January 21, 2013

Safety in Numbers

"[Our social safety programs] do not make us a nation of takers. They free us to take the risks that make this country great." - President Obama in his Second Inaugural Address
Life is risky.  All kinds of things can go wrong.

I'm a textbook oldest child, so I work over time in prevention.  I'm Responsible.  I eat my vegetables.  I stay out of debt.  I floss.

I like to think that I can head off every bad thing, if I just do everything Right.

I can't.

I know, because I know a lot of really good people, people who want to do it all right, to whom bad things have happened.  Abuse.  Accidents.  Adultery.  We could make our way through the alphabet:  Betrayal.  Cancer.  Deaths.  I know, because my own mother died of cancer when she was 53.

We can do all the right things, and still end up on the receiving end of troubles.

I know that's true, and sometimes I react accordingly.  Forget it, I say.  What's the use?  Why not eat, drink, and be merry?  Why not lock the doors, crawl under the covers, and spend the day watching T.V.?

I don't always feel safe.

Which brings us back to the president.  We might differ in our politics and how -- or whether -- we think the government ought to provide for retirement or medical security, but I think the president is on to something when he talks about safety nets and risk.

They say mother eagles, when their babies are learning to fly, fly under them, to catch them if they fall.  We think nothing less of circus performers who execute their dazzling twists and turns on the high wire or trapeze over a wide-slung net.  When we first learn to drive we practice with an instructor who has access to a brake from her seat on the passenger side.

That's not to say there's not risk:  The baby eagle is pushed out of the nest.  The circus acrobat climbs the pole and swings through the air.  The teen driver buckles up and takes the wheel.  But the risk is tempered.

So it is with us.  If I'm going to grow into the Self I am created to be and live out my mission in God's kingdom, I need to take some risks.  I also need to know I'm safe enough to make mistakes, to fail.  For me, that happens in community.  I have family and friends who are ready to catch me, or even grab the wheel if I look like I'm running off the road.  I sometimes need those same people to give me a push up the pole or out of the nest.

Sometimes we think of courage as not-being-afraid, but that's not true.  The virtue of courage is acting in the face of fear.  Standing up to the challenges of this life takes courage, whether it's facing my personal trials or demons -- unemployment or illness or addiction or just getting out of bed some mornings -- or the devils of the wider world.

Even Martin Luther King, Jr., whose courageous work we remember today, did not risk confrontation with injustice alone.  He did so as a community of people, black and white, men and women, young and old, who stood, literally, arm in arm, forming a human barrier against encroaching evil.

It is God's own story that invites us to recognize that we are made to act in community.  God first calls the nation of Israel and then the family of disciples of Jesus (who we call the Church).  God invites us into the web of support that will bring about God's kingdom.  As Paul exhorts us in 1 Corinthians 12:26, "If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it."

I don't know what that means about funding Social Security or Medicaid, but I know it means that, one way or another, we need to take care of each other.

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