November 2020: Nonetheless

What a week, friends! Four straight days of November 3rd, and now here we are, once again, in this weekly remembrance that we come together, that we fill one another up again, that the holy is still in our midst. Amen – it is good to be together.

Today, you may be feeling any number of emotions: excitement, anxiety, relief, disappointment, numbness, anger, gratitude… And whatever you’re feeling, that is meaningful. There’s no rush to leave that right now. And it’s okay if what you’re feeling is complicated.

I’ll tell you how I feel – how I felt yesterday. First, I felt joy. Relief. That for a moment, the people in my life who are Black and brown, indigenous, immigrants, working three jobs, working no jobs, living with pre-existing conditions, queer, trans, young, old, women, nonbinary, who have disabilities, who speak an English tinted with every color of the rainbow… they can breathe for a moment. They can maybe imagine a future with a little less harm and terror.

And then I felt so much sadness. That some of our saints were not here to witness this momentous, historic occasion. And that this year, over 200,000 people died too soon. And they shouldn’t have. And they were not here to witness this momentous, historic occasion, either.

I felt so much sadness. 

We have lost so much this year, and we have lost so much in the last four years. And we have uncovered so much that has been lost, that has never been whole, in all our nation’s 300 years.

Today, so much still remains to be done for this nation to resemble a home for all those peoples I listed before. All of us and more. We still have a long way to go to get healed.

So, I want to tell you a story about my mother’s friend, whom I’ll call Liwen. That’s not her name, but she’s a private person, so I’ll keep her real name to myself.

She’s so private, I learned, that she’s been lying to her doctors. Why that is is a story for another day – one wrapped up in fear of neighbor, distrust in authority, and the national trauma of China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.

But I know that Liwen has been lying to her doctors because she and my mother are cancer recovery buddies. They were both diagnosed with breast cancer around the same time, and I’m grateful to say that they’ve both been declared cancer-free around the same time too, not too long ago.

My mother is a strong advocate for her own healthcare. And she tells her doctors about her health history, and because they know what her risks are, they do all the check-ups they need to do so that they can be sure that she’s healthy.

But Liwen told my mother that she hasn’t had to undergo any check-ups. When my mother says she got an ultrasound, Liwen is surprised that she hasn’t been asked to get one, too. Eventually, my mother found out that Liwen wasn’t being observed, watched as carefully, because Liwen never told her current doctors about her health history. Her doctors don’t know that she’d had and has since recovered from cancer.

They hadn’t been treating her because they didn’t know how she’d been unwell. And while Liwen’s story is deeply personal and tender to her, I think it’s also an important lesson for us. 

Like Liwen, we can only heal from what we face. We can only heal from what we know ails us. We can only heal from what we can name. And what ails us is far deeper than what any politician or political platform can heal.

The presidency that’s sunsetting now is not an illness, as many of us well know. It’s a symptom of illness for a nation teetering between the way that power has always been held and a new way that power can be relinquished and redistributed. 

What ails us is not so easily captured in a ten-minute message, but it may have something to do with being unanchored in the soil of our souls. It may have something to do with the fear that there is not enough love or resources for all of us. And maybe it has something to do with the worry that what power we have is diminished when we share it with those who don’t have it.

Through all this, we need to do some soul-searching, and we cannot do it alone, and we cannot do that only with the people who think the way we do, who’ve grown up the way we have.

From all of this, we need healing. And it comes by us, not by heroes, not by singular figures, not by single politicians or organizers or advocates, tempting as it may be to rest on their laurels.

The activist and scholar and Black Panther Angela Davis once said, “It is essential to resist the depiction of history as the work of heroic individuals in order for people today to recognize their potential agency as a part of an ever-expanding community of struggle.”

This is not the work of only our heroes. It’s up to us.

The Long Haul

There’s another story I want to share today, and that’s from the ancient prophet Jeremiah. It’s a retelling of Jeremiah’s prophecy, his truth-telling, from the First Testament, which is both Jewish and Christian scripture. 

