Apophatic Sermon

apophatic, adj., from the ancient Greek “to deny”–of or relating to the belief that God can be known to humans only in terms of what he is not, also referred to as negative theology

God is not negative; not the void from which rise our birth cries; not the deathbed bequest;  not a hole-puncher in the ballot box; not the vertiginous mountain top or any purple majesty; not leagues or the leviathans that flirt with tidal forces; not the missed pill all alone inside a Tuesday on the pharmaceutical calendar; not the mobile that hangs like a Kandinsky painting escaped from its canvas above my bed in the doctor’s office; not a doctor; not, unfortunately, the serratus anterior muscle; not a car seat or a seat belt or a speed limit; not the innermost layer of the earth; not Ursa Minor; not a virgin; not Whitney Houston’s power notes or Shakespeare’s poetry; not the scars in the wood grain; not the splinters, not the pulp, not the cross timber; not the cross’s timbre; not phonemes or logos; not the note I keep folded up from 10th grade nor its ball-point roses; not this liturgy; not this litany; not the dimple in my left butt cheek nor the birthmark on my left arm; not evil; not a status update; not the philosophers’ weary sigh; not a flock of pre-teens wearing new sneakers; not a logical fallacy; not logical; not a matter for reasoning maybe; not a father or a son; not masculine, or not a man anyway; not a rod; not a rocket booster or launch pad; not kale; not the dry quiet in my grandmother’s house corners; not the string coursing through a strand of pearls; not the book’s spine, not sans-serif; not yours and not mine; not made in our image; not supersize; not self-help; not the single gasp inside a stadium of gasping; not for sissies; not gone; not this blood flow; not “shining from shook foil”; not the bodies that lay in my bed, the dog shedding, the broad back bending into dreams; not a highway; not this overgrown road; not a cumulus cloud like a tumor at noon; not an end mark but not a dash or ellipsis either; not a sentence; not this sentence; not circuitry systems or a click-click-click of the fingertips; not inside our hungry guts; not of or from or above or beyond; not a murmur or sharp steeple; not a pigeon pose or a dirty winging of joints from their bones; not teeth-chatter or small pox; not old; not a language I know; not a phrase I can thread with words unspooling from all that knotted nothing; not signifier nor signified; not my ilioinguinal light or the blindness in my inner thighs; not tonight or tomorrow; not now; not ever; or–I’m so very afraid–not ever not.

Sermon Against Happiness

Seven years ago, I traveled to Africa to visit my brother.  I flew into Nairobi via London and hoped he’d show at the airport, because I didn’t have a backup plan.  I didn’t know any hotels in Nairobi.  I didn’t have an address for my brother across the Kenyan border in Arusha, Tanzania.  I was alone and unprepared, really, for a new continent.  He showed.

Together we flew from Nairobi to Dar Es Salaam, and from Dar we caught a ferry to the island of Zanzibar off the east coast of Africa.  When we landed in Zanzibar, we took a two hour bus ride over a road with more pot holes than pavement or dirt with trees on either side that almost masked Osama Bin Laden’s face lauded on tiny flags perched atop the sporadic huts.   We finally arrived, covered in dust and travel sweat, at the beach.

My brother’s friends, other interns at the ICTR (The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda), had already arrived through various paths to the resort. They planned the vacation together—a whole week away from witness statements and legalese, away from the horror of history.  In many ways, my parents sent me to Africa as the family ambassador: I was meant to negotiate with my brother to discover how he was holding up against the aftermath of genocide.

Zanzibar is still the most beautiful place I’ve ever visited, and I’ve gotten around some.  After emerging from my mosquito net into the sand my first morning, I wrote in my journal:

The sky is solid blue–no scratch of white, no grey scars.  Sweat accumulates between my shoulder blades and dirt appears as if from nowhere on my suitcase, my pant leg, in the crevices of my fingernails.  At the bungalows a small, wrinkled man registered us into Room 203–he only smiled once and not at us, at a small native boy with gapped teeth.  A wood staircase leads to the beachside restaurant and the water.  This is what strikes me most: turquoise water which fades to a slate gray in the distance.  It is as though I have entered a palate of blues.  My insides curl and my chest heaves to behold it.  I am never prepared for this kind of natural beauty; I have not been properly prepared for it.  I am frightened, and my instinct, sadly, is to look away as though window shopping and search for the next grand thing.  I try hard to continue staring water-ward, but it pains me, this power, this (silence), so much more voluminous than myself.

Back here in Houston, in 2013, I live in a much different space and time.  I have a retirement plan and a dog.  A house on my stroller-infested block sold yesterday for $900,000.  I’ve been thinking about that journal entry, though.  A lot.  Because here in 2013, on the other side of the Atlantic and far from the girl who might fly to another country without currency or a travel guide, I have everything that should make me happy.

Yesterday I cried outside the gym.  I sounded ridiculous, but I asked my husband, “Is this it?  I have to go to the gym everyday?  I have to live with treadmills and rubber doorstops and leaf blowers and Ziploc bags and left turn lanes?  And I have to go to the grocery store?  And I have to answer emails?  I just.  I can’t.”

