Here’s a sermon on “Courage: Letting Your Light Shine” delivered by me on October 20, 2013, at the First Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Hunterdon county. Where do you find the courage to be your true self?
EE Cummings, a famous poet and Unitarian, is reported to have written in his diary, “may I be I is the only prayer – not may I be great or good or beautiful or strong”
“The glory of God is a human being fully alive” wrote the second century Christian theologian Ireneaus. One doesn’t need to be a Christian – or even a theist – to appreciate the beauty of this phrase. Have you ever seen someone fully alive? Is there someone in your life who you just look at, and you think, they are living to the fullest – they are the most them that they can possibly be? And what would it look like if you were fully alive? It may seem an odd question. You are, of course, completely alive in this very moment. But I suspect that in most spiritual people there is a perennial yearning to be fully ourselves. At moments in our lives we feel like we’ve achieved it – we are in a blissed, blessed state of being exactly who we are meant to be. At other times, we feel a yearning to be more. Or maybe to be less – to shed the parts of our lives that are extraneous, unnecessary – or maybe all too necessary but they don’t feel real. We want to live a real life – not anyone else’s life but our own. And so we seek courage – the courage to be who we really are.
Malala Yousafzai is a sixteen year-old-girl who grew up in the beautiful Swat Valley in Pakistan. The elder sister to two younger brothers, Malala was a bright child who loved going to school, a social girl with many friends. She stayed up late to talk about politics and education with her father, who ran several small schools in the region.
When she was 11 years old, Malala did something that may sound fairly ordinary – she wrote a blog about going to school. But this was an incredibly brave act, because she wrote it in 2009, and the Taliban was threatening that all female education had to close down, or else. Malala did not believe, at first, that others would take away her access to education. “Don’t they have daughters too?” she asked. She was simply doing what seemed to her the most natural thing in the world – writing about her daily experiences as a girl in school. But for her, to be who she was entailed great risks.
The blog was anonymous. But Malala wasn’t afraid to be who she was. She spoke on a regional TV show and later was part of a New York Times documentary. Meanwhile, things in her region got worse. The Taliban were gaining influence in what was already a conservative district. Many of you, who have followed Malala’s story in the media, know what happened next. She was shot in the forehead at close range and almost died. She survived, left Pakistan, and continued to tell her story. Malala is a high profile advocate for girls’ education, recently speaking at the United Nations and being a nominee for a Peace Prize. Because of her actions for universal education, even though she is now away from Pakistan, it continues to be extremely dangerous for her to be who she is.
In our day, exemplars of courage our not hard to fine. Where we used to turn to Hercules or other mythical figures to give us examples of heroism, now there are so many real-life courageous people to inspire us, from Mahatma Gandhi to Rosa Parks. Malala herself, when she gave her speech at the UN, was wearing a shawl that belonged to Benazir Bhutto, the Prime Minister of Pakistan who was imprisoned, exiled, and assassinated for her amazing love of and work for Pakistani democracy. Heroes are not hard to find. The hard part, of course, is finding the courage to live like them.
Often, courage is mustered up during extraordinary times. Extraordinary times is not just extraordinary times, like the rise of the Taliban in Pakistan, but also extraordinary times in individual lives. Times like when you’re facing the end of life and have to make decisions about your care, or about the care of a loved one. Or during a career transition, where you’re venturing out into the unknown, your livelihood at risk. Or here’s an extraordinary time: when you’re adjusting to living alone, and there’s some social event coming up, maybe a gathering at someone’s house. And you think, well, I’m going to go to that. Stepping through that door can take a lot of courage.
