Sunday, April 23, 2017

T Minus 1

There are three factors that, individually, are necessary and can be sufficient to create a personal paradigm shift – to radically change the way a person views, engages, and understands the world:  education, travel, and crisis.  I have experienced all three and they have shaped not just my world view, but my theology as well.  And these experiences have profoundly informed the ways in which I read the biblical text.  Today I would like to invite you to consider scripture not as a mandate for what and how to believe, but rather as an invitation to explore how your story is similar to these stories and what our stories might learn from each other.

It’s called T minus 1.  That point in time where we get stuck after something awful happens.  The “T” stands for “trauma.”  The minus 1 stands for “one second before.”  When we witness or encounter something traumatic, a part of our psyche can get stuck in that second before it happened as our brain, incapable of integrating this new information, seeks to deny that it even exists.  Some part of the brain rewinds to the second immediately before and hits the pause button.

We find ourselves here today, the first Sunday after Easter.  The first Sunday after the resurrection.  We find ourselves here today and someone is missing.  On the first day of the week, when the resurrected Jesus appeared to his disciples, Thomas was not with them.  We have no information in the text itself to tell us why Thomas was not present or where Thomas was instead.  So, I would like to invite you to consider when Thomas might be.

In my favorite episode of Doctor Who, the Doctor once said, “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint – it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly … time-y wimey … stuff.”  Now, I don’t necessarily propose that we get our theological or cosmological education from British Sci-Fi; but I do think this description of how time works is particularly poignant in understanding what happens to our perception of the world in response to trauma. 

I think in terms of when Thomas is …  Well, Thomas might still be somewhere between Maundy Thursday and noon on Good Friday.  Having witnessed the arrest, torture, and execution of his closest friend and leader of their ragtag band of followers, I think Thomas is at T minus 1.  Trauma is one of the most profoundly isolating experiences a person can have.  To that end, it is no surprise to me that Thomas is removed from his community. 

Thomas often gets a bad rap in Christian popular culture because he is said to have doubted that Jesus had been resurrected.  “Don’t be a doubting Thomas” we’re told when wrestling with questions of faith.  “Just believe!”  “You just need to have more faith,” is oft the spoken refrain when people are hurting following a loss.  “Seeing isn’t believing,” the quip goes, “Believing is seeing!”

If Thomas is stuck in the T minus 1, if Thomas is still in the time of one second before Jesus died, then Thomas’s doubt isn’t necessarily a doubt in the resurrection.  Thomas might still be incapable of even accepting that Jesus has truly died.  “Until I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe,” Thomas tells his friends.  “Until I see and touch the physical evidence of this death, I will not believe it happened.”

Resiliency is the ability to bounce back effectively after a crisis – it is often formed in our earliest experiences of trauma.  The biggest predictor of whether or not a person develops resiliency is not if or when they experience the inevitability of crisis, loss, trauma, but rather how those around them respond to their experience. 

Over and over and over again in the gospels we see Jesus interacting with people who have experienced trauma.  And over and over and over again, we see Jesus respond to their trauma in a way that it appears no one else has.  Jesus acknowledges, names, and accepts that what they have experienced is real and that it is terrible.

Meeting a leper, Jesus does not turn away, but instead chooses to heal the man and then restores him to community by having his healing witnessed by a priest.  The trauma of isolation was acknowledged and witnessed and restoration happened.

Meeting a paralytic, Jesus hears and acknowledged the pain, isolation, and trauma of infirmity.  The man is healed, he takes up his mat, and he walks.

Meeting a woman at a well at noon, isolated, alone, Jesus names her trauma, “You are right when you say you have no husband.  You have had five husbands and the man you have now is not your husband.”  “You continue to repeat the cycle of abuse because you are stuck in the T minus 1.”  This woman responds by returning to her village, a place where she is shunned, and declares, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did.”  “Come and see a man who witnessed my trauma.  I am no longer stuck.”

