Staying Sharp

Reflection offered Sunday, January 1, 2017

I had the privilege to be in this pulpit Thanksgiving weekend, just a few weeks after the election. And like many of us, I was feeling very raw and vulnerable and truly frightened by what is happening in this country. I felt afraid for my own personal safety and that of my little queer family; I felt frightened for my neighbors in a climate of emboldened anti-Semitism, xenophobia, transphobia, racism, and state-sponsored violence.

Since the election, we have witnessed the empowerment of an agenda that is in many ways at odds with our Unitarian Universalist values. Many of the things we care about most dearly -- care for “the interdependent web of life of which we are all a part” through climate action; affirmation of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” and “justice, equity and compassion in human relations” through civil rights, human rights, and gender equity; the use of the “democratic process” through our national institutions of governance (I could go on and on) -- are being directly threatened by the new administration and by emboldened acts of hate carried out by ordinary citizens.

I am noticing that, even among Americans who feel hopeful and encouraged by the election results, there is a tremendous and anxious uncertainty about what will happen next, to our nation and to each of us personally. Most of us feel like we do not have a map for this next bit of the journey. We don’t know if we’ll be safe, and we don’t know if the things we care about will be safeguarded.

In my meditation at Thanksgiving, I reflected on my practice of celebrating the solstice. I said, 

It is a dark time. And it feels like things are getting worse. But I do believe, though I cannot mark the day on my calendar, that the time when it is getting worse is finite.

And so, I will carry this faith with me into the darkness. I will remember to light candles. I will celebrate in community even before the last worse day. I will remember to share what I have with those around me. I will push myself to remain open and curious. I will practice hope. I will remember that I have been frightened and confused countless times in my life, and I have found ways to be brave. And these ways have always, always, required me to open my heart. And they have always, always, brought me more joy, more love, and more connection, on the far side of my fear.

Since the election, lots of people have checked in with me personally, have asked how I am doing. And my stock response has become, 

“I am a tool of the resistance and I am working hard to keep the blade sharp.”

The Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush [in the reading I shared], expresses much of what I mean by “the resistance.”

But what am I saying when I tell people, “I am keeping the blade sharp”?

Some of the regular attendees of this service know that I am a long-time devotee of girl-power-pop-culture, action movies, and martial arts, so there is that element of cheekiness in my worldview.

But, as in my solstice meditation, I am trying to remind myself of something deeper. Something I think is necessary for the days and years ahead.

The resistance needs me. It needs all of us. Our world needs the things that we hold dear in this house of worship: Covenantal faith that calls us to be our best selves no matter what is coming at us. Our aspirational commitment to justice and equity. Our reverence for this planet. Our curiosity about and respect for and connection to one another’s theological beliefs, religious practices, and faith journeys. Our elevation of one another’s dignity and worth.

The resistance needs us: Inside the government and outside the government; in the streets and in social service agencies; at the city council and at the water cooler. The resistance needs us.

This next bit of work we’ve got to do here, in this country, isn’t about any one of us personally. It’s about the light our faith has to offer the world.

But it’s going to take each of us personally. Which is why I am “working hard to keep the blade sharp.” This is not the time to fall apart, to panic, to sink into despair. This is not the time to react to each bit of news coming across my social media as if it were an immediate, in-the-moment danger, downloading the whole cascade of fight/flight hormones from my brain into my body, priming me multiple times each day for an action-movie fight scene.

This is a time to build resilience, to shore up what the social workers call “protective factors.” Because the world needs our faith and our vision, the world needs me. And it needs me calm, and strong, and thinking with the evolved and sophisticated front part of my brain. Not the primal fear/danger center that sees every challenge -- whether a digital headline or an incoming punch -- as an equal and immediate threat.

What is it that keeps us sharp? Research suggests that it’s important to begin with enough -- to have our basic needs met, to have stability in our day-to-day life, which usually means living free of violence, including the violence of poverty. We need, quite literally, for punches to be coming in very, very, very infrequently, preferably not at all. We need safety and acceptance. We need to be able to live in a way that is authentic, to be seen and loved for who we are.