First world problems, right?  Only something more serious is going on for me.  I’m not hormonal and I’m not a brat, mostly.  Instead, something about the modern world’s expectations for me–an educated, financially stable, middle-aged, married woman–causes me an ungodly amount of anxiety and my bereft spirit has lately refused to cooperate.  I am actually physically incapable of grinning and bearing it, at least without prescription medication.

Something about the “American Dream”–oppressive illusion–not only disguises, but actively prohibits spiritual wholeness.  The “American Dream” tells us to be happy, and happiness is that place where you can turn on Netflix and feel contently complacent.   Happiness is a reasonable mortgage payment and a 10% tithe every week, a numbing and dulling of the heart’s aches and desires.

We are so quick, in our striving for happiness, to medicate and problem-solve.  We have Xanax and Sisco.  Meanwhile the soul rebels.  The soul requires shitstorms.  It lives and breathes on struggle.  This is not to say that we should romanticize suffering.  I love Wendell Berry’s lines with regard to happiness:

Why all the embarrassment
about being happy?
Sometimes I’m as happy
as a sleeping dog,
and for the same reasons,
and for others.

Berry would be the last person, despite this plea toward zen-like being, to condone complacency.  No.   We, however, have this idea that happiness is the absence of pain, but I’m beginning to suspect that real happiness hurts.   Or rather, I’m beginning to suspect that our lives aren’t meant to be a journey toward self-improvement and happiness as the modern world typically defines those abstractions, and that, in fact, if we could reach out and grab happiness it would burn straight through our flimsy skins.

Imagine that the Jewish mystics are right and that God is a vast light broken into shards across the earth so that each little dark thing has a speck inside it that glistens.  We can’t even look with our bare eyes into the solar system’s round sun.  How would we ever, in this world and in these bodies, be able to see the full light of God?  That much happiness would scorch and blind us.

St. Augustine wrote that “man wishes to be happy even when he so lives as to make happiness impossible.”  I used to read that line as a reprimand about certain lifestyles.  I would try to imagine what other way I should live so as to make happiness possible.  But I missed his point.  The problem with man in Augustine’s sentence is not how he lives.  The problem lies in the first clause: man wishes to be happy.  It’s the wrong wish.  Or wishing is wrong, period.

On the island of Zanzibar in the year of our Lord 2006, my brother cried sometimes.  He told me a story on New Year’s Eve about a Hutu priest who offered hundreds of Tutsi people sanctuary inside his church.  When they all got inside, he burned the church down.  We drank our beers and walked to the water’s edge.  My brother said, “I can’t even drink enough to feel drunk.”  He was, in this sense, too alive for numbness, to0 scraped up for anesthesia.  It hurt to look at the water, to try and behold that breadth of beauty in the place we stood.  We could not have contained all the ocean inside the weak vessels of our human bodies.

We must have sensed the blasphemy of grasping at happiness in the shadow of such a horror story.   But faces seaward and suffused with sorrow, we also recognized happiness as something real and true.

Just beyond us.


Sermon for Clarice Starling

Recognize any of the following names?

Kay Scarpetta.  Sarah Linden.  Robin Griffin.  Stella Gibson.  Olivia Benson.  Jane Tennison.

No?   How about this one?

Clarice Starling.

I was eleven years old in 1991 when The Silence of the Lambs opened in theaters.   Jodie Foster’s doe-eyed, frail-framed, FBI agent-in-training heroine and her sadistic counterpart, Hannibal Lector, captivated the nation.  Consider me one of the enchanted.  Every other psychological thriller I’d ever seen (not that I’d seen many) centered around a male anti-hero, usually a prickly, rough and tumble type who played by his own rules and brooded almost as well he beat up criminals, but who possessed some modicum of moral integrity way down deep in his alcoholic soul.  Or, I’d seen the quirky, somewhat hapless but charming detective, the Jim Rockford.  Enter Clarice Starling into the mix, a strange blend of fragile and fierce, of female empathy and intuition and male pragmatism, a protagonist so compelling even the cannibal rooted for her to find the serial killer and save the girl.

Save the girl the girl detective did.  Who can forget that final chase scene?  Clarice pointing her gun wildly into the dark cellar, blind and breathing shallowly.  The killer behind her in infrared goggles and no shirt reaching out to brush her hair with his fingers.  The click of his gun cocking, her quick, wide-eyed 180, the blast after blast after blast of her weapon firing into his face.   I still cover my eyes, and I’ve seen the film too many times to count.

The girl saves the girl.  Finally.

I recently confessed to my friend’s husband that I have been obsessively consuming crime thrillers on Netflix and Hulu.  I binge watched AMC’s The Killing, then I binge watched The Sundance Channel’s Top of the Lake, then I binge watched the BBC’s The Fall.  I’ve already scene every episode of Law and Order SVU.

He pulled his chin in toward his neck and said, “Ugh.  The most violent, horrific, upsetting stuff on TV.”

Game of Thrones notwithstanding, he’s right.  Often, I can’t sleep at night after indulging in one too many episodes.  But still I come back for seconds and thirds.  I’ve always eaten up the books and television shows and films that go deep into the darkest places of the human psyche and its physical enactments of terror.

Why?  I think the trick is in the girl saving the girl thing.

