READ : Daniel 3:18
… they were just ordinary people, but it’s ‘extra-ordinary’ how ordinary people can really become when given some extraordinary strength. That’s courage!
We come today to the one great virtue that makes all the other great virtues possible. It’s courage. Without courage, we’ll never face up to the situations where the other virtues – prudence, justice, temperance, faith, hope, love – are deployed. Courage gives us the strength to continue resisting evil and keep on pursuing good over the long haul.
We all admire the courageous feats of brave men and women who rise to the occasion and risk their lives for the sake of others. As Ernest Hemingway famously defined it, “Courage is grace under pressure.” Soldiers performing great deeds on the field of battle, police officers putting their lives on the line to protect civilians, firefighters who rush into burning buildings – these, and others like them, are rightly called heroes.
But there are other kinds of courage that are perhaps even more important. I like what the Polish ethicist Piotr Jaroszynski has written about courage:
“Fortitude or courage is necessary in many forms and in many situations, not merely in the extreme situations of war. We need it constantly, even if perhaps we are not aware of this. . . . every day . . . we must face things that threaten the good, we must face fear and pain constantly, and these situations always require fortitude.”
(“The Virtue of Fortitude,” from Ethics, The Drama of the Moral Life, tr. By Hugh McDonald)
This is the courage I want to explore – the kind of courage that enables us to face fear and pain, perhaps even for a lifetime, the kind of courage that enables us to face the things that threaten the good – and to face them down. I believe that this kind of courage comes from faith in God. There’s a great verse in scripture that distills the essence of the courage faith produces. It’s found in the book of Daniel, in the well-known story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. The king of Babylon threatened these three Jewish youths with death by fire if they did not worship his image. The three young men replied that the God whom they served was able to deliver them even from the fiery furnace. “But if not,” they added, “be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up” (Daniel 3:18).
Those three little words speak volumes – “But if not . . .” Our God is able to deliver us – from danger, from illness, from trouble, from poverty, from pain, from suffering. That’s faith speaking. But if not, if God chooses not to deliver us, we will yet remain faithful to him. That is courage speaking. That is grace under pressure.
The Rev. Dale Cooper is the chaplain of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA. His work each day brings him into pastoral contact with many of Calvin’s 4,000 students, but his special insights into the subject of personal courage and the strength that comes from faith in Jesus Christ were gleaned from a lifetime of watching just two very remarkable Christians, his mother and father.
David Bast: If you think about courage, and just sort of off the top of your head, you think about a soldier maybe in battle or firefights running into the building instead of running away from it. Now that’s courage.
Dale Cooper: It is.
David Bast: But I think the virtue of courage has more to do not with that momentary sort of burst of adrenalin, “do the right thing” but with endurance over the long haul.
Dale Cooper: Oh, I really think so. In fact, those momentary acts, I think, get honed and shaped through all kinds of practice prior to a given event and so what those persons brought to it in a moment of crisis may have been shaped by a long, long experience with having practiced, and practiced, and practiced it.
David Bast: So you’re saying, “Don’t expect that you’ll be able to do the right thing if you do the wrong thing habitually.”
Dale Cooper: I think that’s true.
David Bast: It’s a matter of doing the right thing day by day.
Dale Cooper: So it becomes second nature to you when you have to do it.
David Bast: When the crisis comes.
As I think of courage, this strength to step up or step forward, facing the daily challenge, it’s not just the extraordinary events that call for this but it’s the ordinary routine of life. We’re talking about the great virtues in these programs, virtues out of the classical world, like temperance and justice and prudence or good judgment. Without courage none of the other virtues work either because you back away. What are some of the ways that you’ve learned this or seen this? Give me the examples that have influenced you, of this sort of daily grace under pressure?
Dale Cooper: Several years ago we had a person come to Calvin College driving a huge crane onto the Calvin campus. He was lifting some heating and air conditioning ducts atop the building. At noon hour, I went over there and said, “Where did you learn to run this crane?” He said, “From watching the old timers.” I said, “Did you go to school for this?” “Oh yeah,” he said, “you go to school. But just watch the old timers, they’ll learn you how.”
My acquaintance with courage, Dave, came from watching the old timers and from watching people who have been a part of my life. And if I may be personal, it came from watching two of my greatest, greatest teachers, my dad and my mom. May I tell a story?
David Bast: Yes, please do.
