Spiritual Courage

A Sermon by Barbara Wells

Paint Branch UU Church

May 12, 2002

 

Many years ago I learned this poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay. I begin my sermon with her words.

"The courage that my mother had, went with her and is with her still

Rock from New England quarried, now granite on a granite hill.

The golden brooch my mother wore, she left behind for me to wear.

There is no thing I treasure more, yet it is something I could spare.

O if instead she'd left to me, that thing she took into the grave,

That courage, like a rock, which she has no more need of, and I have."

My mother is not dead, and she will assure you proudly in her southern accent that she is not any kind of rock from New England! Yet somehow this poem always reminds me of her.

My mother will be the first to tell you she is not brave. She is afraid of flying and not crazy about heights. No, my mother is not brave. Then why does a poem about courage make me think of her?

Courage and bravery, in my view, are not necessarily the same thing. Bravery, as I understand it, suggests a kind of fearlessness. Brave people face danger willingly, even eagerly, for they are not afraid.

But courage is different. Courage is less about fear and more about something deeper, something, I think, that has to do with one's spirit or soul. Courage is doing the right thing, even in the face of those who tell us we are crazy or stupid. Courage is taking a stand and living with it. Courage is also about growth, about a willingness to change one's mind if that is the right thing to do. A brave person may fight when called upon. A courageous person may choose not to fight even if it means certain death.

I believe that courage is a spiritual value, one that could use some exploration by all of us. Millay's poem challenges me to think about courage, and why it is something I hope for and pray for and believe is necessary for a meaningful life. I understand the poet's longing for courage, courage which she has need of in her life. I, too, at times, long for courage, and look to people like my mother to help me understand what simple courage looks like.

My mother, and many of the mothers and others I have known, are not noticeably brave. But their courage can be astonishing. My mother, for instance, in defiance of the times and her southern heritage, became, alongside my father, a worker for civil rights for all Americans.

My on-the-surface-seemingly-typical-suburban-housewife Mom regularly testified for abortion rights when she served on the Unitarian Universalist Women's Federation Board, and taught me and my sisters never to let anyone raise a finger to hurt us no matter how much he might say he loved us. We listened, and grew strong under her care.

And more recently, my mother had the courage to face her addiction to alcohol, and soon will celebrate four years of sobriety. I know it took courage for her to do that, but she did and it changed her life (and mine) ever so much for the better.

My mother's courage is not unique. Perhaps you have stories of your mother, or your father, or other people in your life who have taught you the meaning of courage. But it is not enough just to remember and celebrate those who are courageous. It is essential, I believe, to understand why courage, in particular moral courage, develops in people, and how it lives itself out in ordinary and extraordinary times.

Some years ago I had the opportunity to read Conscience and Courage - Rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust by Eva Fogelman. The book is a collection of stories of people who had shown tremendous moral courage during the most difficult of times. Here was courage and bravery all rolled into one. Here were people who did things that most of us pray we'll never have to. Here were people whose choice to act courageously not only saved the lives of Jews during the second World War, but also transformed their own lives forever.

The acts of courage described in this book are tremendous. Here are just a few — a 17 year old Polish girl who hides 13 Jews in a small apartment with her 7 year old sister; a husband and wife who care for two Jewish boys, taking them with them wherever they go, treating them as their own; a young boy who takes only half his medicine at the hospital so his Jewish "brother" could have the other half as he lay sick in hiding; and an entire village in France who hid and saved hundreds of Jewish children throughout the duration of the war. All these acts and many more were the deeds of children, women and men who, for some reason, displayed extraordinary moral and physical courage. While others participated in the violence, or watched and did nothing, these people risked their lives to help others. Why? What made these people courageous and others not?

The author, Eva Fogelman, is hesitant to draw too many generalizations. Much depended upon the circumstances. But there are a few important things she noticed in her interviews with hundreds of these rescuers of Jews during the Second World War, that allowed her to draw at least some tentative conclusions about how and why people are courageous in the face of injustice.

