The Courage to Be

The late Rev. Dr. Peter J. Gomes wrote in his introduction to the Second Edition of Paul Tillich‘s The Courage to Be, quotes Tillich as saying that “the courage to be, in the face of existentialism with its temptations to cynical despair and noncreative self-indulgence is the ‘courage to accept oneself as accepted in spite of being unacceptable.”‘

In that same introduction, Gomes quotes from the famous theologian’s sermon, “You Are Accepted:”  “You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you and the name of which you do not know…Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted! If that happens, we experience grace.”

One can almost not help but think about that thought from Tillich in the aftermath of NBA player Jason Collins “coming out” as a gay, African-American male yesterday.

The center, who has been playing with the Washington Wizards this year, showed the courage to “be” and to admit who he is. For him, the pain of having to live a lie has been removed. No male in major U.S. sports has made such a courageous move, despite the probability that there are more gay men playing major league sports.

Joe Sterling and Steve Almasy, who wrote a CNN story about Collins’ announcement, said that what he did was probably the biggest move of his career. ( While that might be true, it is a sad fact that anyone in the land where freedom is cherished, many feel free to be anything but who they are.

The obsession with hating people who are gay has always been astounding. The fact that the hating of gay people has been done under the umbrella of religion, and specifically under the umbrella of Christianity, which is supposed to be the religion of love, mercy and forgiveness, is more than astounding. It is downright troubling.

This writer has heard Christians say smugly, “we will love the sinner but hate the sin.” For some reason, they don’t realize that it’s not real easy to separate “sin” from its vessel, the so-called sinner. And the statement belies a general misunderstanding of what “sin” is – a separation, or estrangement, from God. It seems that when any of us religious types gets into judging people, doing what God is supposed to do, that we are in fact “in sin,” because we have separated ourselves from God…in order to DO God, or try to BE God, making judgements on who is worthy of being religious, and who is not. Say that to an average religious sort, though, and you’re sure to get a ringing argument.

Jason Collins said that his decision to come out was precipitated by the Boston Marathon bombings. That incident reminded him of how fragile and tenuous is life. He realized that he wanted, no, needed, to BE what he was. He wanted to be able to have a partner and not sneak around. He wanted a family, just like his twin brother. He tried to “fit into” the American religious and cultural heterosexual club; he actually got engaged to a woman. But it didn’t work. He was not and is not, heterosexual. He is homosexual.

Gomes, commenting on Tillich’s conversation on what it is to have the courage to BE, write that “fate, guilt and the fear of death” are the entities, the anxieties, that “bedeviled” the human spirit. Surely, many people in the LGBT community know exactly what that feels like.

Collins’ courage is all the more admirable because he is a free agent. After this season is over, he technically does not have a job, not unless another team picks him up. If a teams does in fact pick him up, he is bound to face the sound and the fury of homophobic players and fans. The seething hatred so many have for and toward gay people is still a palpable emotion in the world.  To “be” in spite of knowing that some of that surely awaits one speaks to the character of one who has decided to BE, come what may.

Collins’ announcement has all of the news operations talking; on many news programs today, his admission was the lead story, pushing the ongoing coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath to the periphery, if just for a moment. Grace, given to us by God, will have to cover and embrace Collins for a while; God affirms Collins, and he is beginning to affirm himself, but as for the world, it is not so generous or willing. We will have to wait and see how Collins’ colleagues and teammates in the NBA act and react to him, and it remains to be seen if any of the rough and tough players of the NFL will now gain the courage to admit who they are as well.

Jason Collins will go down in history probably more for his admission than for his career as an NBA player. He has broken through a barrier that nobody even wanted to acknowledge, much less tear down. He has blessed someone with his courage, but with every blessing, there are burdens, and he will have his share.

One more observation: this “accepting” of homosexuality seems to be a greater issue for males than it is or has been for females. One person reportedly said that with “all the women around” men actually prefer messing around with males. There’s something very twisted in that kind of thinking. While there are surely dysfunctional relationships among gay people, as there are among straight people, in the end, a healthy relationship is about love, not gender. Relationships…are about love. It’s the same type of love that Virginia Loving, a black woman, had for her husband, Richard, a white man. The relationship was about love, not color. The couple had a hard life, determined to stay together in spite of the hatred and opposition spewed toward them. It was about love …

In the end, it seems that’s what too many of us don’t get. It’s not about sexual preference or color or religion. It’s about love.  A man loving a man doesn’t take away from one’s virility or strength or talent, any more than a white person loving a black person does, or a Christian loving a Jew. The best relationships are those in which love is front and center. Perhaps that’s what Jason Collins came to realize. Perhaps that’s what his admission will encourage others to think about as well.

