The Return of Risk

 In Community, Culture, Family, Fred's Blog, Fred's Blog, Philanthropy, Poverty, Teaching, Theology, Uncategorized, Vocation

Carol and I were in Baltimore last week, and our visits included a middle school in one of the worst neighborhoods of the city. The principal told us their students consistently dropped out long before graduation, and the teen pregnancy rate was triple the state average.  On the wall of his office, he had a chart with three columns:  Coping, Well-Being and Agency. Each column listed the school’s initiatives to improve in each area.

While all three are important, it is the sense of agency – the belief that there is something you can do about your circumstances – that drives so much of everything else. You are not a victim. You can make changes or make the best of what is not ideal. You can take risks. Of course, the majority of these students and families had lost their sense of agency and become fatalistic and passive.

Because I have been teaching in the book of Ruth, I realized her mother-in-law Naomi faced a similar lack of agency. Her life had been one of unusual hardship and disappointment. She had moved from her home to another country and then lost not only her husband, but after 10 years, both of her married sons died leaving her with the responsibility of the family. It was then that she gave up hope and chose to believe that her troubles were the Lord’s hand being raised against her. That became the theme of her life – the Lord had made her days bitter, and there was nothing she could do about it.

People who feel like victims don’t make plans. They wait for the next wave to wash over them. As long as Naomi was oppressed and as long as she could only say, “The Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me,” she had no hope for the future.

She had no agency in her life. It was not just difficult circumstances faced by others. No, she was up against God. It would have been easy to simply drop out or harden herself against her lot. (As Paul Simon wrote “I am a rock.  I am an island. And a rock feels no pain. And an island never cries.”)

But something happens in the middle of the story. Yes, Ruth meets Boaz and we can sense Ruth’s future is about to be altered, but it is easy to overlook the transformation in Naomi. She begins thinking about Ruth’s future more than dwelling on her own bitterness and loss. More important, she is even ready to risk yet another disappointment.

The shift from regret to hope is always pivotal, and the move from resigned self-absorption to risk has long-term consequences. The psychiatrist Karl Menninger once said (when asked what he would recommend if a person were to feel a nervous breakdown coming on): “Lock up your house, go across the railroad tracks, and find someone in need and do something for him.”

His advice was not what we often hear from people who recognize on a mission trip or a service project their situations are far better than others. That is still using other people to comfort ourselves. It is not getting a new perspective on our own situation or comparing our circumstances to others. That is still self-centered and using other people to make ourselves feel better. I think Dr. Menninger was saying the very act of momentarily losing ourselves in doing something for someone else is often the best medicine in the world. Rather, it is simply doing something for someone else with no expectations or benefit. It is an act of altruistic charity – not an investment in ourselves.

One of the common effects of depression is the inability to move purposefully and hopefully into the future. When Naomi awakens to the kindness of God, her dead hope comes alive. The result is her ability to think creatively about Ruth’s future. Naomi is no longer the passive and fatalistic actor in the plot. She can do something for someone else. Her ability and openness to risk has returned.

I am in the period of life when it is easy to settle in and think about reducing risk in a number of areas of life. Shift investments to produce stable income. Fix a circle of friends and relationships. Read the news that agrees with my established beliefs and avoid dissenting opinions as troublemakers. Do a little volunteer work to make me feel better about myself. Be safe. Minimize the possibility of disappointment. But, that’s not what God has in mind. It’s always a good time to risk and change. It’s always the right time to look to the future – especially of others – and keep hope alive.

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Showing 26 comments
  • Avatar
    Jack Modesett Jr
    Reply

    Reminds me of Caleb saying “bring on the giants.” Takes spiritual guts to do that.

    • Fred
      Fred
      Reply

      Yes. I like those lines in Sound of Music: “Strength doesn’t lie in numbers
      Strength doesn’t lie in wealth
      Strength lies in nights of peaceful slumbers
      When you wake up — Wake Up!”

  • Avatar
    Seth Cohen
    Reply

    Thank you Fred.

    • Fred
      Fred
      Reply

      Thanks for reading!

  • Avatar
    Todd
    Reply

    Really great Fred. I’ve often felt like when folks who we’ve known have had marriage challenges that many times those are brought on by selfishness, maybe all the time…..
    I’ve felt a great antidote to their problem/s is getting out and serving others …..because usually they’ve been so “woe is me” due to their spouse’s (and their own) self centeredness etc that they aren’t thinking of anyone but themself/ves…..
    We were created to serve ….not be served….
    Thanks for always challenging me!

  • Avatar
    John
    Reply

    I like how you turned this around to safety and building an insular world around me. I wouldn’t have naturally made that connection, but I think it’s a good one. It seems that a lot of the work we go through to better ourselves in life has the unstated goal to achieve this safe, non-challenging world. Middle class and upper class Americans spend a lot of our lives striving for the promise of comfort and a life with little conflict or drama.

    • Fred
      Fred
      Reply

      Yes, we do. However, sometimes we cannot avoid discomfort. It comes out of nowhere and there is nothing we can do. Unfortunately, we hurry back to comfort when the crisis is over.

  • Avatar
    Tim Winn
    Reply

    The bottom-line (maybe I should say the top-line) of all I am is to be reflected in what Jesus said about “if” I am going to be His disciple I am to deny myself, take up the cross He has for me, and follow Him. The first step is the denying of self. I think that is what you are talking about. You say it well. Thanks, Fred.

    • Fred
      Fred
      Reply

      Thank you, Tim. It’s so easy to replace that with “fulfill yourself and let Me follow you.”

