Hope When We Can’t Breathe

Some people these days are saying that we should NOT be celebrating the holidays. Not now. Not while we can’t breathe.

Do you know there are grandmothers in America (and in this very congregation) like Marlowe Thomas-Tulloch who, when she noticed how her grandson was getting bigger and taller, laid bare a truth to him: “Son,” she said, “if the police stop you, I need for you to be humble. But I need more than that. I need for you to be prepared to be humiliated. If they tell you take your hands out of your pockets, take your hands out. Be ready to turn your pockets out. If they tell you to sit down, be prepared to lie down. You only walk in the street with one boy at a time.”

“What?” her grandson said. In his 17-year-old mind, he hadn’t done anything wrong and nothing was going to happen to him.

“If it’s three or more, you’re a mob,” she said. “That’s how they will see you.” She started to cry.

“Listen to me,” she begged. “Hear me.” Finally, she felt him feel her fear. “If they ask you who you are, name your family. Yes, sir and no, sir. If they are in your face, even if they are wrong, humble yourself and submit yourself to the moment. I’m serious,” she said. “Because I love you.”

She told him she would rather pick him up from the police station than identify his body at a morgue.

That’s why we can’t breathe.

We can’t breathe because we are still reeling from the news last week of the Missouri state grand jury’s failure to indict Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson for shooting Mike Brown twice in the head after he’d already thoroughly incapacitated him by shooting him four times in the arm and torso. Failure to indict, even though Mike Brown was shot while surrendering, with his hands in the air, his last words being, “I don’t have a gun. Stop shooting.” Failure to indict, and no it’s wonder when you take a close look at the loyalties of the prosecuting attorney of St. Louis County, Robert McCulloch, who helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations for the very man he was supposed to be prosecuting. We all saw the news conference: how he spent most of his energy tearing up the evidence from his side! It has led the National Bar Association to say that something smells funny in Missouri.

So hard to breathe these days. Are you familiar with the Twitter hashtag #CrimingWhileWhite, which zeroes in on white privilege from the mouths of those who know it best?  Here are some sample tweets:

Arrested for DUI, cop took me to drive through ATM so I’d have money to bail myself out.

Friend w/ suspended license gets flat tire/pulled over in someone else’s car. Cop says he will use my license (passenger).

Arrested for stealing street signs Xmas eve back in high school. Probation waived as it would interfere with DRAMA CLUB.

My 13yo son and his friends were loitering at Walgreens recently. Only his black friend got searched for shoplifting.

Hard to breathe. Hard to breathe. And then, from this past Wednesday, news coming out of New York City about the failure of a grand jury to indict police officer Daniel Pantaleo for choking Eric Garner to death for disputing the sale of loose cigarettes. “I can’t breathe,” he said. “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” This, says past President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Rev. Bill Schultz, “will be regarded as one of the great miscarriages of justice in American history. Regardless of what one’s views of what happened in Ferguson, MO, there can be no question that (1) Garner was not even suspected of a violent offense; (2) the dispute was verbal and hence did not warrant a physical response; and (3) once Garner pleaded he couldn’t breathe, the officer should have immediately loosened his hold upon him.” Rev. Schultz continues: “And how do we know these three things? Because the world saw them! Is it any wonder that so many people of color mistrust the police and, indeed, the American justice system itself?”

The phrase “Black lives matter” should never NEVER have to be said. But we MUST say it.

And the fact that we MUST say it makes it hard to breathe.

“To love life,” writes poet Ellen Bass, “to love it even

when you have no stomach for it

and everything you’ve held dear

crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,

your throat filled with the silt of it.

When grief sits with you, its tropical heat

thickening the air, heavy as water

more fit for gills than lungs;

when grief weights you like your own flesh

only more of it, an obesity of grief,

you think, How can a body withstand this?”

All of this is why—why some people are saying we shouldn’t be celebrating the holidays before us. How to do that, in good conscience, when the time is so full of destruction… And we’re not even touching on all the other social travesties out there. We’re not talking about our personal pains, either, which don’t make the newspapers but they can cut deepest of all….

I will not stand up here today and command you, as your minister, to enter into a holiday spirit.

But what I will say is that it’s exactly times like this that challenge us to search for and find as many sources of hope as possible. Says the Dalai Lama, “No matter what sort of difficulties, how painful experience is, if we lose our hope, that’s our real disaster.”

I will never forget my exit interview from seminary, back in 2003. Questions posed to me to help discern the extent of my formation as a professional minister, to see how deep I’d really gone in my four years there. The very last question came from the lips of the seminary president himself. “Tell me, Anthony, what are the sources of your hope?” The question took me by surprise. The last question, the final hoop. And it was not about some theologian or theory. It was entirely gritty and real. What keeps you showing up with an open heart, no matter what? What does that for you?

I have come to recognize that little question as one of the most important ones anyone has ever asked me.

What are the sources of YOUR hope?

Holiday celebrations can absolutely be a part of that. That’s what I want to affirm in this difficult time in our life as a nation. But we must come to know the holidays again as if for the first time. Commercialization has cheapened them, absolutely, but we must believe there can be more to the story. We must get below superficialities, to get to the real treasure.

