Sunday, January 10, 2016
Life Death and Impermanence: A Sermon Response
Impermanence and Expanding our Souls: A Response to Today’s Sermon at First Universalist
Some days a sermon reaches and grabs my heart and simply won’t let go. Today was one such day. First, there was a powerful story by member Frederic MacDonald-Dennis. He spoke of attending college at the University of Alabama in the mid eighties, a black gay man at a predominantly white college with a fairly well known racist history and face it, being gay was no easy journey in 1984. His parents supported him even though privately afraid for him. His friends tried in every way to discourage him, but he followed the message in his heart, and as most often is the case, it was the message of truth.
Jen Crow spoke on our reluctance to honor the passages that surround us in life. Our denial of death despite our certainty in truth that it is a journey we all shall take. She spoke of listening to the voices of the ancestors, allowing their knowledge and experience to become a part of our lives. How much richer and expansive is the soul who embraces the experience of all the passages around us. How we grow the soul, in listening to the voices of those who’ve gone before us even as we create new experiences of our own.
I’m sure most of us have our own experience to draw upon. It’s my own experience however, that I know best, though I can say with some certainty others will share some parts of my own journey in theirs.
Let me begin with the things Frederic spoke about. I of course was not born black, so I can hear about the experience of racism, but it’s always obscured in part by the race lens through which I grew up as well. I came along earlier, during the days of the old Jim Crow South. The only black person I knew was as was so often the case in that part of the world in that time, the woman who came to our home and helped with cleanup, washing dishes and vacuuming and paid pitifully little as was also the custom of that day. But, on growing up gay and transgender in Tyler, Texas, that was an experience that was very much akin to my own. You know, I was not out when I began college, but everybody seemed to know, and my earlier years were marked by intense bullying, at least until I learned to express myself in ways that helped me evade some of it. But out of it all, as a matter of survival, I learned to listen to my inner voice. That voice nurtured me and led me along paths where life was possible and glimmers of light seemed possible. Unlike Frederic, my parents were not supportive, and I had to keep my closet firmly in place until my Dad passed in ’67 and my Mom in ’88.
I even in those early years learned of a story of race that I had not been taught growing up. My friends thought I was crazy when during college I went to some of the Black Power meetings of the day on campus, and listened for the first time of other stories. I’m not sure why I did that. I just know I’m a better person for having sat and listened to their voices rather than the ones of a world built upon white supremacy. From them I received my first early lessons that would guide me forward to this day, still learning but in a far different place. Perhaps I listened because it was the same nudge of connection I felt listening to Frederic’s remarks today. Perhaps it was the early stirrings of that little inner voice that has led me to this day. The voice that led me from the encounter with police in a gay bar raid in ’69. For that matter the one two years earlier that led me to take off from college and travel to the west coast and land in San Francisco and see for myself that I was not the only gay person in the world. I also had been writing reflectively since age ten or so perhaps, trying to find my way through the darkness. Oh how that saved me, shining a tiny ray of light in a sea of darkness.
Then there was Jen’s message. Oh Jen if you could only know how your message resonated within my heart. For me, death was virtually impossible to ignore. As a very young child my grandfather on my Mom’s side died. He lived in the back woods in Arkansas. When we arrived, his body was laid out on the kitchen table. He had not been embalmed yet. We slept in the adjoining living room on floor pallets, the light shining on his dead body even as it periodically twitched. Before embalming, those movements are not uncommon, even after death. Also there were the coins in his eyes. I was maybe five at the time, and that was fodder for nightmares for years after that. ::chuckling:: I used to dream repeatedly that Jesus was chasing me in my dreams and that if he caught me, I’d be dead.
Then at age 10 thereabouts, my other Grandpa came down with brain cancer. There was a tradition in those days, and each family member, first the parents, followed by the grandkids, entering individually for a formal last talk. It’s then the one who is dying imparts a final message of wisdom. I remember that conversation so well, then days later he died. My cousin Sandie and I had been downstairs at the snack area in the Dallas hospital. We heard two young doctors talking about a death and a coming autopsy. They seemed quite excited about it. We realized they were talking about our grandpa and cousin Sandie screamed and sobbed uncontrollably. Later he went to the funeral home, and per tradition, we took our turns, even the kids, sitting with the departed. The body was not left alone until time for the funeral.