I am incredibly privileged, blessed, and grateful, that this is true in my life. I hope that this is true for you too. I hope for us together that wherever we are on the continuum of safety and security, we continue to move towards greater wellness. And I stand committed with this congregation, through actions like the Living Wage Campaign and the Safe Relations Team; our support for the Hot Chocolate Run for Safe Passage, the Hampshire County Interfaith Help Fund, and the refugee resettlement effort in Northampton, to ensure that these basics are in place for all of us.

What else do we need to “keep sharp”? Resilience science offers some clues, and they might be surprising. To be our best, we humans need play. We need opportunities to be relaxed, creative, joyful, and physical. We need spirituality, connection to something bigger than ourselves, whatever that may be. And we need each other. We need love and connection.

That’s why I’m thinking of this service -- my favorite service of the whole year -- as important. I’m making singing together in this Great Hall a priority. I’m considering it an essential ingredient of my resistance.

Because it’s fun. Because it requires me to be in my body -- breathing and playing. Because it makes me feel close to all of you. Because it makes me feel like I belong, like I am part of a greater whole, and like there is something bigger than myself in this world.

I’m thinking of the big meal I’ll be serving my extended family in a few hours the same way. Like it’s important and essential. And also my practices of reflection and meditation, the time I find to be alone in nature, the time I find to swim and dance and run, the time I spend listening to my daughter make music. And the time I spend laughing until my sides hurt with my ridiculous little family.

There is so much work to be done. And I am going to make sure that I show up to do it as strong and resilient and well-resourced as I possibly can.

This is what I want to say to all you beautiful people at the beginning of this new year: You are not a luxury. We need you. The resistance needs you. What are you doing in 2017 to keep yourself sharp?

The Limits of Darkness

Meditation shared Sunday, November 27, 2016 as part of the worship service "Gratitude and Responsibility." 

The other day, my colleague Sarah burst out of her office around 4:30 pm and announced, “There’s an amazing sunset over Northampton and I’m going up to the fifth floor to see it.” So of course I rushed out with her.

On the fifth floor, we opened the door to the fire escape and leaned out over the metal grille – discovering in that exact moment that we share that particular fear-of-heights that makes open-work iron staircases uniquely horrifying. So with our heads outside and our feet in the building, we watched the last fingers of pink fade to gray over Smith College.

“It sucks that for the next few months, we are going to be in our offices for this,” Sarah said.

I should point out that Sarah and I super-love our jobs. We have the best jobs in this entire town. Maybe in the entire world. I did not ever imagine that I would grow up to have a job I loved so much.

But no matter how much one loves one’s job, it is entirely unreasonable to miss the daylight, and the spectacular daily conclusion of the daylight, for weeks on end.

The dark time takes a toll on me, no matter the conditions of my life in any given year. And this year, like many of us, I am carrying a darkness upon my heart that makes this dark time especially hard to face. In the last few weeks I have felt more afraid for my personal safety, for the safety of my neighbors and loved ones, and for our children’s futures, than I ever have.

But the words I said to Sarah about our missing sunsets reminded me of something I believe, a faith I can draw upon in dark times of any kind.

“I celebrate the solstice,” I told her. “It is part of my spiritual practice to note the shortest day, the day with the least light. It makes this time easier to handle. It reminds me that the time when it is getting worse is finite.”

The time when it is getting worse is finite.

This is an easy thing to remember to believe when I know when the equinox will fall. When I can mark the day on my calendar and look forward to celebrating with candles and gatherings of friends and family.

It is a much harder thing to believe when I am uncertain about the limits of the darkness. When I am grieving. When political forces threaten the safety of my family and the abrogation of my civil rights. When my neighbors’ fears are fanned into violence, and I wonder if I will become a target. When I feel divided from and misunderstood by my fellow citizens, and I know they feel the same way, and I am frightened and confused about how to ever bridge that divide.

It is a dark time. And it feels like things are getting worse. But I do believe, though I cannot mark the day on my calendar, that the time when it is getting worse is finite.