Courage allows us to live into the possible. Courage is the acceptance that we don’t have control over the outcome of the situation – we don’t know how things are going to go, but we go ahead and do them anyway. Paul Tillich, a theologian, speaks about courage and anxiety, anxiety in the modern age. He defines anxiety as a generalized awareness and fear of non-being. Non-being includes death, but there are other kinds of non-being: not living a meaningful life is a kind of non-being, the sense that we’re not being our full selves. Guilt is also a kind of non-being, the awareness that we haven’t been our full moral selves. And there is the non-being of not being in full control of the situation, the existential dread that our lives are not fully our own, and fate controls the outcomes, not us.
Tillich says that courage is not to ignore any of these concerns, but to accept them and then, even so, to manifest the courage to be. The courage to be: to say the fundamental “I AM” to the universe, to acknowledge that our lives are, are own, that they are worthy, that we are going to live them on our own terms.
There are two parts to the courage to be, says Tillich: the courage to be fully ourselves, and to courage to be fully a part of something larger than ourselves. Both reflect the true nature of the universe. We are a each unique individual, no one will ever live our lives but us, not in a million years. That is a great responsibility. At the same time, we are a part of something: a part of a family, a part of a nation, and a part of our interconnected world.
It is not denying our individuality to be a team player, it is just acknowledging that side of our being that is fundamentally connected to everything else. A lot of times we have these culture clashes in our society, between the people who say you should be a total individual – the artists, the rebels, the non-conformists, with those who say you should be loyal to something – the patriots, the people who put family first, the enthusiastic members of a religious group. The more we can be both – a complete individual, a total nonconformist who nonetheless makes a special effort to connect with others and serve others with all her hearts – the better the world would be, in my humble opinion. I also tend to think the most truly interesting people manage to be both total individuals while connecting fully with others – not an easy thing to pull off, which is one reason why being human is so terribly tricky.
But look at Malala. She knows who she is. And because she is so secure about who she is, she’s able to be a part of something. She is willing to walk into the grand hall of the United Nations, and say what she believes to a room full of dignitaries. She does so bolstered by her faith – she is a Muslim – and with the compassion she has learned from, as she says, religious figures like Muhammed the prophet of mercy, Jesus christ and Lord Buddha, as well as more recent heroes like Martin Luther King, Bacha Khan and Mother Theresa. She is knows she is not alone, but is a part of something. And so she finds the courage to speak, the courage to be publicly, fully herself. And Malala being Malala has inspired millions of people worldwide. A young girl thousands of miles away watches Malala on the TV, and it makes her own life, and her struggle for education, for a good life, seem even more real. Because it is supported, because it is a part of something, it is recognized.
Now, I know invoking Malala here sets a very high standard for courage. I’m not asking you to fight for girls’ education in Pakistan. That’s a valid concern for a lifetime, but it may not be your personal calling. I’m not asking for you to be world-famous, influential on millions. What I want for you: is for you to be who you really are. That’s all any of us can really ask of each other, isn’t it? To be who we really are. I don’t know who that is for you, exactly – only you can name it. But as your minister, and more importantly as a fellow human being, what I would like you to be most of all is fully yourself.
I think it’s important to name that because so we often we get other messages than this. We’re told by advertisements that what is wanted is for us to be skinny or rich good looking. We may get messages from family, explicitly or implicitly, about who we’re meant to be. Even the message about the need to be a good person can come across as mere moralizing, if it is not at heart a message to be our true selves. These messages can seduce us to be something other than what we truly are. The Catholic nun Joan Chittister – who has struggled both with her church and with the patriarchy of the larger culture – wrote, “The greatest spiritual problem of them all may be that we are simply too willing to give over our sense of direction, our compulsion to search, to those who want from us anything but a self. They want obedience or conformity or sacrifice and silence.”
Self-discovery and justice work can be intimately related. So often they’re distinct in our world: we talk about “taking a break” from the cares of the world for a time of finding ourselves. But I think if we do our self-discovery work well, it will ultimately connect us with the world more fully. Maybe the way we save the world by becoming fully ourselves.
The glory of God is a human being fully alive. So wake up, let go of whatever is holding you back, and come to life, again, to be who you truly are.