Dale Cooper: All right. When I was three and she was 26, my mother was stricken with a little disease, a little germ called polio. It was 1945. It happened in early November and started with a headache, and the doctor who didn’t quite know what he was reckoning with, and thought it was just a headache, only advised aspirin. We discovered four days later that my 26-year-old mom had become totally paralyzed from the neck down. So on that Sunday, November 4, 1945, they brought my mother to Blodgett Hospital here in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The doctor came to her and said, “Marjorie, you’ve got two different kinds of polio, and you’re probably going to have to be here for about six weeks.” And my mother’s immediate comment was, “I can’t do this.” And he said, “Well, why not?” And she said, “Well, look, I’ve got a husband at home and I’ve got two little boys at home. One’s three. The other’s three months. So I’ll never be able to do this.” And he said, “Well, just figure on about six weeks.” They put her in an iron lung.
David Bast: Just describe that.
Dale Cooper: An iron lung – put two 55-gallon drums end to end, seal them, cut a hole in one end about the shape of a person’s head and then have that person’s entire body put into that tank with her or his head out, and then pressurize that tank to make a vacuum so that by pressuring it and releasing the pressure that person is forced to breathe. Well, the only way that air can come into and out of your lungs is via your nostrils so it shoves air into you and takes it out of you.
David Bast: So you’re imprisoned in a steel cylinder and the pressure pushes your diaphragm down and forces you to breathe in and out.
Dale Cooper: And then when the vacuum comes, obviously, the air rushes in to your nostrils and into your lungs, exactly. So they put my mom in that and they said, “You’re probably going to be here about six weeks.” And the other side of it is my dad. My dad went along with her in the ambulance. The doctor came out that evening and said to my dad, “Well, John, you know, Marjorie is going to be here for a while and you might as well go home.”
And my little dad who was in his early thirties said, “Well, yeah, I can go home, but. . . (my dad was a farmer) my onions are planted, I’ll just stay here.” Well, my dad stayed there for two and a half weeks. And then, when it appeared my mother was not going to survive, they let my dad in. And my dad came into the room, first time he had seen her.
David Bast: You mean he stayed there at the hospital for two weeks and they didn’t even let him stay with her?
Dale Cooper: My dad stayed in the waiting room. And he was there. So they let him in and she was semi-comatose. And he walked into that room, put his hand on her forehead and said, “It’s going to be okay, kiddo.” And she kind of perked up. And the doctor saw it and said, “Whew, there’s something extraordinary going on here.” And he said, “John, you may come in here whenever you want.” So my little five-feet, six-inch dad had the run of the polio ward and he stayed with her all winter.
David Bast: So six weeks turned into six months.
Dale Cooper: Six weeks actually turned into two years at Blodgett and my dad stayed with her for those two years. In fact, that next spring my mom said, “John, you can go back to the farm.” And he said, “No, I’ll just stay here with you.” So he did. And he stayed there every day for two years. He would come home on weekends to be with his little boys. Well, then she was able to move after eleven major operations at Blodgett. She was able to come closer to home, to Holland Hospital. So then she was another two years in Holland Hospital. And my dad stayed with her those two years there. During those four years, that’s the way they lived.
And I was cared for by my grandpa and grandma, my brother Jerry and I, and then after four years in the hospital, my mom was able to come home with the iron lung.
David Bast: So they moved the machine into your house.
Dale Cooper: They moved it with a semi truck. They got it home, and they moved it to my grandpa and grandma’s house. And for the next 35 years and ten months at home, that’s the way my mother lived. And, David, during those 39 years and ten months, I not once heard my mother complain. I sometimes say my mother was a victim of polio, but really she wasn’t. She had polio but in so many respects was victor over it and she bore it with – and now here comes the word, with great courage and endurance.
David Bast: As did your dad.
Dale Cooper: As did my dad. And his routine for those 40 years was that he’d get up in the morning. He’d take her out of the iron lung. She could be out for just a little while. He’d give her a bath, tend to her bodily needs, put her back in, feed her breakfast, brush her teeth, fluff up her hair, give her a drink, swat the mosquitoes from her face, turn on the television, turn it off. That’s how he cared for her for 40 years.
