Sermon for Self-Purification

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

 

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Sermon for Seniors

A letter to the young women and men of AP Critical Approaches to Literature, class of 2015, from their teacher, Ms. Fleming

You may forget much of high school, although you’ll remember more than you might predict, because high school memories sparkle in the long darkness of our pasts, for better or worse.  Teenagers live with very little skin: even the barest of breezes burn and passing words pulse and buzz and injure and inspire.  Still, just in case you do forget, I write this so you’ll remember—maybe—something.

The lessons critical theory has to teach us go beyond literature:

  1. Form is meaning.
  2. But form is not ALL meaning.
  3. We live inside various structures: psychological, political, economic, narrative and linguistic.  These structures are the modern world’s understanding of fate, but they don’t necessarily doom us.  They only doom us if they remain unconscious.
  4. Objectivity is an illusion.
  5. Basic kindness requires that we know how to decenter ourselves and listen to stories.
  6. Facts, while important, are not the same as story, and truth lives inside story.  Always.
  7. Be attentive to the archetypes around which your story builds.  They allow you to move your experience out of personal history and into the realm of myth and symbol, a healing process every culture in the history of humanity has recognized as valuable.
  8. Our world pits heart and mind (also faith and doubt) against one another in a binary opposition.   But heart and mind are symbiotic: you will never have a huge heart without a strong critical muscle, and your critical skills will suffer if you let your heart atrophy.
  9. Fundamentalism is the most dangerous form.  The “good guys” always become the “bad guys” if they go fundamental on you.  This is not to say belief in a certain cause or a certain worldview or a certain morality is bad; you should open yourself up to the risk of belief.   For example, I believe in critical belief, doubtful faith, incredulous devotion.   I also believe in teenagers.
  10. Love the objective correlative.
  11. We need tragedy.
  12. Consider the antithesis. Consider being the antithesis if necessary.
  13. Both women and men might be beautiful, strong, intelligent, and tender. And should endeavor to be.
  14. Power exists only in relationship.
  15. The author has the authority, which is why, as Barry Lopez writes, “Sometimes we need stories more than love or food.”

Of course, you should make up your own minds about any of these thoughts. You are the author of your life, not me, so you have that authority.  This above all: to thine own self be true. 

Even if you never take another literature class (insert the sound of my heart breaking), please read.  Read fiction and poetry in particular.  Reading builds our moral imaginations, offers us solace and perspective, and gives us a temporary escape hatch from our various cages.

Also, clean up your own messes, eat semi-healthily, try to sleep, brush your teeth, use deodorant, etc.  Be good but not too good.  Vote.

Finally, let me say thank you.  The word “vocation” comes from the Latin for a “call” or “summons.”  Teaching and writing are my vocations (as are motherhood and marriage).  None of your teachers chose their career by default or because they didn’t have other options, and all of us consider quitting at least once every year because vocations are difficult, hardcore soul-work.  A vocation, as opposed to a career, includes a sense of bigger purpose.  Some people never have the privilege of vocation.  You give my life purpose, not to mention joy.  Thank you.

Y’all are my heroes—you’ve received the hero’s call to adventure for real now—and my ambassadors to the future.  I can’t wait for the stories.

 

Amen. 

 

If, for Mother’s Day, you’re looking for more traditional “mother” sermons, here are links to past sermons on motherhood:

Sermon for Sons Leaving 

Easter Sermon (A Baptism Story)

Sermon in Which I Ordain Myself

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.”

Amen.

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.

Amen.

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.

Amen.

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.  

 

Amen.

 

Sermon Against Striving

When I finished my MFA program in Creative Writing at the age of 30, I began to fret.  I had no book deal.  I had no money.  I had no boyfriend or husband or child.  I had no job.  What had I been working so hard toward?  I walked around in a perpetual state of anxiety mostly thinking, “I should have gone to law school.”

