Reasonable Risk

Sarah Richards
March 5, 2017

Reasonable Risk

“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” “Look before you leap.” “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” “You have to play to win.” “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!” We’ve heard contradictory advice about taking risks our whole lives, from just about every possible source, and in every possible context. From parents, “better safe than sorry,” while friends and advertisements tell us “just do it”. So many messages getting at the reality that every choice we make has some risk, so awareness of what are the potential losses and gains can help guide our choices. Figuring out what we value and what we fear – and which outweighs the other in different contexts—is the goal. Then again, we can’t know all of the potential positives and negatives of commitments we might make. Sometimes we just throw caution to the wind and go for it – if we spend too much time thinking it over, the chance will be lost or we can talk ourselves into staying comfortably numb. But that’s not the kind of decision we’re considering this morning; we’re looking at the big ones, with major risks and benefits to consider, the ones that we need to take time for.

Buddhist monk and spiritual director Ajahn Brahm gives his advice on risk-taking – committing to an action – in the form of a story:

At the end of my lecture in Oslo, a young woman I had never seen before asked me a question on how one should make important decisions in life. In order to ground her question in reality, I replied, “Well, suppose someone were trying to decide whether to marry her boyfriend?”

The poor girl blushed bright red, held her head in her hands, and turned in extreme embarrassment to her boyfriend sitting next to her! The audience didn’t help by their bursting into laughter.

After apologizing, I introduced an old method for making decisions with an unexpected new meaning: Toss a coin! Heads I marry him. Tails I don’t. The new meaning, which I had only heard of recently, comes from paying close attention to your emotional reaction at the result.

Suppose it comes up heads, meaning, “I marry him.” Do you react with a “Yeah!” and grin happily or with “Hmm! Maybe I’ll try two out of three” and frown with disappointment? The reaction tells you very clearly what you really want to do. Whatever that is, you follow it. Tossing a coin is simply a very effective way of finding out what your heart is telling you.[i]

Paying attention to our emotional reactions when we think about the possible outcomes of making an important commitment – like getting married, or making our annual pledge to the Fellowship– can give us a lot of information to consider, beyond weighing the expected pros and cons. What if our emotional reaction to a risk is fear? I don’t know what Ajahn Brahm would say, but I guess it would be, don’t stop there. Investigate that fear, those anxious thoughts from a place of calm.

Unitarian Universalists, among many others, are thinking – and feeling – a lot about taking risks these days, making choices about how to live our values publicly. The most recent UU World magazine focuses on what we must do in these times of division and dehumanization. The Declaration of Conscience from the leadership of the UUA and the UUSC is reprinted there – many of us have already read and signed it online, I know. It ends, “we will oppose any and all unjust government actions to deport, register, discriminate, or despoil. As people of conscience, we declare our commitment to translate our values into action as we stand on the side of love with the most vulnerable among us.[ii]

In his opening column, Rev. Peter Morales, UUA President gives us two “essential tasks: we must offer sanctuary and preach our gospel.” To offer sanctuary for Morales includes being places of peace, comfort and support for each other; helping the “most defenseless” through offering physical safe space; and/or making interfaith partnerships to protect larger numbers through advocacy and organized resistance. All of these ways of offering sanctuary entail some risk to us individually and collectively. Even the “easy” parts of providing sanctuary Morales suggests: being “gentle with one another,” and providing “peace and healing for all who come seeking spiritual refuge,” mean extending ourselves beyond our comfort zones. Churches who literally offer sanctuary to undocumented immigrants risk legal and financial damage. Partnering with other religious organizations to offer resistance risks losing autonomy, and time and effort on our own community goals.

And what about the risks inherent in the second task; preach our gospel?

Preach our gospel for Morales means that members and congregations need to spread the message that “It doesn’t have to be like this: our present divisions, inequality, and conflicts are not inevitable…We can shape the future. Love must guide us: everyone matters. We are in this together….It is up to us: we cannot rely on supernatural intervention or on someone else. For good or ill, we will create our shared future together.[iii]

Preaching our gospel risks negative attention, criticism, and who knows what kind of backlash. On the other hand, what are the risks of not being who we say we are? The story of Barnabus Browning is an extreme example – but if not spiritual death, we certainly risk becoming useless for spiritual growth and irrelevant for the community. And let us not forget about all the potential benefits of taking risks – I wrote this whole sermon and only realized at the end that I hadn’t mentioned the positive possibilities: deeper and stronger interpersonal and community connections, emotional uplift, spiritual growth, bending the arc of the universe closer to justice. All the reasons why we took the risk to be part of this covenanted community. There is a lot of space between doing everything – taking all the risks and doing nothing – and we are already somewhere in the middle. What I am advocating is that we begin thinking about, meditating on, how we are going to offer sanctuary, and how we are going to preach our gospel. Or more precisely, how we want to change how we offer sanctuary and preach our gospel, because we are doing both, in actions taken personally and as a congregation, intentionally or otherwise.

One way to look before we leap is to practice attention to our emotional response to different options, as in the Buddhist “flip a coin” story. This is mindfulness practice that can yield not only insight into the decision at hand, but greater self-awareness. We can practice this at a congregational level too, I think, if we think of our covenant and mission as our collective heart. So for example, when we hear a proposed course of action to preach our gospel, what does our mission or covenant tell us?

We might also be aware of our emotional responses as we apply a more systematic SWOT analysis – looking at the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of proposed options. This method was originally developed for businesses, but it is applicable to any organization’s decision-making. We can apply it in deciding how we might offer sanctuary and preach our gospel. Let’s take a hypothetical example of the latter, a messaging campaign using signage. What are the strengths, such as demonstrating our identity and creating higher visibility? What are weaknesses, like cost and upkeep? What are the opportunities, such as more people coming to see who we are? What are the threats, such as vandalism? As we weigh the internal strengths and weaknesses of each option, and the external opportunities and threats, in our thoughts, casual conversations, or more formal meetings, we can also learn from our emotional responses.

But when we get right down to it, whether we use emotional indicators or probability analysis, we can’t guarantee success. It’s like this great anonymous quote, “The risk I took was calculated.  But, man, am I bad at math!”

So we need to be prepared to fail. Janet Hayes, author of “Field notes for the resistance,” another article in the most recent UU World magazine reminds us, “…we don’t have to know everything or keep it all together. We can learn, once again, how to honor the moments when we are uncertain, humbled, emptied, and then spirit-filled. This kind of learning is what church [and Fellowship] is for.[iv]

Friends, no matter what happens, when the risk taken doesn’t turn out like we had planned or hoped, we can learn something. Hayes writes, “Resistance is fueled by moral passion. This force is strongest when we act together to protect the vulnerable, articulate our deepest values, and share our truest selves.[v]” These collective actions are the heart of our UU living tradition, may we, as a Fellowship, discern together, with love, how we shall follow our heart.

“Whatever the risks, we are in this together.”


[i] Brahm, Ajahn. “Should I? Shouldn’t I?” in Don’t Worry, Be Grumpy. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2014, p. 62.

[ii] Morales, Peter and Tom Andrews. “Declaration of Conscience” in UU World, Spring 2017, vol. XXXI, (1), p. 29.

[iii] Morales, Peter “Sanctuary and gospel” in UU World, Spring 2017, vol. XXXI, (1), p. 7.

[iv] Hayes, Janet. “Field Notes for the Resistance” in UU World, Spring 2017, vol. XXXI, (1), p. 17.

[v] Ibid.