"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


“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.

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