“Beautiful Souls” by Mark W. Harris
October 7, 2018 – First Parish of Watertown
Opening Words – from Thomas Merton
“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”
Readings – “Courage” by Anne Sexton
It is in the small things we see it.
The child’s first step,
as awesome as an earthquake.
The first time you rode a bike,
wallowing up the sidewalk.
The first spanking when your heart
went on a journey all alone.
When they called you crybaby
or poor or fatty or crazy
and made you into an alien,
you drank their acid
and concealed it.
if you faced the death of bombs and bullets
you did not do it with a banner,
you did it with only a hat to
cover your heart.
You did not fondle the weakness inside you
though it was there.
Your courage was a small coal
that you kept swallowing.
If your buddy saved you
and died himself in so doing,
then his courage was not courage,
it was love; love as simple as shaving soap.
if you have endured a great despair,
then you did it alone,
getting a transfusion from the fire,
picking the scabs off your heart,
then wringing it out like a sock.
Next, my kinsman, you powdered your sorrow,
you gave it a back rub
and then you covered it with a blanket
and after it had slept a while
it woke to the wings of the roses
and was transformed.
when you face old age and its natural conclusion
your courage will still be shown in the little ways,
each spring will be a sword you’ll sharpen,
those you love will live in a fever of love,
and you’ll bargain with the calendar
and at the last moment
when death opens the back door
you’ll put on your carpet slippers
and stride out.
The Journey by Mary Oliver
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and
though the voices around you
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life that you could
Everyone one of us in some time or place has been called a name, been taunted, or endured a difficult trial. As Anne Sexton says in her poem “Courage,” “When they called you crybaby
or poor or fatty or crazy, and made you into an alien, you drank their acid, and concealed it.” I took those taunts of fat boy home, and cried about it, but as I said two weeks ago in my jock sermon, I learned how to run, and soon beat them all in a school race. We may all recall times when we think we exhibited courage in our own lives. We hear echoes of some of those in our story for all ages, and in our readings. Perhaps it was when that bicycle was wobbling back and forth, but rather than panicking, we pedaled faster, and showed our determination to ride. Or maybe it was that time that all the other kids were grabbing hold of the rope swing and riding it out over the pond only to let go for what looked like an amazing ride into the water below. I did that once, but forgot to let go, and found a bright red rope burn from head to toe. Was the ride worth it? It was kind of a badge of honor to show my bravery. Yes, I tried it, even though I was afraid. I did it, and had the scar to show for it.
Andrea and I were recently at a photography exhibit by Sally Mann at the Peabody Essex Museum, where a photo of a horse showed a lifetime of wounds. Mann referred to this as “proud flesh,” the scar tissue over the horse’s wounds. Mann also has a series of photos of her husband, mostly showing his aging body. We, humans, end up with proud flesh, too, and are reminded daily that aging is not for sissies. A new scar now adorns my abdomen, where I had surgery for the bowel blockage this year. So, perhaps you have been worried what people will say to you about your aging or injured body, so you conceal it, or try to change it in some way. But Mann’s photos remind us to be proud of these scars of life. We know we have endured and survived. When I was in Atlanta last weekend waiters and hotel staff kept calling me “young man,” and I didn’t know if it was Southern hospitality or a not so subtle way of reminding me that I was not so young, and it showed.
The last two weeks of television news about the Supreme Court Justice nomination process have been painful. We all witnessed in varying degrees the testimony of Christine Blasey-Ford who showed such courage in coming forward to tell her story of how she was sexually assaulted as a teenager by the nominee. Like her, so many women carry untold stories of assault, drinking the acid and concealing what they once endured. We learn that true courage is living with the pain of the attacks, knowing that telling the story may expose them to taunts and ridicule or cries of false accusations, which in Blasey-Ford’s case resulted in death threats. Yet she came forward. Her testimony was a reminder of what true courage is.
I think many of us, especially men, learn that courage is often considered physical courage, especially in war. So the medal of honor winners are those soldiers who rescue wounded comrades at the risk of being wounded or killed themselves, or it is the firefighter going into the burning building to save the life of a person. Courage, we learned, is serving your country, risking your life, and following orders to reach a goal of gaining power and control over an enemy. I am reminded of the Henry Fleming character in Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, who runs from the battlefield, and considers himself a coward until he can show he has a wound, a red badge of courage, and upon his return, he volunteers to be the flag bearer. This idea of bravery moved me to become a student of the Civil War, because war with my historically accurate toy gun in my hand seemed glorious and honorable, but I soon learned otherwise.
