"A Sermon for Dangerous Times: How Do We Rest With Our Broken Hearts?"

“How Do We Rest with Our Broken Hearts? A Sermon for Dangerous Times” All Souls Church, Unitarian, Washington, D.C. February 5, 2017
Rev. Joanne Braxton, Guest Preacher

http://www.all-souls.org/node/1629

“After great pain, a formal feeling comes – (372)
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?
The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –
This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –”

Good morning, All Souls,
Thank you, Rev. Hardies and congregation for calling me to stand with you on sacred ground this morning. From the moment I first entered these doors a year ago a stranger everyone here at All Souls has made us feel welcome. We are grateful. I am grateful.
***

How DO we rest with our broken hearts?

I was born just a few blocks from here in Freedmen’s Hospital on the Howard University campus and grew up in an all black town called Lakeland about 10 miles away. I have always had a high regard for All Souls not just for the vibrant social justice and worship community that you are today but because of my memory that my father came here to receive training for his non-violent resistance work with the NAACP during the Civil Rights era. He shared those trainings with me and I used them when I helped integrate public schools in Prince Georges’ County, Maryland back around 1962.

Surely this faith and this congregation have been a sanctuary for many of us and we need sanctuary—physical sanctuary as well as spiritual sanctuary—because we are in a time of great pain. The whole world is shaken.

How do we sustain the gifts of the spirit: joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control in the face of insult and injury? How is it possible to see and resist systemic evil and remain centered in one’s own grounded spiritual ecology—until the glory finally comes?

A first move in being grounded in a time of great pain is to allow space for the feelings. The power of such a space was felt here in this sanctuary on November 9, 2016 the night after the election. I will never forget that night.

Hundreds of people streamed into All Souls for Vespers services and sacred talking circles. Among them were several Kluge Fellows from the Library of Congress, including young scholars from England and Scotland still in shock from Brexit. We came, knowing that the rules had changed, that somehow something had gone terribly wrong in our Democracy and wondering if we could ever get it back.

We were weeping mothers, weeping fathers, immigrants, straight and queer folk, trans folk, able and disabled folk, documented and undocumented, every shade and color in the human race. I saw a bright Madonna cradle the roundness of her unborn child as she placed a lighted candle in the sand. I saw a beautiful Scotsman walking the sanctuary like a wounded wooden soldier. I felt their compassion for the nations and their unborn generations. We felt our feelings for each other.

And when I remember that hour, these lines from Emily Dickinson’s poem return to mind.
The Feet, mechanical, go round – A Wooden way
*** This is the Hour of Lead – Remembered, if outlived, As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow – First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –
[Space for breath]

The hour of lead has its own sacred architecture. It moves from chill, to stupor, to letting go.
We need to find this flow from pain to release. Because we are living in dangerous times.

Our beds are contaminated with unrest. Each day now brings new revelations of outrage and danger and we feel it in our bodies. And the ordinary aggressions faced by vulnerable individuals and groups remain. I am a witness.

When our waking and sleeping energies are absorbed by responding to aggressions great and small, our hearts become brittle and we lose our capacity to hold revolutionary love for ourselves and all that we hold dear.

Outrage makes our hearts vulnerable to fracture. We must give our hearts ease. Grief must be respected. If we can govern our pain and if we can meet our grief and loss with compassion, perhaps we can begin to mend our broken hearts.

This is Black History Month, and I would be remiss if I did not mention this fact and to ask for the blessing not only of God but also the ancestors.

For Black History has something to teach about spirituality and health/about struggle and praise, about survival and thriving, about awareness and wokeness.

Something to teach about how to avoid psychological identification with the will of the master and how to stay well in the process; about aesthetics and spirituality woven together in the tight nexus of a single song, to be carried like a talisman into battle.

Something to teach about generosity and compassion under fire, when the same battle must be fought and won over and over again.

Because this outrage has been lived through before, and despite the stony road we trod, we live in covenantal relation with those who have lived before us, those who suffered what we have suffered and far worse. And still they rose!

How did they survive and thrive? Three things:
One, they sang; Two, they formed communities of resistance; Three, they loved one another. And, in a time such as this, we must do the same!

Song has that power to lift, to heal and to create community spaces. Speaking historically, Black song has offered sophisticated modes of analysis and healing. In times of trouble we have turned not only to our preachers and politicians, but also to our artists, song leaders and poets.

Listen to what Frederick Douglass, the real Frederick Douglass, had to say about the healing power of black song. Back in 1845 Douglass wrote: “those rude and … apparently incoherent songs told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. ….”

Liquid anguish. Liquid prayer. Transcendent love!

In the black spiritual, God is always on the side of the oppressed.