And David, she died on August 29, 1985. This is how she died. As happens so often in those 40 years, she contracted a cold. Well, she was paralyzed and really couldn’t cough or expectorate things, so basically she was choking, but the more important thing was that on August 29 I saw my mother mouth the words of Psalm 16, “Keep me safe, O God, for in you I take refuge. I’ll say, ‘You are the Lord my God, apart from you I have no good thing.’ As for the saints who dwell on the land, they are the glorious ones in whom my soul delights.” And she came to the end of the psalm . . . .
David Bast: “In thy presence is fullness of joy.”
Dale Cooper: “. . . forevermore.”
David Bast: “At thy right hand are pleasures forevermore.”
Dale Cooper: Exactly. And then she mouthed the words, “And when at last my race is run, the Savior’s work in me is done, even death’s cold wave.” And she died. Now my dad’s first words were, “Hey, I think she died, and I shut the iron lung off.” First time in 40 years that you didn’t hear those bellows and that sound of that motor. His next words were, “She was a wonderful wife.”
And so I saw them just day by day – I mean they were just ordinary people, I mean just plain ordinary people but I’ve always said that it’s extra-ordinary how extraordinary ordinary people can really become when given some extraordinary strength. So that’s courage.
David Bast: Yes. You know, the stoics in the ancient world, and there are still stoics around, would just sort of hang on through willpower. You know, you sort of get through tough times by just gritting your teeth and saying, “In 50 years it won’t matter. Even next year it won’t matter.” But it strikes me that that’s something very different from what your parents exhibited, the kind of courage that is a grace from God and a function of faith in God.
Dale Cooper: Well, I think it is. I think it’s radically different. And my work as a pastor among young people, whether at Calvin College or in my meeting other people, older people, younger people, I’m much more impressed with human weakness than I am with human strength, the ability on their own to get through things. I mean, we’re all pretty weak puppies.
David Bast: When the going gets tough, the tough get going, but we’re not so tough, most of us.
Dale Cooper: We’re pretty weak little pups. You know, when my mother first got sick, her first words she said to the doctor were, “Whew, I don’t think I can do this. I don’t think I can do this.”
And I asked her years later, “How did you ever make it?” And she said, “Well, Dale, you know, when I saw and it became pretty clear to me that my circumstances weren’t going to change quickly, because of my weakness, God kind of came into me and said, ‘Marjorie, I’m going to ask you to do two things: number one, try not to look back with if only. If only I hadn’t gotten sick. If only the doctor hadn’t misdiagnosed. If only whatever because it isn’t going to change anyway.’” And, she said, “He said to me, ‘Marjorie, try to look not way ahead with what if. What if I have to be here for years? What if I don’t get better?” “But,” she said, “he encouraged me to say this: Look just to today and, Marjorie, if you do, with my help, I’ll promise you that I’ll be there with you.” And she said, “Dale, with his help, I’ve tried to do that.”
Now there was a discipline through which she went every day to try to cultivate that and practice it. I mean, every morning, she kind of said, “Marjorie, don’t put your trust today in circumstances because that could change just like that.” She tried to remind herself of who God was, that God is great and God is good. She tried to listen very carefully to what she heard God telling her in his Word that, “Marjorie, I’m going to take this stuff today, including the good as well as the bad things, and I’m going to use this to somehow shape you and mold you into an extraordinary saint.” And then she said, she reminded herself every morning, “There’s nothing that’s going to happen to me today that hasn’t happened to Jesus before. So he’s with me.” And then every day she held forth the hope that soon and very soon, this is . . . .
David Bast: we’re going to see the Lord.
Dale Cooper: Yes. Now, David, some people say, “I can’t believe it.” I’m telling you, whenever I tell this story, I try to be as free from duality of deceit as I possibly can be.
David Bast: That’s just the way it was. You saw it. You witnessed it.
Dale Cooper: I saw it. Other people in our home town of Holland, Michigan saw it and that’s who my folks were. My dad survived my mom by 15 years. He died last Christmas eve. He was in Holland Hospital. He and I on a Saturday morning had a chance to talk with each other. My dad, as I said, at his funeral, “My dad was a simple man but it’s beautiful in its simplicity how profound my dad was.” When he was talking (he was reflecting back on their life together), he said, “Boy, she was sick there sometimes. She was sick there sometimes. But she took it good. She took it good.”
I said, “Well dad, you were really good to her too.” “Oh, I guess so. I don’t know,” he said. See, he did it as though it were a “no-big-deal” thing.
David Bast: Yes, and un-self-consciously.
