I think often about what is asked of me as a religious person, and the words of the prophet Micah, in the Hebrew scriptures, come to mind: “What is required of you but to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Justice, mercy, and humility. To try to live toward this call requires something else from us, and I think that something else is courage. I’m convinced that the practice of courage is one of the most important religious undertakings for our times. Why courage?
To begin with, we live in a time of great change. Changes on the Earth, for example: glaciers and polar ice melting, heat waves and flooding, earthquakes and hurricanes. Things are also in incredible movement in human society — ideologies crashing into each other, revolutions for and against freedom taking too may lives, millions of people leaving their homes in danger and in hope. Is the common good being destroyed or being strengthened? Sometimes it is hard to tell.
Of course, in some ways the facts of change and impermanence have always been true. Even so, we tend to focus on stability and permanence. Sometimes we simply assume stability to create for ourselves a sense of safety. Perhaps we create our own illusions of stability. Yet many wise teachers, and our own scientific knowledge, remind us that the deepest reality is constant change. From the cells of our bodies to the cells of all we touch, to the air, the weather, the features of the earth — all is constantly being born and dying, being born and dying.
When stability is our preference, it takes great courage to embrace the reality of change. In that embrace, in that decision, we have a chance to experience the only kind of stability that really matters. The wise ones have always tried to say this: if you want to truly rest and be free, you must surrender to the reality of constant change, and rest in that. Nothing seems to be more profoundly challenging for us, whether we are religious or not.
The older I get, the more I see and the more I experience, the more I am convinced that courage is what is needed, so that’s where I try to begin. Nurturing courage is at the center of my religious life. Not beliefs, not doctrines or theology or philosophy. The courage to face my fear of change is my daily prayer, my daily goal, the practice that makes a difference for me. The courage to face my own arrogance and ignorance is what enables me do what little I can to increase justice and mercy and humility in a world driven by power and greed and fear, the sources of anger and hatred.
From my perspective, there is no more important task for the religious life than the practice and cultivation of courage.
The Rev. Jill McAllister is senior minister at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Corvallis. She is also an adjunct faculty member in the School of History, Philosophy and Religion at Oregon State University, teaching comparative religion, and a senior program consultant for the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists.