Sermon for Beautiful Stories

One morning during the hopeful, horrible infertility treatment process, I clicked on a YouTube video posted by some obscure acquaintance in my newsfeed, one of those with a hyperbolic title like “This Fashion Video will Change Your Life” or “What This Dog Does is Amazing.”

In the video, a young scientist, Chao-Lin Kuo, approaches the home of physicist Andrei Linde, the architect of cosmic inflation theory. Cosmic inflation is a name for the rapid, exponential expansion of the universe in the fractions of a second after it burst into being. Big Bang believers have long thought cosmic inflation explains the gigantic size of our universe and all its parts, but have yet to provide evidence for this inflation.

Before he knocks on Linde’s door, Kuo announces to the camera that he has a surprise about gravitational waves that he and his team have discovered in the afterglow left by our universe’s violent birth. A highly sensitive telescope, the BICEP2, captured the space-time ripples by hunting for a special type of light polarization called B-modes.

I watched as the young scientist finally knocks and Linde and his wife, Renata Kallosh, also a physicist, answer.

Kuo says only, “Five sigma at point two.”

Of course, I didn’t know what any of this means, but in the video Linde’s wife seems to understand first. She startles, and steps forward to embrace Kuo. Her husband stands back in the shadow of the doorway and says, “Can you repeat? Can you repeat?”

Kuo repeats, “Five sigma at point two. ”

Andrei Linde falls through the doorway and over the threshold.

The three scientists pop open champagne in the couple’s dining room. I am struck by the ordinary in the room: a painted fan, a map of Tuscany hanging on the wall between windows, a blender shoved among other kitchen utensils on a shelf.

He says, “When the doorbell rang, my wife asked if I was expecting a delivery. Well, yes, a delivery I ordered 30 years ago!”

They all laugh, clang their wine glasses together over the tablecloth, and then like schoolchildren hang their heads together over a computer screen and talk shop.

At the end of the video, Linde speaks to the camera alone. More serious, he says finally, “We’ll hope this works. I always leave with this feeling—what if I’m tricked? What if I believe in this just because it is beautiful?”


I thought about Linde’s last words for weeks:  What if I believe it just because it is beautiful?  Although Linde is a man of science, and what he believes in–The Big Bang, chaos turned, in a few seconds of cosmic luck, into the unlikely birth of a  universe–is widely contested by unimaginative religious people (who, ironically, believe in an unlikely birth), his question struck me as essentially spiritual.  I have asked myself the same question many times.  When I first got pregnant, I always wondered, “Will this work? Do I believe this science will work just because I want so badly for it to work?”  And I ask myself that about God.  Do I believe in something resembling God just because it is a beautiful story?  Do I believe in hope, peace, reconciliation, freedom, equality because they’re beautiful ideas?  Are all the things I believe in just beautiful, but ultimately elusive fictions?


But right now when the world feels unjust, chaotic, and unquenchably aflame I think we need beautiful stories–not as an escape or illusion, but because some part of our humanness understands that the most beautiful stories do not require proof: they’re true because they’re beautiful.  Proof is beside the point.  And if we’re engaging in mundane, binary arguments about their veracity, then we’re not trusting the stories or the stories are not beautiful enough and need to be rewritten, retold, or reread.

This week I reread Alice Walker’s “The Flowers” with my students, a story I love and one that spoke new truth to me after the Ferguson tragedy.  I also revisited the story of Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth in the midst of the ALS ice bucket challenge craze.  Lou Gehrig remains my favorite baseball player of all time; he died, of course, of ALS, and in one of the most profound moments in American baseball he stood on the pitcher’s mound at Yankee Stadium and gave a farewell speech.  He was already suffering from the disease that would kill him, but his last words to his fans were, “Today I consider myself the luckiest man on earth…I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.  Thank you.”  All grace and humility, like his whole career.  But that’s not the beautiful moment for me.  After he spoke his former friend, longtime bitter rival, and all-around jackass, Babe Ruth, stepped up to the mound to hug Gehrig.  That hug ended a five-year long estrangement between the two men.  The photos of the moment–Babe Ruth’s large frame enveloping a frail Gehrig and, afterward, his head hung in deep reverence–capture the possibility of reconciliation.



I’m not feeling all that profound this week.  The miraculous eludes me.  I find I cannot shed easily my political skin.  But I’d like to think if we hold ourselves open to possibilities at the furthest reaches of our imaginations, those possibilities captured in stories–reconciliation between enemies, flowers at the tombstones of history, science’s discoveries–then our capacity for awe will inflate  and expand.

Fyodor Dostoevsky once said, “Beauty will save the world.”

Turn to the beautiful stories, I tell myself.  Go to them with your soul willing and your intellect sharpened, especially in times like these.  They are, like Linde’s gravitational waves, the afterglow of our violent births.  They are the scattered shards of a broken light, more truth than proof.


Sermon for Ferguson, Missouri

The Catholic faith is a liturgical faith. I rarely attend Catholic mass, and more often attend service at an Episcopal church, which I chose in part because of the liturgy.  I could never be Protestant, really (not that I’m criticizing all Protestants) because the Catholic inside me believes too wholeheartedly in liturgy.  While in some churches, the minister can pick and choose what passages to preach about or what topics to approach from week to week, in the Catholic and Episcopalian traditions, one must adhere to the liturgy–a body of rites that includes a pre-set schedule of readings for the year that are meant to build on one another.  A priest cannot have a “thesis”, for example, and then find the evidence from the Bible to support that thesis.  Rather, she must look at the reading presented to her by the liturgical calendar and wrestle with it to uncover meaning and argument even when the reading might challenge and discomfort her.  This process mimics an authentic study of literature to me; it de-centers the individual and centers textual mystery.  Sometimes I worry that this form I’ve appropriated–the sermon–and this blog work under too Protestant a model.  But, I still think liturgically.  Rituals, I believe, sustain us and condition us for life.  So, while I want to write about many things, I find I must write about what the world presents me.  In many ways the world provides me content and challenge from which I may not deviate.

