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Follow Me, Dad

From the poet Hafiz:

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How
Did the rose
Ever open its heart
And give to this world
All its beauty?

It felt the encouragement of light
Against its
Being,
Otherwise,
We all remain
Too
Frightened

It was probably in May, though more likely in June, if we were not kidding ourselves, after a string of pretty warm days, the snow and ice of winter only a memory, school almost over, that we would go down, or over, to Lake Hiawatha in Minneapolis, on our bikes, carrying a towel, wearing just a t-shirt and swim trunks, and get ready for the first time in the water. It had to be a warm day, and a weekend, since school was still on. I am pretty sure we did not wear shoes; our bikes were Schwinn one speeds with flat pedals and we never heard of helmets or hand brakes.

Hiawatha was a relatively small and shallow lake, so the water warmed a bit faster than the other lakes near by – Nokomis or Harriet – and my two best friends, Dave and Dave, and I would get ready. We took off our t-shirts, laid our towels down and usually walked to the small dock that ran out maybe 20 or 30 feet into the lake.

And then – well, the deal was to run and jump into the water, even though we knew it was going to be freezing. It was our yearly rite of passage, a test of manhood, a contest of bravery and courage – no Prufrockian wondering for us – we dared to eat a peach and hear the mermaids singing each to each; we were ready to disturb the universe.

Remember those times? Times when you took a leap? A time when you had courage, were not afraid, took some kind of risk and experienced the thrill of having come through alright? Remember being on the edge?

Remember how much fun it was to be scared of something and then do it? Climbing a tree, or sidling along a slippery ledge to get behind Minnehaha Falls? Taking a chance, swinging on a swing so high the chains went slack then snapped.

When was the last time you took a risk – went bungee jumping or shot down a ski slope? Maybe the last time you thought something radical, or ate something different? When was it?

One of the great delights in being a minister is the incredible variety of people I have met and gotten to know over the past years. I imagine this is true in all faith traditions but I do know it is true for Unitarian Universalists. I worked for two years as a chaplain in a large federal psychiatric facility in Washington DC, St Elizabeth’s Hospital, and we used to say that the mentally ill were just like us, only more so. I have imagined that to be true about UUs as well. We are just like other people of faith, only more so. We do prize our independence as individuals, freedom of belief and all that, even though, like most people, we are mostly conforming.

One of the more memorable people in my ministry was a man in Virginia. We’ll call him Charlie, primarily because that was his name. He grew up in Japan. His father was in the State Department, I believe, and he came back here as a young man. He did not go to college even though he was very, very bright. He sells Snap-On tools to gas stations and garages. He once told me how to make a mortar launcher out of PVC pipe as a launcher, soda cans as mortars and brake fluid as propellant. He was the kind of guy most adolescent boys and many girls would love to know, and their parents are glad they don’t. At least that part of Charlie.

He was one of the teen advisors and a simply wonderful man; just wonderful and unforgettable as well. Churches should pay big money for people like Charlie. He made a huge difference in the lives of some of the teens just like some of our advisors do here. We should not underestimate how important they are to our congregation. Once, on a teen trip up to New England, during one of those late night talks, in response to something I said, Charlie said “That’s exactly what Rousseau was arguing in Emile.” He went on to say that since he did not go to college, he figured he should learn himself, and so was reading the great books, and, in some ways, he was better educated and a better thinker than I was.

Instead of going to college he was a motocross racer – raced dirt bikes. He was a tall and rangy guy, and one of those people who seemed to have no fear. His son was a little crazier than he was. Charlie told a story about going skiing once with his son and a friend. A big snow was predicted for the Shenandoah Mountains and so the three of them took off in the blizzard in Charlie’s VW bus. They drove until they got stuck in the snow, short of the ski resort, closed because the road was closed. They got on their skis and skied in and then skied up to the top of the ski runs, to a double black diamond run. That is the hardest one.

Charlie's son looked at him and said – what Charlie said were the three most frightening words in the English language, “Follow me, Dad.” And off and over he went. And Charlie was right behind him.

So, are you timid or do you like to take risks? I mean physical risks, dangerous activities. Like downhill skiing on steep slopes and with lots of speed? Do you love to watch the Olympic downhill skiers – they are something else – and wish you were doing that? Like rock climbing or white water rafting? My son in law spent the last week ice climbing in Canada. My best friend and his kids pushed us when we went out to Joshua Tree or up the mountains. “Here, Jim, try this. It’s not that far down.”

Is this courage or stupidity? One of my favorite characters at present is a rock climber named Alex Honnold who free climbs. That is without ropes or protection, just him and his chalk bag. He climbed Half Dome in Yosemite free. He recently did a route in Mexico called the hardest free route in the world - 2500 feet of sheer rock. No rope, no protection. Crazy? You bet. Courageous? You bet. Alive? Still.

Some years ago, when Kathe and I realized we would both get old one day and so we had probably better think about retirement and our finances, we saw a financial advisor. It is one of the best things we ever did, not just because it has helped us get to where we are, but it gave us a way to talk about finances together. This, for me, was really important. Money is the primary sticking point in relationships. It may be the most powerful dynamic in life. Would you like it if I talked about money as often as Jesus did in the New Testament? He hardly talks about anything else.

