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To speak normally—to make intelligible sounds that other people could understand—I had to undergo two lengthy surgeries. The first happened when I was just a toddler. There’s not much I can tell you about that one. I have no memory of it at all.

The second time around I was in my early twenties. For six hours a surgeon harvested tissue from my throat and from the sides of my mouth.

Using those bits of flesh, he built what is called a pharyngeal flap. To make a long anatomical story short, he gave me the soft palate (the roof of my mouth) that nature neglected to provide for me at birth. Following that procedure, I remained on a liquid diet for a couple of months.

There are tons of lessons that growing up with a speech impediment and that undergoing major surgeries taught me. But none of them is more important than this one:

I’ve got a body. And to be embodied is to suffer. So, taking life on its own terms and making sense of it involves learning how to navigate suffering. In other words, a life worth living requires courage. And, in its truest sense, courage is an expression of love.

Hollywood’s depiction of courage tends to be narrowly focused on physical risk-taking. Tough characters—male and female alike—face bodily harm and near certain death. Scripts tend to portray them as fearless. And that should be your first clue that Hollywood doesn’t know much about courage.

True courage isn’t the absence of fear. Various psychologists and philosophers have talked about courage as the ability to confront our fears and to do what needs to be done.

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle insisted that a brave person also possesses wisdom.

They know what is worthy of fear in specific situations and respond appropriately to it on the basis of who they are and what those particular circumstances require. Moreover, wise people not only overcome their fears. They know why they should face them.

Reflecting on the life of Jesus has led me to think that, while Aristotle is right, his thoughts on courage are missing a crucial element. What we fear is suffering.

It may be physical pain or emotional anguish, the sting of rejection or the crushing weight of grief, a disfiguring injury or a broken heart. But in the end, it’s suffering that makes us tremble or hesitate, flee or fly into a rage.

We can’t completely avoid suffering. So, our challenge as humans is to make something good and beautiful and meaningful from a life that inevitably involves bruises to body and soul. And I regret to say that, left to our own devices, we humans all too often make a wreck of things.

Actually, that’s where Hollywood does get the human thing right. Not the healthy human thing. The destructive, self-destructive human thing. We hurt and we’re afraid of being hurt. So, we hurt others in response to being injured and we preemptively attack others to protect ourselves.

I’m thinking of every war and feud and violent crime in history. Every act of retaliation ranging from petty passive aggressiveness to capital punishment.

In short, hurt people hurt people. And we’re all hurt people. So, we’re stuck on a hamster wheel of suffering.

Jesus is working—through the likes of you and me—to get us off that hamster wheel. He sends his disciples into the world to “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” (Matthew 10:8) To restore fractured bodies and souls. To transform this bruising world into a beloved community. Jesus and his followers are on a peace mission.

In the Sermon on the Mount, he assured us that peacemakers are blessed. They would be called the children of God. (Matthew 5:9) And so it is jarring to hear him say, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34)

As it turns out, plenty of people will perceive peacemakers as troublemakers. That’s because making peace begins with identifying and dismantling the toxic, dehumanizing, destructive patterns in our individual and in our common lives.

The late congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis called this good trouble. And he knew from personal experience that good trouble can be met with violent resistance. With beatings and incarceration. With suffering.

Jesus himself was clear about it. He understood that his path would lead to the cross and that his followers should be prepared for persecution. That’s why he told us, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” (Matthew 10:28)

In other words, be brave. Make good trouble even and especially when it makes your gut churn. Let love animate you in the face of hate and violence.

That’s how Jesus went to the cross. He responded to human violence with love. He understood that love—and only love—can make something good and beautiful and meaningful from suffering. Only love can bring greater life from misery.

You see, that’s what God is about in Jesus from the very start. When God chose to be embodied, God knew that suffering would come along with the deal. To be human at all—to have flesh—is to suffer. And in Jesus, God shows us that love transforms suffering. The cross leads to the empty tomb. To a whole new kind of life.

To mend this aching world will take courage. And Jesus teaches us that real courage is an expression of love.

This week’s essay is a reflection on Proper 7A for Sunday closest to June 22. If you’re working on the lessons for this upcoming Sunday click here to read last week’s post about Proper 6A.

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