This week, I had several topics under consideration.  Then, a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed young, black man in Ferguson, Missouri–a town on the outskirts of St. Louis.  I wanted to react according to the privilege afforded me as a white woman: I could cry or act “shocked” and go about my life as an innocent outside a battle raging elsewhere.  Except that I find the willful innocence of many white people despicable.  A large part of the conversation following Michael Brown’s killing has had to do with black people’s behavior and the reality of black life in America.  Ta-Nahesi Coates, writing for The Atlantic, has responded intelligently to the problem with that conversation.  I have a problem with it too.  I have a problem with the Ferguson police accusing Michael Brown of robbery at the same time they released the name of the officer who shot him, as though petty theft might provide rationale for murder.  When we were teenagers, my brother stole tampons from a Walgreen’s because I desperately needed one and we didn’t have any money on us, and my childhood friend and I used to run into grocery stores as little girls and slather ourselves with suntanning lotion forbidden us by our mothers before putting the bottle back on the shelf.  I doubt anyone would use these crimes to shoot us.  I also have a problem with the idea, held sacred by so many of my white cohort, that we live in a post-racial society and if only black people could figure that out.  Their evidence: look at our president.  But all week I can’t help thinking that the murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and countless others do not constitute anomalies–young black men have not been killed by white people in recent years despite our having a black president, but because we have a black president.  Maybe these young men have served as proxies for the one black man we really want to kill.

Back to liturgy.  What texts imposed themselves in my inner liturgical calendar?  Two: one visual and one written.  I found myself returning again and again to a photo I saw of a “healing center” in Ferguson, a space demonstrators created for young black men to scream and cry safely while held by their people, a space where their justifiable rage and grief might not get them teargassed or shot.


I have often needed such a space as a woman, a space to scream and cry without being labeled “an angry feminist.”  The young man’s face in this photo slays me.

But we need a Gospel reading.  There is no piece of literature in American history that speaks best to the horror in Ferguson than the introduction to James Baldwin’s A Fire Next Time, a letter to his nephew titled, “My Dungeon Shook: On the 100th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.”  In it he addresses his nephew intimately, lovingly:

I have begun this letter five times and torn it up five times. I keep seeing your face, which is also the face of your father and my brother. I have known both of you all your lives and have carried your daddy in my arms and on my shoulders, kissed him and spanked him and watched him learn to walk. I don’t know if you have known anybody from that far back, if you have loved anybody that long, first as an infant, then as a child, then as a man. You gain a strange perspective on time and human pain and effort…

…I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it and I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. One can be–indeed, one must strive to become–tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of war; remember, I said most of mankind, but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.

Our white innocence constitutes the crime, our exempting ourself from the conversation about racism in this country or our flat out denial of it because we don’t have to see it if we don’t want to in our daily lives.

Baldwin then goes on to bolster his nephew, to empower him and to affirm his knowledge and experience:

This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish. Let me spell out precisely what I mean by that for the heart of the matter is here and the crux of my dispute with my country. You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits to your ambition were thus expected to be settled. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity and in as many ways as possible that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence. You were expected to make peace with mediocrity. Wherever you have turned, James, in your short time on this earth, you have been told where you could go and what you could do and how you could do it, where you could live and whom you could marry.

I know your countrymen do not agree with me here and I hear them. saying, “You exaggerate.” They do not know Harlem and I do. So do you. Take no one’s word for anything, including mine, but trust your experience. Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go. The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority, but to their inhumanity and fear.

Please try to be clear, dear James, through the storm which rages about your youthful head today, about the reality which lies behind the words “acceptance” and “integration.” There is no reason for you to try to become like white men and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them, and I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love, for these innocent people have no other hope. They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men.

It strikes me that the people of Ferguson know their own experience.  They know whence they came, and it us, the people watching comfortably from afar that must be educated by them.  What we believe from afar is not the truth of their lives, and to presume so makes us guilty of the worst arrogance.

Baldwin then continues by calling out even well-meaning white people, people like myself.  And here, I think, lies the crux of the problem today:

Many of them indeed know better, but as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case the danger in the minds and hearts of most white Americans is the loss of their identity. Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shivering and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar, and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.

It strikes me that in the wake of a black man’s election, among other strides, many white men feel a loss of identity.  The world is changing as well as their place in it.  It is as though people like George Zimmerman, Eliot Rodgers, Clive Bundy have been shaken from their very skin only to find that their skeleton and internal organs weren’t as strong as they thought.  They are like small, weak animals without the protective armor of the past.

Baldwin ends the letter by reminding his nephew of the beauty and promise of America.  Indeed, he demonstrates a lovingness toward his country that should shame us, and asks his nephew to live inside this love.

You don’t be afraid. I said it was intended that you should perish, in the ghetto, perish by never being allowed to go beyond and behind the white man’s definition, by never being allowed to spell your proper name. You have, and many of us have, defeated this intention and by a terrible law, a terrible paradox, those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality. But these men are your brothers, your lost younger brothers, and if the word “integration” means anything, this is what it means, that we with love shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it, for this is your home, my friend. Do not be driven from it. Great men have done great things here and will again and we can make America what America must become.

It will be hard, James, but you come from sturdy peasant stock, men who picked cotton, dammed rivers, built railroads, and in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity. You come from a long line of great poets, some of the greatest poets since Homer, One of them said, “The very time I thought I was lost, my dungeon shook and my chains fell off.”

You know and I know that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too early. We cannot be free until they are free. God bless you, James, and Godspeed.

I would not presume to offer any words of wisdom to young black men or the people of Ferguson.  But I will Baldwin’s voice toward them, and I promise to bend myself down before their expertise and try to listen to what I don’t know or have been unwilling to hear.  I promise to rend, day by day, my unearned innocence from my white body and live through the shaking.  I promise to remember that it’s still too early to celebrate freedom.  We are not free, as the liturgy reminds me.

