“It is in the small things we see it,” says Anne Sexton in her poem entitled “Courage”:
The child’s first step,
as awesome as an earthquake.
The first time you rode a bike,
wallowing up the sidewalk.
The first spanking when your heart
went on a journey all alone.
When they called you crybaby
or poor or fatty or crazy
and made you into an alien,
you drank their acid
and concealed it.
if you faced the death of bombs and bullets
you did not do it with a banner,
you did it with only a hat to
cover your heart.
You did not fondle the weakness inside you
though it was there.
Your courage was a small coal
that you kept swallowing.
There’s more to the poem, but let’s stop with that perhaps unexpected image of swallowing a small coal. There’s a fascinating history behind it: as early as 3500 years ago, ancient Egyptians used a certain kind of charcoal to treat poisons and toxins.
The swallowed charcoal absorbs the poisons and the toxins, rendering them harmless.
And so, today, we keep swallowing the small coal of courage. Despite fear, we are able to do what we need to do. Despite pain, we are able to persevere. Despite opposition, we are able to stand up for what is right. Despite risk, we are able to expand our horizons and dare something new.
It can be anything. Several years back I took a week-long Carnival cruise line trip to Mexico, as a way to draw the circle of my experience wider.
Going solo as I did—just me, myself, and I: that took courage.
So did unplugging from the internet for three whole days!
I like to keep a journal and write in it all the time, and it took courage to be all introverted like this when, surrounding me, were thousands of people extrovertedly chattering and laughing and eating and swimming and doing all the things you do on a cruise—and there was I, standing out like a sore thumb in my solitude….
I will admit I did NOT have enough courage to enter the hairy chest contest.
But I did have enough courage when, in Cancun, I was treading in cold briny water and, just as the dolphin trainer explained, I extended my left hand and looked very carefully at it, which was the signal the dolphin was waiting for, at which point she swam precisely to where my hand met her fin, and then I grabbed hold of her other fin with my right hand, and I held on for dear life as the dolphin rocketed through the water, me on top, water up my nose and in my mouth, and then all of a sudden it was done, we were twenty yards away from where we started. She had been that fast. Foam blossoming in our wake.
Just to touch the dolphin as it swam past me—that took courage, because what if I unknowingly touched it in the wrong place, or in the wrong way, and it came after me?
At 4am one morning, the ship alarm went off and I was jerked out of sleep and the announcement said that a fire alarm had gone off in the engine room (which my room happened to be very close to). My heart exploded in fear. We were out in the middle of nowhere. I peeked out of my door to see if anyone was in on this terrible hallucination only to find that a firewall has been installed 10 yards down a hallway that, normally, runs several football fields long. I was boxed in. I was trapped. Fear on top of fear. Back inside my room, I looked at myself in the mirror. This could be it. But there was courage. I swallowed the small coal. I put shorts and a T shirt on, to get ready for what might happen next. I sat on my bed, waiting for some word, mouth dry and guts twisted up but I would do whatever I needed to do. Finally it came—it was the Captain, speaking in a thick Eastern European accent.
To go back to sleep after that as I felt the relentless churn of the ocean beneath me—that took the most courage of all. Courage to let go of imagining other terrible possibilities that might happen, and to let sleep come.
“It is in the small things we see it,” says Anne Sexton, and she’s right. I was amazed, as I looked back, to see all those moments of anxiety or fear the small coal of courage detoxified and defused. You’d be amazed too, if you took a moment to think back just to this past week, just to this day, to all your moments of coal swallowing. Just the fact that, for a few moments, you are putting aside all the things you need to do—and all your anxieties about getting them done–so that you might allow yourself to be here this morning and receive good food for your soul! If you are shy or an introvert, just the fact that you might have gone up to a stranger and started a conversation, as you did during the greeting time. (Reminds me of one of my favorite signs at one of the Marches for Science we’ve seen held round the country in past years—know what I’m talking about? This sign: “You know things are serious when the introverts arrive.”)
Point is, we are all far more courageous than we might think. It is in the small things that we see it. Our lives are filled with such small things.
And when one such small thing is witnessed on the world stage—wow. As in the video from a moment ago: we saw John Stephen Akhwari from Tanzania at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, a marathon runner—how he kept running more than an hour after the race had already been won, to completion, and others were saying Why? Why do you persist? What good is it for? You are being ridiculous! But all race long he was swallowing the small coal of courage and so resisting toxicity, enabling him to stay true to his own vision of success and not to compromise for anyone. “My country,” he said, “didn’t send me 5,000 miles to start the race. They sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race.”