The first, is that most people who showed the kind of extraordinary moral courage were people who had been raised to value difference and be tolerant of others. These were individuals who had been taught, either in a religious or a secular way, that people are essentially the same, no matter what their race or religion. Fogelman calls them "John Donne's people" after Donne's famous quote which reminds us "no man is an island, entire of itself...any man's death diminishes me because I am involved with mankind." In essence, this is Universalism, which teaches us to value all humans as worthy of respect and dignity.

Fogelman’s second conclusion is this: courageous people have active and loving role models. They had parents or teachers or siblings who had shown them the importance of living their values. The actions of their role models were embedded in these rescuers' psyches. When the time came to make a decision, they often would ask themselves the question, "what would my mother do? or what would my father do" and then they would go and do likewise.

Finally, author Eva Fogelman suggests that these courageous people were independent spirits who trusted themselves enough to take action when needed. None of these rescuers could be passive people. They had to act. Their actions were extraordinary deeds of courage which linger today in the memories of those whose lives they touched.

Let's look at Eva Fogelman's suggestions for what makes a morally courageous person and see what it has to teach us.

Most of these rescuers, she says, were raised in homes that honored difference. Our own religion suggests we do the same. But what does it really mean to do that? I think of the small things that can have a very large influence. A personal example from my family speaks to this. My grandmother Stella Sumner was born and raised in the deep south, only two generations removed from the Civil War. Yet during the 1930's and 40's, when the social segregation of black Americans was the accepted custom in her small town in Georgia, she nonetheless taught my mother to call all black men Mister and all black woman Missus and to treat them with respect. This may sound like a small thing but in those days and in that town it was not. All black men were called Uncle, and all black women Aunt. For my grandmother to teach my mother to give these men and women the kind of respect usually given only to white people, seared into my mother the notion that all people have worth and dignity. It is no wonder that, upon growing up, she and my father left the segregated south and migrated north where they found the Unitarian Universalist church. And it is no wonder that both of them modeled for me the importance of racial justice from a very early age.

Perhaps you have similar stories from your past. As we look toward the future, however, it is important that we ask ourselves questions about how we are shaping the generations that will follow us.

Questions like:What are we doing to teach our children about tolerance and acceptance of others? Are we modeling respect for all life, even for people whose ideas and beliefs we don't like? Are we doing enough to make the world safe for people of all kinds?

Role models are critical. Eva Fogelman's research on rescuers of Jews during the second World War showed that an astonishing 89% "had a parent or adult figure who acted as an altruistic role model." One of the rescuers described her mother as "a wonderful woman who always had an open heart for anybody who needed help." A story Fogelman collected is worth telling at length.

A woman told Fogelman of her mother's willingness to barter away all their valuable goods to provide supplies to political prisoners. One day she watched as her mother opened up a box that held 12 beautiful place settings of silver that had been a treasured wedding gift. Now I will quote her directly.

"I was with her when she opened the box...she took out one of the spoons and I saw her hold and weigh it in her hand, apparently far away in thought.

'Wouldn't you rather keep it?' I asked, and anxiously waited for her reply.

'Keep it?' she repeated after a long silence.

The spoon was engraved with her initials. She looked at them and suddenly smiled as if something had occurred to her. Putting the spoon down, she turned to me and took my hand...'You must learn to understand that only what you give, you'll have."

That daughter learned to value people over things. This instilled in her the courage to stand up to others who would deny human rights to those who were different. By modeling such selfless love, this mother taught her daughter a profound lesson about moral courage.

What are we doing to model for our children altruistic behavior? Are we living our principles in ways our children can emulate? Are we offering ourselves as mentors to young people in ways that will help them shape their lives for the better?

If we human beings are going to develop moral courage, we also need to be taught to be independent, able to make decisions on our own, willing to do the right thing even if it means breaking the rules.