But may Michael Brown’s soul be free now, and Travyon’s, and all the nameless others.


Sermon in Praise of Vocation

In the nineties, the two television shows that reigned supreme among teenagers like me were Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place. The two soap operas—one with high school protagonists, one with a twenty-something ensemble—aired back to back on Wednesday nights. Dylan and Brandon vied for the same girls, and Heather Locklear backstabbed and sexed men up on her office desk like a vixen champ.

My father called the shows by other names: Beverly Hills Seventy-Eleven (seventy-eleven, in Texas-speak, just means lots and lots of ridiculous numbers) and Putrid Place. At the end of the night, he’d always say, “Sis, the problem with all these people is that they have no sense of vocation.”

I would giggle. I didn’t know exactly what he meant by that, but it tickled me, his response.

Modern vernacular interchanges “career” and “vocation”, but the word vocation comes from Catholicism and has a distinctly religious connotation. The priesthood is a vocation—a call from God to lifetime service. So are marriage and parenthood.   Looking back, I think my father used the word in the religious sense to imply that the characters on Beverly Hills Seventy-Eleven and Putrid Place did not have meaningful, dignified, and difficult work in which to pour themselves; therefore, they poured themselves into frivolous drama. He was teasing me each Wednesday, but also offering the serious advice of Paul in Corinthians, “Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called.”

Of course Heather Locklear had a career on the show, although that job mostly provided the desk over which various men bent her week after week. The Peach Pit offered Brandon Walsh paid work. But not all careers are callings.

Mine is.

I return to school next week like many teachers, and I’ve been thinking about vocation. All week I’ve had anxiety dreams about school: dreams in which my alarm doesn’t go off, dreams in which a student complains about me because my syllabus isn’t up to date, dreams in which I never finish writing a book.   These dreams occur every August, and every August I go through a very real, deep grieving process. August asks me to put aside one vocation for another, to give up meaningful time with my own writing to enter another creative, soul-consuming endeavor, one that I could no more do half-heartedly than breathing. My writing feels like a baby I must put into daycare. I know I won’t see it as much, that I’ll have to reorient myself to it when I come home, that I’ll have to apologize again and again to it for the time I’ve left it alone.

In my life, writing and teaching are antagonistic, but similar, vocations. They both require soul work—creative energy, sacrifice, struggle, patience, humility, and bravery—as I imagine motherhood will as well. Many of my writer friends who do not teach full-time in a high school don’t get it. I don’t teach to pay for my writing life. It’s not something I do during the day and then can turn off at night like a light switch. I teach because the world called me to do so. Trust me, I refused the call for a long, long time. Nobody who teaches in earnest finds it easy. We teach because young people carry great quantities of hope in their awkward bodies and voracious minds, because they break us open, break our hearts, and occasionally save us, because they are the ambassadors to our future.  I teach because my grandmother and my mother taught–it’s practically coded into my DNA, and because I believe–even if it sounds self-aggrandizing–that literacy frees people from the bondage of the various pharaohs in their lives.

Likewise, my teacher friends often don’t get my vocation as a writer. I do not “get to think about my writing all the time since I teach writing” as one colleague suggested. (That same colleague suggested that by teaching yoga, I get to work out at the same time—only no good yoga instructor is “working out” while she’s teaching). And writing is not a hobby. Nobody who writes in earnest does it for “fun” or renown. We write because the page sits on the horizon of our lives like a great and immeasurable land waiting to be discovered, beckoning, always beckoning—we have no choice but to set sail.

Today I was reminded that when Jesus walks on water he calls Peter to him. Peter answers Jesus’ call, although he falters and Jesus saves him from drowning. Many people read the “walking on water” story as one of faith, of Jesus proving himself as the Son of God. But a better reading, I think, is that Jesus calls Peter into the rough waves and dark brine of life, the hard work.   In the previous chapter of Matthew, Jesus has just fed the disciples loaves of bread and fish, and it is as though he is saying to us that it is not enough to sit, satiated, inside the safety of our comfortable boats. We must step into the water.

I am also reminded of a hobbit. In J.R. R. Tolkien’s epic salvation narrative, he writes about Frodo’s decision to carry the Ring:

“A great dread fell on him, as if he was awaiting the pronouncement of some doom that he had long foreseen and vainly hoped might after all never be spoken. An overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace by Bilbo’s side in Rivendell filled all his heart. At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice.

“I will take the Ring,” he said, “though I do not know the way.”

It’s August again. I feel a great dread. I never know the way. But I hear my father’s voice in my head.  Like some other will using my small voice, the word repeats itself: vocation, vocation. I refuse to be putrid.  I have the privilege of dignified, meaningful, paid work that feeds me.

We have no choice, fellow teachers, but to sigh and buck up.

We must take the ring.

We must step into the water.

Or, as W.H. Auden once wrote, “You owe it to all of us to get on with what you’re good at.”


Sermon for Sons Leaving

I’ve been thinking about motherhood.

At six months pregnant, it would be surprising if I weren’t.  While some general anxieties exist in my musings–Will I drop him? Will I have enough patience? What if he’s Republican?–I’ve been thinking mostly about how most cultures expect sons to leave their mothers in some way.  I’ve been thinking already, “He will leave me.”

I shared this thought with one of my friends, and she said, “My God, Casey.  That’s so sad.  Let yourself be happy for a while.  It’s like you’re conditioned to find the down side.  Right now he’s INSIDE you and you’re thinking about him leaving.”

Au contraire, dear friend.  When I think, “He will leave me,” I am not expressing a lament so much as a reminder and admonition to myself.  I’m not expressing the sadness that motherhood calls us to experience, the hard truth that we must build various houses around our children and then watch the door close when they walk out of them.  I have not felt that sadness yet.