Courage is central. It is essential. Maya Angelou calls it “the most important of the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.”
Courage, says Paolo Coehlo, is “the first spiritual quality you need to have.”
Unitarian Universalists, oh how we need it. Because our covenant-centered faith calls us to do something as countercultural and maladjusted as what the Tanzanian runner did back in 1968.
To draw the circle wide.
People are so divided these days! Caught up in their homogeneous enclaves. Surrounding themselves with people just like themselves. We know this is true politically. Alternative media streams have created chasms of understanding between political left and right, and it’s like the two groups literally inhabit different worlds.
But how do we find a way back to each other?
West Shore’s 2020 all-church book read is So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, Jesusand after today’s service we’ll have the first of two discussions about this excellent book. She speaks of yet another chasm of understanding—this one between whites and people of color around race and racism. “This is not just a gap in experience and viewpoint,” she says. “The Grand Canyon is a gap. This is a chasm you could drop entire solar systems into. But no matter how daunting,” she says to the readers of her book, “you are here because you want to hear and you want to be heard. […] We can find our way to each other.”
We can draw the circle wide. We can break down walls that divide us, and leap the chasms.
The call to this has ancient, ancient roots, in the teachings and practices of Jesus. Fact is, Jesus did not say everything or do everything that the Christian Bible says he did. Biblical scholars have been hard at work trying to discern what truly came from him and what was added on by others, later, and it’s complicated detective work, and it’s still in process. But there is at least one thing that scholars all agree on. Jesus used to draw the circle wide by sharing meals with an incredible diversity of people, who were definitely NOT like him, who were in fact judged by the establishment religion of the day as the “wrong” kind of people. But Jesus gathered them to himself and to each other. No one else used to do that.
In the Middle East, to eat with another person is to signify acceptance on the deepest of levels. So when Jesus, a rabbi, ate with people who did not follow Jewish ritual law and were therefore called sinners, he was saying something totally radical for a rabbi to say: that Love is more important than Law. If you belonged to a social out-group (as in, you were a tax collector or a shepherd or a gentile or a woman), you were, by definition, wrong. Didn’t matter if you were a really good person, ethically speaking. Didn’t matter what was in your heart, or the kindness of your actions. You were a sinner. But Jesus shared his Welcome Table with sinners. He drew the circle wide. He did this countercultural and maladjusted thing to proclaim that absolutely everybody has inherent worth and dignity. That absolutely nothing separates us from the love of God. Doesn’t matter what your identity happens to be.
You are worthy.
That was the countercultural and maladjusted vision, and it’s what got Jesus killed. He knew it was going to happen, too. But he just kept swallowing the small coal of courage, every moment, every day. The call to Love and Justice meant so much more to him that his personal fear.
That Love and Justice call must mean everything to us today, too.
Even so, countercultural and maladjusted are not for the faint of heart.
Let me make it plain how challenging the Welcome Table really is, as we invite a diverse crowd of folks to grab a seat and take a place. The most obvious case of our diversity is theological in nature. We are atheists and we are theists in worship together. We are atheists and theists and Buddhists and Pagans and Jews in worship together. We are atheists and theists and Buddhists and Pagans and Jews and Christians and New Agers and star-bellied Sneetches and plain-bellied Sneetches and I-don’t-know-what-I-am-but-I–know-what-I-don’t-like and on and on and on in worship together.
Whaaaat? says most of humanity, when they come to hear of the miracle of Unitarian Universalism. Whaaaat?
How do we do this? How do we work this miracle?
How does it all hang together?
But wait. We’re not done yet. Because, on top of theological diversity is our social diversity. Across the span of this community, we are diverse in terms of race, class, gender expression, sexual orientation, age, ability, and so on…
And then there is the diversity that a single solitary soul represents. We each as individuals are a diverse assembly of identities: I am a cis-gender man (meaning my gender orientation is in line with the sex I was assigned at birth). I am straight. I am white. I am middle class. I am the grandson of immigrants. I am the son of a severely mentally ill mother and alcoholic, drug-addicted father. I am the middle child in my family. I am divorced. I am 52. I have osteoarthritis. I’m not tall—I’m kind of short. I am all this and I am so much more, and it means that when I belly up to the table, I am bringing with me all these identities—many of which the world privileges, resulting in my being protected from harm, but some of them actually ooze harm and reflect intimate acquaintance with harm. I, a mixed bag, belly up to the table. I bring ignorance but also wisdom, I bring wounds of some kinds but also some kinds of strength.
