Nurture Hope by Taryn Strauss and Women Empowered

I wonder if you’ve been feeling your way through the darkness.  I wonder about the quality if your darkness.  Is it masking what you wish to keep hidden?   Is it a relief, to hide within?  Do you know where you are going, or is it unbound and terrifying, without direction or end?

In my little family, we work hard to befriend the dark.  Each night, with flashlights, we explore our neighborhood.  When it rains, we turn off all the lights, and we explore our house, making shadow animals with our hands, opening doors slowly with a spooky creak.  We name those things that can only be known under the shelter of darkness.

Every night I ask my two-year-old twin sons the same question:  What comes out at night?  They respond almost in query: the stars come out at night, the moon comes out at night, the bats come out at night, and recently, the decorations come out at night.  Yes, yes, I tell them.  All those things and more are among us now.

As the darkness has enveloped more and more of our evening daylight, my boys have stopped requesting the flashlights.  They walk more slowly.  They listen more deeply.  They call each other’s name, and mine, and we find the other’s frosty hands in the dark.

Who am I teaching to befriend the dark?  Spiritual darkness is not as easy to greet.  I am talking about the darkness of sitting with pain and never knowing if it will end.  I mean those times when survival is up for daily consideration.   An isolated darkness, just you and no one else is able to ease or understand your suffering.

This third week of advent, these tenuously hopeful Hanukkah nights, I’ve been contemplating the fifth anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, when a shooter killed 26 people, many of them young children in December 2012. I’ve been saying the children’s names, and holding their parents in prayer, for my small part.  There is darkness that is hardly fathomable.  We each have ours.

For much longer than I have known my children, they were an elusive and often dark dream.

As one of four kids, I always knew I wanted my own, more than I wanted to be partnered, more than I wanted to make art with people, more than I wanted anything Life had to offer.  When I had all my life plans arranged, I began my parenting journey.

As Mary, mother to Jesus, and many of you in this room know, there are many phases of early parenthood.  There is the aspirational family image, inscribed on the tablet of your heart, the secret you hold in early pregnancy, the feeling of life growing within you or your partner’s body, just a divine little promise between you and Life.

I was serving a congregation as their Director of Religious Education when I had my first miscarriage.

I showed up for work at church for a newborn child dedication the day after I had my second miscarriage.

I recruited RE teachers the week I had my third miscarriage.

Swiftly, I abandoned my previous image of my life, who I was and who I could become.  I moved to New York City, where, among other things, I refused to offer my seat to pregnant women on the train. Resentment planted itself in the place where life had been, and instead of a baby, I nurtured it, and fed it, and held it to my chest.

I distanced myself from close friends, colleagues and baby announcements and baby showers and joy.  All at once, I was pregnant again.

Holding the secret differently, navigating my fear.  The day after my fourth miscarriage, I took my New Testament Final Exam.

I began to think differently about Mary, mother of Jesus.  Depending on the day, I resented her flaunting her fertility in my face.  I envied her hopefulness.  Sometimes I found her smug and self-glorifying.  Who was she to set an impossible standard for women, that they should not only be expected to be young and gracious, to carry a healthy baby to term, but also to give birth without an epidural in a stable, with a sheep for a midwife?

The week after I had my fifth miscarriage, something else had finally died.  The carefree girl who just knew everything would work out had been tried and found guilty of negligent entitlement and naivety.  I had lost hope.   I had been betrayed by my body, which was now a vessel for endings, incapable of beginnings.

I share this story of my own darkness because miscarriage is a part of life, and yet we do not make time or space for it.

Miscarriage remains in the darkness of our life stories, much like abuse, assault, depression, family secrets, mental breakdowns, addiction, financial struggle, and so many other things that repel the light, like vampires within us.

I was deep in a dark place, and not the friendly kind of dark.  At this point in my story, I want to name something that is also a part of the journey towards parenthood.   We know how the story ends.  Eventually I gave birth to two beautiful, healthy children.  Yay for me.   If I were still deep in my infertility, there is no way I could sit out there through this sermon, knowing the privilege of my neat and happy ending.  But I am telling you the arrival of my children has little to do with how I survived the darkness.

