Courageous Part I: A Reality Greater Than Ourselves

Our ministry theme for October is courage.

As a reminder: in case you’re wondering where these themes come from, our congregation subscribes to an independent Unitarian Universalist resource hub called Soul Matters. Soul Matters periodically surveys their subscriber congregations for input about spiritual themes they’d like to explore or study. Based on that input, Soul Matters identifies themes for each month during the congregational year, and then develops and shares resources for worship, small group ministry, religious education for children, youth groups, etc. We call it theme-based ministry. It’s somewhat akin to Christian congregations that use a Biblical lectionary in worship. On any given Sunday, every congregation across the country, or across the planet, that uses the lectionary reads and reflects on the same Biblical passages. Somewhat similarly, in any given month, all the Soul Matters congregations are exploring the same spiritual theme. We may each approach it very differently, but I like knowing, for example, that many of my colleagues around the country are in their pulpits, right now, speaking to their congregations about courage.

It is unlikely, though not out of the realm, that any of their congregations have just listened to a piano rendition of “We Are the Champions” by the rock band Queen. That one wasn’t on the Soul Matters list for worship music suggestions. But it could have been. The list did include “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey, “I Will Survive,” by Gloria Gaynor, “Roar” by Katie Perry, “Tomorrow” from the musical ”Annie,” “Let it Go” from the movie “Frozen,”  “You Raise Me Up,” by Josh Groban, and “Over the Rainbow,” from “The Wizard of Oz.” In my view, “We Are the Champions” would fit perfectly on that list. Full disclosure: “We Are the Champions” was Mary Bopp’s idea. Queen was the first rock band she ever saw live as a teenager in southern California. Her older sister surprised her with tickets one day. I think it blew her mind.

[Sarcasm alert] If you know the song, you know it’s one major flaw is that it expresses way too much humility. We are the champions, my friends / And we’ll keep on fighting, ‘til the end. / We are the champions / We are the champions / No time for losers / ‘Cause we are the champions of the World. I know, right? Genuine humility is so rare in our world. When you encounter it, it’s a thing of beauty.

Set the chorus aside. This sermon is moving in a very different direction. The song starts with these words: I‘ve paid my dues / Time after time / I’ve done my sentence / But committed no crime / And bad mistakes / I’ve made a few / I’ve had my share of sand / Kicked in my face / But I’ve come through. He’s singing about the band’s rise to fame, but it could also be a matephor for any person’s struggle to overcome challenges. Nothing about this life journey has been easy. They’ve worked hard, they’ve sacrificed, they’ve been knocked down, sand in the face, they’ve been criticized, but they’ve kept going. They have been courageous, which is why Mary and I liked the song for this morning’s service.

What the song doesn’t say, but which is important to me as a pastor, is that something—something in them—has given them the courage to continue, has kept them going, has enabled them to persevere through the mess of it all, has sustained them through the pain of it all. This is true for anyone who attempts to face a difficult challenge. Some inner drive, some passion, some positive future vision, some high resolve, some deeply-held value, some fundamental commitment sustains them in their struggle.

I want to know, in your life, when challenges arise, when pain comes, when you’re living with grief, when your life feels like it’s falling apart, what sustains you? What enables you to keep going, to persevere? The answer isn’t courage. We don’t do difficult things because we’re courageous. We don’t endure pain because we’re courageous. We become courageous when, in those moments when difficult challenges arise, we find what sustains us, what buoys us, what grounds us. We remember our commitments. That finding, that remembering instills in us the courage to carry on.

We don’t do difficult things because we’re courageous. We become courageous when, in the midst of difficulty, we find what sustains us. As we said in unison at the beginning of the service, those enduring words from the twentieth-century Christian mystic Howard Thurman: Keep fresh before me the moments / of my High Resolve, that in good /times or in tempests, / I may not forget that to which my life is committed.[1]

I notice that, often, what sustains and grounds us in difficult moments, what enables us to face those moments with courage is something bigger than us, a reality larger than our mere selves. I was looking at Biblical quotes about courage. Almost always, the admonition to be brave, the admonition to be not afraid, to remain calm, steadfast, hopeful, that admonition is invariably coupled with an invitation to trust in God, to rest in God’s shelter, to abide in God’s love. God is a reality larger than ourselves. There is perhaps no better example of this than the 23rd Psalm which is often spoken at funerals and memorial services as a way to hold grieving families.

You are my shepherd. / I shall not want. / You cradle me in green pastures. / You lead me beside the still waters. You restore my soul. / You guide me in the paths of righteousness for You are righteous. / Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, / I fear no evil, for You are with me; / your rod and your staff comfort me.  / You spread a table before me in the presence of my enemies. / You soothe my head with oil; my cup runs over. / Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in Your house forever.[2] I like this psalm in particular because of the feeling it invokes. It invites people who are lost or hurting or oppressed in some way to feel held, seen, supported, protected, safe. It’s a feeling of assurance. And with that feeling comes a kind of courage, the recognition that “I can get through this difficult moment.”

