The word courage comes from the Latin cor, which means heart. According to poet Mark Nepo, the original use of the word courage meant to stand by one’s core: a “striking concept that reinforces the belief found in almost all traditions that living from the Center is what enables us to face whatever life has to offer.”
Poet David Whyte says that when we hear the word courage we jump to outward expression, to a response to some “besieging circumstance.” courage is a show of force, once engaged in we are proud of our effort, maybe the recipients of accolades for time to come, depending on the level of courage and in the face of what. But he goes back to the etymology as well, tying it to the heart. Courage is about putting our heart into our living, about a depth of feeling within our bodies, but not that alone. It is about also seating it in the world, living into those things we find we care deeply about, to stay close to the way we are made and to share that with persons, with a future full of possibility, some unknown that calls to us.
The French philosopher Albert Camus invites us to live to the point of tears, an invitation into belonging, into relationship with what we feel as we navigate the day to day, over time the inner and the outer aligned. It requires a “robust vulnerability,” according to Whyte, that only in hindsight presents itself as courage. 1
Douglas Taylor in our reading this morning talks about vulnerability born of courage as opposed to fear, a strength that arises from an open stance, receptive and sharing. It is a willingness to face the risks, all the questions that pop up in our minds – the ‘what ifs’ we process in rapid succession, to sit with them, hearts wide and ready to receive. Not an outward act, but an inward melding of what we know of ourselves and what we encounter. It is a choice, he says. We can choose to react, or we can wait, the latter the more courageous move. “Softness is not weakness,” writes Beau Taplin, “It takes courage to stay delicate in a world so cruel.”
Famed author, professor, and researcher, Brene Brown, speaks frequently on the topic of vulnerability. And she says that she has not found a single example of courage, be it moral, spiritual, relational, or undertaken in a leadership role, that was not born entirely of vulnerability. The word courage used to mean speaking one's mind by disclosing the contents of one's heart. Today, we typically associate courage with heroic and brave deeds. But for Brown, this definition fails to recognize the inner strength and level of commitment required for us to actually speak honestly and openly about who we are and about our experiences, be they good or bad, the fortitude to let it all spill out.
All of these great thinkers are telling us to do something that is counterintuitive, counter-cultural even! How many times in a decision-making process about an unknown future do we insist on not letting our emotions get in the way? In our culture we count reason as more valuable than emotion. To resist the initial fight, flee or freeze impulse when faced with an event or a need or a series of circumstances, anything that rubs up against our personal status quo. Our world presents us daily with those rubs! It only takes one round of the news cycle to come across things that cut away at the fabric of our belief systems. And who of us only attends to one cycle?! More likely it is several passes. We become frozen in time, filled with disbelief. We want to lash out, to bring whatever power we hold to bear on the situation. Or we simply cannot bear it and we go into hiding. The courageous thing, if I am understanding all of this correctly, is to allow ourselves to feel all of the associated feelings, to sit with them as they wash over us. They have their cycles, too, our emotions. To be vulnerable, to let our hearts be filled and to let what resides at our core meet what comes, swirling about within us, breathing through it, patient until it settles. This takes immense courage, this ability to be present to whatever is happening before we step into action so that our response is informed by our heart, by that which is most meaningful to us.
We have been faced here at the Meeting House with a set of issues that could have had us reacting – things like membership and finances and aging and building worries. Faced with these things we could find ourselves burying our heads in the sand, we could give it all up and head off for easier climes, we could jump to conclusions and make hasty decisions. We could act out of a place of fear. But we haven’t! We have done the courageous thing here. Facing the issues thoughtfully, not panicked about it. Engaging with one another in conversations that invite the exploration of our hearts and the pouring out of our heart’s contents, present to each other. Pulling all of that together we come to a time where we can allow it to penetrate our deepest selves, again not running or hiding or fighting what we find, but a wholehearted approach to the creative imaginings that have been stirred in our midst. Vulnerable. Courageous.
I’d like us to take a little time together to think about our lives, each of us as persons and perhaps all of us as a people, but to search our own hearts and uncover what has recently asked us to be vulnerable and to employ this deep courage. Each of us unique beings, even as much as we share our commonalities here, will find our own sources of angst or shock or hurt that rub up against our hearts. I want to invite you to share, if you will, one of those things you discover, to speak it into our sacred space. We will light a candle to represent that vulnerability and the courage it takes to explore and to reveal what is there. So, let’s take a few moments to breathe and to focus and see what arises for us. What shows up for you as having asked you to take heart lately? You can raise your hand when you are ready, and we will bring you the microphone. We will look for folks on zoom as well.
My colleague, Erika Hewitt says that to “encourage” means to hearten; to impart strength and confidence and that this is our work, as a religious community: to encourage one another; to be bold in engaging the world around us, as well as what scares us internally; to give one another the confidence and heart to live as fully as possible.
When we open our hearts to one another like we have here this morning, like we have in our sharing circles recently, like many of you do in your small groups and like we will have the opportunity to do in a bit, we are doing the courageous and vulnerable work of community making. Gregory Pelley writes that, “We need only to be aware - to be present to what is happening around us. We need only to take a risk - to speak out even when it is hard - even when our voice shakes.” After that we can set about doing something, whatever work is required of us. But this is where the miracles begin, when we engage from our heart’s center, opening, receiving, stirring, settling.
Our service today is an invitation to take heart, to open wide the doors of our being, to experience all of what comes our way and grounded in our core, to let vulnerability be the place from where our courage rises up. As we face our future hear on the hill, heart to heart, may we be blessed and blessing both.
So may it be and Amen.
Rev. Tracy Johnson, UUMH Chatham, October 16, 2022
1 David Whyte in “Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and underlying Meaning of Everyday Words,”
Canongate, 2019; pp.32-33-34.