Trinity Sunday 2020 – Growing Up

With deep gratitude to Resmaa Menakem, author of My Grandmother’s Hands and

Krista Tippet, host of the OnBeing podcast, for her conversation with Mr. Menakem


            How things can change in a week, a day, in 8 minutes and 46 seconds. George Floyd was killed the day after we last met, on May 25, by officer Derek Chauvin, as three other officers and many bystanders watched. The bystanders protested, the other officers did not intervene. Someone recorded the incident on their phone, a video that has been seen time and time again.

            In those almost 9 minutes the world changed in ways that some have forewarned might happen, while others reel in disbelief. My daughter’s friend went to the first of many protests in downtown Madison, on Tuesday the 26th. I asked him what he experienced when he joined over a thousand others at the capital and in the march that followed. His first impression was that of surprise. Usually in Madison the people at protests are largely white. This was one of the most diverse crowds, with black and brown people joining with white people, all ages, all backgrounds. Everyone present was wearing a mask. It was the first time in months that some of those folks had left their homes and broken self- quarantine. While they may not have had any plans to rush out to bars and restaurants, church or synagogue, they rose up, made signs and posters, and took to the streets.  Social distancing was attempted, but difficult to maintain with so many joining together as they walked to Willy St and the home where 18 yr old Tony Robinson was shot and killed by a white police officer. They listened to other black leaders talk about problems in the community and tell stories of racial injustice. He said there was absolutely no violence, but there was anger. Righteous anger, and pain. It was palpable.

            Every day since that one, more cities, more streets, more countries have seen protests. We are seeing footage of crowds being dispersed with tear gas, concussion grenades, rubber bullets, pepper spray. We see the morning after shots of beloved cities where stores and businesses have been looted, windows broken, buildings burned or covered with graffiti. Things will never be the same again. Some of the changes are in the right direction, as police departments begin to ban choke holds, move away from using rubber bullets and tear gas on peaceful demonstrators. More white people are beginning to listen to the stories of black people, some police are joining protestors by taking a knee or marching with them.

                        I am telling you what you already know, as we likely watch the same news feeds and read the same headlines. I am telling you this, however, not casually, but as we gather at our appointed hour on a Sunday morning, in sacred time, scattered but one, each of us longing to hear some hint of good news because, well, isn’t that what we’re supposed to hear in church? Some talk, or experience of grace? Of redemption and healing, of transformation? Of the silver lining in the dark cloud? Some way to understand what is happening, to find a path forward?

            While we were already preparing for and experiencing a sort of trauma from the pandemic, this social and political and personal unrest taps into even deeper trauma responses. Whether white, black, or police, what we are seeing from all sides are bodies that are trying to stay safe, bodies that afraid and going into survival mode. Sometimes that takes the form of violence, or shutting down, avoidance or attack.

            The poetic words we heard this morning in Eugene Peterson’s translation of Genesis paint a picture of creation, at its conception. It is a portrait of peace, wholeness, vibrancy. It is a world of exquisite beauty and wonder. Not meant to be a science book, it contains the writings of a people who had been slaves in Egypt, suffering trauma and atrocities, including the systematic killing of newborn boys. They were a people who suffered terribly before being free. Their freedom brought them to the wilderness, where they spent 40 years before finally to the promised land. These people, prone to wandering, often forgetful of the promises and providence of the God who called them, led and fed them, worked in and through them, and were also certainly capable of passing along violence and injustice to others, they were the ones who sat down and put into words the story of creation and their ancestors. The first book they wrote after the stories included in Exodus was this book, Genesis. They came back to their roots. To the way they were all created in love and goodness. To the beauty of creation, the goodness God stamped them with, and the promises and blessings God gave them again and again. We gather today because we need to remember these things as well, not just about ourselves, but about humanity.

            This past week I have immersed myself in the writing and teachings of a black therapist, speaker, leader, Resmaa Menakem. Krista Tippet, who hosts the podcast OnBeing, had a conversation with him just before the start of the self-quarantine. Both of them live in Minneapolis. Although it was before George Floyd was murdered, the killing of unarmed black people was all too familiar.

            Menakem’s book, My Grandmother’s Hands, is a guide for this time. In it, he talks about what happens in the body when it goes into a trauma response. At a perceived threat, bodies, white bodies, black bodies, law enforcement bodies, your body, my body, will go into survival mode: fight, flee or freeze.  

            A pivotal point for him came for him as a young boy. He and his brothers were at home, watching television with their grandmother. As she often did, she was sitting on the end of the couch, her legs draped over his lap. They would cuddle like this and as he frequently did, on that day he casually picked up her hand and started rubbing it, stroking the fingers, a little hand massage from a grandson to his grandma. She often had pain in her hands and this seemed to ease it a little bit. On that day he turned to her and said, “Grandma, why are your hands like that? They ain’t the same as  mine.”

            She slowly turned and looked at him, “Boy,” she said, “That’s from picking cotton. They been that way since long before I was your age. I started working in the fields sharecroppin when I was four.”

            He didn’t understand. He’d helped in the garden a few times but his hands didn’t have course callouses and thick pads below the thumbs. She explained to him that the cotton plant has pointed burrs in it. When you reach in to pick the cotton, the burrs rip open your hand. When she first started picking cotton, her hands were all torn and bloody. Later, he would learn from his mother that his grandma’s feet were like that too, as she had no shoes. His grandma said that as she got older, the skin got thicker and thicker until she could reach in and pull out the cotton without bleeding.

            It was a story he had never heard before. When he talks to Krista about it, he says that even though he didn’t understand at first, he realized that something changed in her when she started talking. Something was different. He felt it in his own body. Listen up, he thought, this is important. She went from being relaxed and present, to being in some other time and place, long ago. And then, she settled herself, she got calm again, and turned back to the tv.

            He learned the importance of asking the questions, of listening for the answer. Of watching body language, feeling the energy in his body, in the room, in another person.  “How come your hands are different than mine?” Our questions might be:  Why did my body flinch away when I saw that black man on the sidewalk? What was going on when those two police officers tipped over that 75 year old man in Buffalo, and then they kept on walking, no one stopping to help the man? Why are those people painting graffiti on that building? Why am I getting so tense and upset when Pastor Julie is talking about this stuff again?

            He says we will feel it in our bodies first if the fight flee or freeze response is triggered. We will feel as a rise in temperature or readiness to strike out, a fear that we need to get out of there, and fast, or a constriction and maybe an eerie sense of calm. Something inside us just woke up and needs to be investigated. Because maybe we aren’t really in danger, we have just been sensitized to be afraid of certain people or things. Maybe our ancestors didn’t just come from England, they came from poverty and suffering, from a culture routinely practicing atrocities on its own people. Maybe they were scared a lot, or beaten, or hungry.

            At our heart of hearts, there lies a deep down goodness. It is our true nature. Like Gerard Manley Hopkins says of creation, of which we are a part. The world is charged with the grandeur of God…. And in spite of the destructive acts against nature and one another, he says “there lives the dearest freshness deep down things,” the sun rises each morning, the Holy Ghost broods with warm breast and bright wings over it all.

            Our nation must pause if we are to find our way back to this deep down goodness. We begin with ourselves. Pay attention to your body when you get activated; learn ways to pause and breathe so you can heal. Remember that you do not know what the other person is dealing with. Ask them. Investigate. Listen. Believe them. And as you become more wise and calm and awake, bring that to the world, to the ends of the earth.

  August 2021  
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