October 2015 Pastor’s Pen
Dear Holy Trinity friends and family,
Our English word courage comes from the French word coeur which means heart. Humans have long associated the heart with both love and bravery.
In our September discussion of the book The Society of Timid Souls or How to Be Brave1, we talked about many courageous acts described by the author, and we debated whether the bravery they entailed was innate or learned. The bottom line was: if we’re not born brave, is there any hope for us??
This line of conversation is relevant to a faith community since the Gospel calls us to “preach the Word in season and out” (2 Timothy 4:2). I interpret that to mean we lay out our understanding of God’s expectations of us, whether those on the receiving end are receptive or not. If hearers are not receptive, within or beyond the immediate community, there can be painful consequences. Facing up to them takes courage.
Some readers were disappointed because The Society of Timid Souls wasn’t a self-help book as they had hoped. Others were relieved because it wasn’t a self-help book as they had feared. Here are some thoughts I came away with:
· Courageous, adventuresome and crazy fall at different points on the same continuum. The chapter about people who are enamored of heights and long to fly (and not in planes) was interesting but not terribly relevant to me. I don’t have much in common with the man who dressed himself in a flying squirrel suit J; I think twice before getting on the ferris wheel at the Firemen’s Fair. Philippe Petite-and-friends who walk on a tightrope over the nave of a cathedral or between two skyscrapers are brave – but maybe a little nuts, too?
· A distinction the author makes is between people who take risks on their own behalf and those who do it for the sake of others. None of us would question the quality of courage of firefighters who enter burning buildings or soldiers who thread their way through mine fields to save others. Our Lord’s assertion, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13), sure fits those circumstances. Those who choose professions that clearly involve putting themselves in harm’s way (firefighters, police, members of the armed services, first responders, infectious disease medical/nursing personnel) receive our special admiration.
· There were riveting instances of people reacting courageously in the moment to life-threatening situations. As one woman saw a very large dog lunge toward a baby carriage she stepped between canine and infant and took the brunt of the dog’s ferocity. She was not related to the baby. She matter-of-factly said she reacted instinctively to protect the child. Interestingly, the baby’s mother was also present but paralyzed by fright. Which one would I be?
· There was another example of a soldier named Martin Bell who disobeyed a direct order and went after an injured comrade in a minefield. His quick action saved the life of his buddy, who would have died of blood loss before the other soldiers reached him. After Private Bell applied tourniquets to his friends’ legs, he stepped on another mine and lost his own life. The author wrote: “Martin Bell did the wrong thing, but it was the right thing to do.” (p. 39) That is the perspective of faith. What would I have done?
· There were also jarring examples of people who did not act in the face of another human being’s need. “The Bystander Effect” was described this way: “the greater the number of bystanders who witnessed any given emergency, the less likely or the more slowly any one of them was to intervene.”2 The most famous example of that is Kitty Genovese’s death in 1968 after a lengthy attack that at least 38 neighbors witnessed from their windows. In 2006 a 34-year-old mountain climber named David Sharp perished in his attempt to summit Mt. Everest. About 40 other climbers passed him as they either ascended or descended. A friend who gave a eulogy at the funeral is quoted as saying, “All the experts say a rescue was not possible, but, oh boy, did anyone even try?”3 What would I have done? The author mentioned that some sociologists’ hypothesis that the flames of the Holocaust were fueled by the Bystander Effect as well. What would I have done?
· I learned that firefighters, police, members of the armed forces, first responders are conditioned to act in helpful ways by practice, practice, practice, drills, drills, drills, repetition, repetition, repetition. To some extent we can program ourselves (or others can program us) to respond in certain ways, including brave ways.
· The importance of passing along the stories of the faith was reinforced within me loud and clear. “Our moral education, from Aesop to the Parables, Shakespeare to Harry Potter, has always relied upon stories.”4 Teaching children Bible stories from both Hebrew and Christian Scripture, teaching them the stories of the courageous friends of Jesus who “preached” the Gospel eloquently with deeds rather than words over the ages, shapes their faith and raises their gaze and en-courage-s them to live similarly brave and faith-filled lives. (We learned this lesson also when we read Amish Grace and heard how the Amish intentionally teach their children the stories of their forebears who suffered and were even martyred for the faith. The young woman who gave her life to protect the children under her care from the gunman in their one room schoolhouse did not act in a vacuum.)
When love of neighbor or love of the Gospel calls upon us to be brave, let us take courage from Moses’ words of en-courage-ment to his brother Aaron:
“Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread… because it is the LORD your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6)
Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham
1 Polly Morland. The Society of Timid Souls or How to Be Brave. NY: Crown, 2013.
2Ibid, pp. 237-238.
3Ibid, p. 212.
4Ibid, p. 16.