One day I expressed my anxiety to my father the way I normally express it: through comparison.  Such-and-such friend got accepted to Breadloaf or got an agent for his novel, I’d say.  And such and such friend is pregnant.  So and so from high school has a retirement plan.  I’ll never forget his response.  He told me, “Casey.  Just because you went to graduate school, doesn’t mean you have to be a writer.  It is a gift for anyone to have three years to spend learning a craft.  Even if you never get a book deal, your time honing your craft will not have been for nothing.  It will have enriched your life.”

Another mentor–a poet whose young daughter I cared for–told me something similar.  She said, “Don’t apply to writing conferences.  Don’t look outward like so many young authors for validation.  Just write something good.” 

In both cases I was released briefly from my constant state of striving.  Their words worked in direct counterpoint to the aims of an English professor I had in college who was so rigid and joyless in her expectations for essays and class discussion and intellectual achievement that I still hate Romantic poetry and prose.  This martinet of a teacher–her grey perm looked like an armored helmet–almost kept me soured me on literature classes and writing for the rest of my life.  It took me 6 years, 2 degrees, and 3 jobs to return to writing after her stupid class.

I teach students who live in a constant state of striving–work harder, get better grades, run faster, do more, achieve, achieve, achieve.   I feel exhausted just listening to them talk.  I also empathize.  But, mostly, I want to scream at them to stop striving.  I want to slap them across their faces like I’m Cher in Moonstruck, and say, “Snap out of it.”

Because….what are we striving for?

I’m not making an argument against rigor or discipline here–those practices serve us well, but they work best when they arise from calm and a sense of perspective rather than from desperate urgency or unchecked, egoistic desire.  Or, at least they do for me.  I tried to explain this once to an ex-boyfriend, another writer.  

I said, “I write better when I imagine that I can affect a small audience.  I’d be happy with a column or a book read by smart people.  I’m better when I’m unshackled from achievement.  I don’t necessarily think I’m good enough to win the Pulitzer, and that’s okay with me.”

He said, “Really?  I wouldn’t be able to keep writing if I DIDN’T believe I was good enough to win the Pulitzer Prize.”

I should have broken up with him right then and there, but I would have “failed” at keeping the relationship going and I was a hardcore striver, you see, so failure was not an option. (P.S. Surprise, surprise, we failed anyway, and thank God for that).

Yesterday I sat through a yoga teacher training about spinal anatomy.  During the session I learned that the pelvic bones do not fully fuse in humans until the late teen years, for males sometimes as late as 21 years of age.  The point?  That asking teenagers to perform repetitive movements that cause strain (weight-lifting, for example) can warp the bones before fusion, causing all kinds of lifelong posture and mobility problems.  Children are meant to play, not perform or achieve.  This, of course, doesn’t mean they won’t achieve or have successes or learn or grow, but the constant striving toward achievement can damage them.  And if science shows the possibility for damage in their physical bodies from too much striving, what about their emotional and intellectual beings?

And speaking of science, neuroscientist David Eagleman spoke to teachers and students at my school today about the unconscious brain.  One thing he said resonated with me: the unconscious mind can do all kinds of things that the conscious mind interferes with.   What is a constant state of striving for achievement if not the conscious mind placing demands on the often unconscious work of art-making or idea-generation? Eagleman also reiterated again and again the importance of emotional salience in work and learning.  Students (and humans in general) perform better–achieve more–when the tasks required of them engage them emotionally.  

What are the ramifications of all this on writing and the teaching of writing?  For me, the following:

1. The more I “strive” to be a better teacher, if said striving means constant anxiety about adhering to and successfully completing a tight list of objectives limited to the scope of academia, the more I’m going to exhaust myself and do a disservice to my students.  

2. We adults can set the expectations for young people.  We can say with our actions, words, and demeanor and with our own life choices that intellectual play, intellectual integrity, and intellectual risk matter more than intellectual achievement.  We can keep their intellectual “bones” healthy so that when they finally fuse they function correctly and facilitate rather than hinder movement. 

3. I can ask my students to love reading and writing at an unconscious, emotional and visceral level first before I then direct their conscious, striving minds to interfere. For a great manifesto on this, read Dean Bakopoulos’ “Straight Through the Heart.”