A candid observation…


In Suicide, Does Religion Help?

The tragic suicide of the young nurse, Jacintha Saldanha, who was caught up in the phone hoax perpetrated by two Australian DJs, gaining access to information about Kate Middleton, reminded me of how difficult and distasteful the subject of suicide is.

When Kansas City Chiefs  linebacker Jovan Belcher shot and killed his girlfriend, and then committed suicide in front of his coach, I read some of the comments posted on a story about the unfortunate incident…and most of the comments were harsh, calling Jovan a coward.

I wonder what comments are circulating about Ms. Saldanha. I have no idea of what her religious affiliation is, but as a Christian, I know suicide is frowned upon.  One of my most glaring failures was a sermon I preached at the funeral of one of my members who had committed suicide. I preached that God surely could not be condemning her; that God knew her pain and God, being a loving deity, surely received her into heaven. I asked the people present to celebrate her life. She had been a brilliant scholar, and a woman who loved to dance. She would dance in the pews during Sunday service, her spirit seemingly taken up by and with the power of the music played and sung during worship.

So, I reminded people of those apparently brief spurts of joy in her life. I asked them to remember her moving. I asked them to remember some of the questions she had asked during Bible studies; they always stumped me.  She was a lesbian, trying to find peace and the presence of God in her life. Surely, I could not say at her funeral that this God had abandoned her and would not let her in His/Her presence because she had committed suicide

It didn’t go over well for many of the people in attendance.

She was tired of being in despair, my member, and I imagine that this nurse who committed suicide must have known despair by name as well. I suspect she was hard on herself, demanding perfection, and this being “taken” by a prank call affecting such important people must have soiled the cloth of perfection she demanded of herself. I can only imagine…but I would again say that this woman knew despair, just like my member did. I cannot believe suicide comes because of one bad moment. Suicide comes when there are too many bad moments, stacked upon each other, which becomes a burden too heavy to carry after a while. Heavy despair weighs the human soul down, sinking it like tires sink in mud. I believe the nurse, as well as my member, were sunk in mud.

Someone asked me, in the matter of my member, why she didn’t take her meds. I thought the question was out of line and invasive and didn’t answer; how could this person know that my member hadn’t taken her meds. The fact of the matter was, though, that she did take her meds and was always looking for the right medicine and the right dose of the medicine, to ease her spiritual and mental pain. Mental illness, mental despair, is still such a taboo that many of us who need to take medicine to make us well will not. We will not even go see someone who might be able to help us. To say that you are “mentally ill” is to put a yoke around your neck, and nobody does that on purpose…

And yet, to NOT admit disease and deep despair produces such horrific and sad results.

English: Kate Middleton at Prince William's Or...
English: Kate Middleton at Prince William’s Order of the Garter investiture (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am not sure what role religion plays in alleviating the despair of mental illness. I don’t think my member had much faith in religion, though she was working to change that. Religion had rejected her because she was a Lesbian. She had found little love and less acceptance. Paul Tillich wrote a sermon, entitled, “The Yoke of Religion,” in which he posits that religion is a burden. He cites Jesus saying, “Come unto me, all you who are weak and heavy laden…” and asks, “with what are people heavy?” What is burdening people? Tillich says it isn’t sin and guilt, and it isn’t the daily struggles of life. The burden of which Jesus wants to relieve us, writes Tillich, is the burden of religion. “It is the yoke of the law imposed on people of His time by the religious teachers…Those who are sighing are signing under the yoke of religious law.”

I don’t know if religion helped or hurt my member, Jovan Belcher or Jacintha Saldanha.  I find myself unable to call any of them cowards, however. I find myself praying that fewer and fewer people are burdened by despair, in spite of religion…

We need to do better than that.

