For Mary, Brad, Clint, and Kay, who remind me in so many ways I am brave and I am never alone. Glad you’re with me, because this is going to get fun.
So said Coach Bear Bryant, according to fact or legend or myth or the something in between that exists in the great stories in the South, to his quarterback before the game. After all the offensive schemes and defensive tactics had been reviewed one last time. After all the last-minute reminders of which players from Georgia or Florida or LSU to watch. After Coach Bryant, in his deep voice, said whatever words he knew would motivate his players to push themselves to the edge of love for the holy sport of Alabama and then go three more steps, because victory rests in the beyond. After those moments, he looked his quarterback in the eyes, rested the weight of his hands and a grand tradition on a boy’s shoulders and said, “Be brave.”
Football, in its brutal elegance, is about bravery. It is a battle, not of good and evil or Axis and Allied, but about the mythic struggle of courage and fear within each of us. The game offers a place for adversaries to look into each others‘ eyes for the seconds before another play ensues, to see that the man across from you has run as many laps, lifted as much weight, and wants to win as much as you. This other across the line will brutally smash into you once the play begins, and will help you up when the play ends. Bravery does that - fights when called upon and finds compassion in the fight.
Bravery recognizes victory always comes at a price. No one plays, really plays football, without paying a high price. Running one more drill under the hot August sun during two-a-days. Feeling knees and shoulders and hips crunch and strain with every crash to the field as you struggle to hold onto what seems to be the smallest thing on earth wrapped in pigskin. Listening to those who aren’t brave, but would talk as if they were, tell you what they would do if they were on the field. Knowing that even at your best, your very best, you will bleed and weep because of this game.
In football, players come off the field at the end of the game bleeding and weeping. Weeping because they won. Crying because they lost. Crying because if one more block had been made, one more pass completed, one more run good for one more yard, the results could have been different. It is a game of brutal inches, and, in the end, the only number that truly matters is the score. One team wins, and one team loses. And it’s all left on the field.
The first football coach I ever knew, my grandfather, said no player in football should leave with a clean uniform. He would say that. The man who served in the Pacific theatre in World War II as a minesweeper; who was prepared to be a part of the first wave of the invasion of Japan, with one hundred percent casualties predicted; who was a football player and coach and high school principal who integrated his high school by reminding local racists that he was a good shot and unafraid to use a gun, would recognize that if you’re not in the dirt and getting it rubbed in your clothes and face and soul, you aren’t being brave. If you aren’t chancing victory because you’re too busy calculating the price, you aren’t being brave.
Because bravery hurts. It comes at a cost. Somewhere in a room or a side street or on the shores of a body of water, Jesus looked at those who would follow him and said, “Be brave.”
And someone asked, “Why? Don’t we just have to love each other, be merciful, and forgive?”
Jesus nodded and said what all those who have lived with bravery know: it will hurt, you will not always like it, and there will be blood.
While we in the South love to relate sports analogies to life, even to religion, in the end, sports are sports, not life. Football, baseball, basketball - they are all entertainment, and they are all optional. Plenty of people live their entire lives quite fully never having stepped on the gridiron or the hardwood or the diamond.
Yet they are still brave because they are taking part in the non-optional event called life. And life is the reality of the battle between good and evil, bravery and cowardice, courage and fear. I’ve been all, and will continue to be, in my life. For a while I forgot how to be brave. Oh, I practiced being brave. I told the truth when telling the truth was safe, or when telling the truth was a way to distance (didn’t know we humans could use the truth for that, did we?). And I fought with God about where and what I should be as a person and as a priest. God kept shoving me forward, and I crawled right back.
And I whined, “Why?” which is almost always a question that looks backward.
Years before, I walked away from a legal career, sold most of what I had, and drove off to New York, where I knew no one, to begin this journey to the priesthood. I was afraid I was making a mistake, as was my family. I wanted a sure and certain hope from God; I got small places for me to step at the time, but no grand vision. I feared moving so far away alone and being totally alone.
Those years were wonderful and brave. Yes, I struggled and learned and grew, but my friends from that time are still close friends, and I am still a priest. My parish after that seemed to be challenging, too. But I ran laps in August with those who did and didn’t agree with me, and we learned to be in communion with each other. And I bravely cried when I left those whom I loved and still love to respond to a new call and live in a new place.
And that, as new creation is, was good. Time passed, and comfort set in, and God began to push around at my soul. I ignored the pushing for a while, until I couldn’t ignore God anymore. You’d think, after all the many, many examples in the Church, I would have figured out that God never stops pushing. After growing weary with the holy struggle, I fell to Mother Earth, broken and weary, and asked, “What now?” which is a question that is filled with possibility and hope and even bravery. And God finally said, “Well, now that you asked...”
I spent yesterday with God, walking most of the day in silence, wondering what to do with my soul, brimming with courage and bravery and a healthy dose of faith and even more joy, even as I am slightly fearful at the amazing future. In past months, I wondered where the brave me was, somewhere contained and tired of being relegated away, until I realized some time ago that small step by small step, she’d wandered her way back into my full self. I was almost surprised when I felt my brave soul swell at the whisper of God calling my name and asking me to shout, “Yes!” at the edge of creation and possibility.
And for a brief moment, I thought about not being brave again.
But only for a moment, because my best self gets weary of not being brave and courageous, of living to contain instead of expand. Living in that containment exhausts me. I want to live full and free, to live to chance victory, even when I fail. And I will. And I will hurt. My heart will get broken again. My hopes will be dashed. My mistakes will be for all to see. My tears will fall when I realize someone I love had died. I will look at the community of God and think, “What the hell?”
And I’ll feel the gentle touch of God’s hands on my shoulders and hear that voices that sound suspiciously like the voices of all who have loved me in their lives on earth and the voices of those who love me here and now.
“Laurie, our love, if you aren’t chancing victory because you’re too busy calculating the price, you aren’t being brave.”
Now, now it is time to be brave.
Now I can shout, “Yes!” to God, to those who are waiting for me, and for whom I have been waiting.