Tag Archives: Heroism

“Ordinary Courage”

Last week at the White House James McCloughan was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Trump – the highest honor bestowed by the United States military – for “conspicuous gallantry” and “distinguished action” in saving the lives of 10 American soldiers and their Vietnamese interpreter during the battle of Tam Ky in Vietnam in May of 1969.

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Wounded himself three times, at one point Pfc. McCloughan was ordered by his captain onto one of the evacuation helicopters and he refused to go because he was the last medic who was still alive at that point and he knew “that they were going to need him.” So, he stitched up his own wounds and ran back into the battle to take care of more of his fallen comrades.  When I say the word “courage” it’s people like James McLoughan who first come to mind; people who run towards trouble when most of us are trying to run away from it.  Who isn’t impressed by, and grateful for people like him?  James McCloughan deserves all of the recognition that he is only now getting for his heroism as a young man.  It’s a shame that it took so long.

We all need heroes. We all need role models.  We all need good examples to follow.  And James McCloughan certainly deserves to be one of them.  But when our understanding of courage is so closely tied to extraordinary acts of bravery like James McCloughan’s that transpire in a moment of time, I fear that we are at risk of missing the more ordinary displays of courage that people are living all the time, moment by moment, day after day, all around us. Without disrespecting the courage of extraordinary people like James McCloughan, I must say that the most courageous people I have personally known in my lifetime have been some rather ordinary men and women who, burdened with unimaginable difficulties, challenges, and sorrows in their lives, nevertheless got up every morning, washed their faces, put on their clothes, and headed out the door to face the new day with faith, and hope, and love.  There will be no award ceremonies for them.  Their courage goes largely unnoticed.  But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t there, or that it isn’t impressive.

This week I conducted the memorial service of one of these courageous people whom I have known. Three and a half years ago I conducted the memorial service for her husband.  On the day of his service a picture was taken of her.  She had just been widowed.  She wore a head scarf because she was in treatment for the reoccurrence of cancer, something that she had lived with, and fought for 20 years.  And yet, there she sat in her recliner that day, surrounded by her grandchildren, smiling.  It’s a picture of courage, not the extraordinary kind of courage that emerges in the moment of a crisis when a single heroic decision must be made in an instant like James McCloughan did on that battlefield in Southeast Asia nearly 50 years ago, but the ordinary kind of courage that only becomes visible gradually over a long period of time because of some carefully considered decision made long before the actual circumstances of one’s life begin to unfold.

nietzscheIt was Friedrich Nietzsche who described life as “a long obedience in the same direction,” and it seems to me that you can’t undertake this journey without courage, without that sort of ordinary courage that empowers you to constantly put one foot down in front of another and to just keep moving forward, not through the world of your dreams, but through the world of your actual circumstances.

The first verses of the fifth chapter of Romans describe the initial decision of faith that Christians make. This is where our journey begins as believers.

 …since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God.

 Justification by faith” is one of the ways that the New Testament talks about that carefully considered decision made beforehand that sets the direction for everything else that follows in the life of a Christian.  Romans 5:1-2 is about that initial decision of faith whereby Jesus Christ becomes one’s personal Lord and Savior. And it’s that decision that determines how we will react to whatever it is that comes next in our lives.  It’s “foundational,” which is why Paul said that it’s the source of our peace, and the basis of the grace in which we stand and by which we live, and the ground of our hope.  In fact, the next three verses of Romans chapter 5 builds the staircase to hope that sooner or later we’ve all got to climb.

steps …we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope…

Do you see the stair steps there – the step up from suffering to endurance, and then the step up from endurance to character, and then finally the step up from character to hope? It takes real courage to make this climb.

In many translations of the Bible that word “suffering” gets rendered “tribulation.” In the ancient mills the “tribulum” was the threshing sled that got pulled over the grain scattered on a hard surface to crack it open so that the husk could be separated from the kernel.   Tribulation is the crushing weight of life’s circumstances that break our hearts.  It was C.S. Lewis who said that there’s nothing about this kind of suffering that in and of itself guarantees the outcome of hope that Paul wrote about in Romans chapter 5.  Tribulation doesn’t inevitably and invariably produce hope. In fact, it can just as often result in bitterness, you know – “Two men looked out from prison bars, one saw the mud, the other saw stars.”

