Courage is like climbing a mountain. It’s mostly about putting one foot in front of the other and keeping going. It’s about tenacity.
My grandfathers and grand-uncles all fought in the so-called Great War that ended this day in 1919. Some of them lived, most were wounded, and some died. Like the stories collected by Megan Hutchings that we’ve just heard, some recorded their memories. It is difficult though to find the words to describe something that is horrifically indescribable.
They left on ships with youthful optimism and excitement. Their bodies returned weary, jaded, and silent. It then took the courage of their families and partners to bring their minds home, and offer healing and solace. My maternal grandfather kept his war in a tiny sealed room in the back of his head. Only late in life did his Alzheimer’s disease open that door.
As a child I imagined courage to be something like that of a movie action hero who seeing the insurmountable odds, weighed the options, and leapt into the fray… later to emerge victorious. It’s an enduring and influential narrative but has little similarity with the courage of my forebears.
It is hard to imagine 1915 trench warfare. Living in thick mud, where death was both random and constant. All the Arnold Schwarzeneggers were dead and gone. All the trees were dead and gone. Only the flies weren’t dead. They were thick.
So courage meant enduring. It meant getting up, doing what was necessary, doing what was asked of you, as it was asked of all your mates. It meant hoping that one day this too would end. Courage meant not giving in to despair.
One of courage’s synonyms is faith. Faith is not a set of beliefs, just as courage is not a collection of skills. Rather faith and courage are about attitude – attitude that is particularly obvious when the going gets steep. You know – when you are laid off, or the money runs out, or you experience discrimination, or someone close dies, or you or they suffer from Alzheimer’s, or other diseases mental and physical…
Life often resembles a steep mountain. Courage is the capacity to keep going.
The author of the Book of Ecclesiastes in chapter 3 writes, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven”. In poetic fashion it lists a series of opposites, including gathering and scattering, love and hate, and war and peace.
It would be a mistake though to think Ecclesiastes is condoning hate and war. Rather the author is looking out across human experience and noting the hard, horrific places and the smooth, soothing ones. There is suffering, and there is serenity. There is conflict, and there is compassion.
Pete Seeger, who once performed here in St Matthew’s, set these words to music and named the song “Turn, turn, turn”. The Rock Group “The Byrds” popularized it further. Seeger though made one addition to the ending of the Ecclesiastes text. The last two lines read: “A time for love, a time for hate; a time for peace, I swear it’s not too late.”
Rather than simply observing human experience Seeger invites us to adopt the attitude of courage and work for peace. This is a similar sentiment to that of the author Matthew when he accredits to Jesus the phrase “Blessed are the peacemakers”. To believe in any blessedness is an act of courage.
So, in that spirit, in memory of all the fallen, wounded, and weary, I offer six beatitudes:
Blessed are those who keep going, keep getting up, when all they really want to do is stop and lie down and disappear.
Blessed are those beset by pain and heartache who believe in a different future, one of smiles and flowers that pirouette.
Blessed are those who in the midst of hopelessness infect others with hope, and keep the dogs of despair at bay.
Blessed are those who sit beside the wounded, telling them all is well, when it’s not.
Blessed are those who make us laugh when we want to cry, they are the angels of God.
Blessed are you when you do anything that is kind, compassionate, helpful and hopeful – especially when you find it difficult.
Then the courage/faith of our forebears lives on in you.