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Pace: The courage it takes …

What is the most courageous thing you’ve ever done? That’s the question I plan to ask at the beginning of an upcoming sermon I’m preaching during orientation for new students. For some of the families in the room, I suspect it would include parenting their child and, perhaps on the day of this sermon, dropping them off at college.

I’m fascinated with the theme of courage right now. The dictionary definition says that courage is the “ability to disregard fear; bravery.” 

Here’s what some other folks had to say about courage:

“Courage is the first of human virtues because it makes all others possible.” 

- Aristotle

“Don’t underestimate the importance you have – history has shown us that 

courage can be contagious.” – Michelle Obama

“Courage is fear that has said its prayers.” – Karle Wilson Baker

That last one is one of my favorites. How do you define courage?

In the 13th chapter of Luke’s gospel, the scripture reading for the Sunday I’m preaching, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue. By the time Jesus begins his ministry, the debate about correct Sabbath observance is prominent, and in this gospel text, it comes to the center in a story only told in Luke’s gospel.

The version in the Common English Bible tells us “a woman was there [in the synagogue] who had been disabled by a spirit for eighteen years.” In this instance, though, I like the NRSV translation, “And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit…” She just appeared. She was unable to stand up straight, and when Jesus saw her, he called her over. 

This is not a person normally seen in the synagogue – a disabled woman. This is especially true because the story indicates she remained quiet. She didn’t call out, cry out, or ask for healing. She didn’t say one word. She just appeared, and Jesus saw her. He called her over, a disabled woman who would have likely been invisible to the community because of her illness and lack of status.

That may not sound like much when we hear the story all these years later, but it was a tremendous act in Jesus’ day. An act of courage, if you will.

Let me hit the pause button for a moment, though. Courage can certainly be associated with bravery, but I think there’s more going on here than that. It speaks to another kind of courage, courage that gets to the root of the word itself.

Research professor and popular author, Brené Brown, helps us, and here’s what she says about courage. 

“Courage is a heart word. The root of the word is cor- the Latin word 

heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant, ‘To speak 

one’s mind by telling all one’s heart’.” 

She goes on to say that the definition has changed over time and has become more associated with brave and heroic deeds. I suspect that most of us, when asked to define courage and think about our most courageous act, would let the idea of brave and heroic deeds guide our thought process. I even tested this out on my six year old and when asked what he thought courage meant, he associated it with the word brave.

Brown, though, says that “this definition fails to recognize the inner strength and level of commitment required for us to actually speak honestly and openly about who we are and about our experiences – good and bad.”

I think that is because it takes us involving our heart in the process, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. I want my six year old to know that courage may mean doing something brave, yes, but he doesn’t have to be brave necessarily to be courageous. He needs to search his heart and then speak his mind by telling all of his heart.

That is, to me, what Jesus does in the synagogue in front of all of those gathered there and on the Sabbath no less. The world, our communities, need courageous people to search our hearts when it comes to the way we treat each other – friends and strangers. Our leaders could use an ounce of this kind of courage, especially when making laws that affect real people and their lives. It’s time for us to stand up and speak our mind by telling all of our heart. Be courageous.

The Rev. Dr. Lyn Pace is the college chaplain at Oxford College of Emory University.