When my brother was twelve years old, my parents let him live in Brazil for a year.  My mother still says that the day she put him on the plane–she flew with him to Miami where he caught his next flight to Rio–was one of the worst days of her life.  I’ve been thinking about her too, my young mother, watching her sweaty-haired son, barely five feet tall and seriously lacking in body fat, use his bowed legs to take flight into a world she could only imagine.

And I’ve been thinking about an archetypal Mother, about Mary, mother of Jesus.  According to the Gospel of Luke, when her son was twelve, she lost him for three days:

41 Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. 42 When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. 43 After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. 44 Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. 45 When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”

49 “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” 50 But they did not understand what he was saying to them.

51 Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart.

I was asked last year to write a devotional meditation that reflected on this story in Luke.  Not yet pregnant, and with little hope that I’d ever be, I wrote what I now consider prescient.  Somehow I must have known I’d need my own insight, and soon.   At the time, I felt pulled by the last line, “But his mother treasured all these things in her heart.”  Here’s what I wrote:

In Luke, we read the story of the boy Jesus at the temple.  We may want to read the story as an initiation—a boy stepping over a threshold, into the world, and away from his parents to begin his hero’s journey.  However, Luke does not end the story in the point of view of our hero, but instead in the interior world of his mother.

Imagine losing your twelve-year old son.  Imagine him purposefully walking away from you.  Imagine the fear, anxiety and anger that might arise from such a willful act of disobedience. Mary feels all these emotions, admonishing her son for the sorrow he breeds in his parents, even while she hears the teachers in the temple praise the young Jesus for his wisdom and insight.

Mary treasures “all these things” in her heart, her fear and misunderstanding as well as her pride in her son.  She experiences the first shadows of the painful paradox of parenthood: while our children come through us, they are not of us.  That Mary chooses to treasure the paradox might be a gentle reminder to us about the divine vocation of parenthood that asks us to “lose” our children so that God may find them.

One of the gifts of infertility–and there are few–is that it teaches you early on that your child does not belong to you.  Even to conceive, you require forces outside yourself.  When the baby arrives, finally, in your womb, he comes from a land outside your body, outside your volition, and outside your need or desire.  He is a traveler and you a temporary guesthouse.

I want to remember that he will leave me, this precious boy, so that I do not mistake him, as many mothers do, for a personal blessing.  I have not been “blessed” with child–that violent expression (God blessed me with children, a husband, a home, a job, citizenship…) implies people without children are somehow un-blessed or undeserving, or that we can somehow earn children when we can do no such thing.  Rather, the world has been blessed with child.  He belongs to the world, and to it he owes most his gratitude, respect, and attention.  I want to treasure this knowledge in my heart.  I want to remember that he will leave me so I that I never call him mine, and so that his eventual leave-taking will be an affirmation of my love, a love so true and vast that my body could never contain it.





Sermon for the Border

I first crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in 1996, at 19 years old.

I took an airplane.

No passport required then, I presented my Texas Driver’s License at customs in Mexico City as documentation of my American citizenship. My purpose: to help run a day camp for the summer through a YMCA exchange program called Mano a Mano Sin Fronteras. Each day, I walked a mile from my host family’s apartment in the city center to the metro station, rose out of the subway system 40 minutes later to catch a bus that dropped me another mile-walk away from the community center in Naucalpan, an outlying barrio of the federal district, where I spent my days with Kristy and Luis, my peer volunteers, building a program from scratch.

For weeks I fought off back-to-back cases of dysentery as well as a buzzing terror that lived in my ribcage—everyone spoke Spanish too quickly, stared at me on the subway cars, men clucked at me from the backs of sidewalks, and since cellphones were still a rare commodity, I couldn’t speak to my family often enough to remain rooted in my own world.   Kristy and I walked door to door in Naucalpan, using our high school Spanish to recruit day camp participants anywhere from age 4 to age 12, their mothers skeptical of her nose piercing and dark concert tees.   We designed art projects out of street litter, and planned basketball and volleyball games that the town children invariably rewrote into soccer matches. Each morning my host mother tried and failed to cook me an egg Sunnyside Up, the form she considered the most American, and which I didn’t have the heart to tell her I never ate at home.

A few days into day camp, two adolescent boys showed up in the morning. The skinnier one looked down at his feet and pulled his hands in and out of his shorts’ pockets. The taller, fuller boy—he already had the whispers of a moustache—grinned.

“You’re too old for camp,” Kristy said in broken Spanish.

The boys shrugged.

“Podemos ayudarles?” the bolder boy asked. May we help you?

“God, yes. We need the help,” she said.

Diego and Jose came everyday to help, often clarifying our fractured Spanish for the younger children and picking more fair teams for soccer hour. They were both 15 years old, more like brothers than friends, sometimes telling dirty jokes and then blushing on the occasions we understood them.   School out for the summer, and their parents working all day like all our campers’, they didn’t have much to do but wander the streets avoiding dangerous older boys who might pull them into the various temptations of boredom.   They loved camp.

One day towards the end of the summer, they invited Kristy and me to dinner.

“You’re going to cook?” Kristy asked and laughed.

“Si, si,” said Diego. “Hot dogs.”

Kristy was a vegetarian, and she slid her eyes in my direction.

“What do I do?” she asked me as we followed Juan and Diego down the dirt road toward Diego’s small apartment, dust popping off our flip-flops.

“You have to eat the hot dog,” I said and she nodded.

On a hot plate in the pink kitchen, the boys boiled water and ribbed each other about who should set the table and which cups to use of the six mismatched plastic mugs on the shelf.   Kristy and I suspected the boys wanted to impress us. They were nervous, but more than that—furtive and twitchy, and we also suspected they had not asked Diego’s mom for permission to prepare a makeshift meal for two, older gringas. Juan pulled a limp package of hot dogs from a plastic bag, the money for which I still have no idea how he scraped up, and plopped them into the pot. No buns, but the boys cut up mango to pair with our dogs.