I’m drawn to the female detectives most as though Clarice Starling spawned something by depositing her little crime thriller eggs into my young psychic sea.  In the past, and even now when I watch more current crime thrillers, I could only see myself reflected in the victim–almost always a young, attractive woman and almost always coveted by the killer for her perceived sexual or intellectual power over him.   I was the victim in all those old versions, and I had to wait for a man to save me.

The delicious complication in a murder story where a female plays the lead–the thing that keeps me at the dinner table–is that I get to see myself reflected as both victim and savior.

As a potential victim, I have another woman on my side, investigating usually by studying character and trusting intuition in direct contrast to the deductive reasoning made so popular by Sherlock Holmes.  She sacrifices to save me–she sacrifices her respect, her relationships, her body (it’s no wonder, really, that it took so long for women to be written into these roles since, at least historically in fiction, they’re so good at self-sacrifice).  And my savior, while usually solving the case, remains helpless to salve any wounds.  Justice she achieves, but she cannot save anyone from the wreckage of trauma, even herself.

What I mean is: I save me.  I even have the right name for the job.  Casey Fleming.  Clarice Starling.  Sarah Linden.  Notice that all these names are trochaic, four syllables.

And I don’t know.  It’s oddly reassuring to me how completely messed up these ladies always seem to be even while we, the audience, trust them to keep going, keep thinking, keep pushing until they’ve solved the case and, hopefully, saved the girl.

It means no matter how messed up I get, no matter how many times my superior takes my badge and weapon from me, I can still save myself, no gun needed, just my moxie and my smarts.

In the female detective’s spiritual world, she lives haunted by the victims and the victims are disproportionately women and children, not the lions but the screaming lambs of God.

In our spiritual world we so often assign a gender to our saviors.  Father.  Son.  Man.  In our spiritual world patriarchy still provides so much of the subtext.  In our spiritual world we tend to leave women two options–virgin or whore, both roles that leave us ripe for victimhood.  In our spiritual world  the mere fact of my femaleness means I have little agency in front of evil.

In that kind of spiritual world where I occasionally feel trapped, maybe a broken and hellbent lady cop is just what the doctor ordered.

Or maybe I should try sitcoms.


PS Of all the shows I’ve devoured recently, Top of the Lake is best.  Jane Campion, queen.

Clarice Starlingsarah-linden-photototl_rgriffin_535x320tumblr_mms7dmfmhp1rkrwmdo10_1280

Welcome to Nonsecular Girl

Welcome to the new website.  I hope this new, cleaner layout will make reading easier for you.  I also hope the categories at the top of the page will help you find sermons you’re interested in or sermons you want to return to again.  I’ve moved over the most popular posts, and my personal favorites, from the old site.  Finally, this space makes commenting tremendously easy, so please do comment if you feel so moved.

Grace and Peace,


Sermon for Brokenness

Oscar Wilde famously said, “I drink to separate my body from my soul.”  He would not be the only one to try such a futile endeavor, to think she might unshackle her soul from the body’s cage with magical key-shaped elixirs, to think, erroneously, that the cage and the prisoner are two different things.

It’s one thing to believe in mind-body-spirit connectedness when you possess a healthy, young body.

But imagine you have a body that really feels like a cage–a body with a horrible or chronic disease like ALS or Cystic Fibrosis, or a body that doesn’t suit the norms of beauty, or an infertile body.  Then, you’d like nothing more than to cleave your soul from its fickle sinew.  Your body feels like a betrayal, a jailhouse instead of a home.  It can make you angry.

For example, if you can’t translate the following sentence into standard English without help, then I don’t want to talk to you about my body and I don’t want your illiterate platitudes:

The AVG DPO for a BFP is 12.6 and symptoms leading up to a BFP may include increased CM and moodiness, although these symptoms also mimic those of AF, so your DH may have to remain sensitive during the TTW, and you may get a false BFN because your HCG levels haven’t reached a high enough level for even a FRER. 

But if you’re trying to have a baby, like me, you’re fluent in the language of neurosis and can play translator without batting an eyelid:

The average day past ovulation for a Big Fat Positive is 12.6 and symptoms leading up to a Big Fat Positive may include increased cervical mucus and moodiness, although these symptoms also mimic those of Aunt Flow, so your Dear Hubby may have to remain sensitive during the Two Week Wait, and you may get a false Big Fat Negative because your human chorionic gonadotropin levels haven’t reached a high enough level for even a First Response Early Response pregnancy test. 

And still, you may have the words and not the meaning.  You may not know there exists an entire culture of women who speak this language to each other, that use acronyms both as a form of intimacy and a form of shame and silence.  You may not know that the preoccupation with a body that’s not working the way you want it to work, and its relentless chatter in the form of aches and pains and ghost symptoms, can be one of the most soul-killing experiences a human might endure.

Sometimes I want to unzip my spirit from its skin, like a dirty dress that I’ve worn to too many events in the same week.  More often, though, I have the opposite and counter-intuitive reaction: I want to keep wearing that dress until the stench and lint and sweat stains mirror what they clothe.