4. In my own life, I can wake up everyday and know that I am enough.  I am enough.  My life is enough and always was.  And then I can work hard.  But my decision to work hard must stem from a real awareness of my internal worth, from the core of my soul, rather than from a list of elusive, ever bigger accomplishments. 

5. We must all play.  We must all rest.  These actions are not wastes of time.  They are vital, nourishing, and preeminent.  Maintaining respect for play and rest is quite different from settling for mediocrity.

6. We should all get a “B” at least once in our lives, in school and in life.  It builds our characters and teaches us resilience.  Sometimes getting a “B” or “C” is also a nice way to say “Screw you” to things and people that don’t really matter.

I don’t think any teacher can make all her students amazing writers, and striving to do so might kill her.  Aiming for the Pulitzer Prize might kill me too.  But I think each student and each piece of writing I put into the world matters, because I believe in stories—their power to make sense of fact, their power to create meaning and hope for people.  Stories offer us solace, because they give us characters into whose shoes we can safely step for a while.  Novels, stories and poems speak to our whole person.  They open up the rusty doorways that lead to empathy and communion, an opening that is critical for adolescents who are trying to navigate the newly complex world around them.  Learning to read and write well offers us a way of thinking that is invaluable, regardless of whether it makes us any money or gets us into the Ivy League.  My father said this to me in his words.  Rainier Maria Rilke also speaks to the value of every person learning a craft in his Letters to a Young Poet when he writes, “But after this descent into yourself and into your solitude, perhaps you will have to renounce becoming a poet…Nevertheless, even then, this self-searching that I ask of you will not have been for nothing.”

And, you might just achieve something along the way.  

 

Amen. 

Sermon as Triptych

Some weeks, the world provides you clues.  This week, I experienced a triptych of elbow nudges from the world, telling me to think seriously about a few things.  This trifecta took the form of a guest speaker at my school, an essay I accidentally read in American Scholar at my teacher’s desk, and an essay from a collection given to me on my birthday by a dear friend.  

I. Left Panel

 

“Drape”, Joseph Havel

Every year the students at my school receive the rare gift of a visiting fellow, someone who has made a name for herself, say, in the arts, sciences, or other academic field.  This year, we invited Joseph Havel, sculptor and director of the Glassel School of Art here in Houston.

Often the fellows speak over the students’ heads–not on purpose, but most 15 years olds cannot see why certain things should matter to them.  Teenagers are like solar flares, burning, on fire, propelled, whose light others can see from miles away, but they have not yet learned the dimming that comes with age or distance; they have not learned to turn around; they haven’t yet realized that they, themselves, are not in fact the sun but only small pieces of it.  

I also think they resisted some of Havel’s lecture: given the task of answering how art relates to ethics, he told us that the artist’s job is not to create meaning for the audience, no clear message for us to consume.  Sending clear messages, he said, is the job of advertisers, not artists.  The artists’ job is not to commodify people’s desires and hopes and fears, but rather to translate a moment of the physical, emotional, and mental life into form and then set it free for an audience to encounter and give meaning.  That process, he said, is essentially an ethical position.  Some students didn’t care to imagine such an ethical position since it requires something from us as readers of art–we cannot simply consume or pay for an explanation or walk away undisturbed.  

I was rapt with attention, thinking Havel’s explanation of art and ethics as a way to also understand the best impulses of religion.

Havel then offered the students instruction on how to view art in a museum.  Don’t read the information card tacked next to the painting, he said, like so many visitors (Alain de Botton has a great argument for why museums should toss out informational placards altogether).  Instead, let yourself experience the work of art.  Then you can go back, he said, and read the information about the piece and approach it again with a critical awareness.  But if you skip that first step, you miss the ethical imperative of art.  You are trying to go for clear meaning and missing the encounter.  

But when I returned to my classroom, my teenagers remained unconvinced.  I don’t want to be confused, they said.  When I read or see something I want to understand what it means.  Don’t make me work.  

