“Stay Awake!” by Cynthia Dahlin

December 3, 2017

First Sunday of Advent

Are there any of you here who remember about seven cycles ago when this passage of the Bible came up? Our common lectionary, chosen for gender inclusive and less hierarchical language, parses the entire Old and New Testaments into sections so that the entire book, minus any sad Lamentations or salacious Psalms or poems of David, is read every three years. And 21 years ago, the youth made a service out of the theme “Stay Awake”. They stressed the importance of noticing the details of creation to keep alive a sense of wonder, and the need to keep alert for the needs and wants of those around oneself so that we each are open to helping and giving to those who have nothing. This is about the time Samantha and April were the teen idols, and Marian, Lauren, Chris Amoss, Andy Homes and my children, were the pre-teen followers who hung on their every word. I want to keep a sense of the freshness and intensity which they brought to this message—I am still like a pre-teen follower to those who are discovering the joy of serving others. That is why I stayed in Girl Scout leadership for so long, why I welcome observers to my class at N Street Village, and why I train new volunteers for Arlington Thrive. I think that if I stay awake, God will bring me awareness of new people and new situations that allow me to use my gifts, and bring me connection with new people and issues in the world.

There are parts of our Gospel reading I don’t really believe, for example that “the Son of Man” will come in clouds with great power and glory before this generation passes. I think that we are to act to create the Kingdom of God among us the best we can, but am not actually expecting God to come and check on my progress any time soon. But to act as if that might happen, to set myself the task to look at my life frequently, and reset the course, recharge the batteries, unload old baggage to give full attention to the new tasks in front of me is a great practice to remain a fresh and energetic Christian.

I have found that in remaining alert, lots of interesting life goals have been set before me over time. In Junior High and High School, my Girl Scout troop adopted one of the first Head Start classes, and in organizing parties, book and toy drives, teaching the kids to swim and just getting to know the young children in Gum Springs, which was still then a segregated black neighborhood populated with the descendants of George Washington’s slaves, I learned to talk to children and their parents who had lived one neighborhood away, and had few of the opportunities and advantages I had been taught to avail myself of. I had known how to take the bus to Old Town Alexandria or the Mall and visit museums, but these people had not felt welcome or had and extra few dollars for bus fare to do this. I could pay a couple of dollars to use a pool at one of the motels on Route 1 in the summer; black children were not welcome. I also learned about Pentacostal Churches, and got to know kids with siblings in the dozens. One little boy who became my constant shadow was one of 17 children in his family.

In college, I worked on political campaigns, and did door-to-door campaigning in small towns in Vermont and New Hampshire. I nearly fell through old porches, had to stand still with guard dogs charging, talking to old people with few teeth—there was rural poverty up there that I had never heard my proud New England grandparents, great aunts and great uncles talk about. And yet, there were a lot of liberal Democrats who were interested in talking about giving services and supports to black people who had been discriminated against—I had a real feeling they weren’t in much better straits, but they cared about the injustice, and I was touched by this generosity.

In graduate school, I took on being the head of the Women Students’ Coalition at Harvard, because we planned on making a lot of noise about sexual harassment and discrimination against women, and I knew that I could make a future for myself even if Harvard tried to punish me for my actions—I had a husband who could support me if I did not get to keep my campus teaching assistant and research job, and had a network of feminist women who helped me find a job after graduation. In fact, I was called into the President’s Office and was told that my diploma could be withheld if I made too much trouble, but with the coaching and support of friends, I was able to resist shaking, and reply “for what cause could you do that? What charge? For mentioning that you have less than 3% women with tenure?” I did hold my breath when the notices came out that we each had completed all of our graduation requirements, and paid our library fines. But this activity made me intensely aware that of the more than 50 women in the Women Students’ Coalition, very few could risk pointing out discrimination or harassment as the academic system required that they have letters of recommendation from their thesis advisors and the heads of their departments to get any decent teaching position in any other University. Staying awake taught me about the nature of discrimination, and how the power structure works, so that I could identify with people later who wanted to complain about poor housing, poor schools or poor health care. If you have little power, it is very risky to point out the simple truths around you. I learned much about speaking truth to power that helped me for the rest of my life.

When I had children, I took Montessori training to work in their classroom. I found that watching young children closely allowed me to learn a lot about how they saw the world, how they gained knowledge, and how hands-on experiences are so key to learning. I learned a lot about myself, and also brought as much as I could to the classes we ran for the kids during our Hope and a Home parents meetings, and also realized that the lessons held true for adults. I learned a lot from the families in Hope and a Home, which was a transitional homeless program for families that had a whole Seekers mission group supporting it. I learned about how those families shared food really generously and joyously at our parties, and while we worried about not wanting them to have to spend money, they wanted and needed to share. I learned about how I may see some situations entirely differently, and have to give respect and listen to those who just have a 180 degree difference with me. A key example of this was after the OJ Simpson acquittal—we had to give one meeting to pairing off by race and talking to each other about how we saw the event and why we felt exultant or cheated by the outcome. This experience has served me well over this last year as well.