  • Avatar
    Todd Johnson
    Reply

    Fred,

    I absolutely love the layered approach of this writing. As I started reading it, I heard “folks need to pull themselves up by their bootstaps with an attitude of gratitude.”

    I then heard that the “coming alongside” is the important part, but be careful that I’m not doing that out of my own selfishness. (A good warning for sure.)

    But ultimately, I was reminded of the writings of some of the great thinkers on the issues of missions. One writer (Duane Elmer) notes that if we want to pursue servanthood as image-bearers of Christ (particularly in a cross-cultural context such as you and your wife heading into inner-city Baltimore), then we must acknowledge the following:

    In discerning the process for becoming a servant, we can look to Jesus and see the steps he modeled – starting with the last:

    ✞ Serving – You can’t serve someone you don’t understand. 


    ✞ Understanding – You can’t understand someone until you learn about, from and with them. 


    ✞ Learning – You can’t learn important information about and from someone until trust develops in the relationship. 


    ✞ Trusting – To build trust with someone, they must know that you accept and value them as a person, which often means you must trust them. 


    ✞ Accepting – Before you can communicate acceptance to someone, they must experience your openness – your ability to welcome them into your presence. 


    ✞ Openness – Openness with someone different from yourself requires that you willingly step out of your comfort zone and initiate and sustain relationships in a world of cultural differences.

    Openness is the ability to welcome people into your presence and make them feel safe.

    The cross may be the single greatest symbol of openness. On the cross Jesus’ arms were open wide. In His dying breath he still signaled his openness to receive those who would come to him in repentance. Openness is grounded in the very nature of God.

    Scripture warns that our unwillingness to be hospitable may cause us to miss out on a divine encounter. As the letter to the Hebrews advises, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2). And more importantly, our unwillingness may cause us to miss Jesus altogether. (Matthew 25:31-46)

    And then, I understood what you were writing as part of the Easter gift — this thing called generosity, is really just a symptom of proclaiming His openness for me, in the context of the eternal, so that I might spend the long, healing time of openness towards others, with a view to the eternity of their soul.

    What a great message for me today!

    Thanks!

    • Fred
      Fred
      Reply

      Todd – I cannot add to this! It takes genuine confidence in the work of Christ to display this kind of openness. I feel like I should add this poem by John Updike: “Seven Stanzas at Easter”

      Contributors Justin Taylor
      “SEVEN STANZAS AT EASTER” (JOHN UPDIKE)
      April 7, 2012
      3 Comments1.9K

      Make no mistake: if he rose at all
      It was as His body;
      If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
      The amino acids rekindle,
      The Church will fall.

      It was not as the flowers,
      Each soft spring recurrent;
      It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
      Eleven apostles;
      It was as His flesh; ours.

      The same hinged thumbs and toes
      The same valved heart
      That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered
      Out of enduring Might
      New strength to enclose.

      Let us not mock God with metaphor,
      Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
      Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
      Credulity of earlier ages:
      Let us walk through the door.

      The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
      Not a stone in a story,
      But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
      Time will eclipse for each of us
      The wide light of day.

      And if we have an angel at the tomb,
      Make it a real angel,
      Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
      The dawn light, robed in real linen
      Spun on a definite loom.

      Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
      For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
      Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
      By the miracle,
      And crushed by remonstrance.

  • Avatar
    lesa Engelthaler
    Reply

     ”It’s always a good time to risk and change.” Always. Amen.

    • Fred
      Fred
      Reply

      Yes, it is. It’s a discipline though because our comfort is so appealing.

      • Avatar
        lesa Engelthaler
        Reply

        A spiritual discipline, to be specific.

  • Avatar
    Cathy Krafve
    Reply

    This could be my favorite yet. (Maybe I say that every time?!)

    • Fred
      Fred
      Reply

      Well, I don’t mind. Say it as much as you wish!

  • Avatar
    Kim Beckham
    Reply

    I loved the last paragraph. I am wrestling with some of the same issues about settling in and letting others tackle the troublesome issues. Thank you for reminding me to be hopeful and to stay involved.

    • Fred
      Fred
      Reply

      Maybe we should have coffee and talk about it? Maybe there are others who would like to join us for that conversation?

  • Avatar
    Lisa Wen
    Reply

    Fred, A timely word for me….I needed to hear this, and am so grateful for your insights!

    • Fred
      Fred
      Reply

      Nothing could make me happier than this.

  • Avatar
    Anna Haas
    Reply

    Really loved and appreciated this post!!

    • Fred
      Fred
      Reply

      Anna – I am so glad you read it! You definitely have agency. I love all the pictures you post.

  • Avatar
    David Getsch
    Reply

    Fred – I wholeheartedly agree.

    In the words of John Ortberg “If you want to walk on the water, you have to get out of the boat”.

    There is very little growth without risk.

    Thanks for all you do.

    • Fred
      Fred
      Reply

      Thank you, Dave! That is one of John’s all-time best talks.

  • Avatar
    Amy
    Reply

    Your post hit the nail on the head for me. I’ve been feeling like Naomi – so disappointed about how things have “ended up” that I have taken a passive and fatalistic attitude about too many things. I’ve had a sense that I’ve been “off”, but I just didn’t know what the problem was. I realized it was a negative way to go through my days, but now I know what to call it. I’ve been asking God to shed a light on this attitude I’ve been embracing; He used your article to do that, and now my eyes are opened. Thank you!

    • Fred
      Fred
      Reply

      Thank you, Amy. I so appreciate your writing and telling me this. It’s a daily discipline, isn’t it?

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