“You’re a drunk and a liar” he yelled at me. For a moment I thought he was going to punch me in the face. I shut my eyes and turned slightly. But his anger was enough of a punch for me. I was definitely awake now although I had no idea what time it was. My soon to be ex-friend Bob in whose house I was then living was really, really mad. Not that I though it was any big deal at the time. I really thought I had turned off the iron, and so what if it fell on the carpet and made a little burn mark. O.k. a big burn mark. He had just asked me as I walked away from ironing my shirt whether I had turned the iron off. “Yeah, yeah” I said. I was more than a little hung-over. When Bob smelled the carpet burning he ran over pulled up the iron and yelled something inappropriate for a Sunday morning and then turned on me.
“You had better get it together, here, John, because I am giving you two weeks to get out. This isn’t working. You have a lot to deal with and I’m not the one to help you.’ Well, isn’t that just great, I thought to myself. Some friend you turned out to be. Down and out on my luck and you turn me out. Self-pity was also part of repertoire at the time.
Bob, who had just gone through a painful divorce, had actually done me a tremendous favor. After all, I was the one, at four in the morning while delivering papers had seen his wife’s car parked in front of another man’s house after they had separated. I had been the one that told him that I didn’t think she was coming back. And she didn’t. It almost crushed Bob, but then if his best friend couldn’t tell him, who could? Bob did the best he knew how. He cried. He mopped and then he got on with his life. Soon it was my turn to suffer a break up in that little town in Northwest Iowa. But unlike Bob, I didn’t do as well. I cursed and felt sorry for myself when my first wife kicked me out and then, because my other best friend owned a bar in town, I drank. A lot. My business was failing and I was falling and Bob was yelling at me three inches from my face. It was the wake-up call I needed.
He was right. I was a drunk and a liar. The first being more a cause of the second. The drinking was a symptom of a great anger in my life, the greatest of my demons, and the lying which was mostly to myself, kept that demon alive. This is what Bob, a failing middle age radio station advertising salesman, managed to show me. Angels come in funny shapes. He was telling me that it was time to change. It took me another 20 years to face my anger and embrace a new me but I did.
This Halloween I want to talk about why embracing risk in our lives is the best way to overcome the demons which haunt us. I am, as some of you know, an entrepreneur by nature. I embrace risk naturally. Which is funny because in real life, I don’t like fast cars, scary movies or amusement rides. But I do enjoy making change happen. Sometimes, fatally for me at times, just for the sake of change. I can become quickly bored if my work is too status quo. I like big ideas but I depend on others to keep them going. In some ways, this was the demon that faced me when Bob threw me out of his house 30 years ago. I had started the first solar energy company in northwest Iowa. It was a moderate success. All the more so because I did this when I was 25 years old. But big ideas take time, money and patience. And I was short on all three. So within two years, the risk I had so enthusiastically embraced, started to head south. My first wife and I grew apart. Sales start to slump and before long it had all fallen apart.
The first rule in embracing risk is double your anticipated rate of change. It takes twice as long to make most dreams happen. Ministry has certainly taught me that.
How do we see first of all that change is necessary and second of all have the courage to change? Change is necessary when we see our world darkly. More people begin to contemplate changing their lives over the dark holiday season than any other time of year. That’s when I finally realized that I was a drunk and a liar. And I had lost everything, it all started to make sense. Oh, I am afraid of failure so I keep starting new projects so I can never fail. Oh, I am afraid of intimacy so I avoid my marriage until it falls apart. I had to learn to embrace a deeper and more personal risk. My 23 years as a minister has been learning to do just that.
The courage to embrace risk, comes slowly. But let me say up front that I believe the secret to courage is follow the path laid before you. This is the essence of Taoist teaching: by following what is before us and choosing to embrace the uncomfortable we change in the right way. I very rarely turn down a request to serve. This is my way of embracing risk and facing the demons of fear. When asked to serve, try to serve.
I have had dogs for my entire life. My father loved dogs, my mother not so much. We took them with us everywhere we went growing up, so much so that slobber on the windows of our cars was how I thought all cars should be.
As a young boy we had a Shepard mix named Henry. Henry was loyal to the core. When I started going to school in rural upstate New York, Henry’s job was to walk with me the quarter mile down our old road to the bus stop. The road the bus came on was not too busy, and I had been taught to stay back until the bus pulled up. One day while in first grade, while waiting for the bus at the end of the road, I was distracted by two squirrels playing in the trees and I managed to step out a bit into the road. Henry was barking. I thought at the squirrels. I would later learn he was barking at me. He was warning me to get back because he could tell there was a car coming. I wasn’t listening. So he did the only thing he knew how, he pushed me with his body. He saved my life. Unfortunately, the car hit him and he died almost instantly. The driver stopped in shock. He had not seen either me or my dog. He put Henry gently in the trunk and drove me and my dog back up the road to our house. It was one of the most traumatic moments of my life. And I remember it to this day. It may very be why I have dogs today, even though they require so much care. I realized then, that they have a vocation in our lives, and in mine, Henry’s was to protect my life with his.
Domestic animals have long served us and we have not always been kind in return. Whether through breeding or the Creator’s design, animals have a job to do. To feed us, cloth us, guard us or provide loving companionship. It is now well proven that having a pet in your life helps you heal faster and live longer. Many hospitals including our local hospitals here bring animals into patient’s rooms to help with healing. If you go down to the Torrance Memorial Hospital and walk in to the entrance hall from the parking structure you will see portraits of dogs. Those are hospital service dogs; all of them still visiting each week to help us humans know love.
I have tried to live my life by the simple mantra to “be the person your dog thinks you are”. I am not sure I can say that of cats; more likely “be the servant I expect you to be”.
None of what we call civilization would be possible without animals. Long before fossil fuels, animals did the plowing, the pulling, the feeding, the riding, the daily chores of a million, million human souls. Wild animals provide the very ecosystem w which sustains us; from the food chain to the scavengers who create room for more life.
And in return? We have not done well by our cousins. Not well at all. For here is the shifting ground we should consider: It’s not what job animals can do for us but our relationship with animals that matter. After all we ARE animals as well. “The hubris that we are above other animals, denies our own nature” says Kimberly French; from our sexuality to our emotions. "We are more conscious perhaps (after all we are the only animals that is anxious about being alive) but we have a job to do with animals as much as animals do jobs for us. We really aren’t so different." (Kimberly French “Our Animal Contradictions” UU World, Fall 2013)
Blessings be to all animals who we join in the work of the world.
With Grace and Grit, John