I met an amazing therapist.  With her guidance, I peered into the dark without a flashlight and faced everything that was there:  futility, death, being of little consequence, loss of identity, and all my other demons.

I mourned and grieved, and invited the grief into my sense of self.  I bid farewell to my life plans.  I surrendered to what I could not control, and I steadied myself to take control of what was possible.  I found a small group of women, and together we shared our pain with each other, and held it for one another, befriending the dark together.  I began to pray to a newly formed idea of God in earnest:  I asked for resilience and self-acceptance.  I began to pray all the time, everywhere, on the subway.  Eventually, without grudge, I offered my seat to pregnant women on the train.  How do any of us make it through?

Historically, there is a lot of evidence that Mary was most likely the victim of a sexual assault by a Roman soldier, and Joseph had been named to take on her plight and care for her and the resulting baby.

In Luke Chapter 1, verse 46, Mary sings a praise song as she waits for the arrival of her baby.

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

From now on, generations will call me blessed.

Mary proclaims herself blessed, she proclaims her baby a savior of the oppressed.  In the darkest hour of her life, she lifted herself up, and followed the bright light of a star to lead her spirit towards resilience.

And here we are, reveling in this precious midwinter advent moment the early Christian Greeks called parasouia, meaning the coming or arrival of someone who can handle the situation.  Isn’t that what we are all waiting for, in our darkness?  What if the light is not out there, but already here?

I think of another woman, who like Mary, gave birth to something that would change everything. I’m talking about Tarana Burke, the courageous, brilliant, barely-credited black woman who launched the #metoo movement and founded the organization Just Be, Inc.

As a youth counselor for black girls in Selma, Alabama, Burke found herself sitting across from a thirteen-year-old girl who told a story of sexual violence so harrowing, that she was rendered speechless in response.  After the girl had left her care, she felt she had failed her.  She was so disturbed by the girl’s life story, she couldn’t even speak the words she wanted to say: Me Too.

Soon after this experience, Burke gave birth to Just Be, a mentoring organization whose mission is to guide young women of color towards self-discovery so they may be empowered past their circumstances in order to set or reset the trajectory of their lives. So they may Just Be.

A decade later, a famous actress Alyssa Milano saw the power of Tarana Burke’s light, and shared it with the world through the social media hashtag “me too,” by suggesting, if all the women who have been victims of sexual assault, violence or harassment posted “me too,” we might give a sense of the magnitude of the problem.  And here we are.

Women across the world have claimed this light and added their own to its fierce glow.  Now something that has been protected in darkness is being lifted up to the light, and this reveal has the power to change our cultural landscape.

Women and men too are raising their lamplights, proclaiming their stories, things cannot be the same anymore.

We are each of us, different now.  Perhaps we find ourselves fearful of adjusting to a new power dynamic, or questioning our deep-seated norms about behavior.  You may remember from Luke, the shepherds were afraid when they saw the light of the star.  The power of resilient leadership is so bright some of us may fear its potential to transform.

Maybe some of us are still quietly awaiting our moment to shine a light on the opaque violence of power when it crosses the boundary of safety.

Do you see what happens when women, especially women of color like Jesus’ mother, like Tarana Burke, shine their loving light, uncovering cataclysmic revelation?

Notice where you are.  This Winter Solstice is a moment capable of great power, and magic, and you are welcome to receive its blessing, and to harness its power.

There is a light within you, perhaps it is but a spark, a tiny flame flickering in the midst of overwhelming darkness.  It is there.  Now is the time for you, for all of us, to manifest our light.

I do not know the quality of your particular darkness.  I only know it is time to feel our way out, in this moment of anticipation, of the coming of the Light.

We, as Unitarian Universalists, believe we can be harbingers of Light, and bringers of Light to our World.

Mary’s power was her proclaiming herself the mother of a hopeful and salvific future.

Tarana Burke’s power was her creativity and agency to create a safer and better life for black and brown girls in her community, and now, hopefully the world.

My power was to befriend the dark and use it to heal.

The longest night is almost here, and it is time to name your power.