It hit me during the usual awkward moment at the Tuesday potluck I had organized with friends, when the food was blessed, when everybody opened their eyes at the “amen,” when nobody proceeded to move forward to grab a plate. It was as happens at so many gatherings-- not that people weren’t hungry or that they didn’t know what to do; it was just that nobody wanted to go first.
First woman. First Latino. First African American. First young leader. First CEO. First doctor. First city. First community.
When has someone pulled you aside and told you “you’re the first ________”?
Where are you afraid of being the first?
Who might you intentionally or unintentionally be preventing from being the first?
When we were kids, we thought going first was something to aspire to, something that real-life superheroes did. In elementary school, my friends and I dreamt of being the first female professional baseball players and fighter jet pilots. In class, we ready glossy books about people like Madeline Albright, Thurgood Marshall, Amelia Earhart, Tom Flores, Joan Benoit, and Jackie Robinson. In an eight-year old brain, it felt like if there hadn’t been a first yet, it just could be you.
But then we found out that there is nothing glossy about going first. In fact, it’s dirty. It has the highest risk of face-planting, and, even worse, failing. Going first is hard. Many of us have ventured into the sacred space of going first, picking up a plate when everybody else decided to sit a while longer on the comfortable couch. Many of us have experienced the gut-wrenching, sweat-inducing, fear-ridden first steps towards a goal, a position, a way of doing life, doing work, or doing ministry that somehow God had postured us towards and gifted us for. We have paused, we have prayed, and we have run away from going first. Like Nehemiah, some of us persevered when the jeers, glances, and threats came, while others of us continued stepping forward yet experienced something break inside us, while still others turned down a different route. After growing up Catholic, I was the first woman I heard preach. And apparently I have been for others, too. Some questioned me, some later confessed to having thought about walking out of the church when they saw me, and some even sent nasty emails. And they still do. But it was then that I had to discover both the power and the risk of going first—and how in the times of greatest opposition, it would be God’s call that would remain. And that would have to be more than enough. And it is.
We recall men and women who had plenty of problems, who encountered opposition both internally and externally in their time and place in history, but yet made the impossible possible and opened doors in our minds, careers, ministries, and society for those of us who came after. I’m thankful for women like Sarah Crosby, Barbara Heck, and Phoebe Palmer who dared to follow God’s call on their lives and impacted thousands. In the history of the Church, I’m thankful for people like Paul, Timothy, Lydia, James, Peter, Mary Magdalene, Phoebe, and Thomas who ventured to new places and brought the Good News of Jesus to new people in new ways. Their risk-taking had nothing to do with being in the spotlight, but everything to do with being obedient to God. Their stories show me that in His process of making all things new, God calls to those of us who have been the most hesitant to walk to the front.
There’s a cost to the person who humbly goes first. You risk looking stupid-- like the "dancing man" in the viral YouTube video of the Sasquatch Music Festival. You risk being alone for a while. You might trip over rocks and roots, plowing through the rough terrain towards a table that nobody in the room really thinks you should be at. You might be told by those in authority over you that they don’t know what to do with you, that they’ll have to “look into that,” that nobody has ever tried that before. And you might also find the carnage of discarded plates along each step of the way.
But the world is desperately in need of firsts. Our families are in need of people who go first to admit their problems and break cycles of abuse and addiction. Our schools are in need of kids and teens who step up first to reach out to those who are lonely, bullied, on the sidelines. The world is in need of women and men who stop just talking about change and reading about change from their places on the couch and are willing to step into and live in the uncharted territory, unfamiliar religious landscape, and unknown society of 2019.
Going first means following Him who went first—who promises us that the words on this story we’re in are not the last.
Will you have the courage to go first?