By Scott Wagoner
Here’s something you probably don’t hear very often: “Take a risk. You’ll live longer!” That does seem a bit oxymoronic; intuitively, risk taking implies doing something dangerous, scary, even life threatening. Yet, what may seem risky to one person may seem merely an exciting adventure to another. But that doesn’t matter. It’s all relative and we all have risks that we tend to avoid.
According to Jesus, taking a risk will make you well. At least that’s what this story in the Gospel of Matthew seems to suggest: A woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years slipped in behind Jesus and lightly touched his robe. All she wanted was to simply put a finger on Jesus and, she was confident, that would heal her. She took a risk. That a woman would reach out to touch a man would have been taboo in her culture, yet she was hoping against hope that she would be healed simply by reaching out. Risks abound for this suffering woman. What if she isn’t healed? What if she’s rejected? Jesus sensed that someone has touched his robe and he caught the woman in the act, but rather than rejecting or avoiding her, he affirmed her riskiness: “Courage, daughter. You took a risk of faith, and now you’re well.” Matthew 9:20-22, The Message)
That seems so counterintuitive. It would seem that if you want to stay well you would avoid risk. But maybe in the paradoxical world of faith, Jesus and the Kingdom of God, avoiding risk is the sure way to lifelessness and even death. I’m beginning to wonder if perhaps the reason Quakers find themselves in somewhat of a decline is that we aren’t taking enough risks. We have chosen safety over risk and we are beginning to pay the price. Rather than reaching out with courage, we shrink back in fear. Perhaps the reason we are not as well as we could be is that we have not admitted the reality of our condition. Like the woman reaching out to Jesus, we are hemorrhaging but in the form of people and finances. We may not be losing blood but we might lose a whole generation. In this case the greater risk would be to do nothing.
If we, as Quakers, were to reach out in such a way and risk so that our faith would make us well, what would those risks look like? Based on my own experience and observation, here are some risks to take.
The risk of moving forward into the unknown rather than simply following the known because it’s safe and comfortable. Abraham was a champion risk-taker. We are told in the book of Hebrews that when God called him to set out for a place he was to receive as an inheritance, Abraham obeyed and “…set out, not knowing where he was going. (Hebrews 11:8, NRSV)” Abraham obeyed God’s call even though he had no idea how he was going to get there. All Abraham knew was that he sensed God calling him in to a greater promise and future. But in order to do that, he had to leave all that was familiar and comfortable.
Obedience often withers at the altar of familiarity and comfort. We want to live faithful lives, but if that pulls us too far out of our comfort zone, we hold back. Early Friends continually lived out of their comfort zones. They took great risks. They had no idea what the future held for their movement. All they knew was the voice of God calling them to a brighter and more radical future. Are we as Quakers today more comfortable with what is familiar? Are we not willing to take the risk of faith and step away from the familiar and follow God’s voice in to the unknown?
The risk of being open to new leadership with new ideas and solutions. Our unwillingness to embrace risk often reveals itself when someone new to Quakerism assumes a leadership role, and their new ideas are met with suspicion and ambivalence. We love having new folks in leadership and on committees; we’re just not too comfortable with new ideas and approaches to ministry. It would just be easier if the new leadership would simply implement the old and familiar ways. To perpetuate the old and forsake the new (and creative) often becomes the benchmark of comfortable leadership.
An important and significant risk that needs to be taken by Quaker meetings and organizations is that of allowing those new to Quakerism the chance to lead and implement their ideas and creativity. New people don’t often purposely set out to disrespect history and tradition. They simply approach situations with new eyes and fresh spirits. The risk is to see these people as gifts and to welcome their perspective and energy.
The risk of vulnerability and sharing openly and honestly with one another. When we think of risk, we imagine people sky-diving or climbing up the side of a mountain. We very rarely think of risk in the context of building community with one another. But for some, sharing openly and honestly with others can feel like a greater risk then jumping out of a plane. Consequently, we keep who we truly are to ourselves and the potential for important relational bonding is often lost in our faith communities and local meetings.
