COURAGE! COURAGE AND FAITH!
a sermon by the Reverend Paul Oakley
11:00 AM, Sunday, May 12, 2019
There is a scene in Merchant Ivory’s film adaptation of EM Forster’s novel A Room with a View, after Lucy Honeychurch and Young Mr. Emerson kiss on an Italian hilltop. Their kiss interrupted, Lucy is embarrassed and the picnicking proper English people bundle up their carriages to head back into Florence. A summer thunderstorm rattles Lucy, and the Reverend Mr. Eager, the earnest, prim, priggish vicar to the Anglicans resident in Florence, sitting beside her in the carriage, offers words of encouragement:
Courage, Miss Honeychurch! Courage and faith! Do you suppose that all this immense electrical display is simply called into existence to extinguish you or me? Even from a scientific standpoint, the chances against our being struck are enormous. The steel picnic knives, the only articles that might attract the current are in the other carriage.
At that moment, thunder sounds near them, loudly, and Lucy shrieks. It is simultaneously dramatic and sweet and funny. The English clergyman after first denying that there is any moral agenda in the timing and ferocity of the thunderstorm offers a young woman in a carriage with minimal protection against the elements the assurance of logic, probability, and science.
I thought of this scene first as I considered today’s topic in preparation for this sermon: Courage! Courage and faith! Sometimes, from a certain perspective, the call to be courageous can appear hilarious. And touching. And culturally positioned.
A recent conversation with my ministerial colleagues centered on courage. The question was whether the experience of being a minister in a Unitarian Universalist congregation had made us more or less courageous. It’s our little secret that a surprising portion of our ministers are introverts. Some are even natural wall flowers. And the idea of bold public speech on important ethical topics can provide many of us with a challenge. Do we preach on challenging topics? Or do we find ways to avoid them? Do we challenge the occasional and very human display within the leadership of passive aggressive demands of individuals who want things a certain way? Or do we back away from the conflict?
Into this conversation, someone raised the comparative point, the question whether we were watering things down a little too much. How can we compare the challenges of leadership in ordinary congregational situations to the immense daily courage of people dealing day after day with systems that oppress them and their whole community? How do we get to use the same word, “courage,” to describe standing up to an occasional bossy committee chair, risking a bad evaluation by saying what we consider important, or speaking before the city council on a zoning change that affects the sign announcing our presence, on the one hand, and, on the other, struggling, literally, to survive, to not get shot by police or killed by lynch mobs. Do we use the word too casually?
It is a blessing and a curse, perhaps, that the English language so casually uses the same word for such a wide array of life realities. I am reminded of a recent stand up set by comedian Dave Chappelle, titled The Bird Revelation, the second in a set of a pair of sets available on Netflix that bill themselves as Chappelle’s final performance, a comeback, a last hurrah, after more than a decade not performing. If you are willing to be offended and still find something revelatory and challenging beyond the ways you are upset at how Chappelle shapes his humor, these comedy sets have a lot of wisdom mixed with offense. I highly recommend watching it. But you must steel yourself against unrelenting truth mixed with a willingness to offend, to speak recklessly. You might use “courage” to describe Dave Chappelle’s shtick.
In The Bird Revelation, Chappelle distinguishes between being a hero and having that one heroic moment. Being a hero entails a whole manner of being. A whole life. The person who consistently protects the oppressed or the weak, promotes values that support the well-being of all, not of the few at the expense of the many or of the many at the expense of the few. The hero is most often silent about their display of values and worth, their role in upholding and promoting the inherent worth and dignity of every person. In contrast, the one who seeks a heroic moment all too often tells the story of that one time when they did something good that aimed to benefit the well-being of others.
The heroic moment provides the story to tell at dinner parties until interest wanes and a new heroic moment must be sought. The hero is, in contrast, more often than not unsung. The courage of someone seeking a heroic moment is transactional. Am I willing to pay this cost for this benefit to me? How will this action advance my social standing? The courage of a hero, in contrast, is the courage of moral action despite fears that would, without moral grounding, freeze us in our tracks. Personal benefit doesn’t enter into the calculus.
In spite of this distinction and the importance of distinguishing between self-aggrandizement and standing for something, in spite of the question whether we can count as courage the facing of our daily challenges that seem less important when placed next to realities that literally kill some in our society and in the world, in spite of all that, I choose today to put our focus back in Lucy Honeychurch’s carriage, heading through the thunderstorm with minimal protection, with Lucy’s shriek at the raw power that confronts her, and the Reverend Mr. Eager’s encouragement. I choose today to look within our individual lives, our individual challenges.