A bleeding woman knows that if she can just touch the hem of his cloak, her infirmity will leave her.  Jesus, sensing the power had gone out of him questioned who had touched him.  “Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth.”  Jesus heard her story and responded, “Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”

Time and time again Jesus responds to invisible trauma by saying, “Your wounds have been made visible.  The traumas you have suffered are real and terrible.  And it is possible to find healing and move forward.”

A week after Thomas is reunited with the other ten disciples, Jesus appears.  “Come, Thomas.  Touch my wounds.  See that my death and your loss are real.  The trauma you experienced in witnessing my death has been made visible in these wounds.  Touch my wounds.  Know, intimately, that they are real.  Witness collectively, as a community, naming and affirming the reality of the trauma you have suffered.  Move forward from T minus 1 and find healing.”

Most days, it feels to me as though we are living in a time of crisis. The world right now feels like it’s stuck in the T minus 1.  Our ability to move forward and function in a mature fashion has been stunted by our failure to acknowledge, name, and give witness to the realities of trauma.   Though studies indicate that the world is less violent now than at any previous time in history, access to 24 hour cable news cycles, citizen journalism, and social media amplify the conflicts of the world, imbuing them with magical powers and always, always, always pointing a finger of blame.  Rarely does anyone say, “These things are real and terrible and we can find healing and move forward.”

Thomas’s doubt wasn’t a failure of faith.  Thomas’s doubt wasn’t a failure at all.  It was a necessary step in his learning how to touch wounds, how to see that invisible trauma is real, how to witness and name and affirm.  Thomas’s doubt gave him space to learn how to find healing by moving toward and through loss, rather than stopping at the T minus 1.

As we face our own crises today, may we do so knowing that within crisis lies the potential for a paradigmatic shift.  If we allow it, moments of crisis have the potential to bring us back to the cross, the place that speaks truth to power, love to hate, and acknowledges that trauma – seen and unseen – can leave us isolated, alone, without community or connection – but that same trauma is never the final word.  In our own moments of crisis, if we have the courage to acknowledge, name, and touch, to make visible the wounds of trauma, we can find the power of healing.  We can find the power of resurrection.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Love. Forgiveness.

