Sermon for Self-Purification

Since election night, I’ve been waiting for my leadership–any leadership: in my workplace, in my church, in my political party–to say something.  They haven’t.  Not the something I’ve been waiting for.  I’ve heard many calls for unity, for “moving toward one another,” even for action.  Many leaders have implored us to enact love and respect, to begin the process of reconciliation we’ll need to recover from the divisiveness of the election.

The problem with that message, for me, and for many others, I think, is simple psychology: trauma.  This election is different from other ones, and many of my friends feel trauma more than disappointment or anger.  We can see this difference playing out in the number of people seeking therapists, calling in sick, and in our schools where our children imitate us in a sick micro-performance as detailed in yesterday’s Sunday Times.  My husband and I work in schools, and without risking my job or my husband’s job, I can say parts of the Sunday article ring true–our ugliness has passed on to our children who do not necessarily have the tools to regroup. People are traumatized, especially the losers. Some children of the winners are behaving really badly, mostly because–I suspect–they’re skeptical now of their own beauty and worth. To ask these traumatized people to spend time with the other side is to ask them to jeopardize their health and well-being, at least in the immediate aftermath.  There are ways to “spend time” with the other side that are safer for them right now.  They can dedicate their prayers to someone they don’t understand, practice contemplative prayer, journal, etc.  But many of us cannot stay in the room with the other side yet. And many of us feel the burden of “unity” falls on us.  After all, one political party’s campaign slogan was “Stronger Together” and the other’s was “Make America [Enter Any Derogatory Adjective Here] Again.”

Too many of our schools and churches are asking us to enact radical love by skipping the vital step of self-care and self-preparation and without providing us spaces for that care. The best sermon or speech–one I haven’t heard yet–would be one on the process of grief and on the great instances in the Bible and other mythology of heroes (I’m using Joseph Campbell’s understanding of “hero” here) of people retreating into silence and isolation first before they enter the atonement phase: Moses on Mt. Sinai, Odysseus on Calypso’s island, Luke Skywalker on Skellig Michael.  Christianity’s Luke tells us in Ch. 5 that Jesus often “withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” Or in The Gospel of Matthew, after John the Baptist is beheaded, he withdraws “privately to a desolate place.”  Again and again he does that–before and after performing miracles, in times of grief, in preparation for his ultimate act of love.

I can’t help but think of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s four requirements for nonviolent resistance: collection of facts, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action. Last year, I participated in a  study group where we reread  “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and then met in the back offices of the Menil Collection–how beautiful, in the belly of the art house!– to discuss it.  We focused for part of the discussion on a section I had overlooked before, although I’ve read the letter and taught it many times.   Dr. King speaks directly in the letter to the need for self-purification: an internal process of introspection, experiential learning, community building; in short, the mental and emotional work of metabolizing trauma in order to prepare to practice radical love. He did not allow anyone to join the boycotts or sit-ins or talk to government leaders until they’d gone through the self-purification process, alone and in communion with other African-Americans.  “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and rest,” Jesus says to his disciples in Mark. By yourselves.

Those of us who saw clearly what the President-elect and his supporters are–people willing to bargain for their interests with racism, xenophobia, and sexism even if they don’t believe themselves to be racist and sexist–need time for self-purification, and many of the protests are exactly that, a crying out in community so that we can go back into our families and communities lovingly.  Or, as my philosopher friend, Eric, put it: “Protest is the aesthetic performance of solidarity, a cathartic sharing.  Protest is one way in which we activate empathy and transform tragedy into beauty.”  It’s a necessary first step toward love.  We’ve experienced a beheading of sorts, and rites of passage first separate the participant from the rest of society and remove them from ordinary time.

Our various leaders are right that if we spend time with one another in the daily human rituals of our lives we would learn and heal. And, ultimately, we must love our enemies. But this week, because of Thanksgiving break, I’m just so, so relieved to not have to be near certain people. I need time to retreat into a holy solitude.  For one thing, I’m reading a string of mystery novels with female protagonists who nab the bad guy.  On a more serious note, yesterday, Trip and I were confirmed and received, respectively, into the Episcopalian church, and I’m spending the week with people I love and trust and avoiding anyone who voted for the President-elect.  I’m purifying myself so I can–hopefully–reach toward the love I believe in so much and to which I’m called. It’s hard, thankless work.  Harder for some of us than others, and that difference in the degree of sacrifice and vulnerability needs to be acknowledged.

I cannot transform my house, my classroom, my neighborhood, or my nation into a beloved community–and I must–until I have a quiet place to rest.