That’s how I meet you, at the Welcome Table of this space, and you meet me, you who are also a diverse assemblage of identities, some of which are privileged, but others of which are not and have been magnets drawing harm to you. We are joined in a Unitarian Universalist common desire to grow into our best selves and be a blessing to each other and the world; but we are also hurting too and in need of healing.
We love each other. We trigger each other also. The authenticity of this is intense.
Take one real life example—not, by the way, from this congregation!
The particular woman I’m thinking of has (like all women) endured leers, sexual innuendo, and cat calls all her life. At times she has been followed to her car in parking lots by strange men; other times she has experienced unwelcome touches and kisses and maybe far worse—this woman comes to our Beloved Community Welcome Table because she is hungry for the soul food that Unitarian Universalism delivers up. She loves it. But her history is so thick with shocks like I have just described that she comes in a state of what I’ll call “gender post-traumatic stress disorder” or, for short, “gender PTSD.” So, the next time some well-meaning man in her Beloved Community (who turns out to be 40 years her senior) comes up to her to give her a sincere compliment and he actually says, “I’ll bet you look great in a bathing suit!” that just breaks the camel’s back. Immediately her heart is racing; she is in a place of fight or flight; she feels completely unsafe. She has encountered a microaggression. Doesn’t matter that he didn’t mean it. Intention does not erase impact.
She belongs at the Welcome Table, but does she even want it anymore?
And then there is the man who loves our Unitarian Universalist soul food just as much as she, and all he wanted to do is offer up a compliment. But he sees her shock and then turns it right around and blames her! “Why is she making such a big deal about what I said? Why is she making such a fuss?” Right here is evidence of the privilege in being male—of not having to experience constant exhaustion from multiple every-day microaggressions. “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” Margaret Atwood said that.
She is not wrong.
But let’s not stop there. To stop there would be unjust. We must look even deeper at what is happening with this man. Because when this man goes to blame, this is really a defense mechanism. He’s trying to protect himself. He’s been gendered, as all men are in patriarchal society, to believe to the bottom of their hearts that they are worthy insofar as they are strong, adequate, able to deliver the goods, never screwing up, never showing weakness. But he knows he screwed up. He’s been exposed as unworthy, according to the patriarchy code. So he, too, reacts out of PTSD but a unique male version of that. He has been found wanting. Therefore he is taken to the soul shattering place of shame. He feels shame. Shame feels like dying. So, to cope, he invokes one of the few emotions that patriarchal culture allows men to freely express: anger. Anger is his survival strategy under the brutalizing regime of patriarchy.
Angrily he blames the woman.
And like her, he doesn’t feel safe either.
He belongs at the Welcome Table too, but does he even want it anymore?
Our countercultural and maladjusted originally-from-Jesus vision of drawing the circle wide can get this difficult. Some of us sitting at the table suffer from gender PTSD or racial PTSD or disability PTSD and other kinds of PTSD. Others of us are privileged enough to have never had to struggle with that kind of stuff personally–so privileged, in fact, that we could easily hide ourselves in some protected enclave and never have to trouble ourselves about what the have-nots struggle with 24/7.
But we Unitarian Universalists—each of us composed of varying identities and some of them carrying more privilege than others—reject the protected enclave strategy. Our religion calls us to belly up to the Welcome Table. Our religion calls us to know others in their joys and pain and to be known in this way too.
That’s what our Unitarian Universalism means to us.
So we need to keep swallowing the small coal of courage, every moment, every day.
For some, it will be courage to be in our PTSD of whatever kind and to keep showing up and keep believing that this can be true covenant-centered Beloved Community for you. For others, it will be courage to reject the temptation of hiding in privileged enclaves and to show up to places like this one, where the learning process of uncovering blind spots can be shocking and rough going at times.
We need courage—and we CAN muster it. Nothing magical about it. Remember Anne Sexton when she says, “It is in the small things we see it.” We are courageous every day, in so many ways, just by showing up. Now all we need to do is summon courage and apply it intentionally to our relationships in this place, as we create Beloved Community together.
After finishing the 1968 Olympics marathon in Mexico City with a severely injured leg, John Stephen Ahkwari said, “My country didn’t send me 5,000 miles to start the race. They sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race.”
And we’ve got to finish our race too, however long that takes.
God did not send us into this life just to start.
We are meant to go all the way, and with courage, together, we will.