What’s this got to do with God?  Well, don’t worry–I’m not going to talk about those Old Testament matriarchs who suffered so mightily from infertility they offered their aged husbands Egyptian concubines only to have God grant them a baby in their 90s or something absurd like that.  Those myths have their magic, but they irritate you when you want a baby yourself because science shows I don’t have until my 90s, God or IVF nonwithstanding. The only thing I like about any of the stories is the moment Sarah laughs at the prophets who foresee Isaac.  I like to imagine she scoffs more than giggles.  Like, “Yeah, right, Yahweh.”

No, I’m going to talk about poets, specifically Christian Wiman and Mark Doty.  The former suffered from bone cancer, the latter the death of his partner from AIDS.  The body is familiar if painful territory for both men.

And then I’ll talk about the incarnate word, spirit made flesh in the form of Jesus.

The title poem to Wiman’s most recent book of poetry speaks to the broken body, or, rather, the brokenness of all things earthly.  I admire most its form, how well it responds to the poem’s content–the repeated line, broken in various ways until its last utterance when it is no longer riven but whole, without the fractures and sprains of commas or dashes:

Every Riven Thing

God goes, belonging to every riven thing he’s made

sing his being simply by being

the thing it is:

stone and tree and sky,
man who sees and sings and wonders why


God goes. Belonging, to every riven thing he’s made,

means a storm of peace.

Think of the atoms inside the stone.

Think of the man who sits alone

trying to will himself into the stillness where


God goes belonging. To every riven thing he’s made

there is given one shade

shaped exactly to the thing itself:

under the tree a darker tree;

under the man the only man to see


God goes belonging to every riven thing. He’s made

the things that bring him near,

made the mind that makes him go.

A part of what man knows,

apart from what man knows,


God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made.


Christian Wiman, from Every Riven Thing (2010).

And I’m thinking of the prologue to Mark Doty’s memoir, Heaven’s Coast, where he re-positions a childhood memory into the most breathtaking metaphor:

In the museums we used to visit on family vacations when I was a kid, I used to love those rooms which displayed collections of minerals in a kind of closet or chamber which would, at the push of a button, darken. Then ultraviolet lights would begin to glow and the minerals would seem to come alive, new colors, new possibilities and architectures revealed. Plain stones became fantastic, “futuristic”–a strange word which suggests, accurately, that these colors had something of the world to come about them. Of course there wasn’t any black light in the center of the earth, in the caves where they were quarried; how strange that these stones should have to be brought here, bathed with this unnatural light in order for their transcendent characters to emerge. Irradiation revealed a secret aspect of the world.

Imagine illness as that light: demanding, torturous, punitive, it nonetheless reveals more of what things are. A certain glow of being appears. I think this is what is meant when we speculate that death is what makes love possible. Not that things need to be able to die in order for us to love them, but that things need to die in order for us to know what they are. Could we really know anything that wasn’t transient, not becoming more itself in the strange, unearthly light of dying? The button pushed, the stones shine, all mystery and beauty, implacable, fierce, austere.

Imagine illness as that light.

Imagine our bodies, healthy or sick or momentarily struggling, as the light of God.

Imagine we might need affliction to illuminate our souls.  (know, in this imagining, the unfairness of such a reality on some, truly sick people)

Imagine we could not have a soul without a body.

Imagine the necessity of Jesus’ human body.

Then the body cannot be a shade of shame or a thing to denounce.  Then the body cannot be a cage, and drinking, dear Oscar Wilde, might be more for marrying our bodies to our souls than separating them.  Then the body has no use for a language of signs and signals and acronyms.

The flesh is the word, the word is the flesh.

Even, and especially, when the flesh is broken.



Sermon Against the Resounding Gong

My first yoga teacher had a serious savior complex.  He was gifted at teaching the basic foundations of yoga poses, and is, in large part, why I practice yoga safely and intelligently.  But he was so messy—getting overly involved with his students personal lives, making the class about his humor and his experience more than the students’.   One time I heard him say to a young—attractive—woman:  You should be prepared to start crying in pigeon pose because women carry a lot of sexual trauma in their hips.  Don’t hold back if you need to cry.  That kind of crap sets my blood boiling—it abuses the power of suggestion and potentially keeps clients from getting real help for real problems.  At best, yoga can provide the physical counterpart to other healing processes, but it cannot cure cancer or quell mental illness, nor was it ever designed for such miracles.  Of course, that girl in class did start to cry in pigeon pose.   What other option did she have, really, if she wanted to stroke her teacher’s ego as he so clearly needed her to?

The yoga studio is fertile ground for such characters, because given the historical connection of yoga to religious practice, people often arrive to class with more than their physical well-being in mind.  They want their bodies and their souls healed.  Or, they want a bastardized version of yoga that gives them six-packs and defined deltoids, but compromises their bodies.  They want the Dalai Lama or David Koresh, and not a simple person trained to offer a student the tools to develop her own strength, heal her own body.    Nothing more, nothing less. 

Spoiler Alert: I’m not really a preacher.  Or a priest.  Or a deacon.  Or ordained in anything at all except, perhaps, my own experience if we think of our births as conferring holy orders on us.   