I hope this week we all take time to rest and restore, without apology and with whomever we choose.




33 thoughts on “Sermon for Self-Purification”

  1. This was truly inspirational. Your sermons are perfectly labeled because you are a leader. As a fellow Christ follower but also a queer person, it is so nice to hear these words that reflect wisdom. I’ve felt alone in being queer while several Christians I know have let out their ugliest sides lately especially toward me coming out. Your message of rest is also a message of love. But it’s also not a passive one, it’s a message of regroup so that you can have the energy to fight or the right causes passionately. Thank you so so much for this. Thank you for making it easier on someone like me to have faith and not feel so alone.

    1. This is something I’ll never understand, the lack of acceptance by those who are supposed to love all people without judgement. It’s great that you stay strong in your faith!

  2. The day after the election, felt like a culmination of all the acquittals and not guilty verdicts in the recent cases of police misconduct and human brutality. I felt the same way I did during those times, sad, disappointed, hurt, angry, and ultimately not surprised. I knew this could happen. Yet, I still sat in front of my TV on election night in shock. I went to work the next day, in shock. In the weeks since, I have tried to come to terms with what the next four years will bring. I cannot say I have sat down and talked to a person who voted for Trump, I cannot say I desire to. I am still processing this as many Americans are. I agree, people need time to process, they need time to be alone.

    1. You speak to my soul with those words as I imagine you do for so many. I have spoken to trump supporters, It is a lost cause. I think I’ve hurt my heart more with trying to gauge understanding with them than I would have letting it remain blank

  3. This is exactly what I needed to hear. I instinctively have isolated myself from some people in my life, and only spent time with those I know to be 100 percent supportive. I didn’t think of it as the necessary self-care prior to figuring out how to take action, but it definitely is.

  4. How wonderful! I am in total agreement. In fact, I just published a book talking about these same things. It’s on and I have a site where I have a video. Nice to come across a like minded person.

  5. Amen 🙂 I guess I haven’t realized that I legitimately need the space for myself and the space to heal, to be away from certain people and be with some others. It is traumatizing. I never quite pictured it that way before. I think I, too, have pushed myself towards radical love too quickly before I was fully ready. But slowly, painfully, I am learning that I need to take care of myself too. I need to take care of myself first. How can I share love with others if I’m withering inside? Thank you for reminding me that it still honors God prioritize my own self and health, too. 🙂

  6. Reblogged this on Pilgrim on a Long, Long Journey and commented:
    I think this country has been traumatized because too many people on each have been seeing our country in black and white, no grays. Any one who writes or speaks publicly knows that hyperbole gets attention. It came from both sides. It’s divisive.

    To the extent we can share our stories and their nuances, I think we will see more grays. I’ve tried to look back at the pain and joy I could share in my memoirs. You might find them comforting. Hope all goes well on your journey.

    H. Rubin, author of Look Backward Angel, an e-book available on Amazon.

    1. With all due respect, I do not agree that the trauma is equal on both sides. That’s why I wrote, “this work is harder for some of us than others.” Some people have less to lose in attempting to befriend the enemy. We still have to do it, but what we risk–our safety, our health, etc.–given the violent rhetoric of Trump’s campaign, is different in these encounters. I’ll check your work out!

      1. At 71, I was glad I got up this morning by the grace of God. From my view, it was the retention and the telling of their stories that has given long life to Christianity and Judaism. Yes there was plenty of disunity. However, the stories provided common ground, nuance and love. Keep sharing. As Anne Lamott was rightfully told in her recovery, “You are only as sick as your secrets.”

        1. Or, as Neil Gaiman put it, “And once we hear each other’s stories we realize that the things we see as dividing us are, all too often, illusions, falsehoods: that the walls between us are in truth no thicker than scenery.”

  7. I do have one question. You wrote: “After all, one political party’s campaign slogan was “Stronger Together” and the other’s was “Make America [Enter Any Derogatory Adjective Here] Again.”” But I am confused here. The Trump slogan had the word “Great” in it, which isn’t derogatory. I am just trying to get your point. Thanks.

    1. Hi Sara, Thanks for reading. Yes, the actual word was “great,” you’re right, of course. What I mean is that Trump’s evocation to some former “greatness” refers us to a history in the county of racism and sexism: here we have a man who has bragged about sexual assault and attacked Mexicans in his rhetoric. For many people, America never has been great. So I mean, you could change his slogan to “Make America Racist Again” or “Make America Sexist Again” and that would be more true to what many of his supporters (not all) really heard.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: