Courage in Life

Courage in Life” a sermon 

by Rev. Brian J. Kiely with Judge Sean Dunnigan

Unitarian Church of Edmonton

March 23, 2014



We need one another when we mourn and would be comforted.


We need one another when we are in trouble and afraid.


We need one another when we are in despair, in temptation, and need to be recalled to our best selves again.


We need one another when we would accomplish some great purpose, and cannot do it alone.


We need one another in the hour of success, when we look for someone to share our triumphs.


We need one another in the hour of defeat, when with encouragement we might endure, and stand again.


We need one another when we come to die, and would have gentle hands prepare us for the journey.


All our lives we are in need, and others are in need of us.


—George E. Odell



I have always thought that the greatest lie we ever tell is “Oh, I can’t complain,” when asked how we are doing.  We can all complain.  We all have problems, stresses, challenges.  Given some thought, I am sure everyone could complain about their health, their job, their lack of a job, their partners, their lack of partners, their aches, their families, the government or if – and especially if you live in Edmonton – potholes!


But perhaps that little white lie stems from a knowledge deep inside that whatever our problems, there is always someone who has it worse…or that your own problems could be worse.


I have actually heard that ‘can’t complain’ answer from folks lying in what they know will be their deathbed in the not very distant future.  Why weren’t they complaining?  How could it get any worse?


Good care and good pain meds is one reason.  They are comfortable in their last days.  They won’t complain about it.  But more importantly, well, for them the big fight is over.  The uncertainty and the anxiety that accompanies it is gone. Their future is clear, something that eludes the rest of us. They have accepted their situation and are gracefully letting go of life.  It’s okay.  It gives them a special kind of freedom few of us caught up in the stresses of living forever probably can’t understand.


Their decision that they won’t complain doesn’t suddenly develop in these last days, however.  It’s really part of a process of coming to terms with their mortality and choosing to love the life they have had and that which is still left to live.  Some do this with Buddha-like serenity.  Others grab hold with the fierceness of a warrior or a parent protecting a child.  And others occupy every point in between.


But months or years earlier in the process, way back at “Diagnosis”, well there was cause to complain.  The journey began there.  We have all heard of the five stages of grief: Anger, Denial, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.  Complaining is part of that. A whole rainbow of emotions is part of that.  And the theory of the five stages suggest that none of this is linear.  We go back and forth through the stages as we suffer through whatever trial besets us.


Because Jen Gardiner’s story served as our reading, I am obviously focusing on illness as the crisis today, but we certainly aren’t limited to only medical issues.


Losing a job, or knowing you are about to can create the same crisis of anxiety and trigger the grieving cycle.  So can losing your home, the death of a loved one or dear friend.  Divorce or the ending of a love relationship sure presses those buttons.  I imagine the victims of southern Alberta’s floods last year know that cycle.  Certainly victims of sexual and emotional abuse know it, for they have had something very precious stolen from them.


In fact any great change in our lives, whatever good may ultimately come of that change, will likely trigger some grieving for what was left behind.


And that’s good.  The soulful side of ourselves, the subconscious, the dream state needs time to process these shocks, these changes.  Like a garden that needs to rest in winter and be watered in spring before it can grow again, our souls need time for rest and regeneration.


If we just press on bravely, if we insist on following the tee shirt dictum of “Keep calm and carry on”, that thing inside of us, whether it is fear or pain of loss grows larger and larger, like the monster in the closet on under the bed.  Refusing to face what has transpired haunts us like powerful weeds firmly rooted in outré soulful garden.  You can see it sometimes in strong-willed people who try to bypass four of the five steps and skip straight to acceptance.  “I’m alright, Jack!”  It seldom works for very long.  A crash comes.



On the other side of the coin, you also see the reverse for those suffering what the psychologists call ‘complicated grief’.  That’s folks who get stuck within the first four stages and can’t seem to move on.  Those folks can generally benefit from therapy or medical care.  Many therapists will all it complicated grief when people aren’t back to a fairly normal life within a year.


But if you have listened to me more than a few times in the past couple of years, you will know that the question that fascinates me is, “What next?”  When and only when the time comes for acceptance, “What next?” becomes the important question.


In the case of Jen Gardiner and a good many others getting hard news, the answer is live with courage.


Motivational guru Tom Krause wrote, “Courage is the discovery that you may not win, and trying when you know you can lose.


In other words, courage is born of acceptance and making the decision that the outcome is less important than choosing your own path and living the way you want to live.


