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.
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.
It 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.
…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.
Brené 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).
For 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 +