Comparing the relative mass of our challenges and our corresponding courage is a fruitless task. If your experience of life is being on the receiving end of misogyny, receiving the brunt of the power and expression of patriarchy, for example, how can you compare that to living as a person of color under the heel of our system of white supremacy? Which is more relentless in grinding a person down? The comparison takes us nowhere.
For decades I was almost apologetic on those rare occasions on which I talked with someone about my experience of being sexually assaulted. I would frame it and situate it to minimalize it because my story of survival did not entail a knife to my throat, did not necessitate hospitalization to recover from acts of incomparable brutality. I minimalized my experience because I saw someone else’s experience as worse. But what was accomplished in the comparison, in the minimization? My experience was one of life-changing upheaval. It was my experience. It was my challenge. That was the place from which I had to find and anchor my courage. Your anchoring point is yours. And so, while comparisons provide an important metric in many situations, we will not compare to try to determine whose challenge is greater, whose pain is worse.
In the much loved poem “Wild Geese,” Mary Oliver wrote: “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on.” She distinguishes between the despair of one person and another, the pain of one person and another, without making a comparative measurement. Likewise, tell me your challenge and how you face it. It won’t be the same as mine. Yours is yours, and mine is mine. Meanwhile the world goes on.
In the poem by Tennessee Williams that Anne read earlier, the poetic voice addresses courage in a kind of prayer. Or in the language of poetry: apostrophe: a figure of speech in which the poet addresses an absent person, an abstract idea, or a thing:
O Courage, could you not as well
Select a second place to dwell,
Not only in that golden tree
But in the frightened heart of me?
The signature dwelling place of courage is in the frightened human heart. Despite our description in popular culture of the courageous person being fearless, it is, in fact, the very presence of fear that makes courage both necessary and possible. Tell me your fear. Perhaps you have the energy to hear mine. Meanwhile the world goes on.
Williams’ poem comes as part of the drama of his play The Night of the Iguana, a play filled with people with frightened hearts.
The main character, the Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon, a disgraced but not defrocked Episcopal priest, faces the challenge of channeling his powerful urges toward illicit sex and excessive drink in positive ways while living in the shadow of a father who was also a priest and two grandfathers who were bishops. The weight of expectation crushes him.
Judith Fellowes, the voice teacher at a Texas Female Baptist Seminary, is presented as an un-self-aware lesbian, a description that explains her actions but one that Shannon, her greatest enemy, refuses to expose to her – even in anger – because he believes she could not bear the crushing pressure of being a different person that she thought she was, with an identity that was not accepted in the Texas, Baptist, seminary culture in which she lived.
Maxine Faulk, the recently widowed hotel keeper along the Mexican coast not far from Puerto Vallarta, presents herself with bluster and bravado, a free spirit, unconstrained by conventional mores. Her pain is the pain of grief and the pain of need for a relationship in which she can commit and flourish.
Nonno, nearing 100 years old, faces the breakdown of his body, of his concentration. He bills himself as the world’s oldest living practicing poet. And he perseveres through drowsiness and lack of focus to create his last poem, which is his first new poem in decades. It is his poem that Anne read for us.
And Hannah Jelkes, the most feet-on-the-ground, sensible, strong, gracious and merciful person in the entire cast of characters. But we find that she is where she is today, described as Buddha-like, a paragon on non-attachment, after many years of struggling through her pain before finding her courage.
Through their moments of connecting and reaching out to each other several of Williams’ characters, though not all of them, find courage and a grounding that allows them to step into the unknown. Like Williams’ play and John Huston’s movie based on it, it is a common experience of life that courage is hard won. Each one of us with our frightened heart is in the shadow of expectations – whether positive or negative. Each one faces the breakdown of our own or another’s body or mind. Each one has to discover the most basic truths about themselves, and often that truth doesn’t immediately match ingrained self-image. Each one finds themselves seeking productive interactions with others, whether in core relationships or other ways of meeting the other. And if we come out on the other side triumphant, it is after our own version of the dark night of the soul.
Courage is always hard won. And yet in Mary Oliver’s words, “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” Her word “only” is deceptive. You have to find a point of honest awareness and acceptance on the other side of the pain and anchor to it. In her ending to the poem “Wild Geese,” she tells us:
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Through inviting courage into our frightened hearts, we do not instantly land in the realm of ease and perfection, but we find grounding and connection, we find our place in the family of things. And our role in providing what another lacks.
Courage! Courage and faith!
Amen and Blessed Be.
© Copyright 2019 by Rev. Paul Oakley