I seem to be having nightmares more frequently of late.  Last night I wasn’t hungry, but I wanted to eat.  I didn’t know what I wanted.  I knew what I didn’t want – I didn’t want protein, carbs, fat, or sweet treats.  I didn’t want food.  But I wanted to eat.  I did not eat.  Instead, I watched an episode of Babylon 5 with David and went to bed after a glass of milk.  This was a compromise on my part – I was no longer full from dinner and it tasted delicious.
And last night I dreamt again about my sister.  This time it was the tennis ball.
I must have been 12 or 13.  It was after she moved home from foster care and before my parents reunited.  And some stupid fight broke out over a tennis ball.  A tennis ball that didn’t have an owner and with which I was playing.
And of course, this was utterly unacceptable to her.  And she demanded that I give it to her and to the neighbor who was her best friend at the time.  And I refused.  I knew she would try to take it anyway.  She always demanded anything she wanted and if she wasn’t given it, she simply took it.  Always.
So it was with the tennis ball.  She demanded it.  I didn’t want to relent this time.  I wanted to stake my claim.  It didn’t belong to anyone.  I had been playing with it first.  I wasn’t done with it.  I had been enjoying myself.  I wanted to continue to play.
When I wouldn’t give it to her, she hit me.  And she kept hitting me.  She hit me until I was lying on the floor in the fetal position, curled around that tennis ball, unwilling to let her take yet one more thing from me.
And so she left.  She and her friend left the house.  And just for good measure, she kicked me in the eye on her way out.
And she kicked me so hard that the blood vessels in my eye ruptured.  And the white of my eye was stained with ruby spots of blood.  And my mother was at work until 11:00 that night.  So, when she returned home the next morning and I told her what had happened and had her look at my eye, of course it was my fault.  I should have just given her the damn tennis ball.  And besides, what was I talking about?  My mother couldn’t see anything wrong with my eye.
But I went into the bathroom and looked again.  And there they were – those red dots of blood.  And sure enough the neighbors asked what happened to my eye.  And people at church on Sunday asked what had happened to my eye.  And no matter how many times I made my mother look at my eye, she couldn’t see it.  There was nothing wrong.  Why hadn’t I just given my sister the tennis ball in the first place?
My sister continues to do the same thing today – always striving to take from others what she wants, believing that she can’t truly have it for herself if she does not have it all.  If I am happy in my relationship, she finds some way to disparage it and to claim that her own happiness in her relationship is greater.  If I take pride in my academic accomplishments, she insists that they amount to nothing of value in this world and that she has accomplished what truly matters in life – reproduction.  If I take pride in my vocation, this sacred and holy work that I love, she declares that my faith tradition is invalid and she alone has divine knowledge that is worthy of being held.  If I hold to my faith and tell her with all genuineness that I am happy she has found a faith tradition that is meaningful to her, she switches faith traditions, enters into my own, and declares how much more she is getting from this community than I ever did.
And I’m tired.  I am not in competition with her and I’m tired of being set up for a competition that I have no interest in.  And I’m tired of the continual reworking of the story when I tell her I won’t compete and I’m happy that she’s happy and that nothing in my life is a poor reflection of her, just as nothing going on in her life changes my own experiences.  It still never stops.  She still demands all the tennis balls, never mind that she has no tennis racket and never learned to play the game.
I woke up this morning with an idea in my mind that was, all at once and in equal measure, both wonderful and terrifying. 
It was this: I never have to see my family again.
I never have to see my family again.
I never have to see my family again.
This, of course, breaks the first rule of my family – loyalty to your family is everything.  It also means stepping outside the bounds of the second rule of my family while appearing to keep in holding with it – inside the family, every man, woman, child for themselves only.
I have my own life in a place far away.  I have a new family that I am building with D – one built on love and respect and the belief that there is enough for everybody and nobody needs to hoard it all or to deprive everyone else.  I never have to see my family of origin ever again.  Though I would, in fact, happily spend time with my mother or either of my brothers circumstances permitting, of course.
There is something liberating in this truth and yet the power to make such a bold decision overwhelms and terrifies me.
It used to be that when I meditated, I focused on the movement of my breath.  “In.  Out.  In.  Out.”  Lately I have been trying something new.  Two thoughts that carry on, distinct and separate, but wholly entwined and dependent on one another.  “Love.  Forgiveness.  Love.  Forgiveness.
I have been focusing on these ideas as I try to enhance my capacity to love others and to extend forgiveness to those who have hurt me.  Today, I breathed in love and I breathed out forgiveness.  My mind was drawn to the possibility (the glorious possibility) that I can choose to never see my father or my sister again.  I brought my focus back to my breath.
And I began to cry.  Choosing not to allow abusive and bullying people into my life is an act of love for myself.  When those bullying and abusive people are family, I would have to forgive myself for breaking the family rules.  Love.  Forgiveness.  In.  Out.  Love.  Forgiveness.
And the possibility that just maybe there are tennis balls enough to go around.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Falling In Love is a Risky Endeavor

I was seven and my sister was eleven when Star Wars, Episode VI, Return of the Jedi aired on network television (NBC).  Our whole family had been looking forward to it and we were all going to sit down and watch it together.  We had previously watched Episode IV and Episode V, A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back respectively, when they had aired on network television in previous years.

The thing about Start Wars is, I enjoyed.  And enjoying anything was dangerous in my childhood.  It was an open invitation to abuse from my sister.  I still remember her long flannel nightgown with the ruffled hem and her copper-blond hair with the frizzy tight curls of an ‘80s perm.  My own hair was platinum blonde until middle school and continued to grow in progressively darker as time went on.

I don’t remember any specifics of this – just knowing that my sister always found an excuse to quash my joy.  She could never stand to allow anyone to be happier than her.  In fact, she could never stand to allow anyone else to be happy at all, regardless of how happy she was.  Not much has changed in the past 28 years.

When I was young, sleep was my defense mechanism.  I could sleep through anything.  I slept through an extraordinary amount of domestic violence that my father enacted against my mother.  Beatings, humiliations, at least two attempts at murder.  My siblings witnessed all of these – I only saw the aftermath of the majority.  I slept soundly and deeply and nothing could rouse me until my mind and my body told me it was safe.

