a homily by The Rev. Kevin Tarsa
Reflections by Kristin Famula, Acting DRE
delivered October 1, 2017
Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains
Grass Valley, CA
With this service, we enter our month-long exploration of the theme of courage. We’ve begun our work to identify our mission, we transition today from our Acting Director of Religious Education to our new Religious Education Coordinator, and the events around us call us to courageous love and action most every day.
Today we’ll enter our theme, but we will continue to explore it each week – through personal stories of courage next week, through a chance to move deeper into our examination of white supremacy on the 15th, through a courageous look at behaviors that get in the way of our wholeness on the 22nd, and finally at the end of the month through a brave consideration of death itself and an honoring of our loved ones who have died.
I saw a short documentary titled Ten Meter Tower at a film festival this summer. I was very taken with it as a visceral example of facing the unknown and facing one’s fear. The scenario is simple: two Swiss filmmakers paid 67 people who had never done it before $30 each to jump off a 10-meter diving tower into a pool. That’s 33 feet above the water.
Ten Meter Tower (excerpt) – a film by Maximilien Van Aertryck and Axel Danielson
I can feel it in my body as I watch and listen to those people struggling with the decision to jump off the tower. Struggling inside themselves, mostly, but also struggling out loud, sometimes as well.
I love this example of facing a primal fear for physical safety and survival, especially since there is a choice involved. No one is forcing them to jump.
You can feel each person want to do it, trying so hard to get past their fear, one man even getting right up to the edge and almost going over, and then last minute using all of his energy to stop his forward momentum and then regain his balance. So close! Could you feel that in your own body, your empathy and your mirror neurons firing away?
And then there is a couple, with a man who wants to jump and who is not alone, who receives support, encouragement and companionship from his partner who talks him through it. They share the commitment to dive over the edge, and they share the experience, knowing that they aren’t doing it alone.
In the rest of the film, people of many different ages and types gather up enough courage to make it over their fear and over the edge into the water. And other people, also of many different ages and types try, and try, but finally decide they cannot do it and walk all the way back down the long series of ladders to ground level. These little stories of fear and courage were very compelling to me.
At the very end of the film, a professional diver stands at the edge, falls backward ….and does a beautiful, smooth, slow motion dive into the water. While that dive is beautiful and inspiring in its own way, it does not hold the power of the people facing that dive for the first time.
For the professional diver, that dive is about making small adjustments to perfect her technique. And while I am sure that there is always some risk in dropping 33 feet into a pool of water, I don’t think of the professional diver’s effort as particularly courageous compared to the other folks.
It is tempting to think that courage is about reducing or getting rid of our fear so we can act bravely, jump off, do the right thing, but without fear it’s not courage. Courage is not about getting rid of fear, courage is about being afraid and doing something anyway.
The Rev. Galen Guengerich, the minister at All Souls Church in New York City, pointed this out in a series of lectures he offered at General Assembly in 2010: “The Necessity of Virtue.” One entire lecture was on Courage. He points out that the reason we would do something scary anyway is not because we are not afraid, but because there is something more important than our fear, something that we want so badly, that we are willing find a way through our fear.
[Invite people to name their own stories of acting with courage for something beyond the fear.]
Rev. Guengerich said that courage requires that we know what is worthy, what is worth facing our fear. He named two kinds of possibilities for what makes it worth it. He said, “courage is the ability 1) to see good afar off and take a step toward it, despite obvious risk. And 2) the ability to see evil close at hand and to take steps to confront it, despite the present danger.”
Cite shared EXAMPLES, including Imani’s experience.
(A young African American man who this week was followed for three blocks in downtown Grass Valley by 3 young white men in a car who called him names. No one on the sidewalks or streets did anything to help. http://www.theunion.com/news/local-news/love-walk-in-response-to-racist-incident-to-be-held-friday/
Read about the Love Walk held in response: http://www.theunion.com/news/local-news/love-walk-packs-downtown-grass-valley/
Guengerich reminds us that “to know courage is to know a calling that is greater than fear. [Courage] sees a path through the fear to the calling that lies beyond. The key to courage,” he says, “is not the fear, but the calling.” Being courageous is about saying “yes” to what matters.
Senator John McCain defined courage as
“that rare moment of unity between conscience, fear, and action, when something deep within us strikes the flint of love, of honor, of duty, to make the spark that fires our resolve.” (“Courage as Skill” by Kathleen Reardon in the Harvard Business Review, January 2007).
Kathleen Reardon points out that “this definition conjures up an image of the lone hero who—instinctively, spontaneously, and against all odds—suddenly takes charge and stands up for virtue”
And while that happens sometimes, most of the time it is much more ordinary and much less solitary, says Reardon. Michael Durall: says the courage that calls us through our fear to our highest values is “more likely to occur among people in a faith community than individuals acting on their own.” Galen Gingrich agrees. He says that the goal of being a solitary courageous person is the wrong goal. It’s not about going it alone, it’s about being connected, he says.
This is one of the important benefits of being in religious community, at our best. It is one of the fundamental reasons for religious community, to call us to our own courage.
For us, the connection in community is not only about en-couraging one another – giving each other courage, talking us through it, offering to be with another as they or we leap – it is also about together sharpening our vision, so we can see what’s worthy of our courage on the far side of fear. What’s worth the risks? We can’t get rid of the risks. We can however help figure out what is worth taking the risks.
Michael Durall says that “this is what spiritual maturity looks like – the courage to act on our principles, to say yes to our callings. . . in spite of the fear.”
This is what religious education for all ages is about, developing our awareness of our values and what matters, and calling us to our courage to act on them.
This is why naming and claiming UUCM’s Mission is so important: to call us beyond our easy comfort and beyond our fear. The newly articulated mission of this congregation will have to be strong enough to call us into some scary situations, I believe, or it won’t be a strong enough mission.
What does it mean to be a community of courage?
Let’s commit to keep finding out, meeting by meeting, Sunday by Sunday, phone call by phone call, community march by community march, conversation by conversation.
So may we be.
Ten Meter Tower, a film by Maximilien Van Aertryck and Axel Danielson https://www.nytimes.com/video/opinion/100000004882589/ten-meter-tower.html
“The Necessity of Virtue,” a workshop series by The Rev. Galen Guengerich at UUA General Assembly 2010. DVD published by the UUA.
“Courage as Skill” by Kathleen Reardon in the Harvard Business Review. January 2007.
The Almost Church Revitalized: Envisioning the Future of Unitarian Universalism by Michael Durall. Boulder, CO: CommonWealth Consulting Group, 2009.