Mary Beth Writes

While on the space shuttle Columbia, which would explode during reentry a few days later, astronaut Laurel Clark wrote some emails to family and friends.

This is from one of them: Subject: Hello from 150 NM above the Earth

“I have seen some incredible sights: lightning spreading over the Pacific, the Aurora Australis (aus-trah-lis) lighting up the entire visible horizon with the city glow of Australia below, the vast plains of Africa and the dunes on Cape Horn, rivers breaking through tall mountain passes, the scars of humanity, the continuous line of life extending from North America, through Central America and into South America. A crescent moon setting over the limb of our blue planet.

“Magically, the very first day we flew over Lake Michigan I saw Wind Point.”

What Laurel saw was the Wind Point Lighthouse; I lived less than a mile from it; the light from its beacon at night would light the tree in our front yard as it rotated.

One of the commercial projects Columbia was hosting was videotaping flowers for a fragrance experiment. She wrote about that: "There were roses in there, and they had been buds, and they had opened up to bloom," she said, "It was so, so magical to have roses growing in our laboratory in space."

It’s a powerful image, isn’t it? Roses blooming in the experiment lab of a doomed space shuttle. The busy, humming cooperation of men and women who had trained for years to be able to do this work. The dangerous location – outer space. And then that beautiful perfume of roses. Astronauts accept that missions will never be routinely safe; astronauts also have the courage to do what needs to be done to further science that makes our human lives safer and better. 

We see it backward this morning; we see a vision of a tragedy about to happen. The Columbia crew lived it forward: doing their work, using their training and education, working to accomplish their mission.

When I started thinking about this sermon about courage – I thought about Laurel Salton Clark. I like Unitarian Universalist girl heroes from SE Wisconsin!

Len and I and our kids lived in Racine for 20 years. We didn’t belong to Olympia Brown UU congregation, but many of our friends did and we sometimes attended.

The year after the loss of the Columbia, Racine dedicated a children’s splash pad in the downtown area, to her. My youngest was still in elementary school; I took her and her friend from school to the dedication; I wanted them to know that this strong, smart woman who had accomplished so much in her life, had gone to school in Racine just like they were.  We saw Laurel’s husband, Jonathan Clark, sincerely thank the community. He said Laurel would have been delighted to have a kids’ playing area named in her honor because she loved kids. Their young son, Iain, maybe 6 or 7 at the time, was also present. He was distracted; not crying but not happy. My 5th grade daughter watched the younger boy, aware that he had just lost his hero mother. It was a quiet sunny afternoon. It affected me, to watch her family and deal with what, in the name of science, courageous Dr. Laurel Clark had lost.

I asked some folks from Olympia UU if they remembered her; they reminded me it’s been almost 40 years since she lived in town; the only direct memory I heard was a glimpse of a smiling girl with curly brown hair, arriving on her bike at the end of a meeting her mom had attended. I also heard, and it made me laugh, that she earned straight A’s at Horlick High School – except for one B - in typing!

She went on to UW Madison for undergraduate and graduate work on a full Navy scholarship. By 1987 she was a physician, and as well, she had earned certifications in Para jumping and scuba diving. She knew how to make a house call to a submarine!

She met her husband, Jonathon Clark, while they were both working for the navy in Scotland.  She applied twice to become an astronaut; she was accepted the second time, while five months pregnant. The Clarks worked and lived in Houston until the tragic loss in February of 2003.

Our Unitarian Universalist 3rd Principle is this: Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.

Which means we are not all brave here, but we can think about what it means to have courage - to risk ourselves in lives of love and commitment.

As we heard when Jackie read it;  The word courage comes from the Latin Cor – which means heart. Core – the center of things. Cor - to go towards the essence of what needs to happen, to be at the middle of an event. Courage is to act from our ‘cor” - our center, our heart.

We saw courage in the TV images from the mass shooting in Las Vegas -- hundreds of people helping hundreds of people. As Mr. Rogers told us, look to the helpers – That’s where hope and courage reside.

1. Courage is too often over-glamorized.

What’s the first image we tend to think of when we consider courage? Firefighters carrying children out of burning buildings. Soldiers with ammo belts in their teeth holding off a whole brigade of Nazis or Taliban – pick your favorite war. Grandmothers picking up cars to rescue kittens.

Even as we poke fun at some of these images, we are so vulnerable to them. Images of men, generally white, rescuing smaller humans, generally also-white females. We lift up the soldier and distrust the grandmother in the iffy neighborhood. We honor Veterans Day, but where is Teachers Day? There are 425,000 heavy equipment operators in the US and we have culture-wide stereotypes about how essential they are to us and our economy and how they have built and are still building America and what can we do to get those awesome construction workers to vote for our party.

Guess what? There are 260,000 people who work in special education. Have you heard of any push to make the world more respectful to and supportive of them? 

I knew the govt was involved in Hollywood so I surfed the internet for less than a minute and came up with this information that floored me. “US military intelligence agencies have influenced over 1,800 movies and TV shows… There is a new book just out this past summer, called National Security Cinema  It details how US government involvement includes script rewrites on some of the biggest and most popular films, including James Bond, the Transformers franchise, and movies from the Marvel and DC cinematic universes.” The basic trade seems to be this. Superhero, action movies, and war movies like to borrow military hardware to make their blockbusters. The Department of Defense’s (DOD) has a chief Hollywood liaison. That person reads scrips to edit out statements that might be unflattering.  If you watch a movie with tanks or military jets in it, chances are you won’t hear negative comments about the military.

Or this:  There are several fine movies about Martin Luther King - though not one of them was hyped to blockbusterdom. If you have seen more than one MLK movie, you are probably Unitarian.

