For fourteen years now Peggy and I have been coming to Chautauqua Institution every summer for several weeks. Year after year we have gravitated to this place on Lake Chautauqua, mostly for the programs and to see the friends we’ve made here who come from all over – many from the Mid-West. But we also come to hear great preachers, listen to timely lectures, listen to the symphony and stay at the large UCC houses. This summer my wife, Peggy, is serving as the Chaplain Administrator of all the UCC houses for four weeks. So, she leads a staff and runs programs in our buildings; I try to be helpful. The experience is a little like running a retreat center or a dormitory with new guests every week. But we also attend the main lectures and the concerts across the campus.

Last Friday our main speaker was author Salman Rushdie, and he was scheduled to speak on the topic of How America has Become a Safe Asylum for Writers who are Dissidents. The irony of his topic was clear within moments as something happened on the stage of the amphitheater that has not happened in the 150-year history of the institution. A man armed with a knife burst onto the stage and brutally attacked the speaker.

People in the audience screamed and stared in disbelief as the routine of engaging in public conversation about civic issues turned brutally violent and potentially deadly. But something else happened that day that was quite remarkable. At least a dozen and maybe as many as twenty people came out of the audience and leaped onto the stage too. They ran toward the attacker and pulled him from Mr. Rushdie. Now the attacker was pretty burley and very determined so a fight ensued, but the attacker was not able to do more damage and Mr. Rushdie could get away. Then physicians from the audience rushed up and began to evaluate and treat him. All of this happened almost in an instant, and in front of an audience of 3,000 people.

Since then, we have all been pondering what makes people act with such courage, as the audience members who quite possibly saved Rushdie’s life. What distinguishes them, so they are willing to run toward danger, or risk their own safety for another person? What could make a person jump on the back of the man with a knife? Recently, one speaker said something interesting. If we make a habit of thinking of others then when the time comes, or danger lurks, we are more concerned about what is happening than we are frightened for our own safety. Courage is never the absence of fear, but it is the ability to weigh our fears along with the public good.

In our church courage is one of our core values, so I have been paying particular attention to the lectures this week as speakers respond to the events of last week. What I noticed on Friday was that in the end it felt safer to see how ordinary people responded that day. I realized no one can stop evil from happening, but we can think about how we would want to respond. The other thing I will always remember about that day was how many people joined forces to stop this madman. Sometimes, when we are scared it is because we fear we’ll be alone, but often when we are brave, we find other brave souls who join us in our efforts.
Pastor Susan

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