Pauline Salvucci was a Medical Family therapist who developed a chronic illness.  She wrote:


When you live with chronic illness, every aspect of life takes on a new dimension. Your daily decisions and choices are examined through a new lens, and you often find yourself carefully weighing the ramifications and possible outcomes of your choices. But, wait. Wasn’t this the way it always was? Isn’t this something all intelligent and responsible adults do? Yes, of course. However, living with chronic illness broadens the scope of that decision making process. The question isn’t only how will this decision or choice affect you, but also, how will it affect your illness which in turn affects you and the choices and decisions you continually make.

Obviously, this is a demanding aspect of living with chronic illness. It’s also the measure of your courage. Living with illness affords ample opportunity to be courageous in living your life to the best of your ability.


If you watched the full film last night, Jen Unplugged: The UpLife Project, you saw how Jen’s life became about living with cancer and fighting for both quality and quantity of life.  There were multiple scenes of her in the Tom Baker Cancer Center getting treatment, trips to the pharmacy and the health food stores, and so on.  She took managing her care very seriously.  But perhaps more importantly than that, she decided to live her illness very publicly.  Her video blog and her Jenunplugged FaceBook page earned her over 2,500 followers.

What drew us was her passion for life and her utter honesty about her journey, her fears and the way she seemed to turn them into joys.  We read about the good days and the bad.  We followed her through treatment and we shared the often disappointing results. Sometimes even her husband Sean learned her latest test results first on Facebook.  We enjoyed their travels together and the drag shows and cancer events, and watched her ever growing collection of fashions and headpieces.  These two grabbed ever moment they had together and made the most of them.  In this last year they truly worked their bucket list.  I remember marvelling at how she had the pride and courage to do fashion photo shoots that clearly showed the many surgical scars on her 40 something body.  She was a brilliant example of putting both inner and outer beauty on display proudly knowing that the scars did not detract, but somehow enhanced.

I suppose that when I think of her ‘living out loud’ is the phrase that comes most to mind followed closely by the word “Fierce!”.

Jen was a fierce fighter.  But last May I was able to spend a couple of hours with her alone.  She never deluded herself.  She knew that she would die and that every day the odds got longer.  But living well and dying gracefully became her mission.  She only wanted to give back the inspiration she had received from the cancer patients she met, to give back to those literally thousands of people who had supported her and wished her well.  And she wanted to inspire others to face their challenges with courage and fierceness.  Living an inspiring life and death was Jen’s final and perhaps greatest accomplishment.

But now having slipped in a eulogy she never wanted spoken in a church, I want to look at something else.

Very few of us ever go through our trials alone.  There are friends, parents, spouses, siblings, children, fellow travellers of many kinds who share our journey.  Some are at a distance, some drop in and out of the odyssey and some are there for the very end, for the moment of transformation those ‘gentle hands that prepare us for the journey”.  You each know who those people have been for you.  You each know if you have been that person for someone else.

These folks need courage too, a special kind of courage.  You see, they have no control of the situation at all, even less than the person in the middle of the storm.  And that brings a special kind of pain.

I have asked my oldest friend, Sean Dunnigan, Jen’s husband to answer a few questions.

Sean, you actually proposed to Jen after she received her diagnosis.  Why?

What did it take out of you to be with her through this amazing whirlwind journey?

What did you get from it?

Final question, what sustained you?

Is there anything else I should be asking you? That you would like to say?

(If you would like to hear Sean’s relies, please check the audio version of the sermon at

I am a Unitarian minister.  In my work I meet people who are believers and who are non-believers in things like God and an afterlife.  My task is to find ways to reach and help all of them with the religious and spiritual questions that are part of living and dying.

When a I listen for a common meeting point for all the mix of beliefs, I find that we each have to colour the idea of acceptance with a hue that suits our understanding of the world.  One might choose the golden glow of afterlife, or the orangey warmth of meeting loved ones in the great beyond.  Others might prefer a more mellow shade knowing that they have simply lived the best they could and offered the world their gifts in the best way they could.  Still others take comfort in the softer colours that mark precious memories in the ones lefty behind.  And still others prefer a more contrasting shade of simply being dead.

The point is that acceptance is a rainbow with room for all these colours and shades.  There is no one correct way to colour the pages of our personal challenges.  We each need to find that peace in our own way.

So, I offer no one right answer, for I do not think there is one. But today I have offered the life of my friend for your contemplation, offered her choices and her decisions.  I think she would be…or perhaps is pleased.