What makes the difference, it seems to me, is navigating the second step of that stair case that Paul constructed in Romans 5 – that step up from tribulation to endurance. So, what is it the enables some people to do this, to be able to step up out of their tribulations into endurance while other people just get stuck in their struggles and sorrows?  And I think the answer’s courage.

heartBrené Brown likes to point out that the root word for “courage” – “cor, cordis”– is the Latin word for “heart.” “Courage is a heart word” she says, and Paul in those verses from Romans chapter 5 said that the hope we find on the top step of that staircase “does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.”

The thing that we discover at the very beginning of the Christian life when we are first justified by faith is that God loves us, and that we had nothing to do with God’s decision to do so. We didn’t somehow make God love us.  We certainly can’t make God stop loving us.  God just loves us, all of us, it was settled once and for all on Calvary’s cross.  And I believe that the courage of endurance that moves us from tribulation to hope is made possible for us because we know this; because we know that God loves us, and that nothing – not tribulation, not distress, not persecution, not famine, not nakedness, not peril, not sword, not life, and not even death – has the power to separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ (Romans 8:35-39).

anchorFor good reason the Christian symbol for hope is the anchor.   An anchor is what holds a boat safely in place when the winds howl, and the waves beat, and the storms surge.  And I’m thinking of that picture of my friend taken three and a half years ago.  The winds were howling that day.  The waves were beating. The storm was surging.   She was a brand new widow with cancer, and there she sat, surrounded by her grandchildren, smiling.  It’s a picture of courage, the courage of a faith that had been settled long before that day ever arrived, the courage of someone who knew that she was loved by God no matter what may come.  I believe that she was smiling in that picture because she could sense even then that her anchor holding, and she knew that it always would. DBS +

 

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The “Bits and Pieces” Mentality

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It was Dr. David Naugle, a professor of philosophy at Dallas Baptist University, who introduced me to the problem of “bits and pieces.” In his book Worldview: The History of a Concept (Eerdmans 2002), he described the way that we fail to make connections as the “bits and pieces mentality.” He says that it is a characteristic of our age not to connect the dots. We tend to see things in complete isolation from each other. Our lives are a random series of events and experiences, actions and reactions, with nothing holding them together, nothing helping us to make sense of them as a unified whole. And so what happens in church on Sunday is completely separate from what happens in the office on Monday, or at home on Tuesday, or in the home owners’ association meeting on Wednesday, or in the conversation about the Refugee crisis on the Mexico border with friends on Thursday, or paying the monthly bills on Friday, or on the golf course on Saturday. And what happens in church this Sunday, at least in many of our minds, has absolutely nothing to do with what happens in church next Sunday. They are all completely disconnected, totally unrelated moments; each one existing in splendid isolation from all the others.

In The Genesee Diary ( Image Books – 1981), his reflections on his seven month stay at a Trappist Monastery in Western New York State, Henri Nouwen said that he went there to directly confront his “compulsions and illusions,” to answer the questions – “Is there a quiet stream underneath the fluctuating affirmations and rejections of my little world? Is there a still point where my life is anchored and from which I can reach out with hope and courage and confidence?” (14). This is not just an assignment for a spiritual giant like Nouwen who had some time on his hands; it’s a project that all of us must undertake in our search for meaning and purpose.

Back now from my two month Sabbatical, the pace and demands of ministry in an active and busy congregation like Northway have forcefully reintroduced themselves to me. I didn’t ease back into it like stepping into a hot bath, a little bit at a time. No, it was more like being thrown into the deep end of the pool. From the first day back there have been meetings to attend, people to see, staff to be consulted, hospitals to visit, worship services to arrange, sermons to write, Bible Studies to prepare and conduct, pastoral contacts to be made, problems to be solved, reports to be prepared, planning to be done, funerals and weddings to be conducted, church visitors to be followed-up, outreach into the community to be undertaken. I’m not complaining – I love this life, I really do, and I know how blessed I am to have been able to do this work with this people for the past 17 years. But the shift from the rather leisurely and largely unstructured Sabbatical pace to the full-throttled, wide-open pace of a typical week of ministry around here has left me grappling with the question of the location of the still point around which everything else spins. What holds this life and its work together?