A candid observation…


The Weird Peace of Faith

I wrote a book called Crazy Faith: Ordinary People; Extraordinary Lives, in which I describe how “crazy faith” can and does propel people to do amazing things.  Faith doesn’t make sense, it is not logical, but it brings stability to unstable situations and gives sight where the circumstances at hand would beg blindness.

Then, this morning, I heard Rev. Lance Watson describe “courageous faith,” a faith that made the Biblical character Joshua tell the sun to stand still so that the Israelites could face their enemies. Whoever heard of such? And yet, courageous (crazy) faith makes people staunchly believe in something greater than themselves, and in standing on that belief, beat incredible odds.

Faith, it seems, gives people courage, the “courage to be,” as Paul Tillich describes. The very last line of his book, The Courage to Be, reads: “The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.”

The anxiety of doubt comes when we are in the midst of the most scary, the most traumatic situations of our lives. We wonder where God is, if God hears, if God cares …I imagine the slaves in America wondered about the presence and goodness  of God as they endured that horrible institution; I imagine, as well, that Jews, suffering under the brutality and insanity of Adolph Hitler during the Holocaust, wondered the same thing…”Would God allow such evil?”

And yet, it seems, God does allow evil, and the courage to be means that one is able to hold onto his or her belief in God “in spite of” one’s situation.

As a pastor, I have seen many a person struggle with the whole notion of the goodness of God, the presence of God, and the purposes of God. Why would God allow an innocent child to die of brain cancer, or a beloved mother to die an early and brutal death? Years ago, I watched a young mother struggle with her idea of God as she mourned, in excruciating pain, the death of her teen son who was murdered in a drive-by shooting. In the recent unrest in the Middle East, I can imagine mothers and fathers both in Gaza and in Israel wondering why God would allow such evil – the evil of war caused by people who will not listen to each other – to exist and to flourish.

God does allow evil.  That is a bitter pill to swallow.

But there is something weird about faith, because even in the midst of going through and suffering through abject evil, those who have faith experience a “weird” peace, the “peace that passes all understanding.”  After a while, the person filled with faith has an ability to surrender doubt into the unknown. He or she is not aware of where the anxiety of doubt is going; one only knows that yesterday, he or she was upset and worried, and today, the worry, the anxiety, is gone.

And that is in spite of the fact that God allows evil to be.

We might feel better if God put a hand in front of all evil and all discomfort that confronts us, but God doing that would not necessarily increase our faith. Faith actually comes in the enduring and survival of, evil in our lives. Evil comes at us like a giant Tsunami, sometimes stunning us in its ferocity and intensity, and if we can find ourselves standing when the giant wave of evil passes back into the sea, we find that our faith in God increases. Somewhere in the midst of the fury of the evil that sometimes boxes our spirits, if we get to that place of weird peace, we are able to ride the evil and not allow ourselves to be consumed by it.

Evil is strong and distasteful, but God is greater than any evil. That does not mean that God prevents evil; we have already established that God allows evil, and we may never understand why …but in the end, God really is greater than evil.

Maybe that’s why faith is so perplexing. Anyone who has experienced a weird peace in the midst of adversity knows exactly what I am talking about …

A candid observation …

Devastation and God

Hurricane Sandy came through this week with an attitude, cutting a path of destruction the likes of which most of us have never seen.

As I look at the images on television, I shudder. The affected areas look as though they’ve been hit by a nuclear bomb. The destruction is total, and breathless in its totality. Fire, floods, sand covering neighborhoods, houses knocked down, facades of buildings blown away, cars put into place by angry flood waters…a crane hanging precariously from a building under construction, and literally millions of people without power.

I keep thinking, “the people. How will they cope? ”

When I visited New Orleans and the area affected by Hurricane Katrina, I felt the same way. To walk through streets that had once been part of vibrant neighborhoods, but now destroyed by a fierce and relentless storm, was eerie. There were things hanging on power lines, cars that had obviously been moved to their locations by moving water, houses with big “X’s” on their doors, indicating whether someone had been found inside dead. The former streets were deathly quiet. Pets, who obviously had lost their families, wandered around, following us, wanting food, and love and attention.

It was eerie.

But this latest storm, this Sandy, seems to have done even more damage than Katrina.

