unwillingness to take the right kind of chances.
The idea that our individual lives and the nation’s life can and should be risk-free has grown to be an obsession, driven far and deep into American attitudes. Indeed the desire for a risk-free society may be one of the most debilitating influences in America today, progressively enfeebling the economy with a mass of safety regulations and a widespread fear of liability rulings, and threatening to create an unbuoyant and uninventive society. This almost morbid aversion to risk calls into question how Americans now see their future.
One man comments recently that he watched a four-year-old neighbor riding his tricycle on the sidewalk, with helmet, elbow and knee guards, gloves, and he fell to wondering how he had even survived to adulthood.
Lynne F. McGee in the Washington Post puts this penchant in a somewhat lighter vein. “It all began when the dental hygienist, who was scraping tartar off my teeth, asked, ‘Do you spend about four minutes each time you brush your teeth?’ With a gurgling tube hanging from my lip, I responded, ‘A liddle lessth than that.’ ‘You really should,’ she said, ‘or you will lose your teeth.’ I vowed to myself that I would floss, pick, brush and rinse as instructed.
“At my annual physical examination the doctor asked, ‘How often do you exercise?’ ‘Do you limit your salt intake?’ and ‘Does your diet contain much cholesterol?’ I thus began an intensive fitness program, which I checked off on the daily ‘Personal Maintenance Schedule’ on the refrigerator door.
“I then made an appointment for a beauty makeover. ‘When is the last time you had a facial?’ the cosmetologist asked? ‘Never’ didn’t seem like the right answer, so I hedged with, ’It’s been awhile.’ ‘You should have a facial more often. You’ve already got some awful wrinkles around your eyes,’ she warned. Mentally I added ‘Get facial!’ to my personal maintenance schedule.
“I soon learned personal maintenance was not all that I had to worry about. At the appliance-repair shop the clerk examining my coffee maker asked, ‘Do you run white vinegar through it each month?’ This began my ‘Home Maintenance Schedule,’ which took its place next to my personal maintenance schedule. Several other appliances began demanding my attention…the tape deck in my car, the VCR, and the disk drives in my computer. I was sleeping four hours a night, had lost touch with my husband and children, and had no social life, not to mention no room left on the refrigerator door.
“It all came crashing down one night when I was reading an article entitled: “Are you Endangering the Lives of Your Loved Ones by Failing to Dust Your Smoke Alarms Regularly?” I ran to the refrigerator and tore the schedule to shreds. In their place I have established a policy in which I respond to all questions about my behavior by taking the Fifth Amendment.”
What is at stake here? When we lose our capacity for risk, when we are no longer willing or able to thrust ourselves into situations of insecurity, we close ourselves off to creative endeavors whether in the world of work or child rearing or leisure pursuits. Most meaningful accomplishments, most advances of human spirit and life, require the toleration of a significant degree of uncertainty and risk.
James Michener writes, “In 1944 I was stuck on a remote island in the South Pacific. To kill time I decided to write a book. Then I remembered the cold facts: the chances against anyone’s publishing a first book are 95 to 1; and for each book that is finally published, 95 unsuccessful ones are written. But I decided to stick my neck out and go ahead.
“Then I learned two more facts. If someone hasn’t written a book by the time he is thirty-five years old, chances are he never will. And I was nearing forty. Even worse, I was not writing a novel, but a book of short stories. A friend warned me, ‘Nobody publishes books of short stories any more.’ Even so, I still decided to stick my neck out. When the book appeared, it caused little comment and would have died unknown except that Orville Prescott, a newspaper book reviewer, took a chance on a beginning writer and reported that he liked the stories.
“Later a group of literary critics studied the book and pointed out, ‘It’s not a novel, it’s not about America, and common sense says it’s not eligible for the Pulitzer Prize.’ Nevertheless they awarded it the prize and so brought the book to the world’s attention. In Hollywood, Kenneth MacKenna, who reads books for the movies, tried to persuade his company to make a movie out of Tales of the South Pacific, but the experts replied, ‘No dramatic possibilities.’ So MacKenna stuck his neck out and brought the book to the attention of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, who did likewise.
“When Broadway heard that Rodgers and Hammerstein planned a musical called South Pacific wiseacres cried, ‘Have you heard their screwy idea? The romantic lead is gonna be a man past fifty, an opera singer named Enzio Pinza!’ You know what happened next. You can understand why I like people who stick their necks out.”