And so, I will carry this faith with me into the darkness. I will remember to light candles. I will celebrate in community even before the last worse day. I will remember to share what I have with those around me. I will push myself to remain open and curious. I will practice hope. I will remember that I have been frightened and confused countless times in my life, and I have found ways to be brave. And these ways have always, always, required me to open my heart. And they have always, always, brought me more joy, more love, and more connection, on the far side of my fear.

I will remind myself, and I will ask others to remind me:

The time when it is getting worse is finite.

Gratitude and Responsibility

Sermon shared November 27, 2016. 

Good morning. My name is Lynne Marie Wanamaker. I am a long time member of this congregation. I serve on the Worship Committee, and have also served on the Safe Relations Team and the Religious Education Council. Some of you may also know that I am the Deputy Director of Safe Passage, a Northampton-based agency committed to creating a world free of domestic violence and relationship abuse. Safe Passage supports survivors and their families, engages our community, and advocates for systemic change.

I mention this because this morning I want to share some observations drawn from my experiences working at Safe Passage. I hope these reflections have relevance to you. I also want to alert you that our work, and therefore my words, acknowledge the existence of interpersonal violence. I will not describe this reality in very much more detail than I have just done. But I am aware that those of us who have been affected by interpersonal violence -- as victims, survivors, witnesses, and perpetrators -- are present in every gathered community. And so I invite you to be present to this sermon and to your own emotional and spiritual well-being in whatever ways are best for you.

I’m going to end this content note with a spoiler of what’s coming later: Just so you know, one of the things that is most healing to human beings when we are hurt, or when we are remembering past hurts, is loving human connection.

****

In my work at Safe Passage, I do not have a lot of direct client contact. But I do get to hear stories from our staff about the people they are privileged to serve, and the work that survivors and advocates do together to repair the effects of interpersonal violence.

And I want to say right now, that talking about the direct service work of Safe Passage is not a “savior” story. It is not about an amazing organization rescuing unfortunate others who have been damaged by violence.

Because in my experience and observation, those of us who have been hurt by interpersonal violence do the majority of the impossibly hard work of healing our own selves. It is not fair that those of us who have been hurt should have to work so hard to repair the damage done, but it is the truth.

And it is also the truth that one of the things that helps most in that work of healing is loving witness and genuine human connection.

In the stories my colleagues tell me about providing legal services, or housing assistance, or helping folks figure out how their kids’ school could be more supportive, I have heard a theme that resonates with my own experience of help-seeking and -receiving. This is the twining of gratitude and wonder.

People are grateful when someone helps them get what they need. But what is often most astonishing to the folks who come to Safe Passage is having someone listen and believe them.

Do you know that feeling of being absolutely dissolved by someone showing up for you? By knowing that they are really listening? That they believe you, that they see you, and want the best for you? It’s a feeling of humility, of being wrong in the most wonderful way. When you realize that the painful outcome you didn’t know you were expecting -- that you would be disappointed, that you would be alone -- has not come to pass.

I hear this sometimes through my colleagues’ stories. I recognize it because I have known its power in my own life. We are grateful for help, but we are healed by loving witness.

In my own life, I have found this to be nothing short of miraculous.

And what seems paradoxical about this to me is the fact that, for the helpers, the showing up is rather ordinary. I don’t mean to say that the people who have helped me, or my colleagues at Safe Passage, don’t work hard. Or that they don’t carry a burden from bearing witness to the hurt of the world.

But they do this work willingly, and as a matter of course. And in many cases they prepared for this work intensively, through study and professional formation.

Because we are a people who have invented professions of caring. And I wonder, what kind of people do that? As a culture, create professions such as “domestic violence counselor/advocate,” “social worker,” or “minister”?

We do. We humans do.

We are hardwired to love and care for one another.

****

When I told one of my colleagues that I would be preaching Thanksgiving weekend, she said, “Don’t forget to tell them to watch out for racist colonization.”

We also talk like this at Safe Passage. We talk about the systems of oppression that undergird the hurt that people do to one another.