If you’re reading this blog, you know I’m living in a precarious space between tongue-in-cheek and sincere, between my instinct to poke and prod and provoke and my genuine desire to write about my own spiritual experience.  I’m often uncomfortable with myself here in the Cyberworld: on the one hand, I write from the persona I create, a persona that protects me; on the other hand, I expose myself dangerously to strangers.  I’ve longed believed that this straddling between performance and confession lends blogging, as a form, its tender credibility, its vibrancy in the hands of a decent writer, and its disproportionate draw for women writers.   Also, the ephemeral nature of the Internet—a place where one’s writing both remains and disappears into the void created by thousands of other users mimics, for me, the slippery way divinity works in my life.

I’m glad you’re willing to follow me into this shadowy territory.  I’m also appalled, the same way I’m appalled when my students turn on their peers because they’ve adopted a position I posited in class, when they’ve taken something I said while playing devil’s advocate and digested it as God’s own truth, usually because they want my approval more than they believe what they’re arguing.   If you’re reading my blog, you’re reading in part because of the personality my blog implies that I have.  You hear a voice and imbue the person you imagine behind that voice with an authority and respect I haven’t exactly earned. 

That puts me in disquietingly close proximity to that yoga teacher and those church leaders who assume a pulpit with very little education or formation, the ones that scare me silly.

As someone who grew up in the Catholic Church, I feel suspicious of informality and a lack of credentials.  I’m a snob that way.  I don’t care.  I want my priests and pastors, my professors, and my politicians to be smarter than me, more educated than me.  I do not want George W. Bush’s nicknames, for example, and I don’t want to call my reverend Billy or Ed or Mitch.  I prefer something more titular….like….I don’t know….Mr. or Mrs. President, Sister Bernice, or even Reverend King.   These titles protect us from the person while respecting her expertise.  Rather than create false authority, when used correctly titles promote healthy personal space and appropriate boundaries.  I do not have my students call me Casey, for example.  But nor would I have them call me Dr. Fleming if I haven’t earned a doctorate. 

I disapprove of any Cult of Personality.  I distrust leadership based on charisma and reputation, leadership that promotes a kind of hero worship that impedes true learning and undermines mentorship, informalizes and mythologizes the relationship between student and teacher, and makes the humble sailing vessel into the majestic sea upon whose depths it can only rest.

The high school classroom is equally fertile ground for such misguided heroism.  Teenagers are aquiver.  They vibrate.  They’re like exposed nerves, susceptible to even the slightest breeze’s burn.  They’re also hormonal and given to high drama, ripe for hero worship and indoctrination.  It’s no coincidence most religions have their youngest members confirmed or Bat Mitzvah-ed during the teenage years.   But in my opinion, students at that age need to be directed toward the big questions and then empowered to find their own answers rather than being baptized into certainty.

On this blog, I’m twisting the form, using the idea of a sermon to structure my writing for a while.  I have some things to say, and have ordained myself to say them.  But do not anoint me with an authority I have not earned except through voice and style.  You’ll be disappointed, because you’ll be the spectator of my spiritual journey instead of the protagonist in your own. 

We do not save our followers—in the church, on the page, in the studio, or in the classroom.  They do that.  And when we start to think we can be our students’ saviors, we’re playing God.  When we rely on our reputations or personalities rather than our knowledge and experience to keep our students afloat we’re really sinking their ships.  We’re also taking more love than we’re giving, since love is always active, not passive.  We’re acting out of need more than power.  We’re keeping them from finding other, equally important teachers by tethering them to our influence.  And we’re acting in direct opposition to St. Paul’s advice in Corinthians 13:1-3:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge,and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,[b] but do not have love, I gain nothing.

 Last, but certainly not least, many people who end up leading cults of personality didn’t start out superficial or twisted, the popularity turned them that way.  Hero worship is detrimental for followers, certainly, but it’s also a painful spiritual death for the leader.  

Beware and Amen.


Sermon Against Any One True God

Here’s an expression I abhor: one true God.  Do you believe in the one true God?  One true God: a shibboleth of the evangelical converted, and, for me, my first clue to run like hell for heathen territory where at least the wine runs thick and the sins taste sweet.

It’s the certainty of the phrase that turns me off as well as its thinly veiled neurosis–it’s not enough to say “one God” or “true God?”  We need two adjectives for good measure?

Hold on.  Rewind.  Let me start over and turn down the snark level a bit.  Let me start with a story.

This morning when I opened up my laptop I found a bright yellow “Stickie Note” on the desktop screen.  I never use “Stickie Notes,” so I knew my husband had jotted down something he wanted to remember.  I’m a Gen X kid.  He’s a Millenial baby.  Apparently, somewhere in the narrow space between our two generations, the younguns moved from real Sticky Notes to their technological offspring the “Stickie Note.”  I didn’t even know my computer possessed such a program.  His typed note read: God is an opening, not a closing, to the mystery.

“What is that? Who said that?” I asked later.

“You did,” he said.  “I didn’t want you to forget.”

I forgot.  God is an opening, not a closing, to the mystery.  

Then I remembered.  Last week my husband and I sat talking about my discomfort with Protestant evangelicalism.  I kept reworking my words, trying to articulate what I feel viscerally first and intellectually second.  I just, I stumbled, I can’twhy do they need to be so SURE?  To say they know what God is, what God wants, what the Bible means.  It lacks…..humility.  It lacks….imagination.  

I was thinking of the neuroscientist, David Eagleman, telling my students to “dethrone thyselves.” Or I was thinking of Ferdinand de Saussure, “Nearly all institutions, it might be said, are based on signs, but these signs do not directly evoke things.”

I don’t feel anything when someone says one true God except suspicious.  Nothing is evoked for me at all, no image, no song.  I feel closest to believing in God when God eludes me, when God lives one step beyond my comprehension, or God cracks open a timeworn window and I must squint my eyes against even the thinnest sliver of unbounded light.

An opening.  A crack.  Quicksilver slant of light.  I buy Christian Wiman’s collection of essays, “My Bright Abyss.”  Even the juxtaposition in the title of the book seems to speak to my conundrum: how can we know God except to know God less and less?  Wiman writes

–so too is faith folded into change, is the mutable and messy process of our lives rather than any fixed, mental product.  Those who cling to the latter are inevitably left with nothing to hold on to, or left holding on to some nothing into which they have poured the best parts of themselves.  Omnipotent, eternal, omniscient–what in the world do these rotten words mean?

Even more rotten words: one true God.  Because if we can say “one true God” we can say “one true marriage” or “one true race” or “one true government” or “one true gender” or on, and on, and on like that forever.

Today I asked my students, “What is the purpose of a seminar discussion?”  Today was their last of the semester.  They answered quickly, and I cringed to hear my voice inside theirs: to leave the classroom with more questions than answers.

That’s how I want my discussions and dialogues to always go–more questions, more questions, more.  That’s how I want my students to live.  And I guess that’s how I want my God too.   I want the comfort of incertitude, the solace of knowing I may, at the end of my life, disappear into mystery, into a voice that softly chastens you were wrong, that I may disappear into my own failures and errors, those shadowy places where my soul tried to point me during my earthly heartaches, petty and profound alike, that these darknesses in my life were like the underbelly of the sun, that I might need a divine imagination to turn the world completely over in order to see the bright backside.

Or in Wiman’s words, Human imagination is not simply our means of reaching out to God but God’s means of manifesting himself to us.  It follows that any notion of God that is static is–since it asserts singular knowledge of God and seeks to limit his being to that knowledge –blasphemous.  

Tell me you don’t know and I’ll follow you anywhere.


Sermon for Barney

“I was talking to Barney the other day,” I said to my students one Tuesday morning.

“Who’s Barney?” they asked.

“Barney the Homeless Guy who lives in my neighborhood.”

One of my students–an eternally nerve-ridden young man, an eager hand-raiser with noticeably pronated feet–opened his mouth a little.

“Um,” he said.

I waited.

“You know the homeless guy’s name?  Why?”

Why indeed.  Why do I know Barney’s name?  I wish I could say I had the manners to ask him his name since I see him at least twice a week, but no, I can’t take credit for any such appreciation for his dignity.  My friend and former roommate, a woman with more moral fortitude than me when it comes to strangers, befriended Barney a few years ago when she worked at the local coffee shop.

Barney scares people.  He usually works the corner where our neighborhood dead ends into the Interstate.  Unlike other homeless people, he doesn’t sit with a cardboard sign or come at your windshield with a spray bottle and rag.  Barney storms right up to your driver-side window, his drug-pocked and sun-scraped face inches from the glass, and then turns his hands up in the air and squints his eyes as if he’s saying, “Come on, man.  What’s your f-cking problem?”  When the driver doesn’t acknowledge his begging, he often throws down his arms and walks away shaking his head; he looks seriously pissed off.  Plus, he’s got this shock of reddish hair that, unwashed, lifts up from his scalp like a Troll Doll.  If you didn’t know him, you’d be terrified.  I’ve seen people roll into the U-turn lane at the last second to avoid dealing with him.

But at his core, Barney is harmless.  The last time I saw him, my husband rolled down the window to apologize that we didn’t have any change on us, and Barney smiled and said, “No problem.  Have a nice day.”  He really likes our dog.  He really likes dogs, period.  Dogs are more generous with their affection than humans, after all.

My student’s question–You know his name?–has festered inside me this week,  my student’s horror that I might be intimately acquainted with a person of ill-repute, even if said person’s reputation comes from his housing status and not any really criminal behavior.

That student sits next to another student, a girl, who once argued in class that we should give homeless people Bible verses instead of money because, for one thing, they need Jesus more than money, and for another thing, they would use the money for untoward purposes anyway.  She didn’t use the word untoward; she used the words “crack or something.”

Let me offer a quick qualifier: my students are 13 or 14 years old and I’m not sure they need to ask people who scare them for their names.  I’m sure their parents have warned them about dangerous adults.  And, they’re of the uber-privileged variety, my kiddos.  They can’t and don’t want to imagine that good people might fall on bad times.  They can’t imagine about the homeless man, for example, who told a social worker I know that his wife died and he “just crawled inside a bottle and never came out.”

Mostly, though, my students and many of their adult counterparts in neighborhoods all over this country have not suffered enough yet to know the cruelty of handing a hungry man a Bible verse instead of food or money, the sadistic condescension in thinking that they know what the homeless person will spend his money on or that they should have any opinion on the matter at all.

