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  • Writer's pictureThe Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples

The Brave, Awakened Rebel Heart | May 7, 2023 by Rev. Dr. Kathryn Benton

Maybe moving through this world, in your body,

is enough to make you feel constriction in your chest.

Maybe you’re holding someone close to you who is struggling and suffering.

Maybe you are reeling from the latest mass shooting,

or the refugee crisis at the border, or the looming threat of climate change,

or the blistering pace of a global pandemic.

Maybe, like me, you are breathless from all of the above.

I thought my breathlessness was a sign of my weakness,

until a wise friend told me what I wish to tell you:

Your breathlessness is a sign of your bravery.

It means you are awake to what’s happening right now:

The world is in transition.

The opening words come from a book by Valerie Kaur entitled See No Stranger…a book suggested by Rosemary McGuire. I was affected deeply by these words as I started a new job this week and, at the same time that I have been reading a book suggested by Mike Brown entitled, Worse Than Slavery, by David Oshinsky. I think I needed to start Kaur’s book because of how hard it was to read the first. I was experiencing this breathlessness. Reading about Parchman Farm and the Jim Crow “justice” system takes my breath away…and not in the way we often think. Although I have read the history of Jim Crow America…I have even read about the system of convict leasing and the incarceration of poor Black people in Mississippi, this book is written in such a direct and engaging way, with so many concrete examples, that it has affected me deeply. In the second chapter, entitled The Mississippi Plan, Oshinsky cites an example of a person caught up in the convict labor machine. He writes:

And in 1901, it snared young Will Evans…whose vital facts were these:

Height: 4 feet, 5 inches.

Occupation: Errand Boy

Term: 2 years

Weight: 70 pounds.

Crime: Grand Larceny.

Habits of Life: Good.

Use of Tobacco: Yes

Education: Very Little.

Build: Child

Style of Whiskers Worn When Received: None

He continues:

Young Will was sent to prison for stealing some change from the counter of a dry goods store. He was eight years old.

This description hit me hard, perhaps because it was so specific…I could actually picture young Will being snared in this horrendous system…suffering unspeakable traumatic events through no fault of his own…he was a child…only 8 years old. This book is very important to read, and it left me in need of some succor…some balance. Kaur’s words provided a sort of balm…like that Balm in Gilead…to make the wounded whole…to see the whole of our experience as living beings, not just the horrors.

The relief I felt upon reading the opening chapter in this book on wonder had the power to ease the breathlessness a bit and remind me of what Matthew Fox calls the Via Positiva or the Path of Awe. This awe is a part of his whole philosophy of Original Blessing, rather than original sin. Fox and others see creation in the tiniest leaf and in the largest mountain. Responding in awe and wonder is fundamental to our belief in the sacredness of each person, each creature, each bit of stardust. The following images from the James Webb telescope illustrate this for me on a grand scale…

And I would couple these amazing images with a song from my childhood, played on the piano by my grandfather...

It seems to me that awe is an experience that is hopefully accompanied by wonder…by curiosity and ultimately by creativity. Otherwise, we might become stuck in the fear that could be part of the awe. The wonder and curiosity moves us forward. We are, in the words of Kaur, able to see no stranger and to see all others as connected to ourselves…each person…each being… is “a part of us that we do not yet know”. She cites a shabad, a Sikh scripture, from the founder of her religion, Guru Nanak. It is found in the Sikh holy book, Guru Granth Sahib

Wondrous are the forms, wondrous are the colors.

Wondrous are the beings who wander around unclothed.

Wondrous is the wind, wondrous is the water.

Wondrous is the fire, which works wonders….

Behold these wonders, I am wonderstruck.

O Nanak, those who understand this are blessed.

Kaur continued her description of wonder that stems from her spirituality as a Sikh and the freedom and connection to earth she experienced as a child. She wrote:

In the beginning, there was wonder, out in the country, far from city lights, the night air was clear enough to gaze into the long shimmering galaxy that stretched across the sky…the earth under me, the stars above me, the animals around me, were all part of me.

Let’s remember that her reason for writing the book was the breathlessness that she was experiencing in the present. Even with her strong foundation…spiritually, in her family and with the earth, she is suffering from the struggles of the world…her personal struggles, as well as, our collective struggles as human beings living at this time of transition. If we are able to see this breathlessness as a sign of something positive then imagine how much we can transform…how much we can become those “rebel hearts” that Belafonte was looking for…how much we can be present at this important time.

I have spent time with many people this week who have described this “breathlessness”. They have certainly attributed it to a weakness, for it is interrupting their daily life, often sending them to a doctor who will prescribe pills for their symptoms. They are often coming to therapy in order to find another way to deal with these symptoms, since often the medications do not help, at least in the long run. To reframe this experience as “bravery”…as being “awake” at this time of transition is indeed very wise and could, I think, be very helpful.

Of course Kaur’s story is not just one of healing and love. She describes her own story of discrimination and oppression, living in the Central Valley of California and her own life struggles, coupled with the state of our world. Her focus, though, is the message that she learned from her own family and from their faith, Sikhism. It was a message of unity and hope, of wonder and grief, of fighting and rage, of listening and reimagining, and ultimately of breathing and pushing through the transition we are faced with today. It is a message ultimately of hope for our world…a hope that can fuel a revolution that can, in the words of Carol Lee Flinders, Rebalance the World. May we anchor ourselves in that hope as we continue our journey today and the days ahead, connecting with the awe and wonder that leads us to the moments of our high resolve…as potential rebels in a society acutely in need of rebels.

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