What Moves Us Out of Our Heads to Risk Reality?

By Keith Miller | September 28, 2009

Keith, I’m a Christian and I feel like I am pretty committed, but I know that I don’t have the courage to be open about my faith in some situations. How does a person learn to have the courage to stand up and be counted in really unchristian situations? Can you give me some ways to find this sort of commitment? Where have you found courage that has let you take some of the hits you have taken?

For years I was looking for the courage that would make me unafraid to take unpopular stands if I needed to. Your asking the question brought a vivid picture to mind, a scene that happened half a century ago in Richmond, Indiana.

Gordon Cosby was the guest preacher in the Earlham Quaker meeting in Richmond, Indiana one November Sunday morning in 1961. Gordon had started a church in Washington, D.C. that had only sixty members and a long waiting list to get in. The required disciplines were very strenuous. I’d heard that almost half the members were ordained ministers from other churches and denominations who had left their churches to come be a part of a little church that was more demanding than some of the seminaries from which they had graduated. In that church, each person had to re-make his or her commitment every year. The influence from that small new company of committed Christians was already radiating throughout the Christian world.

I was a thirty-four year old Episcopal business-man-student at the Earlham School of Religion, the first Quaker seminary in history, and I was thrilled to meet Gordon Cosby and hear him preach. I wondered where he got the idea that a small group of Christians with stringent discipline could change the direction of a materialist Culture.

His sermon title was “The power of Discipline.” He told the story of how Gideon defeated a vastly larger and superior army with only 300 men. Gordon’s point was that God wanted Gideon to know two things: (1) to whom to credit the victory, and (2) what can be done with a small group who are really committed and disciplined to stay. He referred to the minority situation of the Christian Church in America.

Then he related his own war experience of being part of an all-volunteer air born division in the army during the Second World War. The discipline in this division was extremely hard and exacting. At one point General Taylor had court-martialed an officer for not shaving—even though there was no water, but all the men were required to shave. Gordon said that the General was right and that it was the tough discipline that allowed that division to do things that simply could not be done, and to make an unheralded but powerful contribution to winning the war.

Gordon then said that the commands of Jesus were two, (1) to be obedient and (2) to love. As a conclusion, he pointed out that following these commands as Jesus obeyed them demanded a rare and hard kind of discipline that was possible only for people who are deeply committed. “As a matter of fact,” he pointed out, “we must have the kind of love and obedience that makes us realize that we are expendable in Christ’s cause, that we become willing to be lost for His cause.”

Gordon then cited what he said was on of the most moving experiences in his life. At one point during the war, his airborne division was surrounded, their supplies and ammunition were almost depleted, and they were cut off. But they were commanded not to retreat. They were to stay or the larger battle and the whole war effort in that area could be lost. They were ordered to stay in their fox holes in a long valley. Gordon, a Chaplain in that division, was watching from a cliff as the German tanks moved toward the men he had come to know and care for a great deal. The tanks could not bypass them because if they did, the American soldiers could come out and harass the infantry following the tanks. The enemy did not know that the soldiers were out of anti tank weapons, so the tanks roared down upon them. Gordon watched, horrified, as the tank drivers drove over the fox holes with the men still in them, spun their tanks, and sealed the men in the holes…alive. But even seeing the tanks do this as they approached, the men did not panic. They realized that they had to be expendable to win time for the main body of the army to escape. And they stayed.

Gordon looked at us in that meeting and said evenly, “The commitment that frees, that overcomes fear and hesitation comes from the person who finally comes to the place where he doesn’t care what happens to him. In a sense he couldn’t care less. He is willing to be expendable in Christ’s cause. And that’s where the power comes from to change impossible situations.”

I was very moved when I heard Gordon telling us that story. I grasped for the first time that I was sitting not ten feet from a man who had seen people he knew well live and die with that kind of commitment. And I knew in my bones that Gordon Cosby had that kind of faith too. I heard that sermon forty-eight years ago, and I have followed Gordon’s work since he “stayed” and was obedient. He loved the poor and marginalized, the unloved of all kinds, and faced angry threatened Christians, selfish politicians, police, judges, and lawmakers at all levels, in the South during integration, and in Washington D.C. for fifty years, in order to build housing and new lives for people with no advocates or powerful friends. He and the others at the Church of the Saviour have in fifty years done things that simply couldn’t be done.

And Gordon, 91 now, still goes to the building where prisoners who have served their terms are released on the streets of our capital city with only enough money for a few days—with no where to go—in one of the busiest cities anywhere. And he meets them…and cares, though be doesn’t have the money to care for them—for there are hundreds of them…oblivious of the tanks coming down the valley.

Thank you, Gordon, for just being who you are….and changing my life.

Lord, thank you for the men in those fox holes, who never knew that a Chaplain from Virginia saw them stay and die, and drank their courage through his eyes—and brought it home to plant its seeds to save a floundering, half-committed Church and nation. And it just occurred to me that Gordon and his bunch may not know—as the soldiers in the foxhole didn’t at the time—the effect of his courage, and “staying,” and giving his life (when all seemed lost) has had on so many of us who stood on the hill…and watched him stay and love your needy children for You, Lord. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

“Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard, what you saw, and what you realized.” (Paul talking to the Philippians 4:8f. THE MESSAGE)

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