However - There are SIX Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle blockbusters. 

Someone is getting rich while at the same time molding the American idea of a hero.

2. We need to think, think, and rethink the differences between stereotypes of courage – and courage.

When my kids were very young and we lived in Chicago, I’d sometimes take one of them with me when I volunteered to help cook and serve a meal at a shelter for women who were homeless – but my kids glued themselves to the back of my knees. I was less than pleased with how much they tried to stay hidden, to not interact with the women. Sometimes I wanted to scold them, because I knew plenty of little kids who were outgoing and friendly. How come my kids couldn’t be courageous like that? After a while I just gave up and let the kids stay home.

I thought I wanted to share with them that homeless people are precious and worthy and all those things we know are true. I already knew that; it’s why I was there.

My kids weren’t rude or mean, they were just very shy and hesitant – and those evenings of 50 unknown women in various states of normal to odd – it was rather intense.

The lesson that needed to get learned was this- that children will be courageous on their own terms.

We had a sleepover in our home for 5 little kids, these youngsters had been playing together at least once a week since before they could remember.  That evening, once all the kids were in their short sleeping bags on the floor in our kids’ room - Daniel started crying because he missed his mom and dad. My husband and I stood outside the bedroom door waiting to see what, if anything, we should do. My daughter patted Daniel’s head a very long time. She talked to him in the kindest possible little girl tones. He calmed down and fell asleep.

When I let go of my stereotypes – I saw my daughter sharing her courage with Daniel.

Len and I watched the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick Vietnam documentary. It was intense to watch those programs and understand, often for the first time, why we were there and why we didn’t leave.

One of the men interviewed in the documentary described the process of his thinking as he decided to go to Canada. He didn’t respect the war; he thought in his heart that it was wrong. But when he was 18 he got his draft notice.  He went to basic training, he did what he was supposed to do, and his doubts only grew. He knew that defecting would dishonor his family as well as cut him off from his own nation. But he simply couldn’t imagine going to war to kill people against whom he had no argument.  So one day he drove over the border and he has never come back.

He said, “At the time I was so conflicted. I felt like a coward and a failure. It took decades to come to the realization, that when I thought failed myself and my family and my country -- that was in fact, the bravest thing I’ve ever done.”

It is too easy to think courage is triumphing. We encourage ourselves and others by foregoing stereotypes in order to see and honor the true courage that is in us and in front of us.

Courage is not a commodity one turns on and off by a spigot. Courage grows, develops, and blooms like the living thing it is.

There is an accepted tradition that Jesus preached and ministered for three years up to the crucifixion. Also, as far as we know, Jesus didn’t start teaching and healing until he was 30.

So think of your 20’s - those were not empty, boring years, were they?  I don’t know about you, but I made all my best mistakes in my 20’s.

Jesus’ decision to leave his family and community in order to teach, preach, and rabble-rouse grew out of conflicts and situations we don’t know. He had grown up in a poor but interesting family, time and place. He felt compelled to move towards folks who were ordinary, struggling, and oppressed. He wasn’t the only man doing this; there was a tradition at the time of prophets and healers meandering the countryside. In fact, we can say what Jesus did was exploit the newest media of his time – talking on a hillside to gathered people.

Here’s the thing. He did this for THREE years! What happens when you spend three years at something? He obviously started with purpose and passion; he wouldn’t have left home without it. But knowing you care about a situation is not the same as living it. In three years his politics would have become his heart. If he wanted to bring hope, respect, a sense of being valued to ordinary people - instead of those people feeling condemned for who they weren’t – those opinions would have gotten him out the door. But his opinions would be made real with faces, names, stories, and disappointments. With frustration, anger, times of hunger and times of feasting, laughter, rolling of ones’ eyes – and love.  His convictions about what spirituality ought to offer ordinary people in a rough place and a violent time – those convictions would have become his passionate heart.

We all have some courage. But spend three years working with one organization, raising kids with no issues or lots of issues, tutoring one student at your neighborhood school, supporting one immigrant family, being a friend to one foster kid - what’s theoretical becomes as real as the Velveteen Bunny.

You leave the iffiness of being politically correct. You enter the realm of learning courage.

We grow courage by being present, over and over again, in places and situations where courage is needed so courage grows.

There is even research done, in the past few years – on the brain chemistry of courage.

MRI’s were performed on willing participants that entailed pulling one of two items closer to one’s head as they lay in the MRI machine. One item was a stuffed Teddy bear. The other object was a live snake. I don’t know how they did that, I’m assuming it was in a cage!

Oh yeah.

This is what they learned, which surprised them. We all have a location in our brains for fight or flight. But – when we do something courageous, it doesn’t come from that part of our mental geography. It comes from the decision-making part of our brains. The decision to be brave starts several seconds BEFORE we start doing the brave thing.  As well, this ability builds on itself. People who have done previous brave things with and around snakes have much less fear.

Making up your mind to do small new intimidating things today, will teach your brain that you are a person who does brave stuff. If you think you are a scaredy cat, don’t sign up for the Marines, but maybe this afternoon get in your car or on your bike and go to a new place to do a new thing. Use a power tool, visit a lonely person even though chit-chatting terrifies you. Cook with jalapeños. Stretch your own idea of what you will and won’t do.

The world says you change the world with courage – but as anyone who has done courageous things knows, courage changes you, too.

Courage is seeing the tissue paper hurricane fencing that is sometimes around us, that we could just walk over.

Courage is knowing we can become braver - and working towards that.

Courage is living our lives forward the way the Laurel Clark and the other astronauts did, doing our work, cooperating with others, reveling in the perfume of the roses.

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