Kindness requires empathy, and empathy blooms out of the dark earth of suffering.  I’m thinking in particular of a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, “Kindness”:

Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness.

How you ride and ride

thinking the bus will never stop,

the passengers eating maize and chicken

will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,

you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho

lies dead by the side of the road.

You must see how this could be you,

how he too was someone

who journeyed through the night with plans

and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,

you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. 

You must wake up with sorrow.

You must speak to it till your voice

catches the thread of all sorrows

and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,

only kindness that ties your shoes

and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,

only kindness that raises its head

from the crowd of the world to say

it is I you have been looking for,

and then goes with you everywhere

like a shadow or a friend.


You must see how this could be you.  Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore.

Barney is scary, but he’s our scary.  I mean, my neighborhood belongs to him as much as it belongs to me.  In fact, he arrived before I did.  I should know his name.  I should take care of him.  I should enact those Bible verses I carry inside me rather than handing them out as counterfeit grace.

I worry less about those afternoons when I recognize Barney under the highway’s long shadow than about the day I stop seeing him there.  And I should.


Sermon for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

On Friday as I worked my freshman students through poetry revisions and my sophomore students through heavy symbolism in literature, I felt a steady thrum in the back of my head.  At each break, I scanned the headlines.  Boston was on lockdown and a 19 year old boy on the loose.

Call me crazy, but while everyone else fretted about the city being terrorized, I felt most worried about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  A picture was forming from the snippets of information reporters puzzled together about the two brothers, and to me it started to become clear that Tamerlan Tsarnaev–the older brother–would emerge as the mastermind and spearhead of the bombing plot.  I felt scared for Dzhokhar, 19 and alone after watching police drill his brother with bullets, probably wounded, the gravity and horror of what he’d done finally settling in and nobody to help and nowhere to run.  

Call me crazy, but I wanted to hug him.

Each year when I teach my students Homer’s Odyssey, we talk about types and anti-types.  In a lesson I stole from my father, we read about the D.C. Sniper–John Muhammed–and his “sidekick”, the much younger Lee Boyd Malvo who together in the fall of 2002 embarked on a weeks-long killing spree targeting random citizens standing at gas stations or in parking lots.  They killed 13 people.  I lived in Washington, D.C. that fall.  I remember walking across a parking lot in suburban Virginia where I had traveled to buy furniture for my new efficiency apartment on Thomas Circle.  I remember feeling exposed and vulnerable–every white van in the parking lot glared at me, every engine sparking to life or car door slamming shut a signal of my impending death.  

Lee Boyd Malvo was only 17 years old during the murder spree.  He was fatherless, in a kind of identity crisis and exile after moving illegally from Antigua to Miami to be with his mother.  Both Malvo and Una, his mom, were caught by Border Control in Bellingham, Washington.  Separated from his mother, Malvo turned to Muhammed who he knew from when the older man had courted his mother back in Antigua.   Here was a father-figure, here a man to guide him into adulthood, here perhaps some solace after too much disorientation and uprootedness.  How easily John Muhammed must have indoctrinated his young protegee. 

Just last year, Lee Boyd Malvo–now 28–admitted publicly that John Muhammed had sexually abused him for years. 

In class I ask my students, “What if Telemachus had turned to a suitor for mentorship instead of Mentes?”  The lesson: young men need good mentors in the absence of fathers, mentors who are, like the character in Homer’s epic, divine at their core.  

If Mentor is the type, John Muhammed and Tamerlan Tsarnaev are the anti-types. 

There are two ways to read the Odyssey: as a hero quest full of pomp and circumstance or as a cautionary tale about the ugly and long impact of war and exile.  It takes Odysseus ten years to get home to Ithaca after ten years at war in Troy.  He does not return a particularly kind or patient man.  He is a wounded soldier, a compromised and questionable leader skilled in the art of deception, and a man full of hubris and a desire for revenge, high-risk behavior his modus operandi.   But despite its title, the epic begins and ends with Telemachus–19 or so at the start of the poem and by the end, reunited with his father, Telemachus has gone from a pouty teenager, unsure of his name and lineage, to a man with a father to follow.  Called by his sense of kleos–patrilineal glory or renown–he follows Odysseus into brutality.   He slaughters hundreds of enemies, hangs handmaids by their braids and mutilates the body of a disrespectful goatherd.  The slaying of the suitors at the end of the epic is barbarous, unmerciful, and uncivil (my boy students love it, which frightens me), so horrific that Athena has to step in at the end of the story to ensure that civil war doesn’t ensue.  

We can’t draw too many parallels yet, but in Boston we have a 19 year old boy whose father is in Russia.  We have two sons born in Chechnya, into a place and time of war, uprooted from a country where war has been the norm for decades, where war dislocates and scatters family members who, unlike Odysseus, often never find their way to any real or even metaphorical homeland.  We know Tamerlan spent six months in Russia last year and returned to the U.S., perhaps, with the vengeful lust of Odysseus on the sea.  We know Dzhokhar idolized his older brother; we know that his brother was his only nearby relative, his only link to family and cultural identity.  

