When I was studying to be a massage therapist in 1991 we learned about the autonomic nervous system in our bodies. This is the system that works without our conscious effort - breathing, blood pressure, digestion, for example. The autonomic nervous system is where we feel anxiety and experience the fight or flight impulses.
A massage therapist taught a class on her work, which was offering massages to nuns and other women who had been brutally tortured in Nicaragua during the conflict in that country in the 1980’s. She spoke about the need to go very slow, to help the woman with her breath, and to help her learn to receive healing touch instead of violence. It was a long slow process.
Yesterday I listened to an OnBeing interview between Krista Tippett and a clinical social worker who works with trauma. His hame is Resmaa Manakem and he works in Minneapolis.
His work is heart work.
He spoke about how trauma influences people in our bodies and emotions, sometimes changing our genetics. He said that research indicates that it can take 14 generations before trauma’s influence on our genetics is gone.
That means the children and grandchildren of people who were traumatized from the Holocaust will feel the effects of that trauma in their lives for 14 generations or about 350 years.
It means that the people who were stolen from Africa and enslaved in this country,
and their descendants experienced a trauma that will last another two hundred years. Although it will actually be longer because the trauma of violence against black and brown people did not end when the Civil War ended slavery, nor did it end with the Civil Rights protests in the 1960’s, it continues and is even escalating today.
Every time I see that video clip of Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of George Floyd I cringe. I’m appalled at the police officers who stood by and watched it happen.
I wonder what would I have done?
And I know that if it is painful for me to watch, it has got to be traumatic for every black mother and father who worries about their child leaving home - will they return safe and alive? And it is traumatic for every black or brown child who wonders if they will be next.
Black and brown families have to have conversations about how to stay safe when out in public -
and how to behave when,
not if but when,
one is stopped by a police officer.
It’s this trauma that is stirring people to action, to take to the streets and protest. Black and brown people because they are fed up with the violence.
And white people because we have to be the one’s who change the culture that sees black and brown people as criminals - which is an unconscious automatic response ingrained by centuries of criminalizing black and brown bodies -
instead of seeing them as God’s beloved.
Because here’s one thing I learned in massage therapy school -
human beings can teach our autonomic nervous system to have a calmer state of being. We can teach ourselves to breath slower, to lower our blood pressure, and be less reactive. And we can teach our selves to notice what we are thinking and then to respond not from reactivity but from a thoughtful position.
How do we do this? By practicing ways to be calm - meditating and focusing on the breath. Some yoga practices also teach this.
Prayer can do this too.
Many of us come to church on Sunday to find comfort.And I hope that there is some solace in our worship as we take time to focus on God’s presence and the teaching of Jesus as they inform how we live our lives.
The thing is, however, our Christian practices are not just about comfort.
Jesus teaches us that love is about action.
So, let’s consider Paul and his letters to any one of the churches he wrote too.
Every one of the churches experienced conflict, and every one of them needed to be reminded of the Gospel, of the teachings of Jesus, of how to live with differences.
Let’s consider Jesus’ teachings to the apostles about equality, love of neighbor,
and his parables about good Samaritans and caring for the marginalized.
Jesus did not come to comfort his followers. He came to motivate them to change.
What we are living today is a broken world screaming out for the healing love of God found in Jesus.
But we can’t do that healing love if we don’t first take the log out of our own eye and see clearly who we are and how we are participants in the racist systems, in ways known and unknown.
Our reading from Genesis (Unraveled series, A Sanctified Art) begins with the story of the angels appearing to Sarah and Abraham at the Oaks of Mamre.
It is here that Sarah hears that after all these years God will in fact give Sarah a son. God promised this to her decades early, and so much time has passed that all Sarah can do is laugh when she hears it this time.
But Sarah does have a son whom she names Isaac.
Now remember that before Isaac is born Sarah had arranged for Abraham to have a son with her servant, Hagar, a child that she names Ishmael.
But Sarah becomes jealous of Hagar and the child Ishmael and the love that Abraham has for them.