Monday, 10 September 2012

Going where other people don't want to go

I'm thinking about courage, God. Bravery. How some people seem to have it in buckets.

A few things have happened lately that have made me think about courage. It seems to be coming at me from all angles. I'm not quite sure what it is you're trying to teach me, but there's something.

I'd like to be brave. I'd like for people to think of me as brave, but - hang on - I've been bitten before and now I'm shy of coming to you like this. I once asked for patience and you gave me two small children to look after and opportunities to develop patience coming out of my ears. That wasn't quite what I wanted; I was hoping I'd just wake up one day and feel incredibly patient. So, if that's what you might do I'm not going to ask you for courage...

On holiday we visited a Lifeboat station by the sea (and before you say it, I know Lifeboat stations are usually by the sea) and we had the chance to see a great big orange lifeboat poised for action on a frame by the slipway, and also to look around at the plaques on the walls detailing each outing for the Lifeboats from this station, which vessel they helped and how many lives were saved. Over and over again, these men scrambled into the boats and launched into the sea to rescue those in trouble. Photographs showed waves the size of buildings washing over promenades and battering cliffs; the sea a swell in which a large boat might disappear, and yet the lifeboatmen risked their lives to save others. That's courage.

They went where other people didn't want to go.

When most people were battening down the hatches and closing the curtains on a rough, stormy night, these people were climbing into boats to go exactly there the danger was.

One man was commemorated more than anyone else at this particular station. A man named Henry Blogg. He was a lifeboatman. He rescued people; pulled them from the sea when they were in trouble. A memorial was on the wall with his name on it. The inscription read:

'His gallant crew rescued 873 lives during 55 years of service. 
"One of the bravest men who ever lived."'

Wow. And now there's a window with Mr Blogg's name in it, and a commemorative plaque with this inscription, and a list of the vessels that he rescued. A local hero indeed.

The same evening that we'd visited the Lifeboat station I watched a documentary about the soldiers in Afghanistan. Men only just out of school trying to find hidden bombs before they explode and kill or maim. The footage that was shown was breathtaking; cameras on their helmets as they went out on patrol showed some of the reality of life on a tour of duty out there. The risk of placing one foot on the ground in front of another. The consequences of a step the wrong way. Don't ask me about the morality of war, or the justification of our troops in these places because I don't know. What I do know is that they are brave, brave men and women.

One soldier, a medic, was on patrol and had the responsibility of detecting the explosive devices so that his colleagues could declare an area safe for the locals to re-inhabit. He was walking carefully with a metal detector when there was an enormous explosion elsewhere and a shout that a man was down. He knew that someone needed medical attention urgently and he knew that he was the medic. He ran across unexplored ground and across a small bridge - an obvious place to put a bomb - in order to treat the man who had his legs blown off in the explosion because he knew that time was of the essence. Courage. Of a kind I find hard to fathom.

Both these people had immense courage, and with it a selflessness and sense of duty that is amazing to me. I live in a world where self-preservation and one's own comfort is everything and to put your own life on the line for someone else like that leaves me in awe. Saving lives. Going where most people are afraid to go.

It goes on. Since our holiday at the seaside the Paralympic Games have begun. Every time I turn on the TV I see another person who inspires and amazes me with their tenacity and strength of spirit. A lady who lost her legs in a bomb attack in London in 2005 is now in the Olympic Volleyball team. Those with terrible injuries fight back with determination and amazing courage to achieve sporting prowess at the highest level. Individuals with defects from birth overcome their seeming limitations to be faster, higher, stronger than people like me can dream.

An Olympic commentator interviewed a Paralympian who had just won a gold medal in his event, 'Has it been a lifetime dream to win a Paralympic medal?'  The man looked at her levelly and replied, 'Not when I had my legs, no.'


Courage? Certainly. Courage not to be defeated by evil or compromise or changed circumstances. Courage not to give up. Courage not to give in to a world that can't see past a disability and might view you as damaged or substandard. Courage to maintain dignity when confronted by halfwitted interviewers. Courage to keep going, keep trying.

So this thing, courage. Bravery. What is it? Do we all have it?  Surely we're not all programmed for bravery, as I know that amazing acts of cowardice happen all over the place, every day. I do know that you can only be brave if you're scared in the first place. If you're not scared, you don't need courage. Courage is keeping on despite fear. Courage seems to be determination and perseverance and then... the extra thing that makes you run to save a man's life even though you risk your own.

It's made me think of my little life. No rough seas round here; at least, only metaphorical ones. No unexploded bombs on the school run - though on occasion the mums in the playground are pretty scary.  I have all the advantages of four limbs that work, more or less, and I am grateful that my body gets me through each day. I am aware, though, that I could do with a bit more courage, of the everyday get-on-with-it kind.

Lord, I complain and I grumble and I am full of self-pity and dissatisfaction and it's all pretty meaningless. Blessings are piled up around me and I still find stuff to whinge about. I know that you are a God who cares about the small stuff and I know that you are endlessly patient with my daily gripes and anxieties, but do you ever just sigh heavily when I'm in the middle of my latest complaint and wish that I'd get on with living with a bit less fuss?

I wouldn't blame you if you did.

You know what? I think maybe there are two types of bravery. There's the sort where someone fetches out a very special kind of courage just at the time when something amazing is needed. A soldier sprints across a battlefield to help his friend even when he might be shot at or step on a device that might maim him. That's the dramatic sort of bravery. The VC sort of bravery. And then there's a day-to-day sort of courage where a widow keeps getting up in a morning and taking care of her family even when her heart is broken. Where someone makes a quiet decision not to be defeated and keeps on going when life is hard. And I don't mean my sort of hard, which is not hard at all. I mean when life is hard. The sort of hard which happens when someone is ill with no prospect of getting better. Someone needs care and always will. Someone who knows that life might not get any better than this and yet finds the gold thread running through the black often enough to keep on going, through ill health or misery or rejection or pain or seeming hopelessness.

That sort of bravery doesn't win many awards. It doesn't make the news, and in our world quiet stoicism and day-in-day-out courage are often overlooked, but I know that you don't miss a thing. I don't know much about treasure in heaven, Father, but I am quite sure that those people whose lives are spent keeping on keeping on; I think they must have a special place in your heart.

That sort of courage is going where other people don't want to go, too. Who chooses to live life like that? Maybe courage is having a hope and hanging everything else from it. And when our hope is you, Lord Jesus, we know that the thread of that hope is endlessly strong. Much stronger than I am.

That's what I want, Father. I want the hope that I have to go ahead of me so that I can fix my eyes upon it and keep following, not a hope stuck in my back pocket that I fetch out when I remember that it's there. I want the day-in-day-out sort of courage that means that I'm not knocked over when things get difficult. I want a higher threshold for difficult, please. I want to learn to take the small things in my stride more. The tantrums, the messes, the stresses and the flaring of the temper.

I don't know if I'll ever be called upon to do something truly brave. If my children were in danger I hope that I'd put my life on the line to protect them. I hope that my instincts would kick in and I too would be dashing across the minefield. I hope I never find out, but if I do, Lord, give me what I need, because I'd like to be the one who steps up to the mark when necessary. The one who goes where nobody wants to go because it's the right thing to do.

Maybe more use to me and my family right now would be for me to be the person who with quiet determination just keeps going. Each day, each ache, each morning routine and each bathtime battle, just keep going without the endless complaining that I give in to all the time. If you could inject a generous measure of good humour and patience, Father, that'd be even better.

Blimey, there I go with the patience request again.

You'd think I'd have learned.


  1. "... quiet decision to not be defeated." Powerful thoughts, my friend. I need that kind of courage.


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