We took a survey to assess our risk tolerance and I came out not liking a lot of risk. I have no idea if that is good or bad, but it was indicative. I have never been, I think, a risk taker, never been particularly courageous. I was a rock climber, and a skier, though mostly cross country; I played hockey and football; I went off a ski jump on a sled one time, and often went out on the frozen lakes in Minneapolis to watch the ice cracks run out from underneath our feet. But I followed more often than I led. I have loved the rush of adrenaline that comes with doing something dangerous and surviving. I think downhill skiing maybe the perfect behavior in life, but I have grown more timid as I have gown old. I imagine this is normal.

In a recent study researchers have found that the desire for risky behavior, for the adrenaline rush, may be genetic. Some people are adrenaline junkies. This seemed true for Charlie and his son; it is true for my friend and his son and daughter. Their Mom is no shrinking violet either. The desire for risk peaks in the twenties and slowly declines as we age. This may be due to our general physical abilities. The twenties are our peak. It begins early, though, in life. If you have children you know this, maybe in your own or in watching other kids.

Watch the kids here who climb our chimneys or the trees. I happen to love watching them and cheer their daring. We live in a world so consumed by concerns for safety that we sometimes rob ourselves and our children of adventure and the sheer fun of risking things. We have become, as a society, so obsessed with making sure life is long that we might be losing the idea that life would be fun as well.

I always think of the lines from J Alfred Prufrock:

And indeed there will be time
To wonder,
“Do I dare?” and,
“Do I dare?”

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons:
And how should I presume?
I grow old … I grow old …
shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind?
Do I dare to eat a peach?

Is that what we have become? Asking if we even dare to eat a peach? Is it washed? Is it organic? Should I peel it first? Who might have touched it? Is it safe?

So here is a toast to risky behavior. To the skiers and snow boarders and slope style skiers and ski jumpers and luge riders and rock climbers of the world. Do it and invite us along with you. Here’s to the parents and the kids who throw themselves into life, who seek adventure every bit as much as safety, who cheer when their kids crash and fall because they have tried something, who are willing to risk a bit and have fun, who do not always put safety first.

Follow me, Dad, indeed.

But of course, there are other kinds of risks and challenges and that have little to do with age or physical ability. This has to do with risking our hearts and our minds, with being vulnerable in the world. Remember the wonderful passage I read a couple of weeks ago from The Boys in the Boat, when George Pocock told Joe Rantz that in order to succeed in rowing he had to open his heart to the other boys in the boat, that he had to loosen the boundaries between himself and others; he had to learn to be a part of something? He was right.

We all know this, the risk of love. I would bet that everyone here has been hurt in love. I know I have, and I have heard many of your stories of the hurt you have experienced. And I have met people who because they were hurt then turned inward and built up walls between themselves and others. I have done it myself. But it is not the way to fullness; it is not the way to a life worth living. Opening your heart is.

This has been central to the spiritual path forever. Rumi has a wonderful poem about inviting every guest who arrives at the door of your heart in; prayer is often thought of as opening the heart. The sacred heart of Roman Catholicism. It goes on.

Imagine your heart opening to others. Imagine your heart blossoming open to welcome others in. Imagine your heart opening right now and inviting everyone here in. Imagine opening your heart and inviting someone you don’t especially like in. Imagine taking a risk and opening your heart. It might not work; you might be injured. But it is the only way to live.

This is what those who have taken the Preacher in You class have done - they have opened their hearts to you. [A couple spots are left for this last class - let me know by next Sunday of you want to do this. Check the eWeekly for info]. Or those in Beloved Conversations who shared last week. Open hearts – they are inspiration to us all.

So sit quietly sometime this week, and visualize your heart opening to the world. Visualize it opening to your own self and to those you love, to those you may not like. Open your heart and your life might blossom just a little bit more.

And here is one more thing: congregations, like most institutions, are inherently conservative. There is much that is good in that. It is how traditions are honored and maintained; it is how a multi-generational community continues. Most people want to be a member of the congregation they joined. Yet times change, and new people continue to come, perhaps looking for something different. It is easy to fall back into “well, we have always done it that way,” or “this is what I am used to and have come to love.” These are real and honest and healthy attitudes.

But they can be barriers as well. You know this. This is hardly revolutionary thinking. It is the old balance of security and risk again. And you are at that place. I know your Search Committee is thinking all these things. They are smart and dedicated and all good, good people. I have every confidence they will serve you very well. But I hope they will be willing to risk.

I was asked this when I interviewed with the Search committee 11 years ago. I was still recovering from the ending of my last ministry – it did not end well – and one member of the committee asked me, or probably rather said to me “I hope that you will be willing to take risks here, and challenge us.”

You can judge if that has been true or not. But I hope it will be true in your future. Challenge is good. It is good for the individual and it is good for the group. It is good to be pushed; it is good to push boundaries and limits. It is good to take risks.

I loved Charlie, and I picture him, in old age, standing on his skis, in a storm, at the top of a steep run and hearing the words he loved so much “Follow me, Dad.”

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And dropping over the edge.

Rev. Dr. Jim Nelson
Neighborhood Church