I’ll Go First!

“Screw it—I’ll go first!”

Shameless PromoLast week I spoke briefly about my attendance at Nadia Bolz-Weber’s appearance in Portland for her Shameless book tour. I could write a full month’s worth of blogposts about what her tattooed body, wicked tongue and brutally honest assessment of the church teaches us. And I am sure, over time, snippets of her talk and appearance will show up in my writing. But for today I wanted to highlight just one little moment that made me think, “Yes, this is how I want Cascades to be!”

At the end of her talk she was reflecting on how she found herself in this very vulnerable public role where she receives plenty of applause but also a great deal of sharp arrows aimed at her and downright nasty and mean criticism. Then she said, “I practice a style of leadership I like to call, ‘Screw it—I’ll go first!’”

I smiled as soon as she said it.

Book of OrderI hate to tell you this, but the church isn’t real fond of going first (we let Jesus do that!). That’s not what “decently and in order” people do. Oh yes, we are willing to take risks—that is, as soon as someone can show us where it has been done before or given us an analysis of all the costs and benefits of some seemingly brave proposal. But to be the first one to dive off an ocean-front cliff or test the winter ice or go to the moon is not really our thing.

Will we land in the water safely? Are there sharks below the surface? Has anyone ever done this before? What are the chances of success? Will we survive? What happens if we get hurt? Will there be someone to rescue us? What if we get it wrong? Does our Book or Order permit it?!

Granted, these are all really valid and important questions. If you are going to embark on something as risky as diving from a cliff or testing the winter ice or shooting for the moon you better have done your homework. You better have explored all the angles and options, risks and challenges. You better have taken your best stab at calculating the distances, the speed, the strength, and the odds. You better have not just woken up one morning with a wild impulse that is closer to a death wish than a barrier-breaking, inspiring adventure.

Cliff DivingBut here’s the deal. Someone still needs to go first. No matter how much research you do, no matter how many times you have practiced the lift off in your head, no matter how air tight your formulations and reformulations are, at some point someone still needs to go first. Someone still needs to jump from the cliff into the water. Someone still needs step out onto the ice and hope it holds. Someone still needs to strap themselves into that first rocket seat.

I love this time of year as the movie world gears up for the Academy Awards. Twice I forced myself to watch in awe at the movie Free Solo, the documentary account of Alex Honnold’s attempt to climb the 3,000 vertical feet of Yosemite’s El Capitan…without ropes. Did you hear me? Without ropes! I swear, I could not sit still in my seat. I kept worrying about the people behind me who must have been thinking, “Will that dude please sit still for a moment!”

Rock ClimbingIt had never been done before. Honnold spent a full year practicing, studying, researching, and training for this first-time-ever feat. On roped climbs he meticulously took notes, planned his route, and memorized difficult maneuvers reviewing them in his head hundreds of times like a slalom skier does before an Olympic run. But even with all of this preparation it still does nothing to remove the reality that, in the end, someone still needs to go first. Someone needs to prove that it can be done. Someone needs to break through the fear, the uncertainty, the disbelief, and the hesitancy that comes with taking first-time-ever risks.

I smiled when Nadia Bolz-Weber exclaimed, “I practice a style of leadership I like to call, ‘Screw it—I’ll go first!” Immediately, I thought, this is the reputation that I want Cascades to earn over the coming years.

Last week I wrote that one of our presbytery leaders reminded me that part of my job is to scour the national scene for “success stories” and share them with our presbytery so that we have models to follow and confidence that we are on the right track. I am glad to do that. In fact, I agree with my fellow Presbyterian friend, that this is vitally important. It is really tough to work in a vacuum and without models to emulate.

Snow TrailBut I want to suggest that we are living in a both/and moment. We don’t have the luxury of just waiting for someone else to figure out how to dive off a cliff first and show us how it is done. We don’t have the luxury of just waiting for someone else to test the winter ice. We don’t have the luxury of just waiting for others to figure out how to get to the moon before we are willing to take the risk.

There will be hundreds and even thousands of churches who will step boldly into the future as soon as someone else has cleared the path for them. And, I suspect, that our presbytery and our congregations will be among that group who won’t hesitate as soon as someone else has tested the ice ahead of us. We are a reasonably bold and risk-taking presbytery, in my estimation. But the fact remains that someone still has to go first. Someone has to take the risk that they might do a belly flop on the ocean waves, or fall into the frigid water below the ice, or come hurtling back to earth in a failed rocket.

The truth is that there is an unknown future ahead of us. The most comfortable thing to do is to wait to see if those who go first survive. The most faithful thing to do is just to go first. It has a certain Jesus sound to it.

I am so glad that Nadia said it first.

I am off the hook–at least for one more week!

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