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Bishop Budde on Courage in Decisive Moments

How We Learn to Be Brave
Decisive Moments in Life and Faith
By Mariann Edgar Budde
Avery, 224 pages, $28

Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde rightly notes that “we learn from the courage of others.” How We Learn to Be Brave offers glimpses into the lives of a diverse group of individuals who rose to the occasion when faced with considerable challenge. Reminding us from the start of spiritual writer Henri Nouwen’s memorable words that “the most personal is the most universal,” Budde introduces us to figures both familiar and lesser-known, whose stories can inspire us in our own journeys.

From the biblical Abraham and Sarah to Black American pastor and educator Howard Thurman, from diplomat and activist Eleanor Roosevelt to integrative medical practitioner Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., from civil rights legend Martin Luther King Jr. to seminary student Jonathan Daniels, to name but a few, we find in their accounts a testimony to how “the most influential moments in our lives and in human history depend far more than we realize on our faithfulness in small things.”

As evident in the book’s chapters, these small things include decisions to go into the unknown when fear threatens to hold us back, as well as decisions to stay when we desperately want to run away. They include decisions to start a new thing, welcoming new possibilities and challenges, as well accepting realities and unforeseen callings that come our way.

The impressive personages included in these pages are not limited to the past, as Budde also draws on the examples of personal friends, colleagues, and mentors in her life and work. Budde introduces womanist theologian Kelly Brown Douglas, dean of Episcopal Divinity School and canon theologian of Washington, as someone who “has something to say about the societal wrongs that as a white Christian I don’t always see,” always believing that Jesus “continues to experience the realities of crucifixion in the lives of Black people and feels the pain of it as if for the first time.”

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is another Black leader in a predominantly white denomination. Budde notes his amazing ability throughout his long ministry to “take strong public positions on controversial subjects yet maintain genuinely affectionate relationships with those who disagreed.”

And Edwin Friedman, the late rabbi and author who as a mentor to Budde served as “a ballast” in her life, was someone whose work on family systems and self-differentiation has helped promote the possibility of healthy, non-anxious leaders in congregations. These persons, along with the historical and literary figures presented in the book, serve as exemplars of courage in the face of life’s difficulties, doubts, and disputes. As Budde notes, “I wrote this book to honor the breadth and depth of what courage looks like in decisive moments.”

Interwoven throughout all of this is Budde’s story. She allows a transparency and vulnerability without falling into the trap of literary egoism. Indeed, looking back on what she said during the custody hearings at the time of her parents’ divorce, and the effect her words had on her mother, she acknowledges how she “is stunned by her capacity for cruelty.”

All of this is framed by an introduction and epilogue that describe what is perhaps the most public moment of the author’s vocational life, when she spoke out in various interviews against President Trump’s actions on June 1, 2020, as he engaged in a photo op, Bible in hand, in front of St. John’s, Lafayette Square, the “Church of the Presidents.”

“President Trump does not speak for St. John’s,” Budde declared. “We disassociate ourselves from the messages of this president and align ourselves with those seeking justice for the death of George Floyd and countless others.”

In our present age of deep political divisions, this book will not be for everyone. The framing tale will be welcomed by many readers, while other potential readers will likely find it reason to go no further. And this is a shame, for there is much wisdom to be gleaned within its pages, wisdom that can prove helpful for all who seek to be courageous in the decisive moments of our life and faith.

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