Not Just Bystanders
I know it’s wrong to blame people. I’ve been on courses that told us – we must take responsibility for our own lives. But I am now going to blame various people in this congregation, the people who’ve introduced me to a love of birds and particularly garden birds. You are to blame for this being an even more stressful week than it was already shaping up to be.
This week the blackbirds in the church back garden have hatched their second nest of babies, having lost all of the first brood to the marauding magpies and crows. And I think several wrens are nesting in the garden this year and there are some fledglings that have just appeared, being watched over by anxious parents. What I’ve learnt from the baby birds this spring is that sometimes in life we can only be bystanders, witnesses to the joys and troubles of others. I tried to scare off the nasty magpies but I couldn’t stand at the window 24 hours a day waving a tea towel. We’ve all tried to be as supportive as possible of the wren family nesting in the hose pipe reel but in the end it’s out of our hands.
So as we consider this week’s theme ‘not just bystanders’ let’s hold the reality that at times all we can do is watch, bear witness, perhaps observe so that we can pass the story on to others. For those of us who sometimes feel the responsibilities of the world weighing so heavily on our shoulders it can be worth doing a reality check about what we can and cannot control.
But the main message of today’s service is the opposite – that we can and do matter, that our actions can and do make a difference. I talked a bit last week about our fears and the fact that we cannot get rid of fear. It is an instinctual response that bypasses the brain altogether and takes us straight into fight or flight responses. Fear is a very useful survival tool.
Once fear has activated us we can observe it; we can start to think our thoughts about our fear response, we can choose to behave in one way or another. I’m grateful to Jeannene for finding the quote we’ve used for the front of today’s order of service.
‘Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than one’s fear. The timid presume it is lack of fear that allows the brave to act when the timid do not. But to take action when one is not afraid is easy. To refrain when afraid is also easy. To take action regardless of fear is brave.’ – Ambrose Redmoon
After last week’s attack on London Bridge we know that a number of people could have saved their own lives by running away but chose instead to move towards danger to help others. At least two people lost their lives for their bravery and others are hopefully now recovering from their injuries in hospital. We might also recall the actions of two men in Portland in the United States who went to protect two young women who were being racially abused on a train and who were then attacked themselves. They lost their lives protecting others and I want to honour them for their bravery.
Have you ever asked yourself that question of how you might react in such terrifying moments? I suspect I’d freeze. Psychologists describe our fight or flight response in scary situations but ofcourse there is the third possibility – the scared rabbit response that stays stock still, unable to move. I pray that none of us get to find out how we respond in dramatically frightening situations. They are thankfully still very rare.
Most of us will never have our courage tested in such dramatic circumstances but rather by the small everyday choices of life: the times when we might speak out if something has us feeling uncomfortable, noticing wrong doing or injustice and choosing to step forward rather than retreating. As bullying in schools and workplaces becomes more commonly spoken about, instead of being hidden as though its existence is too shameful to admit– as the existence of bullying is brought more into the light of day, it’s being made clear that if someone speaks out in the early stages against the bullying words or behaviours it is far less likely to continue. Bullies rely on the complicity of bystanders. Bullies are strengthened by the existence of bystanders. There’s something quite subtle and tribal going on in bullying. It’s about power and groups and belonging. It needs courageous individuals to dare to speak up and say ‘I am not comfortable with what you have just said or what you have just done. I am prepared to speak to others and let them know what has just happened. I will not be silenced.’
Courage is not the absence of fear, it’s finding something stronger than our fear, which will empower us, embolden us. Courage is a way of being, a place to stand. Courage reminds us that life is precious and that life is worth stepping forward into. As I’ve thought about this topic during the last week I’ve come to realise that there are areas in my life where I’ve allowed fear to hold me back, where I’ve been a bystander in life rather than a full participant. I wonder if that rings any bells for you? Are there aspects of your life where with courage you might step forward – be more fully yourself, allow new parts of you to emerge perhaps, start courageous conversations, take relationships to a new level, ask for support perhaps in a way you have never dared ask before?
We are living in disturbed and disturbing times. Life’s complexity and uncertainty and confusion are well and truly showing up. In such times we have choices. We can choose to feed our fears, we can hide away, batten down the hatches as they say and hope the storms pass. Or we can choose to face the world, to step towards life rather than away from it. We can choose to live according to the values we hold most dear – letting love and justice and hope guide our pathways, our actions and our words. Let’s choose to be courageous in the face of all that is. And so may we in the week ahead face our lives with courage: courage to be who we truly are, courage to accept others as they are, courage to view our world with loving compassion – accepting all its complexities and uncertainties, yet aligning ourselves with all that we know to be decent, kindly, and just. And may this be so for the greater good of all. Amen, go well and blessed be.
Rev. Sarah Tinker
Sermon – 11th June 2017