This awareness is part what enabled Frederick Douglass to resist enslavement, whip the slave-breaker who attacked him and escape to freedom, and it makes sense in light of contemporary studies of collective trauma and healing and what we know today.

Dr. Jack Saul finds that while trauma takes away a person’s agency; co-creative acts offer the opportunity for bearing witness in relation to others which in turn establishes archives and therapeutic contexts from which new justice-making contexts arise. And this is what happens in our Vespers services and with the Solidarity Sing and it is happening all over the place with music and poetry with our artists and poets who are key to the struggle.

This is what Common is signifying, when he raps, in the theme “Glory” from the film Selma:

“The movement is a rhythm to us” and “Freedom is like religion to us”  and “Justice is juxtapositionin' us.”  And when he pops: “Selma’s now for every man woman and child,” We need to hear those words and know the connection between what we are marching for today and what those who went before us were marching for in 1965.

Common has more to say about the Glory that is not yet ours:

“The biggest weapon is to stay peaceful. We sing, our music is the cuts that we bleed through. Somewhere in the dream we had an epiphany.  Now we right the wrongs in history. No one can win the war individually. It takes the wisdom of the elders and young people's energy. Welcome to the story we call victory. The comin' of the Lord, my eyes have seen the glory.”

So now, now that I understand— when I see the young bloods with their ear buds in practicing their rap in the Metro, I know that they are sharpening their lines of self-control for staying peaceful and exercising self-determination.

I met a young Iranian man through my interfaith chaplaincy work at William and Mary a few years back, and this young man had learned to rap his poems of social awareness.

And a young man who was deaf learned to rap Emily Dickinson poems and went on to become a public school teacher in North Carolina.

And I remember that Langston Hughes wrote a poem about his plight as a black man, which he called “Refugee in America.” And Bernice Reagon drew Sweet Honey from a Rock.

And another and another…

So it is all connected, and here are just a few more things that Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman and James Baldwin and Maya Angelou and Audre Lorde and Mom and Dad and a few other folks wanted me to leave with you:

Remember that the struggle is long. Be prepared.

Practice compassion, beginning with yourself.

Adopt a spiritual practice as a form of self-care. Take time for reflection and meditation.

Practice Gratitude. Every day that you open your eyes, give thanks for your eyes, your hands, your feet, your heart. Take care of your bodies. Take care of your heart.

Know yourself. Be the person that you profess yourself to be; make your actions consistent with your words.

Seek the company of persons who know you to be the person that you profess yourself to be; build community among them.

Care for one another.

Practice kindness universally, yet be steadfast in the quest for justice. Live ethically.

Seek beauty--refresh yourself.

Know that you are not alone; for you have membership in an intergenerational community that seeks justice, humanity and wholeness for all people. A cloud of witnesses, the living and the dead, surrounds you, and walks with you day and night.

Breathe, always breathe, remembering that breath is life. When you feel stressed, and can’t think, drop your shoulders and take three deep breaths. And keep breathing. Breathe in the Spirit of Life, your Divine Inheritance and then Let go— Because you have got a right to the Tree of Life! Go forth alive and awake, enjoying the fruits of the spirit. Ring the bells that can still be rung. Do the work that needs to be done.

Let your love be heard.

Amen.
Blessed be.

Rev. Joanne Braxton, Ph.D. holds full ministerial standing in the Eastern Virginia Association of the Southern Conference of the United Church of Christ. She is poet, teacher and scholar as well as a woman of God. www.braxton-institute.org

A Prayer for Invisible Wounds/Memorial Day, 2016

Spirit of Love, Giver of Life and Breath
We come before you in humility and awe
Seeking your listening ear,
Seeking the liberating power of Justice and Mercy,
And the abundant flow of Love and Compassion.

We lift up those weary of heart,
Those who are in hospitals and nursing homes,
Those who are grieving, hungry, and sick of war, war, war,
Those who are in prison, 
And especially those who are incarcerated and mistreated,
We also lift up those who have mistreated others,
And don’t know how to make a repair.

We remember all veterans and their families
And those who are suffering because of war;

Those whose loved ones have been lost at sea
On land or in the air; those who remain sleepless with loss and grief.  
We remember those who have faithfully discharged orders
That they found odious. Only to find their way
Of understanding the world torn asunder.

We remember those who bear invisible wounds:
The wounded storytellers, wounded healers,
Wounded peace-makers broken in body or spirit.
We give thanks today for the Portland 111 of the United Methodist
Church coming out bravely as queer clergy in a church that still closes its doors to them.


We give thanks for those resilient souls who have
Withstood brokenness and chaos and lived to tell their tales,
Stories of courage on an unnamed hill at “O dark thirty,”
Courage when opening a public bathroom door
Marked white only or birth gender only.
Empower them to keep on keeping on and to share their stories.