One has to wonder how much our lives will be impoverished of art and literature, of new technologies and marvelous experiences, if increasing numbers spend their days playing it safe. Americans have historically been an inventive, exploring, adventuring, risk-taking breed. How sad if we lose that in a mania for a risk-free existence.
But there are other areas where the inability or unwillingness to risk is perhaps even more deadly, and that we do not often think of in connection with risk. It is in our relationships with one another. The acceptance, the embrace of risk is essential not only to creative endeavor but to creative relationships, to relationships that grow, that go somewhere, that expand our lives.
How many young people miss out because they cling to the little clique with which they are comfortable rather than reach out to the new or different one, a potential friend. How many individuals live lives basically of lonely isolation because they are afraid to admit or express need?
How many married people keep their relationship within safe if boring limits, because they will not risk the vulnerability of sharing deep feelings, joys or troubles? One woman who found the rejection of a friend devastating, said, “That’s it. I’m not going to get involved anymore. It hurts too much to care about somebody and then have them walk out on you.” But that is to surrender the possibility of knowing and growing in real life. Theodore Roethke writes, “Love is not love until it is vulnerable.”
Some time ago Edward Dahlberg wrote an article about lost opportunities (in The New York Times Book Review). He illustrated it with an encounter that he had with Theodore Dreiser. He said that he had longed to know Dreiser, but when he thought about getting in touch with him, he shied away from the opportunity. He just assumed that Dreiser would be engaged in such monumental work that he couldn’t be bothered. Besides that, he thought, “What do I have to offer Theodore Dreiser? If I telephoned him, he’d hang up the phone and I’d be humiliated.”
Finally he had the opportunity to talk with Dreiser by sheer accident, and then saw him several other times on social occasions, but he always thought that he was impinging on the great author’s time. Then Dreiser died. A few years after that, a biography was published about Dreiser and Dahlberg bought it and read it. He was astonished to read that just at that moment when they first met, Dreiser’s best friend had died, and Dreiser said that he had hoped that Edward Dahlberg would become his friend. Dahlberg read that line over and over again. He couldn’t believe it. He wrote: “Good God! Theodore Dreiser needed me.”
We know how important others can be to us. How often we little suspect how important we are to them. How often we draw back before the risk of finding out, by making the move, picking up the phone, offering the hand. If our culture is short on deep friendships, I suspect it is because so many opt to play it safe.
So real faith always has that quality. It is not just trust in the midst of the inevitable sufferings and reversals, threats and dangers of this world. It is the courage to risk insecurity in the name of great achievements, on behalf of deep relationships. Without such acceptance of risk, these do not happen. Every year I live I am more convinced that the waste of life lies in the love we have not given, the powers we have not used, the selfish prudence that will risk nothing, and which, shirking pain, misses happiness as well.
Yesterday we celebrated the birthday of another Abraham, who in 1861, having won the election for President, set out by train for the long journey from provincial Springfield to far off Washington in the strength that God was calling him to that dread task in a most uncertain time of our Nation’s history. Saying, “I now leave not knowing when or whether ever, I may return. Without the assistance of that Divine Being, I cannot succeed. Trusting in him, who can go with me, and remain with you and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well.” And Abraham went out.
Finally, the acceptance of risk is the making of us all. We need risk and adventure to grow and become all that we may be under God, with him and for him. For how many people is this business of religion, of prayer, of discipleship, of Jesus, put off because it is too scary, threatening, untypical of what we have become accustomed to? “That’s just not my thing. “ And we settle in safe and same until we check out.
I received an email from an 85-year- old out in California via Philadelphia. His name is William Machgan and he writes, “In my last few years at Wm. O’Neil, I began the inward search for God. Although I had been a believer in God most of my life, I never had the hunger to know God, to experience God. As that began to possess me over ten years ago, (about the same age that Abraham heard from Him) I began to reach for the Bible more frequently. I began to understand more and more that the scripture is perfect in its message to us, but that we need to distinguish between our true being, and that the body is merely a garment which we wear while in this land of sleep. When I read, ‘Let that mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,’ I was ecstatic. We don’t have to pray for it, it is there all the time, all we have to do is let it in, by focusing on God continually. It is like St. Francis wrote, ‘Whenever my mind strays for a few minutes, I bring it right back. I need to keep the thought of God ongoing within myself. Living from the presence of the spirit within us changes everything for the better, but everything!’”
And Abraham went out, not knowing where he was to go? And what of us? In reality every morning as we rise to a new day, leave the house for whatever, we in fact go out not knowing what lies ahead. If we do it with courage and hope, we indeed go out as Abraham of old, by faith.