To risk vulnerability with others is not just about sharing those ways in which we are wounded and hurt; it also involves a willingness to share our visions, dreams, ideas, opinions, and truth. It means stepping out from behind our masks and allowing others to see us as we really are. It’s being authentic and genuine with those around you and allowing others to care for you as well.
Out of all the risks a faith community could take, risking vulnerability could be the most important and has the potential to yield the most fruit. This invites us to speak the truth in love to one another and to open ourselves to the counsel and correction of others. It takes great humility and courage as well as great love and gentleness. It is a risk, but a greater risk is the possibility of having a community in which superficiality of relationships is the norm and avoidance of the tough issues is accepted and encouraged.
The risk of losing a few in order to gain a lot. This is the one risk that most meetings and individuals very rarely take: the risk of being willing to lose folks from the meeting and letting them go when they decide to leave. Such losses are often precipitated when the meeting has chosen to go in a new direction or has made a decision that necessitates a move away from old patterns and traditional ways of doing things. Some meetings do this in a proactive manner and make these kinds of decisions before the downward slide begins to happen. Other meetings may do it more reactively and are spurred on by a sense of urgency that things need to change before they go out of business. Either way, decisions to go in a different direction or to discard tradition often result in some folks choosing to exit.
Before they exit, though, there is always the possibility that they will seek to exert some form of control, often by announcing that if they don’t get their way, they will leave or withhold much needed funds from the offering. In this case, the greater risk might be to allow insecure, emotionally immature folks to bully the meeting into maintaining the status quo. A meeting shows courage when it faithfully follows the leadings of Christ toward the future even when it means letting go of old and cherished traditions in order to embrace the new. As hard and painful as it might seem, the risk of losing a few and letting them go opens up the possibility of new growth for both the meeting and the departing individuals.
The risk of being faithful to our Quaker story and testimonies. In a time of declining numbers and finances, the tendency is to toss aside the peculiarities of one’s tradition and opt for a more generic version. The thinking is that the society will have much broader appeal if all the unique aspects and peculiar habits don’t get in the way. When this happens, local meetings and churches end up succumbing to the overall narrative of consumerism and forsake their callings to live as communities that manifest and live alternative values. In other words, let’s put aside our radical approach to faith and market ourselves in a much more palatable way.
The way of faithfulness is often the risky way. For Friends the way of risk would be to live the Quaker story of a people radically transformed by the Living Christ in such a way that they become living witnesses of those who practice simplicity, peace, integrity, community, and equality. In a culture that often worships consumerism and looks to violence to solve problems, the Quaker way would be a risky and radical way. In a culture that often overlooks duplicity, the Quaker way will be risky and radical. And, in a culture that glorifies individual rights over the common good and well-being of the community, the Quaker way would be risky and radical. Faithfully living out the Quaker story can seem risky since it is such an alternative way of living and the fear is that it may seem too radical too some. But the reality is the world needs such a way of life and it needs a people to faithfully live that way.
The hemorrhaging woman took a risk and reached out to Jesus, who said to her, “Courage daughter. You took a risk of faith, and now you’re well.” In her condition, the woman knew that she needed to take a risk and reach out towards the wholeness that lay before her. In our present condition as the Religious Society of Friends, we need to reach out as well to the One that can make us well, to the One that can make us whole. As we reach out, we will be led in to new areas of ministry, new areas of mission, new possibilities for growth and opportunity. Each of these will, most likely, bring the invitation to step away from the familiar to the unknown filled with promise and possibility. But it will mean taking risks. And if we are faithful, we also can hear the words of Jesus, “Courage, Friends and Quakers. You took a risk of faith, and now you are well.”
Scott Wagoner is presently in his 12th year as Pastoral Minister of Deep River Friends Meeting in North Carolina Yearly Meeting (FUM). Scott is a graduate of Taylor University and the Earlham School of Religion. He is married to Lynda Wagoner. They have two grown children, Chad and Erin. You can reach Scott at email@example.com. He is available for Congregational Coaching, retreats and special speaking engagements.