One of my Covid-19 lockdown activities has been sorting books in my home library: deciding which ones to keep and which ones to give to the university library. Something I do each year; but this year I was a bit more aggressive, thinking other people could use the books that now simply gather dust. As I was dusting and sorting, one book slipped off a shelf and fell on the floor: The Courage To Be by Paul Tillich. I picked it up and immediately said to myself: “That’s it!”
Paul Tillich (1886 – 1975) was a German-American theologian and philosopher who moved to the United States after fleeing from Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Tillich taught at Union Theological Seminary, Harvard Divinity School, and the University of Chicago. He is recognized as one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century. In his 1952 book, The Courage to Be, Tillich stressed the phrase I had underlined years ago: “courage is directly tied to being, or a self-affirmation of one’s being.” In his book, Tillich explored the conquest of anxiety and the meaning of courage in the history of Western thought.
My point this week is not to get into a philosophical discussion about Paul Tillich’s perspective but rather to stress the absolute necessity of maintaining and helping others to maintain the “courage to be” in our pandemic and chaotic days.
Courage affirms who we are. It enables us to maintain our sense of dignity and self worth. Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The courageous person is not the one never feels afraid, but the one who conquers that fear. It is an individual and a group effort. Courage, compassion, and collaborative action create a hopeful tomorrow.
As Christians we draw our strength from the teaching and action of Jesus of Nazareth: the courageous man of God. The Gospel portraits speak loudly and clearly. Today I stress just a few that have always touched me:
– As I write a couple weeks ago, Jesus courageously worked against an ingrained prejudice against women. He defended the woman about to be stoned to death. He ignored the taboo about men speaking to women in public. And he welcomed women as his disciples. Later women were the first to announce that he had bern raised from the dead.
– Jesus courageously combatted the ingrained prejudice against foreigners. This of course is the focus of “The Good Samaritan.”
– Jesus courageously denounced religious hypocrites. He called them “blind guides” who “disregarded the more important matters of the Law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.” (Matthew 33 and Luke 11)
– And something that certainly has a contemporary ring: Jesus courageously struggled against angry and violent protesters. Recall for example the scene in Matthew 26: “At that time Jesus said to the crowd, ‘Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching and you did not arrest me. And the reaction from the crowd: “Then they spit in his face and struck him with their fists. Others slapped him….”
– It is important to remember as well that Jesus knew fear. As he realized his violent death was immanent, he experienced terrible anxiety and fear. After the “Last Supper,” he went to the olive grove Gethsemane with disciples. He began to be “….greatly distressed and troubled and he said to them: ‘my soul is very sorrowful, even to death’….and he fell on the ground and prayed that if it were possible the hour might pass from him.” (Mark 14) The,portrait in Luke is more dramatic. There the fearful Jesus begins to sweat drops of blood. (Luke 22:24)
– My favorite images of Jesus the courageous are in the Fourth Gospel. The Jesus who stands before Pilate is strong: “…the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone the side of truth listens to me.” Later as he carries his cross to calvary, he needs no help and he doesn’t fall down. The strong and courageous man. (John 18)
Courage is fortitude, strength, endurance and the ability to confront fear, uncertainty, and intimidation.
Courageous people strengthen and enCOURAGE others.
In our Christian faith, hope, and love may we continue strong and supportive of others.
P. S. I am taking a couple weeks away from my computer for R&R and will return at the end of August.
Remember the Serenity Prayer attributed to the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892 – 1971)
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.
Courage to change the things I can.
Wisdom to know the difference.