I’m not saying I don’t feel just sick about the the numerous people who lost limbs and loved ones last Monday.  I am saying that the trauma of war is residual and pandemic.  The effects last even decades after the war and persist especially in an age of rising jihadist sentiment and real exile from both healthy avenues toward manhood and identity and from our native countries.   

Dr. Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist known for his work with war veterans writes, “The fundamental theme of the Iliad and the Odyssey is the human side of war.  These are not classics because the professors say they’re classics, but because they are so good at revealing us to ourselves.”

And Simone Weil once called the Iliad the “purest and loveliest of mirrors.”

Literature has something to tell us if we’d only listen.  We cannot, any of us, believe that wars end when the white flag goes up.  They never end. 

I’m not saying Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is an innocent victim anymore than Telemachus is innocent or Agamemnon is innocent or any combatant is innocent.   

I’m saying I wish Dzhokhar had someone other than his wounded, indoctrinated older brother.    I wish Lee Boyd Malvo had somebody other than John Muhammed.  I’m saying I wish these boys had a true Mentor.  I wish that for them, and for the world. 





Sermon for My Dear Fellow Clergymen

My Dear Fellow Clergymen, begins Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s exquisite Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

My Dear Fellow Clergymen.

When we’re studying persuasive rhetoric, I often ask my students to look at the first four words of Dr. King’s essay, written as the title implies as he was locked up in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama in the the spring of 1963.  He wrote the letter as a response to one he received from a group of clergymen—pastors, priests, rabbis–urging him to wait for the democratic process to work on its own, to back off from his nonviolent protests of racial injustice, and to implore his followers and other activists to back off as well.

I tell my students his letter is the single most perfect example of persuasive writing in Western Literature, the culmination of all the author’s spiritual and intellectual experience, the clearest articulation of his vocation and soul work.  This is my opinion, granted, but I say it to them as fact.  I tell them to look at the first four words.  Inevitably, they look at the first words of the letter–While confined here in–and not the greeting above them.

No, I say, look again.  The FIRST four words.

My Dear Fellow Clergymen.

I tell my students Dr. King has already employed a strategy of rhetorical argument.    Why doesn’t he write, simply, Dear Clergymen?  Why does he include “My” and “Dear“?   Dr. King, from the get-go, establishes his authority.  In those first humble words he places himself at the table with his audience.  I am one of you, that greeting announces.  I am a man of God.  So are you.   We are equal.

It’s brilliant.  Aristotle must have smiled slyly from his grave.

My students and I read the letter.  They struggle–the letter, so sophisticated in its language and rhetorical dexterity, is too high-level for them as sophomores.  I know it.  But I want to point them toward something they will understand, the emotional lynchpin around which Dr. King spins his ethos and logos: Paragraph 14.

The most lyrical paragraph of the essay, paragraph 14 centers around one long sentence that uses alliteration, the repetition at the beginning of each syntactical phrase of the words, “When you have seen.”  I don’t think Dr. King’s slip into second person is accidental: he places his listener in the shoes of black people.   The paragraph reads:

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

When I read Paragraph 14 aloud to my students, a silence bears down on the room.  I have trouble keeping my voice stable.  I have trouble keeping my breath as I attempt to recite the sentences with the same urgency and speed with which he has written them.  Every time, my heart breaks a little.

What does Paragraph 14 have to do with anything now?

Well, I have been reticent about addressing the most recent media storm about gay rights, catalyzed by the Supreme Court’s review of California’s Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act.  I am not hesitant because I do not know, definitively, where I stand, but because so many knee-jerk and sub-intellectual reactions already exist in the digital universe.

This week the New York Times editorial board published an editorial piece admonishing Ruth Ginsberg for her comments that the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion “moved too far, too fast.”   I was so relieved.  As a woman first, and then as a supporter of gay rights.  I understand what she meant; I understand what other constitutional lawyers have been arguing about gay rights: let the democratic process unfold naturally, it’s already leaning in favor of gay marriage, let the verdict fall state-by-state lest we spark a backlash.  Their position is a practical position, but, to me, it’s an immoral position too.

In all the back and forth I couldn’t help but think of Dr. King.  I know the details differ in these fights, as race differs from sexuality.  I know the powers need different truths spoken to them.  Still I couldn’t help but think of Paragraph 14.   I have my own version.  When you have seen your friends cast from their families; when you have seen an otherwise loving mother say to her daughter, “You may come to Easter, but you may not bring HER”; when you have seen your own conservative grandmother offer acceptance to her gay daughter; when you have heard the epithets and catcalls of your gender’s own persecution–bitch, pussy–spit at homosexuals on the street, when you have seen too and recognized what loves sees; when you have seen the singular beauty of the hanger hook line drawn up from a woman’s ribcage, between her breasts, and around the sharp edges of her clavicles; when you have felt the sting of a man so unable to publicly love another man that he carves through women’s hearts as though they wrote the Constitution; when you have seen, when you have seen, when you, when you, when you….

But Dr. King remains even in death a better writer than me.  And, unlike I pretend, he actually possessed a theological ordination.  He was a clergyman.

I hear his voice as I teach it.   This year, 50 years after he penned his masterpiece from behind cold metal bars in the city at the hot core of our country’s wounds, clergymen everywhere should listen to his voice.

There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.