It is for me a deeply shameful irony that the very holiday during which my culture -- my North American, New England, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture -- invites me to meditate on gratitude, is itself a testimony of a racist, genocidal, colonization. A colonization that continues this very day -- this exact moment -- in the repression and resistance of the Standing Rock Sioux at the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The history of this nation -- its founding through the process of racist colonizing; its economic foundation grounded in kidnapping, family separation, and enslavement; and current voices of xenophobia and religious intolerance, make me wonder:

What kind of people put their own self-interest over the dignity, humanity, and very survival, of others?

We do. We humans do.

Because if I am honest, I can think of many times when I put my interests over someone else’s. Because I was afraid. Because I felt unrecognized. Because I felt desperate.

Because it seemed like there was not enough of something to go around, and if I didn’t grab my share, I would be left out.

Because it felt like a matter of my own survival. Because these feelings felt so big inside my body and inside my brain, there wasn’t any space left to notice what someone else might be feeling or needing.

We humans are inclined to “other” people, to sort ourselves into “my people,” and “other people.” But I think as a white citizen of the United States marking the anniversary of our ancestors’ invasion of North America, I don’t really have the luxury of considering people who disregard the humanity of others as unlike myself.

And I wonder if the humility of this truth offers some illumination of the dark time we are in. I wonder if copping to this suggests a way out of the extreme division and conflict we are experiencing in our nation right now.

****

I want to finish by telling a story about loving witness across difference, and a blessing of hope.

Last month, Safe Passage hosted two professional Fellows through a partnership with Smith College and the U.S. State Department. Nancy Apiyo of Uganda and Verdiane Nyiramana of Rwanda were selected through rigorous competition to join a cohort of African Fellows studying conflict resolution through a cultural exchange and executive internship at American NGOs.

Verdiane is Executive Secretary of Benimpuhwe, which translates as “compassion”. Benimpuhwe helps women and youth to “work and rebuild their lives and their country as well.”

Nancy is a Project Officer for the Justice and Reconciliation Project. She is a social worker, researcher, gender advocate and transitional justice practitioner who has been working with communities affected by war and extreme violence for the last eight years.

I met Nancy and Verdiane when I co-facilitated a training session for them on domestic violence and the LGBTQ community.

At Safe Passage, we know that people of all genders experience interpersonal violence as victims, survivors, witnesses, and perpetrators. We also know that there are dominant patterns of violence. We know that women and transgender people are at sharply elevated risk of violence. We also know that relationship violence often follows the stereotypical pattern of a male battering or controlling his female partner. 

We hold these paradoxes in the work we do. And we remain especially committed to working with those whose experience follows the non-dominant pattern -- lesbians, bisexual women, transgender people -- because we know that holding a marginalized identity amplifies the effect of interpersonal violence. We know that marginalization contributes to isolation. Even in tolerant, queer-friendly Northampton. Serving LGBTQ survivors, for Safe Passage, is an issue of access and a matter of justice.

All of this was extremely new to our African Fellows. And in the discussion that followed our training, Verdiane was especially adamant that while it might be relevant for Safe Passage, it was not relevant to her work. Because she had never met a gay person.

I wish I could remember more clearly the words of our conversation. But I think the words were not the most important part. Instead, I want to tell you about the feelings.

There I sat, my lesbian self, across the table from a colleague in the struggle against interpersonal violence who was telling me, “I do not know any gay people. I do not work with gay people. The concerns of gay people are not relevant to me.”

And I felt in my body that despair that is the opposite of loving witness. I felt the fear of being invisible, of having one’s lived experience dismissed, of having one’s hurts denied.

I also felt the presence of my Safe Passage colleague. A person with straight privilege, whose commitment to LGBTQ people is unwavering. I felt her concern for me personally, her commitment to justice, her solidarity.

And I felt my privilege. My white, North American privilege. My power and leadership in our agency. I felt the responsibility I held as host to our African guests to truly welcome them, to hold space for a real exchange between us.

I felt all of those feelings at one time. And I also felt my personal commitment to bravery. My belief that fear is a perfectly reasonable emotion, but it need not be the force that drives my actions.

I took a deep breath. I leaned into my courage.