At dusk, they walked us to the bus stop, and Kristy surprised me by kissing Diego full on the lips. Juan shoved his hands deeper into his pockets, and I smiled at him as Diego tried to go in for a second smooch and Kristy swatted his face.   From the bus we watched them punch each other’s shoulders and throw their heads back.

I never saw Diego or Juan again, nor did I ever send letters. Kristy returned to Cincinnati, and I back to Houston for the few days before my sophomore year began at Smith College. The summer was a mere, magical blip on the electrocardiogram of our privileged lives.

No plane carried me back over the border. Instead I crossed via a faded white YMCA van that rattled over potholed streets. I wore smudged overalls and an Aztec-patterned friendship bracelet some of my camp kiddos weaved for me, my heart bloated and throbbing. My host father refused to come with the rest of the family to see me off that last day, and when I asked why, my host mother told me, “Tequila. Pero mas, su corazon. Es demasiado roto, hija.” His heart is too broken, daughter.

Now it’s 2014 and children pour over the border in alarming numbers. Their battered bodies wash up on our shores from Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador through Mexico, after horrific odysseys. They do not fly in airplanes or ride in camp vans. They crouch in dank corners of 18-wheelers or man rafts across the Rio Grande or hike over dry crevices in West Texas or tunnel underneath the border with the sewer rats. A large number of the children are 15-17 year old boys. Here, adult men and women use big words to argue about what to do with the children, whose responsibility it is to care for them, whether they should be here in the first place.   They use words like” “detain,” or “ fragile infrastructure,” or “invaders.”

I think about hot dogs.

I think about watching Juan and Diego’s silhouettes from the bus that night. I see the long shadows of the narrow street, the outline of their Nike shorts hung low and loose across their hips, the half-skip they used to carry their happy bodies home.



Sermon on Kairos: A Goodbye

The Greeks had more than one word for “time.”  They used “chronos” to indicate chronological time, historical time, time that moves from point A to point B.  The also had another word, “kairos,” the simplest definition of which is “the right or opportune moment.”

Kairos works apart from and in direct contradiction to chronos, breaking into sequential time like the sudden parting of a moving sea.  Isocrates conceptualized kairos for ancient Greek thinkers, from a rhetorical standpoint, as a moment in an argument when an opening appears and must be driven through with force in order for the speaker to win the argument.  If one misses the opening, that’s it.

In religion, theologian Paul Tillich has perhaps written most thoroughly about the concept of kairos, which he defined as “the point in history in which time is disturbed by eternity.”

God’s time as opposed to human time.

Kairoi are moments of historical crisis which create an opening for the human spirit, the moment when one must make an existential decision and act in creative collaboration with God.  Writers on the subject often cite Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” as a supreme moment of kairos.  The speech could only have worked the way it worked on that day, at that moment, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation during a march on Washington at the apex of the Civil Rights Movement.  And only he could have given the speech.  Always the brilliant rhetorician, MLK would have recognized the crack of light opening for him and driven through it with all the force of his vision for his people: one only needs listen to the improvisational sections of the speech to hear MLK take a winch to that opening and crank a small gap into a wide open window.

I think about kairos a lot lately.  The word first appears in the Iliad and refers to a vital or lethal place on the body, one particularly vulnerable to injury.  Anyone who has had trouble conceiving would be drawn to such a definition, and anyone who understands in a studied, experiential way the imprecise scientific and spiritual experiment that is conception would understand pregnancy as the most basic, personal moment of kairos, something not entirely human or adhering to chronos.  For those whom conception came easy, for whom anything came easy, kairos would be a hard thing to grasp, I think, and these are the people who always tell me, callously if not maliciously, “Don’t worry.”

I say all this because I sense an opening.  When I started this blog, I committed to a year of sermons, a year of sequential time in which I would faithfully write a  heartfelt and imperfect thing once a week for an immediate audience.  I’ve succeeded this week in fulfilling that commitment.  In the busiest year of my life, if I count it up right, I’ve written over 100 pages of considered writing by sitting down for 2 or 3 hours each Sunday morning.  That means in a year’s time, a year of human time with its human, often mundane, demands, I could write a book.

So I intend to write a book.  Some force outside me has (I hope I’m right) opened a side road in history for me that I may press my pedal to the metal and go, go, go since I recognize that I finally have the right subject matter, the right form, the right experience, the right motivation to succeed, or as Tillich wrote, I have become aware of a “moment at which history has matured to the point of being able to receive the breakthrough.”

The rest is up to me.

I thank those of you who read this blog so religiously each week, those of you who sent me messages or said something in person, and you are many more than I could have hoped for.  Most writers are starving at some level–quiet, seething narcissists–and you fed me.  And most of you aren’t fellow writers, a reality that heartens me to no end.  I never wanted to be a writer’s writer.  Thank you.  If you’d like, you could use this website as a liturgy–a full year’s worth of readings you can read again and again and, maybe, find something new in them.  I’d like that.

Lastly, we must live in human time, chronos.  That is our burden and our beauty and our most hallowed endeavor.  But I encourage you to offer yourself up for more supreme moments when the light cuts a thin crevice into chrono’s weatherworn skin.  When it does, follow it.


Sermon for Sybrina Fulton

from Psalm 43

Do me justice, O God, and fight my fight

against a faithless people;

from the deceitful and impious man rescue me.

For you, O God, are my strength;

why do you keep me so far away?

Why must I go on mourning

with the enemy oppressing me?

Dear Sybrina,

You seem to me devout in your faith, but I’m not much of a church-going woman.  I wanted to tell you I attended services this morning with my husband. I didn’t know what else to do.

Because I spent last night weeping for your dead son.

No, not for Trayvon Martin, your boy I never knew, your boy who everybody now claims to know, your mythologized boy whose broken body you healed in his boyhood.  I cannot know or pretend to know your mother’s grief.

I spent last night weeping:

I wept out of shame, because our country disappointed me so badly that I wasn’t sure I could ever love it again.  Because our country owes you an apology.  Because our country should get on its bony knees and repent.

