Courage for the Journey (6-9-2019)

If you’re on the Worship Committee, you may know that finding the image for the cover of the Order of Service is a part of preparing the service that I find delightful and meaningful. I have decided that I’ve been selfishly holding on to this task rather than sharing the ministry, so I’m looking forward to working with some folks on making this a collaborative effort next year, but for today I went ahead and did an image search on my own. So when I did a search for images related to courage, I found a lot of pictures of one person alone, maybe silhouetted by a sunrise. A few pictures were of animals by themselves, usually a predator at top speed. Some of the images were related to war or violence. Not to diminish the courage of mountaintop athletes, service members, or animals trying to survive in the current climate, but none of those images captured what I think of as courage. To the best of my understanding, courage is something we draw from interdependence.

In the invitation to the Offering, you heard my colleague, Erika Hewitt, remind us that the word courage has something to do with hearts. To encourage means to hearten, to impart strength.

Erika’s reminder of the relationship between heart and courage brings me back to interdependence again. In human beings and some other animals, hearts have four chambers. Blood comes in through the right atrium, out through the right ventricle to the lungs, in through the left atrium, out into the body through the left ventricle, all around and back again. The different parts of the heart work together, and the cells of the heart have their specialized roles, finding a shared rhythm. If we are to be encouragers of the community in which we live, we might learn to work together like cells of a heart. We take in energy and information and resources from our experience, we inspire it with the breath of life in our worship and spiritual activities, we open our awareness and focus our attention in turn, moving that energy outward again to bring renewal to our neighborhoods and our world. Tense, relax. Let the blood in, push the blood out. Receive, give. Find inspiration, give inspiration. All of these things happen with cooperation, with willingness to follow the same rhythm, even in very different parts of the dance.

Courage, to me, is about being in relationship. Sometimes that relationship is with ancestors or role models or a higher power; courage can come from sources that are not immediately obvious. Sometimes that relationship is with the core of truth, that part of ourselves that is authentic and in touch with the Source of Love. Yet it is my experience that courage that is sustainable is continuously on the move. Like our heart and lungs and circulatory system, we must renew and create and exchange to stay in connection with the Spirit of Life. We need other people, as frustrating as humans might be, to ensure that our courage is the kind of courage that moves with the current of life. Courage is not a rock that we can keep in a pocket. Courage is a pulse that moves from person to person, from community to community, from generation to generation.

On Thursday night, I was on a conference call to prepare for a public witness event with Repairers of the Breach that is being planned for Wednesday morning. Faith leaders are planning to march to the White House to deliver a message based on the Book of Jeremiah:

This is God’s Message: Attend to matters of justice. Set things right between people. Rescue victims from their exploiters. Don’t take advantage of the homeless, the foreigners, the orphans, the widows. Stop the murdering!

I will note that the Jeremiah message is not the only public witness happening on Wednesday. If you’d like to come to that on Wednesday morning, or go to the protest against immigrant child detention Wednesday afternoon with the UU’s for Social Justice and the American Friends Service Committee, let me know.

On the conference call, we had some logistical details, and we also had some prayer and mutual encouragement. Rabbi Arthur Waskow gave us a good word when he reminded us about a prayer said in synagogues as the congregation completes the reading of one book of the Torah: Chazak, Chazak, V’nitchazeik. It means, “Be strong, be strong, let us strengthen one another.” (Here are some other thoughts about this prayer by Rabbi Nancy H. Wiener, D.Min: Chazak, Chazak, V’nitchazeik.) Chazak is in the singular, it’s about one person. V’nitchazeik is plural, it’s about we and us. We need one another. Rabbi Waskow reminded us to strengthen one another as we face setbacks, alarming events, and uncertainty.

The closing of one chapter is a time to draw courage. Heading into the unknown is a time to draw courage. Any given moment that is remembered in sacred text is such a time; a time when the people might, indeed, be afraid; and yet the people strengthen one another and draw strength from their faith. Not everybody in this congregation has a direct connection with Judaism, though a fairly significant minority of members here do, so this prayer may not resonate with you from that angle, yet it points back to interdependence, which is absolutely a Unitarian Universalist value.

Within its context, though, Chazak, Chazak, V’nitchazeik reminds me of the importance of lending one another strength in the midst of horror, of lament, of struggles that are likely to be part of the heritage we impart to future generations. Jewish faith and liturgy developed in relationship with struggle, carrying people through millennia of difficult times. As we face our current times of speaking out for human rights, responding to climate disaster, joining together for reproductive justice, and more, we need to remember the wisdom of traditions where immediate success is unlikely.

Unitarian Universalist writings over the last 75 years have often had a flavor of optimism for progress, salvation through character, onward and upward forever. In these times, our optimism is tempered. There are other strands in our living tradition– theologies and practices of keeping faith when the results are not yet evident. We may need to do a little more work to remember them, or to honor the ones that are being created even now by UU theologians and artists and writers who are in touch with the margins. There are Unitarian Universalists who know something about sustaining faith in times of struggle. Let us practice the interdependence we proclaim. Strengthen one another.

The summer season is not the end of the liturgical year. It is its own season, with its own character. Some UU congregations operate with very little difference between the summer months and the rest of the year. There is a range in how congregations respond to the seasons. This one falls a fair bit toward the edge of the spectrum represented by a marked change of pace in the summer. But even here, the year is not over. Stretching before us is a season of empowerment, of dreaming, of experimentation, of planning. It is a bit like completing an important chapter and leaping into the next one. We don’t know for sure what will happen. We might learn something that changes everything. There will be new perspectives in worship. Make the most of this opportunity. Strengthen one another.

The extent to which members of the congregation care for one another becomes clear in a new way when the seasons change. In the coming months, there will be births and deaths, marriages and divorces, new jobs and lost jobs, new homes and new neighbors. These thresholds of life bring tremendous emotional weight. Families behave at their most family-like in the months around major rites of passage. Even when there is joy, there is a lot to cope with. You don’t have to do it alone. Reach out to one another, and to the people you haven’t seen in awhile. Contact the Lay Ministry team if you would like a peer listener to talk to. Stay in touch with your committees and small groups, even if you don’t meet in July. Strengthen one another.

This season may be a time for you of deeper engagement with social justice. There are public witness events, training weekends, retreats, justice-themed concerts, and pilgrimages that create opportunities to learn, to pray, to share, to be transformed. It may be the case that someone with power and influence will be moved by watching large numbers of people assemble. To me, the greater purpose is to connect. Be with people who are moving together in pursuit of shared values. Reach back into the legacies of our living tradition for the rituals and resources that can sustain us in the struggle. Learn more about faith communities and organizations with which this congregation might form institutional partnerships. Meet one another face-to-face and open your heart about your fears, your frustrations, your hopes for the kind of world we might create. Strengthen one another.

Most of us are like the little elephant in the picture on the cover of your Order of Service. We may be a little reluctant to head into the water. We may not know what awaits on the path ahead. We may feel relatively small in the grand scheme of things. Yet we don’t have to do it alone. Encourage someone. Be encouraged. Be strong. Be strong. Strengthen one another.

So be it. Blessed be. Amen.