Dale Cooper: Never called attention to it. No-big-deal thing.
David Bast: No sense of, “Boy, look at how heroic I am. Look at what I’m doing.” You just don’t think about yourself.
Dale Cooper: His next words to me were, “Oh, yeah, thankful for everything.” That’s the way he lived.
David Bast: The story of a life.
Dale Cooper: So whenever I sing this song, “Jesus loves me this I know,” I usually say, “because my dad and my mom showed me so.”
Well, you know, a lot of times people have come up to me and said, “That was your mother. She was an unusual person.” And she was. She was an unusual usual lady. But it wasn’t beforehand that my mother had this kind of thing, but I think it was having traveled through these circumstances that she just daily received nourishing strength.
David Bast: If that had never happened to them, no one would have known that they were unusual.
Dale Cooper: They wouldn’t have become unusual.
David Bast: It was the unusual circumstances that drew forth the unusual courage and grace.
Dale Cooper: And I think that’s where trust comes. It says in Scripture, even young people can grow weary and old people decline in their strength. But it was their daily waiting upon the Lord which renewed their strength. It gave them power, maybe not to soar on wings like eagles every day but to keep walking and to know that human beings aided by God can receive the strength to endure. That’s profoundly good news.
David Bast: So I ask myself, “Okay, what am I facing that I can’t get through one more day by God’s grace, with God’s strength?” Praise God for the great cloud of witnesses.
Dale Cooper: That’s really true. When it comes right down to it, our stories, I mean in the fine-print details, we’re different. But when it comes right down to it, we all have these remarkable similarities. We’ve got good things for which we can just natively say thanks. We’ve got evil things, and we’ve got some sad ones and some hard ones. My story and my mom’s story and my dad’s story is at heart no different from anybody else’s.
David Bast: More dramatic perhaps in the circumstances.
Dale Cooper: To be sure
David Bast: But the grace is the same and the courage can be the same too.
Dale Cooper: Exactly. As I said, in those 40 years, there was one time that I heard my dad say, “Oh, you know, I would have liked to work like other guys, but it’s fine.’
David Bast: So how did they live? Did he keep farming or rent it out or what?
Dale Cooper: My dad in 1938 bought ten acres of muck, muck land in Grant, Michigan, and he cleared it with his own two hands and a John Deere B tractor. And my dad for all those years kept those ten acres of muck. My uncle ran that muck land for him so my dad got five acres of the profits and my uncle got the other half.
And I also remember – and here’s where the Christian community came in – I can also remember very clearly that at Christmas time my folks would get a raft of mail and it would have two-cent stamps on it and three-cent stamps. My brother Jerry and I were always eager to open the three-centers first because there could be a lot of money in there. But folks would send in their $5 or their $10. I know that one time they got $25. My folks were no-big-deal people. My mom always kind of said, “I don’t need a big wardrobe and I got my green Cadillac.” (That was her iron lung.) So it was a community. It takes a community to rear a child, but you know, it takes a community to confront circumstances like this. So it was a lot of people who helped. But truth to tell, I have no idea how my parents . . . They were perfectly contented people.
I can recall after my mother died that I took my dad to Russ’s. He always liked to go to Russ’s Restaurant. We were sitting there in a booth, and I said to him, “Now, Dad, tell me, how in the world did you ever make a decision to stay with Mom after she had gotten sick? I mean a lot of people nowadays would have bailed, [saying] ‘I deserve better out of life than this. I’m out of here!’”
David Bast: “Put her in a home!”
Dale Cooper: Yeah, exactly, let other people care for her. He said, “Now, boy, I don’t know. I never thought about it. You just trust God and then you just do it.” So I’ve always maintained that the origin of the phrase “Just do it” didn’t start with Nike; it started with my dad. He said to me, “Now, boy, I don’t know. You just trust God and you just do it!” I mean, it was uncomplicated for him. He never even thought about it. So it wasn’t some kind of “Oh, what does this marriage owe me? And what do I owe her? It wasn’t a matter of, “If I stay then I get this, if I don’t stay, then. . .” He never even thought about it. He would have made a great farmer but who was it, John Clapool, who said one time, “God’s other name is called surprise.” This circumstance happened to my folks. My dad totally altered the course of his life in response to those circumstances and he just cared for her.
David Bast: Well, God give us grace to live courageously whatever our circumstances.