Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Necessity of Risk (Unrated Director’s Cut)

(The following is a talk I gave in Sacrament Meeting last weekend, adapted slightly because visual jokes aren’t always funny when you read them…)

Before I begin this morning I would like to assure my sister that I got a full seven hour’s rest last night, so there’s no risk of me making any sleep-deprived references to her flowering relationship with my roommate over the pulpit…although I would like to mention that my other roommate Mark is very eligible. He is getting ready to graduate from the prestigious L. J. Quinney School of Law here at the University of Utah in a couple of weeks. Mark is an accomplished writer and editor, and enjoys fishing, basketball and Asian cinema.

In Doctrine and Covenants section 58 we read:

“It is not meet that I should command in all things…men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will…for the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves.”

It is clear from these verses that the Lord expects us to take initiative in our lives. But often this initiative must be taken with a great deal of faith. We must make decisions without all the information. We must take risks. That is what I’d like to talk about this morning.

If you think about it, our very presence here in mortality is based on risk. Before we came here, we heard a version of the Plan of Salvation that would have guaranteed us success, but we rejected it. Instead we chose to come here to earth and prove ourselves worthy of Eternal Life. We chose a plan that involved personal agency…and risk.

It is important to understand the difference between risk taking and thrill-seeking. As we try to define ourselves, to figure out what we want to do with our lives, some of us get carried away into taking unnecessary risks. President James E. Faust counseled us on this when he said:

“Your identity…cannot be found from thrill seeking, such as intentionally and unnecessarily exposing your life or your soul to any kind of danger, physical or moral.”

So to clarify, I’ve come up with a few examples of good risks and bad risks:

*Invest a portion of your monthly salary in savings or mutual funds—good risk.

*Drive to Vegas, slap your life savings on red and let it ride, baby—bad risk.

*Volunteer to sing the National Anthem at a televised sporting event—good risk.

*Drop acid and BASE jump naked off the Church Office Building—bad risk.

*Call the cute girl in your Institute class even though she has webbed toes—good risk.

*Wait in the bushes outside Scarlett Johanssen’s house with a dozen roses, a high-powered telephoto camera and sixteen pages of Swedish poetry—bad risk.

Good risks are a part of the plan, and draw us closer to the Lord. Bad risks take us off the path and lead to darkness.

Obviously the decisions we face that have the greatest potential for our growth will come with a hefty dose of fear. In those cases, we must trust that, as Elder Jeffrey R. Holland counsels:

“If God has told you something is right, if something is indeed true for you, he will provide the way for you to accomplish it.”

That is why the prophets counsel us to avoid postponing the responsibilities of life for financial or other reasons. We shouldn’t postpone marriage until graduation. We shouldn’t postpone having children until we buy a house or get a promotion at work. It’s not that the Lord wants us to be financially irresponsible, it’s because He wants us to trust Him enough to learn that when we are trying to accomplish His purposes, He will enable us to do so.

Elder Boyd K. Packer summed up the principle of risk very nicely:

"Somewhere in your quest for spiritual knowledge, there is that “leap of faith,” as the philosophers call it. It is the moment when you have gone to the edge of the light and stepped into the darkness to discover that the way is lighted ahead for just a footstep or two."

Whenever I hear that quote I think about the scene near the end of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” where Indy has to cross the bottomless pit in order to get the Holy Grail and save Sean Connery. The bridge is in front of him, but he can’t see it, and he has to take a “leap of faith” in order to cross. Then once he does he is able to get into the interior Grail Chamber and get the chalice from the 1,000-year-old Knight of the Round Table, and everything’s cool.

It would be nice if in the process of making major decisions in life, we could add up all the evidence and make a call based on a perfect understanding of all the results. But that is not the plan. We can pray diligently to discover the Lord’s will for us, but He will not always make it known to us before the time comes to act. Elder Richard G. Scott illustrates this:

"When He answers yes, it is to give us confidence.

When He answers no, it is to prevent error.