It wasn’t over yet. My uncle died in a car wreck in ’67, then two weeks later my aunt died. Exhausted, I was caring for other family hurt in the car wreck, then off to Arkansas for another funeral, and then two weeks later, my dad died from a heart attack. We’d fought just a week before and I returned to Dallas to care for family. He called once, but Dad could not say he was sorry and I was quite stubborn myself, then I get the call and he was gone. You know, I had a tremor that lasted for the next two decades, until I finally set down and made peace with him in my heart. Then all sorts of wonderful things happened.
The eighties were not any better. So many friends passed on from AIDS in the eighties, people I’d grown to know and love. I’d moved to Houston where I could be more like me. I kept count for a while, but then I lost count and just quit. Memorial services and funeral parades in my world, even as the outside world simply seemed to wish we would go ahead and die off. I call this my radicalization years. Then in “88 my Mom died after contracting lung cancer. Starting in ’84, we had made our peace and got to have an adult to adult relationship and I love so much that happened. We talked together right up to the last day of her life. It was some of the most intense living one can do.
Then came ’97, my year of the dark night.. My partner, the love of my life, the man who taught me how to truly love, became ill from viral encephalitis. I cannot sufficiently share the depth of our love. I’d lost family to transphobia for I’d transitioned, was barely holding onto my job, and then this happened. He was in coma for a few weeks and then passed over, literally dying in my arms. Then a couple of weeks later, my friend and I are talking, ready to walk street patrol against bashers in our gay neighborhood, and suddenly she drops to the floor, and dies in my arms as well. I felt the life go out of her body. I sat on the stairs as the paramedics tried and failed to resuscitate her, rocking back and forth sobbing quietly. I’ve never been so lost. Oh what blessing for beloved community, people slipping into my life holding me aloft as I healed.
So, after all this darkness, there is light to be found. I stand here as testimony to that reality! When people speak of talking to their ancestors, it’s always been very real for me. Their voices whisper in my ear. Long after he passed away, my father would enter my dreams. You know, as adults, there are still times to hear good fatherly or motherly advice. In the dreams, it was as if he and later they were always alive, and we had he most wonderful talks and I’d hear the answers and ask the questions I needed to go on.
No, I’m not a Spiritualist. My wife is and I respect her journey, but it isn’t mine. I can’t tell you if they truly are my ancestors who speak to me, or my own subconscious actively at work to help me stay centered. See it really doesn’t matter. There are voices beyond me who help me find the way forward, assuring voices, voices that protect. I remember a police officer trained our work group after a brutal crime took place in our premises. He spoke of that gut nudge. Whatever it is, I treasure that little voice inside. That same voice makes itself visible in my dream life and speaks to me with such clarity as to be real. I still see Skip in his real form, smelling his scents and feeling his presence and my beloved Robin who is still very much alive stands alongside, providing a continuity of love and compassion/passion. It’s warned me how to avoid moments of danger well before consciousness revealed the same. Once I was surrounded by bashers and my life seriously in danger in my inner city Houston neighborhood, but there was the voice, leading me out of harm’s way. I do not have to know where it comes from to understand its value in my life journey. Speaking of it in term of my ancestors resonates, even as it has with people worldwide for thousands of years. I treasure my ancestors, past and in the relatively more recent times. Embracing the realities of all the passages in our lives I think really do make us more complete as people of compassion, as beloved community.
So thank you Frederic, and Jen for speaking today to my heart. Jen, I love the idea of an ancestors’ garden for our church hope that when in the not too distant future I pass on, my ashes will find a place there. The music by Ghost Revival was awesome as well. I’ve also spent time at Lakewood, and sat on the hillside at James Tuttle’s grave looking out over the lake below. For those in our church not familiar, he was a charismatic pastor of our church for the last half of the 19th century. He came from Rochester where he knew Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony, and brought the breath of the liberal spirit to our First Universalist congregation. Nearby was the gravesite for Charles Loring, another church member and the founder of our amazing park system. Somehow it was fitting and special to be bringing in new members of the church family on the day we spoke of our ancestors as well. Thanks to Elaine and all of those who now are part of our beloved circle. It was a very special day for this soul, and I and the ancestors thank you for it!