Jeremiah spoke to the Israelite people, his people, at a time when they were experiencing captivity by Babylon, an empire that seemed to have no end and no mercy.

During this time, there were other prophets who talked a big game about when the Israelites would be free. They believed that captivity wouldn’t be long, and that any day now, they would shrug off the yoke of the Babylonian Empire.

So Jeremiah criticizes these happy-go-lucky, maybe naive prophets. Of course, people want to hear good news. They want to believe that their collective nightmare is coming to an end now. Any minute, now. Any second.

But Jeremiah says, “I don’t think so. We’re not getting out of this mess anytime soon. As a matter of fact, you might as well start rethinking how you want to live your life, how you want to be in community… because – like it or not – we’re gonna have to settle in for the long haul.” He says he has a message from the divine. Jeremiah 29:4-11 says this.

The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.

The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims: Don’t let the prophets and diviners in your midst mislead you. Don’t pay attention to your dreams. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I didn’t send them, declares the Lord.

The Lord proclaims: When Babylon’s seventy years are up, I will come and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope.

What Jeremiah says, what he claims that the divine is saying, is this: where you are, you’re going to be, and you’re going to feel uncomfortable for a long time. This may not feel like the home you wish it would be. 

But nonetheless, dig deep. Nonetheless, build friendship and families of origin and of your choosing. Nonetheless, give yourself to the building of the beloved community. Nonetheless, let your very existence be your resistance.

Jeremiah’s words help us deal with a disappointing and uncomfortable truth: our nation is not healed by any one election. Our people are not healed. We are not yet healed. We’ve only stopped the bleeding.

And Jeremiah’s message to us is that we’d better get used to the discomfort of knowing that we’re unwell as a nation. That misogyny and racism, Christian supremacy and our worship of productivity do not belong to any one political candidate.

Don’t believe people’s naive beliefs, Jeremiah says to his own people, that things will “return to normal” soon or that what you’re experiencing right now is just a blip in your otherwise glorious history and future. 

And I think those are words that we need to hear now. We are not “returning to normal.” We are not healed. We still live in a nation that doesn’t feel like home for so many of us. Where we prioritize the comfort of men, white folks, cisgender and heterosexual folks, able-bodied and neurotypical and Christian and wealthy folks. 

And where our instinct is to hide the things about ourselves we don’t want our healers to know. To hide the places in us in deepest need of transformation. I know that’s maybe not the message we want to hear this morning. 

The Shadow of Hope

The author and speaker Austin Channing Brown, who writes beautifully about Black dignity in a world made for the comfort of white folks, said this:

“This is the shadow of hope. Knowing that we may never see the realization of our dreams, and yet still showing up.” Still showing up. That is action borne out of hope.

So while that may not be the message we want to hear this morning, I hope Jeremiah’s words can be both a challenge and a balm.

Nonetheless, says Jeremiah, dig deep. Nonetheless, build long tables. Nonetheless, bless food and wine. Nonetheless, plant trees. Nonetheless, start something new. Nonetheless, tend the earth like your own children will walk it for a thousand years to come. Nonetheless, get comfortable and brave enough to confront the places in our very own communities, our own towns and churches and schools and streets and institutions, where healing has yet to take place. Where your healing has yet to take place.

How we heal is how we choose to live. If captivity has not yet ended, then we must figure out how to be liberated anyway. How to liberate one another anyway.

The promised land we’re looking for is neither in the rearview nor just over the horizon. It comes by our hands, our hopes, our prayers, our persistence. It’s up to us.

So yes, give in to the joy. And yes, be washed by relief. Listen to the church bells ringing in Paris, the fireworks in the streets of London. And yes, feel the smile and the embrace of your ancestors, of our saints who went before us to make a way. 

And then, when you have caught your breath and you feel the bleeding stop and you’ve gotten your bearings again: let’s get to the work of healing.

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