This is the point Atticus Finch makes in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, when he indicates his admiration for Mrs. DuBose, a mean and cranky old woman who is battling a morphine addiction. As punishment for destroying her flowers, Jem, Atticus’ son, had to read to her to help her focus on something besides her addiction, and the desire for drugs. Every time he came to visit, she would make the timer go longer to try to force herself away from the addiction. When the alarm clock rang it was time to take a dose. The time delay works, and she is able to stop and finally be free of the addiction before she dies, at which time she leaves Jem a single perfect camellia blossom. Atticus tells Jem, “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”
There are two stories of courage that stand out from my youth. One of these was the Bible story of Daniel in the Lion’s Den. I can still picture coloring in the brave Daniel surrounded by once vicious Lions, that somehow have been pacified. It is a story of redemption when it feels like everything has been lost, and further a story of the refusal of a person of conscience to give in to the pressure of laws and unjust administrators. In the story King Darius appoints several administrators to help him govern. Their leader, Daniel, is liked by the king, but despised by his fellow advisors. They trick the king into passing a law that prohibits anyone from worshipping anyone except the king. If the new law was violated, the punishment was to be thrown into the lion’s den. Daniel, who is a highly devout man continues to kneel and pray to God on a daily basis violating the new law. Unfortunately, even though the king loved Daniel, he could not revoke the new law because of a custom whereby once a law was passed, it could not be repealed. As you may remember, the nasty advisors caught Daniel in the act of praying, and he was thrown into the lion’s den at sundown. Poor Darius could not revoke his decree, and he stayed awake all night worrying that Daniel would become dinner for the lions. At dawn, Darius ran to the lions’ den and saw that Daniel had been protected by God, and survived. I suppose a traditional interpretation of the story would be that faithfulness to God will bring you through, but it seems to me we can give it a humanist twist to see that it tells us that a person who follows their conscience and lives with integrity reflects the courage to persevere, endure and survive.
If Daniel’s story of living with integrity and courage is one powerful childhood memory, then the other was the annual family TV viewing of the Wizard of Oz, which featured Bert Lahr as the cowardly lion. You may remember this endearing character who when Dorothy first meets him acts like a growling bully, who chases Toto, only to have Dorothy slap him, and bring him to tears. It turns out that the king of the jungle is afraid of everything, saying “I even scare myself.” He shows them the circles under his eyes indicating lack of sleep because he lives in such fear all the time. He says he can’t even count sheep to go to sleep because he is afraid of them. He then goes on to sing, “If I Only Had the Nerve.” The Cowardly Lion believes that his fear makes him inadequate, somehow thinking that if fear were not present he would be okay. He fails to realize that courage means acting in the face of fear, which he often does in the movie. As Nelson Mandela once said, “Courage is not the absence of fear but the triumph over it.”
I would say that those two stories gave me some solid grounding as a kid in what being courageous means. It also began to give me a lesson that courage was not merely about physical strength, but that moral courage was required, too. Mark Twain once said, “It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.” That is perhaps what is so astounding and heartbreaking about this Supreme Court nomination process. One side was totally oblivious to the extent of the lying, anger, and disrespectful behavior shown by the nominee. Investigating allegations of sexual assault meant they completely avoided the character issue and did not consider how his angry, callous, politically charged behavior disqualifies him for the position of Supreme Court judge. Both what he did many years ago plus his demeanor today, and the insistence of the Republican majority to win at all costs regardless of how the fight was fought or the disturbing character of the person they were supporting show the ongoing sexism of the culture. The sexual behavior that has been tolerated, and the trauma that it causes are legion. There is some hope that this is going to change. But the mocking disparagement and ridicule Christine Blasey Ford endured at the hands of our highest officials was inhumane. Perhaps worst of all is that Blasey Ford remembers the cruel laughter of her attacker’s as the worst memory seared into her psyche from the events of that night of the assault. “They were having fun at my expense, she says. And then we have to witness at a Presidential rally a replication of this humiliation with people laughing and jeering in a public display of hatred.
For a number of years, I watched the TV show Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Recently the star of that show Mariska Hargitay, received an award for the organization she created, the Joyful Heart Foundation, which helps victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse. She said she was humbled to receive the award during this time when so many extraordinary women’s voices — so many brave survivors — have brought so much long-awaited and deeply necessary change.” Coincidently, she received the award on the night that Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Hargitay told the assembled group, I just want to say that I am and have always been deeply moved by courage. And I believe that is what I witnessed today.” Blasey Ford spoke of her fear of coming forward, and how it was her civic duty. We have to bear witness to her story. How she held this in for so long, and then came forward to endure private threats and public mocking. We each need to ask ourselves how we can make it easier for these stories to be told. Is it any wonder that women are angry? When such behavior continues to be tolerated, male privilege continues to be upheld, and only when women show remarkable courage to speak-up do we get some sense of what has been tolerated in our society. How many have not come forward for fear of being scorned?