I wept for my students, especially my male students, because I know as only a teacher and parent of teenage boys knows such things that they are still learning how to become men. Seventeen year old boys can’t always tell when to play aggressive and when to play calm, when to push back at the world as they will inevitably have to do, when to puff their chests, and when to run.  They might choose poorly, and adults are meant to protect them by choosing wisely.

I wept because I had a poet’s words in my head the sadness lives in the recognition that a life can not matter.  Because I helped raise that poet’s daughter, a daughter with a black mother and a white father.  Because once, while she sat in the bathtub and I on the toilet holding her towel, she said, “I am dark like Mama and you are light like Papa.”  And I told her, “Yes.  But it doesn’t matter.”  Because I’m afraid I lied to her and that it does matter and that I knew I was lying and because maybe I was afraid to say it mattered because I didn’t want to “see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky.”

I wept because I am a woman, and therefore, I too know the world is a dangerous, unjust place.  Because I know the endangered can never explain to those people who have always been safe just how dangerous.  Because I am a woman and people might excuse violence against me because of the body I was born into, because of what clothes I might wear, or where I might walk at night, or because I might respond to a predator with something less than deference.

I wept because people have guns who do not need guns.  Because those people often think they’ll be better than their darkest anxieties and fears, their most deeply embedded biases. Because that’s the worst kind of arrogance: to assume we can see, name, and control the violence inside us.

I wept because Florida decided that a man can lynch another man and hide the word “lynch” from the world–and worse still from himself–inside legalese.

I wept because on Day 23 of the trial you tweeted You can break a woman down temporarily but a real woman will always pick up the pieces rebuild herself and come back stronger than ever. Because I hope you’re right, but I’m not sure.

I wept and I wept.

When I arose from all that weeping, like I said, I went to church.  The Gospel reading for today came from Luke, the tale of the Good Samaritan.

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.  “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  He said to him, “What is written in the law?  What do you read there?  He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with your soul and with all your strength, and with all your heart; and your neighbor as yourself.

Your neighbor as yourself.  Your neighbor.  Your neighbor.


Sermon on the Nature of Prayer

“I will pray for you,” the mother says to her lost son.

“You’re in my prayers,” says the funeral attendee to the grief-stricken relative.

“Pray for me,” the frightened hero says to his love interest.

Lately, I’m not prone to turning down prayers from strangers or loved ones.  You want to pray for me, go ahead.  Your prayers certainly won’t hurt me, if they don’t necessarily help.  The world never suffers from more kindness.

But sometimes the statement “I will pray for you” falls flat.  I can almost see it die somewhere between the speaker’s mouth and my ear cavity.  Or, it’s so vaporous, so full of casual levity, that the wind catches it as soon as it exhales into air.

So I’ve been thinking about the nature of prayer–what is it, exactly?

“I will pray for you” is an active statement.  I, subject.  Will pray, verb.  Direct object, you.  As a statement it also implies that the speaker will create something–the prayer–as though our bodies can conjure up a physical, produceable thing with shape and form and then offer it to God.  Here, God, I made you this prayer. 

The syntax implies that we provide the contents and God the vessel for them.

What if prayer works the other way around?

Mother Theresa once said, “May God break my heart so completely that the whole world falls in.”

Similarly, Ghandi said, “Prayer is not asking.  It is a longing of the soul.  It is a daily admission of one’s weakness.  It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”

Both of those quotes evoke emptiness, a void, a lack of words or desires, and turn the person who prays into the vessel for God’s grace.  What is longing if not a chasm?  And if the goal of prayer is not to request or complain or beg, if we are not the subject but the object, not the giver but the receiver, and in prayer we hollow ourselves before God, then prayer must be intensely personal and private.  I could no more do it for someone else than I could peel back their scalp and read their thoughts.

Prayer is not purpose-driven, but instead a motion toward the most sublime passivity.  And in that sense, it strikes me as essentially feminine in nature.

For example, one synonym of empty or hollow is barren.  

Prayer is an emptying out, an act of becoming the vacancy, the womb, into which the seed of God’s grace implants itself and grows into a thing we could not have conceived of on our own, and is never what we ask for or expect, a thing that we carry, a wondrous thing that sails through us, but is not of us.

When I understand prayer this way, I feel more comforted lately than when I imagine prayers said for me dissipating as they aim upward with their flimsy wings.

Sylvia Plath–less virtuous and well-adjusted perhaps than Mother Theresa or Ghandi, but nevertheless a mentor for me–said, “I talk to God but the sky is empty.”

May I be that empty sky and God talk to me.


Sermon for Wendy Davis

The year I met my husband, I didn’t have health insurance.

I left a well-paying job at Rice University where I had great insurance coverage, because I was miserable there and I wanted to return to teaching.   I knew, also, that I wanted a certain kind of teaching job, which meant I might have to scramble for a while to find it.  That year, I worked 4 part-time teaching jobs: I taught a section of 9th grade English at my current private school, I taught 7th graders for Writers in the Schools, I worked in the Houston Community College Writing Center, and I taught an adult memoir-writing class in the Woodlands.  I made a total of $19,000, barely enough to place me above the poverty line.  But I was blissful, using my best skills and talents in the best ways, and living my life on my own terms; and, luckily, I had parents willing and able to supplement my income to help me regroup and recenter my life around my educational and vocational interests.

When it came time for my annual well-woman exam, I went to Planned Parenthood, where I was treated with respect and professionalism.   I went through the normal array of tests–the pap smear, the breast check–and waited to check-out.   A nurse called my name from behind the waiting room door, a different nurse than the one who had examined me.

“Can I talk to you?” she said.

Listen.  No one ever wants to hear their name called after a pap smear and then be pulled into a room to talk privately.  My hands started shaking.

“I was reviewing your paperwork and exam as part of our normal routine,” she said.