It’s a very different feeling from “We Are the Champions.” It’s not a “charging ahead, take-the-bull-by-the-horns” kind of courage. It’s the courage that comes from letting go of control in situations that are very likely beyond our control, like the death of a loved one, like natural disasters, like mass shootings. “You are my shepherd.”

It’s that courage that comes from falling back into the love and support of others. “I fear no evil for you are with me.”

It’s the courage that comes from just breathing, finding our center, remembering what matters. “You restore my soul.”

It’s the courage that comes from trusting, without any supporting evidence whatsoever, that this difficulty, this pain, this sadness will resolve in time, even if, in the moment, we cannot imagine how things will get better.

Of course, this is a very theistic source of courage in difficult moments. In the 23rd Psalm, the reality larger than ourselves in which we are invited to take shelter is God. God is very important to some of you. However, God is not the place many of you land when you contemplate realities larger than yourself. What I want to know, and what I invite you to reflect on as we explore this theme of courage over the next month is, given your life experience, given your own theology, your spiritual inclinations and practices, how do you name realities larger than you that hold you in difficult moments, remind you of ‘that to which your life is committed,’ and become your source of courage?

Two obvious answers occur to me immediately. One is family. As many of you know, my father-in-law has been dealing with some health issues, was living temporarily at Manchester Manor, and last Sunday afternoon tested positive for Covid and needed to be rushed to the hospital due to the severity of his symptoms. What was already a difficult and challenging situation for our family, particularly for my wife and my mother-in-law, expanded ten-fold over the course of a few hours. He was really sick. At first it was very difficult to get any information. There was anxiety, there was fear, there were some tears, there were questions: When can we go to the hospital? Since it’s a Covid infection, can we even get into see him? What is the hospital doing to treat him? [I’m mindful that a number of you have had these very same, frightening moments through the pandemic with your own family members.] For my in-laws—and I’ve always loved this about them—what stayed fresh before them in this particular tempest was their very deeply-held commitment to family. That commitment is very sustaining, very grounding for them. It helps them stay clear and focused in a crisis moment. It helps them work together. It is a source of courage.

I also know this experience of family is not a universal. Not everyone can rely on family in difficult times. There are a million different stories about how family members become estranged from each other, fail each other, fight each other. Nevertheless, people who have loving, supportive families, whether biological or chosen, have a place to land when challenges arise. Healthy families can be a powerful, positive reality larger than ourselves. Healthy families, if we are blessed to have them, cradle us in green pastures, they lead us beside still waters.

By the way, my father-in-law is doing much better and I appreciate all of you who’ve offered supportive and encouraging words.

Another answer to the question, I hope for all of you, is this congregation. A supportive, loving faith community is certainly a reality larger than ourselves in which we can find respite from the pain and heartache of the world. As I’ve been saying a lot recently, our staff and our leadership truly want this congregation to be a place where each of us feels encouraged and even empowered to ask for and receive help when we need it most. In my last sermon, I was talking about how difficult it can be to ask for help, to name our vulnerabilities, to acknowledge that we sometimes feel like we don’t belong. I said doing these things requires practice, because for most of us they are not our natural inclination. But it’s more than just practice. Doing these things requires a leap of faith, a willingness to let go. In our moments of greatest distress, can we let ourselves fall and trust that others here will catch us, that they will meet us with goodness and mercy as they set us down, that they will spread a table before us, soothe our heads with oil, fill our cups to overflowing? It’s somewhat counter-intuitive, but we gain courage as we let go, as we fall, as we trust that others will catch us.

So I invite you, for the next month, as we explore this theme of courage, to contemplate realities larger than yourself that hold you and enable you to become courageous, especially in your most difficult moments. Family, congregation, the natural world, the earth, the oceans, the night sky, your partner, your children, your ancestors, the chalice flame, your Unitarian Universalist principles, your faith, God, Goddess, the Great Mystery, the expanding universe.

When you are weeping as the planet warms and burns and storms, what reality larger than yourself holds you and gives you courage?

When you are raging at the hatred and racism, the slow dismantling of women’s rights, the subtle and not so subtle attacks on transgender and other queer people—all of it streaming through our nation—what reality larger than yourself shelters you and gives you courage?

When you are hurting, struggling, suffering, wondering if you can ask for help, wondering if you will get what you need, what reality larger than yourself sustains you and gives you courage?

When you are grieving the death of a loved-one, missing them terribly, trying to re-invent yourself in the wake of unimaginable loss, what reality larger than yourself spreads a table before you and gives you courage?

Whatever tempest besets you, in that place of initial anxiety, pain, despair, can you remember that to which your life is committed and find the courage ride out the storm?

This is my invitation to you: ask and answer this question: what reality larger than yourself holds you and gives you courage?

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Thurman Howard, “In the Quietness of This Place,” Singing the Living Tradition  (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #498.

[2] Psalm 23, Singing the Living Tradition  (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #642.