What I remember most from Star Wars, Episode VI is the Ewok Village.  I wanted an Ewok more than anything.  As an adult I can’t really remember what purpose they served the film and, with a hefty dose of cynicism, I suspect their sole purpose might have been a marketing ploy – one more way to sell kids on the idea of having their own piece of the wider galaxy and one more way to get parents to part with $20.00 for a toy that cost $0.20 to make.

As an adult, I’ve tried watching Star Wars at least four times.  None of my friends can believe that I didn’t fall in love with the movies growing up – just like they did!  What no one seems to realize is that being the focal point of so much abuse from my sister made falling in love with anything a risky venture.  

Every time I’ve tried to watch any of the Star Wars movies as an adult, I’ve fallen asleep within 15 minutes of hitting the “Play” button.  It does not matter how awake and full of energy and verve I was when I sat down.  The music and the opening credits and introduction of Luke Skywalker and I’m fast asleep.

D is equally as horrified by this gap in my film knowledge as every other friend I have.  This is, for him, a fatal flaw.  It’s not a deal breaker.  But it is a fatal flaw.  With the new Star Wars movie coming out next month, he’s determine to rectify what he sees as failure of in my upbringing and introduce me to Star Wars all over again and help me fall in love with Star Wars like he did and like so many of my other friends did.

And I’m trying.  I managed to stay awake through the entirety of A New Hope.  I don’t really remember much of it from that viewing two weeks ago.  It was after watching Episode IV, however, that D settled on a theory for my failure to connect with and deeply love these films: it’s the music.  So much of what makes Star Wars what it is is the soundtrack.  If I could just let myself experience the music, if I would just open myself up to it, I could find some glimmer of the love he has for it.

So, we tried.  Or rather, I tried.  We sat down the other night to watch Episode V, The Empire Strikes Back.  "Remember," he said to me, "pay attention to the music.  The music is what makes the movie."

To stay awake past the three minute mark, I paid half attention to the movie and half attention to a game on my phone.  When I ran out of lives on this “match three” game, I handed my phone to D and tried to give all my focus to the screen.  

To keep myself awake, I tried to connect the dots of what was going on on the screen.  What were the gaps, would they be filled in, how much did I remember, how much did I forget, would any of these questions be answered?  D grew frustrated with my incessant questions as I spoke over the dialogue of the movie at some critical junctures and asked me to at least hold my questions until each scene I was questioning had ended.  I tried.  I barely kept my eyes open.  

I couldn’t tell you now, 20 hours later, how it all ended.  I just don’t remember anything after the tauntaun and Yoda.  Though typing this now helps me to recall Luke’s foolish rescue venture, the trap, and his fateful final scene with Darth Vader, losing his hand, jumping to his possible death and being saved by Leia and Chewbacca in the Millennium Falcon.  (And I only know the name of this ship because my best friend named her car in college after it and I was humiliated publicly for not getting the reference).

I couldn’t lift my legs sufficiently after the movie to make my way to bed with any kind of ease.  Upon making reaching the summit of our staircase, I headed to the bathroom, peeled my contact lenses from my weary eyes, and brushed my teeth.  A few minutes later, I crawled into bed and fell fast asleep and deeply asleep, my body curled around D’s pillow for comfort.

When D came to bed about an hour and an half later, I did not notice.  I woke up several times in the course of the night, restless and uncomfortable.  I was surprised to find him beside me and to find that he had reclaimed his pillow in the process of making his way to bed.

What I remember most from what D calls “anxiety dreams” and I called “nighttime resurrections of my nightmarish childhood” is flashes of images.  That frizzy permed hair.  The ruffled hem of that flannel nightgown.  Pain in my body and the feeling of having my soul pillaged.

Of course I can’t connect with Star Wars.  Falling in love with anything is a dangerous affair.  Of course I don’t connect with the music.  I don’t really connect with any music.  She stole that from me, too.

But I’m learning how to fall in love again.  And this time I know that it’s safe.  So maybe there is hope for Star Wars.  But D shouldn’t hold his breath.