One of my favorite theologians is the late Donald Bloesch. An evangelical in a mainline denomination (the United Church of Christ), he has been something of a role model for me through the years for my own ministry as an evangelical in a mainline denomination. One of his books, perhaps my favorite, certainly the most used, is Faith and its Counterfeits (IVP – 1981). He called this book “a handbook on evangelical spirituality,” and he named its purpose as being “to show the difference between true Christianity and some counterfeit versions of the faith” (11).

Faith

He named six “counterfeits” to “true religion” (“true religion” defined by the standards of James 1:27 – “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world”) –
1. Legalism – a relationship to a moral code rather than to a living Savior [25];
2. Formalism – preoccupation with propriety in worship and theology, the acceptance of doctrine without the Spirit, embracing the forms of godliness without the power (2 Timothy 3:5) [36];
3. Humanitarianism – the effort not to permeate the world with the leaven of the gospel, but to remold the world in the image of enlightened humanity [47-48];
4. Enthusiasm – the quest for a direct or immediate experience of God, seeking after a premature redemption, a dramatic anticipation of the glory that is yet to be revealed [62];
5. Eclecticism – the willingness to bend the Gospel to fit the preconceptions of the surrounding culture, upholding the spirit of religion over dogma, the quest for truth over a definitive witness to the truth [76-77];
6. Heroism – climbing the ladder of perfection and expecting mastery over self and triumph over the principalities and powers rather than being a humble recipient of divine grace who responds with acts of loving-kindness and mercy [90-91].

Any one of these six “counterfeits” can be dropped into the center of a church’s life and become “the still point” to which its life gets anchored and around which its work rotates, with disastrous consequence. And so Donald Bloesch concluded –

The bane of many churches today is an empty formalism or a barren Biblicism, either of which degenerates into an oppressive legalism. Other churches that seem more vital are plagued by a perfectionist enthusiasm or a frenetic activism that borders on humanism. What is needed is a recovery of the depth and breadth of apostolic faith, a revival of true religion. It is important to bear in mind that Jesus Christ is not just a moral ideal or a prophetic genius but a living Savior. He is not simply the human representative of God but God himself in human flesh. It is not enough to know the historical facts about the life of Christ, how he lived and died. Each person must know that Jesus died for him or her personally. (106-107)

lamp

It is the Gospel (I Corinthians 15:1-19) that is the glue that holds the “bits and pieces” of our lives and world together. Historically, we who are “Disciples” have known this. Our life as a church centers around the Lord’s Table where every week the bread gets broken in remembrance of Christ’s body given for us, and the cup gets poured out in remembrance of His blood shed for us. Just to be clear, it’s not the Lord’s Supper, the bread and cup themselves and the act of eating and drinking them that is the glue that holds our “bits and pieces” together, but the Gospel of which they are the Lord’s appointed emblems. Communion is just a finger that points to the greater fact of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection, and it’s His death, burial and resurrection, how He died for our sins as our Savior and was raised for our transformation as our Lord and not the bite of bread and the sip of juice that anchors everything else we think and do as a community of Christian faith. All of which is to say that the Gospel must be “explicit.” As J. Mack Stiles makes clear in his writings, when the Gospel is “assumed,” it soon gets “confused,” and it will eventually get “lost” and will be “forgotten” (Marks of a Messenger – IVP – 2010).

In a time and place when “things are falling apart,” fragmenting into “bits and pieces,” because “the center does not hold” as Yeats put it, it is time that we be absolutely clear that there is a center to the church’s life and work, and that it holds. It’s not legalism, formalism, humanitarianism, enthusiasm, eclecticism, or heroism, it’s “Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:2). He alone is the church’s and the world’s center of spiritual gravity, the one in whom “all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). And it’s our job to be absolutely clear about it.  DBS+

 

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