Rescuers in Nazi Germany broke laws that, had they been captured (and many were), would have led to their deaths. Throughout history people have made decisions to disobey authority even if it meant punishment. I think, for instance, of Unitarian Henry David Thoreau, who, because he was opposed to the Spanish American War, refused to pay his poll tax and was thrown in jail. The story goes that Ralph Waldo Emerson came to see him in the Concord jail and asked him what he was doing in there. Thoreau replied, "What are you doing out there?" Thoreau was willing to act on his beliefs, not just have them. Other great leaders of the 20th century, including Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., often quoted Thoreau as they strove to live their beliefs.

Are we raising our children to be independent? To think for themselves? To determine what is the right thing to do?

Today, we as a church community, dedicated parents and children in a simple ceremony we repeat annually. Perhaps we don't realize how truly profound it is. For we are asking parents to commit to raising their children in a way that we hope will develop in them the kind of moral courage Eva Fogelman writes of so eloquently. There are reasons why people develop courage and those reasons are embedded in this faith we share. This is not to say that UUs have a monopoly on moral courage, far from it.

But it is to say that the values we cherish here, values of acceptance of diversity and independence of spirit, seem to be important ingredients for growing moral and spiritual courage. And if children are looking to us to provide role models, we must live up to those values ourselves.

Most of us, we hope, will never have to test our courage the way these people during the Second World War did. Yet courage is still needed today. In our own country, hate crimes against gay and lesbian people still happen far too often. Immigrants from other lands are being imprisoned and denied human rights on our borders. Racism still engenders fear and violence in our schools. Where is our moral courage today?

I believe that we are going to need moral courage in ever greater amounts as we move deeper into the 21st century. Our world and our nation are becoming ever more diverse. Competition for scarce resources will likely continue. Hate and the actions hate engenders in people did not go away with the Nazis. We need to ask ourselves, what will be our response? Will we be able to show moral courage when necessary?

The events of September 11, 2001 showed me the extraordinary courage and bravery that men and women could call upon during times of great national tragedy. Now we have to see if that kind of courage can continue in ways that will make our world and our nation safer and more humane.

I like to think that if the need arises, we will be able to respond. But I also believe we can't do it alone. We need to trust in each other. We need to know that the values we affirm are shared by others. We need to know we are not alone. Knowing that others share our deep-seated belief in the dignity of human life and the sacredness of creation, we can feel strong and capable, even if circumstances demand we act alone. Last Sunday night when I stood in the National Cathedral along side scores of Muslims, Christians and Jews, for a moment I believed that the insanity of hatred that seems to thrive among religious groups might just disappear. I don’t believe it will happen in my lifetime, but the seeds we plant today can blossom in our children and in their children — if we will do our part to make the world a little more just every chance we can.

When Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote her poem about her mother's courage many years ago, she might have been speaking to me. There are times when my heart is deeply burdened, when I think there is nothing strong in me, no ability to respond with courage to the challenges of life. Yet, like the poet, I can remember my mother, fortunately still living, and be grateful to her for instilling in me a sense of what is good and right and true. I can reflect on those brave souls who took their lives into their hands and did the right thing by rescuing Jews. And I can think of the children here today, and their parents and the members and friends of this church. When I think of you, and remember I am not alone, I discover in myself seeds of courage.

Are they growing in you? Who has planted them? Who will water them? When called upon, how will you respond? These are religious questions no one can answer for you. But I believe our faith is a strong one that will sustain us even in times of devastation. Let us commit ourselves on this day of dedication, to growing that courage in our children, and in ourselves, so that one day the world may be more just, more kind, and more loving.

Closing Words

B: May each of us have enough trust in life that our fears will burn away.

C: May each of us have enough hope in the future that we will let go of despair and work to leave a better world for our children.

B: May each of us have enough love for each other that we will abandon hatred and never fail to notice the great miracle that is the human spirit.

C: May each of us have enough courage to face the challenges of our troubled world, so that we may act with trust, hope and love in the face of fear, despair and hatred.

B: And may the great mystery, which some call the spirit of life, be with us on our journey.

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