I’ll skip forward over learning about people from different countries, climates and religions as I traveled to Australia and back and jump forward. A couple of years ago, I joined People of Faith—Equality Virginia, a clergy group focused on bringing marriage equality to Virginia, a task we built a five year plan for. Clergy from mostly Northern Virginia met monthly to study scripture about homosexuality, look at programs of conservative churches to see the arguments they brought condemning same sex relationships, and to help clergy learn to speak out to their local delegates and senators about the issue of marriage equality. Then suddenly, two years ago, the Supreme Court acted, and we had marriage equality. At the very beginning of this time, after listening to the advocates who had experienced real pain from alienation from their churches, I had written a letter my daughter, telling her that I was so proud of the choices in life she was making, and that the one thing she did not have that I wished for her was to find someone to love, whatever gender. She had hinted to me that she might be bisexual or gay, but she had not really had a relationship that I knew of. After my letter, she told me very shortly, that she was gay, and had a girl friend. I figured I had better continue to work on the new agenda of People of Faith-Equality Virginia, so that I could stay alert, be aware of the other injustices she might find in life, as marriage was only one factor. We started working on transgender justice, and we had meetings starting by introducing ourselves and stating which pronouns we preferred. To many of us, who had met monthly for several years and knew each other, this seemed silly, but we were following the form, and when young people from GLSEN or other groups came, we were proud that we knew they proper etiquette. I had visited my oldest child’s transgender legal clinic in Boston, for which she had won an award from the State House of Delegates, and had worked at N Street Village to make sure transgender women were welcome, so I thought I was doing pretty well. But it turns out I was not awake, not noticing the signs and portents around me. In September, I got an e-mail from my child, saying that in a week or so, after her cousin’s wedding, that one on the mountain top that I officiated at, after it was all over, she was transitioning to male, and would change her name and would use the pronouns “he” and “they.” I was stunned. I had noticed that his friends had more consistently called him by his last name, and he had said last fall, I think, to me “my family are the only ones who don’t call me that. But I had not taken the hint. I had taken the change as an extension of his political work for transgender people, not as a personal change. He gave us the link to PFLAG materials, and here is where I really found I had not been awake. To be honest, after I immediately called and told him I loved him and was proud of his life, and that I would support him and would try my best to make this change, once I hung up, my first thought was “what did I do wrong to make my daughter want to change her gender?” The first section of the PFLAG book was about “If you ask yourself as a parent , what did I do wrong? you are immediately judging your transgender child as wrong.” If you want to be supportive, you have to change your point of view, and view your child as an individual on a spectrum of gender. So over the past two months, as I told family members, old friends in Australia, and my mission group of my new son, and also talked about the loss of a daughter, I am now more awake to the challenges of transgender people in my various communities. I believe that with my eyes open, I will be led to some new area of service, maybe a support group at N Street, or a more active role in People of Faith-Equality Virginia. But I am needing to learn more about why it was so hard for my child to tell us, or for us to see that his change had come. One section of the letter he wrote us stated: “I know you have always treated me as an individual and encouraged me to grow up to be the best version of myself I could be and I don’t think that I would have had the freedom or creativity to think outside the box if I had not been raised by people like you both who are so encouraging and supportive. I am trying to learn to be the most authentic version of myself possible.” And who wouldn’t want this for everyone. One of the wonderful things about Seekers is that we are trying to help each and every one of us become authentic, as well as open to God’s call.

While I am trying to pry my eyes wider and become more awake so that I don’t miss a big change like this one in my life again, I also want to let you know how hard it is for me to change. I am working hard on the new name, slipping when telling stories about the past—I have to ask him how I should handle this. I am semi-ok on using “he” as a pronoun. But change comes only so fast. I don’t think I will be able to overcome all the grammar I learned in English, French and Latin to ever refer to singular persons as “they.” This grammatical change to help with gender fluidity is just going to have to happen in the next generation! But I will try to remain awake, and learn from my life, and try to do the work set in front of me. It may not be my job to bring the kingdom of God alone, but it is my job to use the lessons of my life and to try to do my little part. And I feel like God is here by my side—as soon as I was getting comfortable and complacent, she shook the tree a bit—I’m awake!


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