In a time like this, people ought to be able to turn to God, but invariably, some religious type makes a pronouncement about God and about such a devastating event being God’s will, as punishment for the “ungodliness” of the people
Pat Robertson is pretty famous for doing that, but he is not the only one. He  certainly was of the opinion that Hurricane Katrina happened because of the waywardness of the people.

Stephen Prothero, a Boston University writer and scholar who most recently authored The American Bible: How Our Words United, Divide and Define a Nation, wrote a piece this week on the CNN Belief Blog about the whole notion of saying that certain things, like a natural disaster, are God’s will.

Wrote Prothero: “Is God angry with Cuba, where 11 died last week? More angry with Haiti, where 51 perished? Relatively unperturbed with Jamaica, where the death toll was only two? If a tree falls on my house today, will that be an Act of God, too?”

We are all so imperfect. Paul Tillich talks about how we sin but how grace “more abounds” than does sin. There can be no sin without grace, and grace is given to all. Tillich says it is our challenge to believe that God accepts us in spite of our being basically “unacceptable.” Grace is given “in spite of.”

That notion of God is a far cry from this notion of God who would send a storm like Sandy to punish people for being “ungodly,” and not particularly according to God’s standards of “godliness,” but according to human standards.

I can’t fathom a God like that.

I cannot believe and will not believe that God looked down and said “I’m going to devastate a whole slew of innocent people because they have not “been good.”

We have never been good.

According to the Bible, “all have sinned and fallen short.”  Supposedly, there is no sin that is greater than another.

Therefore, corporate crime is as distasteful to God as is street crime; selfishness and thievery and murder are no greater than any other misstep. We all fall short. If God was that punitive, would not we all have been knocked out of commission a long time ago? Isn’t the fact that God sent Jesus, according to Christian theology, supposed to confirm that we are “justified” and “reconciled” to God, “in spite of” ourselves?

I cannot believe, will not believe, that people who are walking around tonight with no home, who are dazed with the afterglow of this horrendous storm, are being punished by God. And …I wonder where the people are, how they’re coping, who even without a storm, have little or next to nothing.

In order to maintain sanity, I for one have to believe in a good God, a God who does not cause bad things to happen to good people, a God who loves us “in spite of.” Without that notion of God, I don’t know how people would be able to cope with something like this storm.

I know I wouldn’t be able to.

That’s a candid observation …


When Grace Strikes us

Every once in a while, we as humans find ourselves in a mess of our own making.

It is easy to cry out to God when one is in a situation caused by someone else, but when you have put yourself in a mess, it feels rather foolhardy to cry out, or even to cry.

In a split second, humans too often make decisions that forever alter the rest of their lives. How many of us have done that, and then said, “Geez. If I had only …” But by then it’s too late. Your mess is made; your life is changed.

Though we feel stupid (or at least I do) calling out to God at those moments, it is at those moments that we experience the merciful presence of God. God shows up while we are writhing in our agony angst. Paul Tillich says that it is at those times that grace shows up; specifically, he says, “grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged.” (from The Courage to Be, second edition, p. xxii).

It is in those moments that we are challenged to accept God’s acceptance of us. That’s a good thing and more: it’s a necessary thing because when we are in messes of our own making, we find it hard to accept ourselves. Moments of despair challenge us and encourage us to reach for and look for this God who accepts us in spite of our bad moves and bad decisions.

If we are unable to feel the grace of God strike us when we are down, we run the danger of turning away from God …who is ever turning toward us. Turning away from God is the worst thing we can do ever, but especially when we are in self-flagellation mode.  We beat ourselves up far worse than God ever has or ever will.

So, while I sit in this mess I have made, I am inclining my face and spirit toward God, and am comforted that God is inclining His/Her ear and spirit toward me. I am not alone. For the first time in three weeks, I am not shaking. I am beginning to eat. Grace, that which has struck me and has stayed with me through this valley, has commanded me to eat – not only food, but the drops of mercy which grace sends. I have found that I need grace to strengthen me.

Trouble …don’t last alway…the old spiritual says, and that is true.  In the midst of trouble there is always a lesson, a vital lesson that we needed to know.  I am not quite sure why some of us have to fall into dark valleys to get the lessons God wants for us, but the up side of down situations is that in the valley, God is there, with a fresh supply of grace.

That’s a real comforting …candid observation.