Lift us all in the healing balm of Grace and Mercy
The brave and the broken, the beautiful and the torn.
The strong and the sorrow stricken.
Catch and cradle
our falling tears,
That these tears might fall on soft ground
Where something meaningful might grow.
This is our prayer, in the name of all that is Holy.

Amen.

This prayer was offered by the Rev. Dr. Joanne Braxton as guest liturgist at All Souls Church, Unitarian, Washington, D.C. on May 22, 2016. The Braxton Institute is a partner of the Soul Repair Center, Brite Divinity School, Fort Worth, Texas.

 

 

Writing the Sacred Self

There must be spaces where authentic selves engaged in interdisciplinary discourse can come together to address inequality and work for social justice. Dr. Nigel Hatton made this point when he spoke of the critical importance of the Braxton Institute at our October 27, 2014 “Recovering Human Sustainability in a Time of War” symposium. Nigel’s observations remind me of Parker Palmer’s essay “Now I Become Myself” and the importance of naming all of the fragmenting things that get in the way of that wholeness and that becoming:

“In families, schools, workplaces, and religious communities, we are trained away from true self toward images of acceptability; under social pressures like racism and sexism our original shape is deformed beyond recognition; and we ourselves, driven by fear, too often betray true self to gain the approval of others. If we are awake, aware, and able to admit our loss,” writes Palmer, “we spend the second half [of our lives] trying to recover and reclaim the gift we lost.”

Our shared work through the Braxton Institute celebrates the importance of human life as sacred. Some of the ways we do this work of recovery and sustainability are through narrative medicine, prayer, mindfulness meditation and spiritual life writing.

Life writing is a bridge between spirituality and healing; it is also a key element in self-care and spiritual discipline. This good work has served as a particular help to me in discerning God’s intention for my own life. Because of my experiences teaching “Spiritual Life Writing for Helpers and Healers” and “Writing for Recovery” in selected workshop settings, I see heightened potential for the use of life writing by those for whom the spiritual journey is at the center, rather than the periphery. This may be particularly the case for ministers and other caregivers in the helping and healing professions, but I believe that almost everyone committed to doing the work of justice and mercy can benefit from the use of writing as a spiritual discipline. Autobiography, memoir and journal keeping can help us remember who we are and harness our birthright gifts.

Are you living to be the change you want to see in this world? For many, activism, teaching or another form of public service becomes a form of secular ministry. You may or may not be a “believer,” but what holds you together when you are confronted by the “dark night of the soul?” Years ago, I read a book by Jaco Hamman called Becoming a Pastor: Forming Self and Soul for Ministry. This work continues to speak to me.

Ministry, not activism, is Hamman’s chosen path of transformation, however his work has broad implications. Hamman suggests that we, who dedicate our lives to caring for others, are “created to seek transformation.” The power of this positive transformation is manifested in the development of the capacity to believe, to imagine, the capacity to develop compassion and concern, the capacity to be alone, and the capacity to play, among other positive transformational attributes. The development of these skills involves the embrace of one’s own brokenness, an awareness of one’s emotions, the cultivation of imagination, the ability to “see” others “including God, to be who they are and not who you think they are or want them to be,” and the positive engagement of “life and ministry with a sense of playfulness” grounded in responsibility and openness. Hamman warns that “engaging the core of your being can feel like dishonoring your mother and father, since introspection inevitably takes you to your childhood home.” “[L]ooking into the depths of who we are is a challenge most people avoid,” writes Hamman, but some use spiritual life writing to nurture what Joseph Driskill calls “inner security and [the] capacity for depth.”

Life writing is a way of engaging in the transformative journey to one’s own sacred center and bringing together the pieces of one’s authentic self. One begins the journey anew each day; life remains exciting and fresh. How does one get started? There are any number of ways, and the best way is the one that works for you. Do consider taking one of our workshops, as they provide a safe atmosphere in which to learn particular approaches and try them.

Some people keep their journals on a laptop or mobile device, others make scrapbooks. My favorite is to write into a bound notebook, and I always find one that feels good in my hands. Some people write at the same time every day, often early in the morning when they are less likely to be interrupted. I prefer a fountain pen because there is something about the movement of pen on paper that activates memory. My current journal is for a chapter length autobiographical essay about my years in college and graduate school. The book itself has a cover of blue and emerald peacock feathers. I am writing with a disposable black ink fountain pen that feels good when it moves across the page. A note to myself reads, “The place one begins is not always at the beginning.”

The most important thing is to know that you are worth it, and that it is you who is at the center of your own life. Now is the only time there is.

Blessings for the Journey,

Joanne