Under what circumstances do we come forward? What impels us to defy authority and convention and speak up? Beautiful Souls, my title today, is a book by Eyal Press about people who showed courage in the face of danger. One such person was Avner Wishnitzer, who grew up on a kibbutz in Israel. For him virtue was measured by how much you contribute to society. He joined an elite military unit defending Israel against its enemies. After some years of service, his sister invited him to a lecture. It was about an area where Palestinians were routinely hassled by Jewish settlers seeking to force them off their land. Eventually he visited the land and saw the destruction which had occurred. Could hisarmy mistreat people in such a way? He had never served in the occupied territories or even spoken directly to Palestinians. Then he went on a bus trip to the site of a settler incursion and met a Jewish officer. He tried to convince him he was a comrade in arms not a beautiful soul, which oddly was a Hebrew expression for someone who was naïve. Avner left when an altercation took place. The officer was just doing his job, which was following orders to control the fight with M-16 rifles. Avner was beginning to see the misuse of Israeli power. He began to realize that he had to betray his commitments. He realized he would refuse to serve in what he now considered an occupying army. Was it a duty to resist an unlawful order? When do we act under the command of our conscience? Cultivating Beautiful Souls may be naïve but we can have faith that people can live with the truth by having the courage to express it.
The question becomes what do we let happen in our lives when we don’t speak up. Most people, Avner realized are bystanders. But he also realized that he could enjoy no such privilege. If you didn’t oppose the occupation, you were with the occupation because you let it go on. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,J.K. Rowling writes, “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.” Avner was really having to stand up to his friends, and say this is morally unconscionable. While we often are able to speak our outrage against those whom we disagree with politically, I find it much more difficult to show courage with friends. We often don’t have the courage to speak up in church when someone is mean or disrespectful. We are even afraid to speak up when another person’s child misbehaves. And yet either of these actions would help the community. A child could learn there are limits, and adults who are not saying anything would have their anger or frustration relieved. When I desperately sought to be married a second time to gain some relief from years of being a single parent, why didn’t someone have the courage to speak up and tell me, you are doing the wrong thing. It would have saved a lot of heartache. We sometimes say or do shortsighted things, and if our friends had the courage to tell us, it could make a big difference in our lives.
What we have seen in this Supreme Court nomination process is people plowing ahead at all costs determined to win without any sense of the consequences. Courage means telling people to wait a minute and listen to the full story. In this case, we have disregarded the long-term consequences of what it does to the country, and the character fitness of the person nominated. We say it all depends upon three Senators to do the right thing. Why don’t we say it depends upon 100 Senators to do the right thing? Do we give these old white men a free pass because we expect them to mindlessly vote to win without regard for morality? We must remind each of them to have a moral compass, that notices bullying, privileged male behavior and sexism. We all must learn to listen to the stories people tell about what has happened in their lives. Having courage is not just about following your conscience. We live in a time where there is too much attacking of the other.
When he was President, Lincoln fought a terrible war to its conclusion. But in the end, he did not want to destroy the enemy with venom or hatred. In his second inaugural he said four lasting words, “with malice toward none.” If we want people to speak the truth, then we must give them room to be heard. If we want people to come forward with courage, then we must learn to listen with respect and kindness. We want to cultivate a moral conscience in everyone. Ultimately, we must put ourselves in the shoes of those who suffer, and extend sympathy to them. Avner went and met the Palestinians first hand. He had to have the courage to meet the other. Flake was confronted by a woman in the elevator who said you must investigate further. While the investigation may have been a sham, at least he was forced to see the pain and anguish of the other. Ultimately, courage means not demonizing the other, because when we do so, we become the demons. Living in community requires courage. Living requires courage. We all live in fear. There is that fear of confronting aging bodies, and the natural conclusion of life. Over the years Andrea and I have met many parents with children of special needs. They often endure the judgments of others, and have little support.. It is lonely and difficult. Yet it is their life. Not one they have chosen, but the one they have. And we often see those parents meeting this life with enduring courage. Think of all those who carry burdens sitting in this room today, parents, victims of sexual assault, those with chronic illnesses, and the courage they have to live hopeful lives. May we all give each other space to tell our story, share our truth, listening with compassion and understanding.
Closing Words by Brene Brown
“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”