“Okay.”  I waited.

“It says here you’re mother had breast cancer before the age of 30–is that correct?”

“I think so,” I said.  “I mean, she was around 30.”  I couldn’t remember her age; I could only remember crawling onto kitchen counters to reach into the higher shelves of the cabinets when she couldn’t because of the bandages wrapped tightly around her chest after the partial masectomy.

“Well, I just want to make sure you have a mammogram,” she said, and then handed me information for a clinic in Houston that would provide me with a mammogram at reduced cost because I was uninsured.

Then she smiled and let me out the door.

At check-out, a young Hispanic woman helped me fill out a form to enroll in the Women’s Health Insurance Program, which covered my basic care for the next year and a half until I finally landed the teaching job I wanted.  When my husband and I decided to consider contraception options together, he came with me to Planned Parenthood. When he left, he said, “That’s not how I imagined it.  So normal.  So helpful.”  We didn’t see a single woman there for an abortion, although I’m sure there were some.  We did see two meager protestors outside the parking lot holding badly made posters and wiping sweat from their hair-sprayed bangs.

Planned Parenthood serves many women in many ways.  Some of the women look like me: white, educated beyond the college level, professional, smart, healthy.  Some of the women do not look like me.  All of them, including me, want choices and some solace in a society that doesn’t always offer us any fiscal rewards for being good, decent human beings or people who want to live outside of restrictive expectations.  All of them want a little help creating meaningful, workable lives that best serve their families, their partners, and their own personal dreams and desires.

The way conservatives and religious people reduce Planned Parenthood to an “abortion provider” is adolescent.  It’s the level of thinking that my 14 year old students have: simplistic, willfully blind, comfortable.  In short, it’s embarrassing coming from grown men and women.  It’s also often hypocritical: I’m sure many of those senators backing SB5 in Texas have wives who’ve conceived through IVF or donor eggs or with the help of fertility drugs, most of which wasn’t covered by their insurance.  They have choices because they have privileged lives.

This week I remember why I can’t back away from this issue as much as I’d like to back away from such an ugly fight.  About eight years ago, I wrote an editorial aimed at Catholics, but I think it still holds today, especially in light of upcoming immigration reform.  Substitute Michelle Bachmann for Sarah Palin, or “drones” for the Iraq War, or Christians for Catholics, and everything written here remains achingly relevant.

Here it is:

For Catholics, It’s Time to Take Down the Old Signs and Erect New Ones

Yesterday I picked up the paper and read this headline: “Houston Planned Parenthood site draws protest”, and saw photos of religious women carrying signs depicting bloody fetuses. Then, as I was driving to visit my parents’ home in Southwest Houston, I passed the Catholic Church in which I was confirmed at the tender age of 14.  Outside the church, someone had posted a large sign, which read: “Choose Life.  Your Vote Matters.”  The “o” in “Vote” carried a baby, as if inside the uterus.  The message was clear, and I found myself angry, and then extremely disappointed.

I worry about the motives of a church that focuses its efforts on supporting candidates who think criminalization is a better deterrent to abortion than access to social services, education, and health care, and freedom from fear and violence in the home.  According to the Guttmacher Institute, 57% of women in the U.S. who had abortions last year were economically disadvantaged.  Single or married, 61% already had one or two children for whom they were trying to provide care.  Those statistics say nothing about women who have been raped, or are emotionally or physically incapable of caring for a child because of abuse, addiction, or mental illness.

But I am not interested in a debate about the morality of abortion, or the best way to make it rare. I know that even if I preface my pro-choice position by saying, “I believe a fetus is a human child, and I believe every abortion is tragic”, my argument will be lost on conservative Catholics, who, unfortunately, still harbor a deep-seeded misogyny that is fostered by too many leaders of the Church, a misogyny internalized in the psyches of men–and as Sarah Palin and others prove, women too–who endeavor to lead us.

And that is my point.

I wonder if the conservative churches in America focus so much attention on abortion because the purported sinners in abortion cases are women, and mostly poor.

And even if it were appropriate to post political signs outside a church—which it is clearly not—why not urge parishioners to be proactive and vote on other issues that appeal to the good Catholic’s sense of social justice and caritas? For example, imagine a poster that said:

1. “Choose peace.”  The Vatican has made it expressly clear that the Church opposes unjust wars, and has labeled the Iraq War as unjust. When Bush and the Senate members who supported him sent our young men and women into battle they started a war that failed to meet most of the conditions for “just” war, including just cause, competent authority, right intention, probability of success, and proportionality.

2. “Choose human rights.” In 2006, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, reminded all of us that immigration policy, in any country, should be based on Judeo-Christian ethics and a respect for basic human rights.

3. “Choose love.” Poor men, women, and children in this country often suffer from a lack of health insurance, which limits their choices in terms of employment, education, and family planning.   Many Catholic and non-partisan organizations in this city offer opportunities for churches and concerned citizens to speak truth to power and help solve this crisis, including Catholic Charities and the Texas Metropolitan Organization.

I worry about the motives of a church that shames women for their choices, but does not shame a government whose choices endanger women and children, often the most vulnerable and innocent victims of war and ineffectual social welfare and economic policy.  I worry about a church that puts more effort into promoting the opportunity for its members to pray publicly outside Planned Parenthood—a surefire way to shame young women—than promoting an opportunity for service to the hungry, unsheltered, and imprisoned.

In the end, the sign posted outside that church does not say much about the devotion of its leadership and parishioners, which I believe in my heart to be strong, nor their concern for their fellow citizens.  It says much more about their cultural, economic, and gender-related biases.  It says more about their need to place the blame for society’s ills, and the responsibility for the cures, on someone else.  And like so many other times in history, the scapegoats for our sins are women.

As Catholics we are called to service, by participation in the sacraments as well as by praxis, “the reflexive relationship between theories and action.”  But, whenever possible, praxis should be preventative, not punitive.   Too much time is spent preaching about immorality and sin—and how, impossibly, to protest and vote against it—than in enacting the virtues spelled out for us in Scripture and Church doctrine.