I want to share with you right now one of the oldest recorded prayers in all of human history. It comes from the Hindu scriptures known as the Upanishads.

From unreality lead us to reality.

From darkness lead us to light.

From bondage lead us to freedom.

Hindus believe that there are times when ignorance and suffering and evil are so great that the people can no longer breathe and something MUST break through all of that, something that is bigger than we know, something that can bring us back to our humanity. So it is the high god Vishnu that enters into human history, that aspect of the divine which preserves and strengthens and unifies. Vishnu takes on a human form called an “avatar,” which simply means “an incarnation of God.” Love takes human form, whenever the need is greatest, and some Hindus say that there have been thousands of avatars. Traditionally, ten have been singled out for special recognition, including Lord Krishna and the Buddha. Many Hindus would say that yet another avatar of Vishnu is a certain Middle Eastern peasant who lived 2000 years ago…

From unreality lead us to reality.

From darkness lead us to light.

From bondage lead us to freedom.

From inability to breathe, to breathing….

That is exactly the tension that this holiday season is all about. It’s there—even though obscured by holiday excesses like Christmas music played everywhere which loops infinitely until the sweet sacredness has been wrung out—just like how saying a single word over and over again takes you to a place where it loses meaning and becomes a mere dumb sound….

It’s why we want to come to know this sacred season again as if for the first time.

Bring to your mind’s eye the Christmas manger scene. We THINK we know what it means. Mary and Joseph and Baby Jesus, the animals, the shepherds, the Wise Men, the angels. A scene reproduced endlessly on Christmas cards, or in Christmas Eve pageants, or in other ways. But perhaps the most important fact of all is passed over. The fact of the time and place of the birth of this particular avatar of Vishnu in the world. It happens in a dirty and rugged animal stall. It happens in Bethlehem which was just a nasty, backwater town in Judea. It happens in a time of Roman rule which was crushing with its injustice and brutality and no one there could breathe either. Hope is born in a place that is mired in hopelessness: animal stall, backwater town, brutal times.

If a being like Jesus can be born in a place and time like that, then what? What then, about our own time and place?

It is the ancient prayer all over again:

From unreality lead us to reality.

From darkness lead us to light.

From bondage lead us to freedom.

This is not exclusively Christian. It is not exclusively Hindu either, although Hinduism gives it the more ancient expression. It belongs to Life itself. It is a part of our spiritual DNA that precedes any particular historical tradition and faith, which I believe Unitarian Universalism helps us to appreciate in a uniquely powerful way.

Hope at the core of our souls: we can give up on it, but it never gives up on us.

“I’m the descendant of enslaved black people in this country,” says Ta-Nehisi Coates, national correspondent at The Atlantic. “You could’ve been born in 1820, and if you were black and looked back to your ancestors you’d have seen nothing but slaves all the way back to 1619. Look forward another 50 or 60 years and you’d see nothing but slaves. There was no reason at that point in time to believe that emancipation was 40 or 50 years off. And yet folks resisted and folks fought on. So fatalism isn’t really an option. Even if you think you’re not going to necessarily win the fight today in your lifetime, in your child’s lifetime, you still have to fight. It’s kind of selfish to say that you’re only going to fight for a victory that you will live to see.”

Don’t be selfish. Be an avatar. Pray that ancient prayer.

Did you know that when protesters were standing face to face with police, right there in the powder keg of St. Louis, some of the police officers were softly saying, “Keep doing what you’re doing”?

Did you know—despite all the terrible stories of police brutality—that there are also police like Steve Anderson in Nashville, Tennessee, who, as Police Chief, refused to crack down on the 450 or so folks protesting Ferguson with justifiable anguish and vitriol, treated them respectfully? And guess what? No violence, no looting, no vandalism….

Here’s the Christmas gift I want us to give to each other. What if we could create a space in which the grandmothers who have to coach their grand kids on how to behave around law enforcement so that they can come home alive could sit at the same table with the police who experience stress like we can’t possibly imagine and who, also, are just trying to get home alive? What if we could talk about Ferguson? What if we could talk about New York? What if we could talk about what goes on here in Atlanta? What if we could just weep, together?

Help me make that happen. This is not rhetorical. Let’s make this Christmas gift to ourselves and to Atlanta possible. Do you want to sit at the table? Do you have connections with Atlanta law enforcement so we can have police sitting at the table? Do you know people who know people? But please, don’t get sucked in by a certain illusion fostered by the presence of large numbers in this space so that you think, “Well, look at all the people here, someone else will do it.” That’s why stuff doesn’t get done. That’s why we can struggle to reach our pledge goals. Someone else will do it. Don’t go there. If you have something you can contribute here, do it. Step up. Talk to me. Be in touch. Anthonyuu@gmail.com.

Miracles are just natural transformations that blow our minds. Miracles are caterpillars that become butterflies, but you better believe there’s hard work going on unseen in the cocoon.

Fatalism really isn’t an option.

This is our congregation, and we are but a version of the dirty and rugged animal stall.

We live in Atlanta, and it is but another nowheresville place like Bethlehem.

America is our nation, and it is just another Rome.

We can’t breathe.

But let’s keep breathing.

Let’s do the work, let’s give birth to the miracle.

Poet Pablo Neruda says, “You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming.”

AMEN