When He withholds an answer, it is to have us grow through faith in Him, obedience to His commandments, and a willingness to act on truth. We are expected to assume accountability by acting on a decision that is consistent with His teachings without prior confirmation. We are not to sit passively waiting or to murmur because the Lord has not spoken. We are to act."

So to translate that into single-person speak, we have to make the phone call. We have to return the phone call. Eventually we have to set the phone down and have an actual face-to-face conversation…

In the examples I cited earlier, you’ll notice that even in the cases of the good risks, there is no guarantee of success. There are situations where taking a risk and making a correct decision will lead to immediate success—you get a job, you get a date, your friend accepts a visit from the missionaries. But there are also situations where we must persist in taking risks, enduring to the end, trusting that we are trying to do the right thing, and that according to the Lord’s timing, the blessing will come. It’s one thing to ask a friend to take the discussions when the last one said no. It’s something else to ask that friend to take the discussions when the last twelve have said no. To that Elder Holland says this:

“Face your doubts. Master your fears. 'Cast not away therefore your confidence.' Stay the course and see the beauty of life unfold for you.”

Taking risks is part of the stretching process that builds our faith and testimony, that shows us that “after much tribulation cometh the blessing”.

There is encouragement to be taken from discouraging situations, though. If I might be permitted to quote from the church’s honorary General Authority, I’d like to read my favorite passage from C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. Here Screwtape is cautioning his demonic protégé Wormwood against getting too excited when a righteous person runs into some adversity:

“Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”

Much of this boils down to one central challenge: In order to grow, we must be willing to fail.

As the philosopher Epictetus said, “If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.” Or as President Michael Redd counseled me several months ago, we need to “fail forward fast”. Staying in our comfort zones may ensure that we continue to succeed at the things we are already good at, but only by stepping out of these comfort zones will we see any real spiritual growth.

During the first year of my time at Utah State University, I had a very enlightening conversation with my student ward Bishop, who counseled me to seek out these risky types of experiences. He said they would put me in “frightening” situations, and that these experiences would lead to substantial growth. (Obviously he was referring to the good kinds of risks as opposed to the BASE-jumping kind of risks.)

A couple of months later I got a call from a ward friend named Phil. Phil was the lead singer in a Neil Diamond cover band who had been offered the chance to headline the USU Valentine’s Dance, and he wanted to know if I wanted to play the drums for them. I had mentioned to him in a prior conversation that I played, and would be available to jam if they were ever looking for someone.

Jamming was one thing, but this was something entirely different. At that point in my career I had performed at a Ward Talent Show and in my friend’s garage, but that was about it. A USU dance would be attended by hundreds of people. Plus the band’s violin player was really cute, and the guy on the Accordion was a much more accomplished musician than I’d ever be. I felt totally out of my league.

So obviously I said yes.

It might have been the advice of my Bishop. It might have been my enduring passion for the immortal work of Neil Diamond. It might have been because I wanted to have an excuse to get to know the cute violinist. Whatever the reason, I decided to face my fears and challenge myself. In return I had one of the most memorable experiences of my time in grad school.

I didn’t even come close to a perfect performance. I screwed up several times, though nothing ever actually caught fire, and I didn’t fall off the stage. I never even got to take out the violinist, either. But at 2AM as I sat with the band around a table at Beto’s after the gig, I was met with a distinct sense of satisfaction, even as they swore they’d never play another Neil Diamond song in public again.

Most of the growth I have experienced in life, the major turning points I have made, have largely come as a result of the risks I’ve had to take. In those times, it’s good to keep in mind the scripture in Doctrine and Covenants section 84:

“…for I will go before your face. I will be on your right hand and on your left, and my Spirit shall be in your hearts, and mine angels round about you, to bear you up.”

Or, in John Madden’s words:

“Don’t worry about the horse being blind, just load the wagon.”

The Lord has promised He will be with us, and it is up to us to provide the basic faith that will enable Him to give us the blessings He is ready to provide.

In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.