In our politics and in our faiths we spend too much time finger-pointing, and not enough time actively loving one another.


Sermon for Red Shoes

(I’m doing a special guest post as part of Fashion Fridays at my friend’s beautiful blog, Sappho’s Torque.)

From the 1948 film, “The Red Shoes”

When I was in seventh grade, Charlie Chavez asked me to be his date to the homecoming dance.  We attended T.H. Rogers, a public school in Houston for “gifted and talented” kids, all bused in from neighborhoods as diverse and far away from each other geographically and culturally as Denver Harbor, Bellaire, and Third Ward.  Charlie lived in Sharpstown.  His single mother arrived with him to pick me up from my aunt’s townhouse on the Southwest side the night of the dance.

My aunt Julie, my mother’s youngest sister, served as my babysitter and personal style consultant during my pre-teen years.  For one thing, she was much younger than my mother.  For another, she actually cared about things like hemlines and hair accessories whereas my mother, a lifelong athlete, generally lived in sneakers and workout gear.  She rarely wore make-up (or needed it).  So she gave her younger sister the green light to help me prepare for my date with Charlie with the caveat that I wear something age and pocketbook appropriate.

Let me say this by way of confession: I wasn’t getting dolled up for Charlie, bless his heart, who in seventh grade barely reached 5’0’’ tall and whose crush on me showed so blatantly on his face and in his folded-up notes passed by various peers to me in homeroom that it embarrassed me.  I was dressing up for myself, for the world, for my own budding body that I could feel moving into womanhood the way animals sense earthquakes long before they crack the earth open.  And I was getting dolled up for Abassi Parker, an 8th grader and star basketball player on our little school’s team.  I just knew that if my Aunt Julie and I could find the perfect dress for me at 5-7-9 or Foley’s that Abassi might fall in love with me back.

I still remember the dress.  White with a print of tiny, navy blue flowers scattered about its bodice and the three shallow tiers of skirt so typical of eighties wear.  The dress mattered less to me than the accessories, though.  Julie taught me that day in the mall about the importance of a contrast color.   Under the fluorescent lights in a Claire’s boutique, she insisted on red.  Red would perfectly offset the blue and white dress and give me a dash of daring.  Red earrings, red bracelet, red shoes.

Red. Shoes.

Long story short, Abassi Parker did not fall in love with me at the dance, but my outfit did solidify Charlie’s crush on me so that he had the nerve to buy me tickets to The New Kids on the Block concert and leave them in my locker with a half-eaten box of chocolates for my birthday the following February.  And another more enduring love affair was born that night—my own, with red shoes.

Every woman should own a pair of red shoes.

In Western consciousness, the color red has historically pointed to a woman’s promiscuousness and sinful nature.  In Revelations, a harlot appears atop a red beast, carrying in her hand the cup of Babylon.  Revelations 17:4 reads “ And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet color and decked with gold and precious stone and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication.”


We all know too of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous Hester Prynne and her scarlet letter, the deep red A marking her as an adulteress deserving of exile and castigation.

Red shoes have occasionally shed their shameful history in our cultural consciousness.  Witness Dorothy’s ruby slippers, for example.  But even in that less sexualized version of the red shoe, the slippers work as a symbol of Dorothy’s ability to save herself.  Traveling to Oz, she sought outside help to get home.  Meanwhile, the solution she really needed the whole time would not come from the outside.  The magic elixir, quite literally, carried her body toward the mysterious Oz, and eventually, it carried her back to Kansas.

Perhaps that’s the allure of red as an accessory even in our more tolerant times.  Red hints at something disobedient or powerful in a woman; red is a cheeky emblem of a woman’s inner grit and moxie.   Even as a twelve-year-old girl I intuited that wearing red on my feet meant I would walk into a room on my own terms.

If you ever want to feel your womanhood in all its glory, buy a pair of red shoes and, while you’re getting dressed for the occasion, play David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” on high volume.   It’s one of the sexiest songs ever, especially when the singer pleads:

If you say run, I’ll run with you

If you say hide, we’ll hide

Because my love for you

Would break my heart in two

If your should fall

Into my arms

And tremble like a flower

Let’s dance

Put on your red shoes

And dance the blues.

If you don’t have red shoes, red works in other accessories as well—red lipstick is never a bad bet.   It’s the nod toward audaciousness that matters. Go ahead, red says, I dare you.

The best explanation of the power of red that I’ve ever encountered occurs in poetry, specifically, in Kim Addonizio’s poem “What Do Women Want?”:

I want a red dress.
I want it flimsy and cheap,
I want it too tight, I want to wear it
until someone tears it off me.
I want it sleeveless and backless,
this dress, so no one has to guess
what’s underneath. I want to walk down
the street past Thrifty’s and the hardware store
with all those keys glittering in the window,
past Mr. and Mrs. Wong selling day-old
donuts in their café, past the Guerra brothers
slinging pigs from the truck and onto the dolly,
hoisting the slick snouts over their shoulders.
I want to walk like I’m the only
woman on earth and I can have my pick.
I want that red dress bad.
I want it to confirm
your worst fears about me,
to show you how little I care about you
or anything except what
I want. When I find it, I’ll pull that garment
from its hanger like I’m choosing a body
to carry me into this world, through
the birth-cries and the love-cries too,
and I’ll wear it like bones, like skin,
it’ll be the goddamned
dress they bury me in.

Poor Charlie Chavez.  He never had a chance.  He could not have understood the powerful thing born in me that day that had nothing to do with boys.

For you, dear readers, here are of a few of this year’s best versions of the red shoe, in my humble and heavily biased opinion:

 Seychelles American Flag Wedge

Frye Oxford Wingtip in Rose

Savannah Clog in Red from Swedish Hasbeens

and, of course, Wendy Davis’ sneakers.