And I felt myself soften to Verdiane’s perspective. I tried to hear what she was really telling me:

That she could not shift her understanding of gay people until she had a personal connection to a gay person.

What else could I do? I have been out since 1986. I came out again.

I told the story of my life as a lesbian. The ways that I feel privileged to have been gay in this historical and geographic moment, and the way that homophobia has contributed to victimization in my own life.

And in the thirty years that I have been out, I have never, ever, made anyone so happy by coming out to them.

Verdiane said,

"I didn’t think it was true! I didn’t think gay people really existed!” 

I assured her that we do.

And when I showed her pictures of my beautiful family -- my wife of 21 years, our 14 year old daughter -- her eyes got very wide.

“It is good,” she said. “It is love.”

Later, Nancy said something like this, 

“I am a Pentecostal Christian. Homosexuality is against my religion. But I think that there is an essential humanity to every person, and an essence of Love that is God, that cannot be denied to anyone. They are a person.”

Over and over, in our all-to-brief friendship before Nancy and Verdiane returned home, I heard them avow the basic humanity of gay people as a new and steadfast belief.

When I emailed Verdiane to ask her if I might tell our story in this sermon, she wrote back:

“Yes for me am happy with it because even me I will do the same in my country, you are really a family for me. You can be free to share with anyone.”

But the most important part of this exchange is not about how Nancy and Verdiane changed. It’s about how I changed.

I was incredibly privileged to spend time with Verdiane and Nancy following the election. When I was reeling from the unanticipated outcome, from the elevation of voices of hate and bigotry, from the immediate uptick in bias-related violence, from the realization that the divisions in this country are much wider than I had ever understood.

What do we Americans think of when we think of the nations of Uganda and Rwanda? We think of genocide and conflict. We think of racist colonization.

My new friends, from Uganda and Rwanda, told their American hosts,

“Our countries have been through worse than this. You will be all right.”

At the closing ceremony of the exchange program, Nancy said,

“I have wondered why God made the timing of our Fellowship so that we would be here for the election. And I have to think that it is so we could give the American people hope.”

And she also said, of what she learned during her stay in the U.S., 

“I have...learnt that humans have basic, natural approaches to deal with trauma and conflict. These approaches are universal and cut across all societies.”

Conversations with Safe Passage direct-service staff and Smith College academics confirmed what she knew from her work with individuals and communities healing from conflict-related trauma in Uganda: Humans heal through dialogue, storytelling, and connection with others.

How did I come to be close to these women’s generosity and wisdom in such a dark time?

I took a deep breath. I leaned into my courage. I told the truth about myself. I made friends with someone whose words initially frightened me. In doing so, I was reminded of some things I really needed to remember just now:

I was reminded that someone who thinks they have no common cause with me might change their mind if they really knew me.

I was reminded that one tool I have for crossing divisions is my authentic self -- scared and brave, privileged and marginalized.

I was reminded that allies really matter. That I might not have told the truth about myself if my colleague had not been in the room, if I had not felt her silent witness and compassion.

I was reminded that I have common cause with nations and struggles that I thought were far different than the United States. That the darkness we are facing in this moment is not a new force to the world. It’s really not even a new force in this nation. And people who have faced such darkness before are not unlike me. And they are telling me to keep hope.

And I was reminded that dialogue, storytelling, and human connection are healing strategies that need not be left to professional helping relationships. We can, any one of us, listen, believe, show up, and come through for one another.

****

Sometimes when I am privileged to be in this pulpit, I want to tell you something certain. I want to tell you something I know.

Today, the things I know are tangled in contradiction and paradox. I invite you to join me in the messiness of these paradoxical truths:

We are a compassionate and kind people. Kindness is part of our basic humanity. We have baked it into our culture. It is ordinary, and it is amazing.

We are a selfish and cruel people. Sometimes, when we are desperate, or frightened, or greedy, we put our own self interests above the humanity of others.

Those of us who have been hurt before should not have to repair that hurt. We should not have to make ourselves vulnerable again. We should not have to be brave.

But when we are brave, we open ourselves to connection and transformation.

When we are brave, we open ourselves to hope. 

hen we are brave, we open ourselves to hope.