My students complaints and Havel’s instructions reminded me of theologian Marcus Borg‘s advise about how one should approach the Bible, a model I use to teach my students how to read other literature as well.  According to Borg, religious men and women should go through three major stages:

1) naivete 

2) critical thinking

3) post-critical naivete

Or, as I conceptualize it:

1) blind faith

2) critical doubt

3) doubtful faith

II. Middle Panel

 

“Untitled”, Lee Bontecou

I must clean my desk.  I must clean my desk.  I must clean my desk, I repeated to myself Tuesday after school.  I began to rashly throw old vocabulary quizzes into the recycling bin, shove pencils and pens into the far nooks of my desk drawer and straighten stacks of unexcused tardy sheets and extra handouts about dangling participles or how to visualize Shakespeare plots as Venn diagrams.  Among those stacks I discovered a recent issue of American Scholar, a journal I love.  I was loathe to throw it out before skimming the contents and I landed on an essay by Christian Wiman, poet and long-time editor of Poetry magazine who is, as we speak, dying of bone cancer.  

I thought I’d read a few sections, but I ended up reading the whole thing in one sitting, weeping over my laptop, forgetting briefly that I needed to get home and let my dog out to pee.  As if to explain Borg and Havel’s theories about post-critical naivete, he wrote this:

It is as if joy were the default setting of human emotion, not the furtive, fugitive glimpses it becomes in lives compromised by necessity, familiarity, “maturity,” suffering. You must become as little children, Jesus said, a statement that is often used to justify anti-intellectualism and the renunciation of reason, but which I take actually to mean that we must recover this sense of wonder, this excess of spirit brimming out of the body.

And then, as if to illustrate Havel’s point to the kiddos that art, which certainly the story of Jesus qualifies as, must be encountered rather than consumed, Wiman wrote this beautiful statement of faith:

I’m a Christian not because of the resurrection (I wrestle with this), and not because I think Christianity contains more truth than other religions (I think God reveals himself, or herself, in many forms, some not religious), and not simply because it was the religion in which I was raised (this has been a high barrier). I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” (I know, I know: he was quoting the Psalms, and who quotes a poem when being tortured? The words aren’t the point. The point is that he felt human destitution to its absolute degree; the point is that God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering.) I am a Christian because I understand that moment of Christ’s passion to have meaning in my own life, and what it means is that the absolutely solitary and singular nature of extreme human pain is an illusion. 

Wiman returned to the faith of his childhood toward the end of his young life, passing through the often adolescent or post-adolescent critical stage that so many intellectuals get stuck in, especially, I’ve found, young writers, more especially young male writers.


III. Right Panel

Immanuel Kant

 

My friend gifted me Robert Hass‘ new collection of essays “What Light Can Do” for my birthday last month.  How well he knows me.  It was the best present I got.   I have only read one so far, “Study of War: Violence, Literature, and Immanuel Kant.  

Hass attempts to break down and revive a lesser known Kant essay called “Perpetual Peace.”   In “Perpetual Peace”, as Hass understands it, Kant acknowledged in his Kantian way that violence is the natural condition of man, and that the state of peace “is unnatural and must be struggled toward.  Its nobility is its rebellion toward innocence and against the brutality of things-as-they-are.”  Hass then tries to explain how literature and art can serve the purpose of struggling toward peace.  He imagines in his own way Joseph Havel’s argument for the ethical position of art.   

Haas remembers the term “perpetual peace” from his childhood as a Catholic, particularly from the Mass for the Dead “may the perpetual light shine upon them.”  He remembers that as a boy he thought the idea of perpetual peace a naive idea, an ideal only reachable with death and an undesirable ideal at that.  He was in his critical thinking stage.  

But then, he says, so many writers remind us otherwise.  He calls particular attention to Czeslaw Milosz, who returned to a sometimes-tortured Catholic faith in his old age, and Henry David Thoreau.  Thoreau stood firmly in the last stage of faith and art: post-critical naivete.  An idea expressed in his poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” according to Hass, is that the concept of perpetual peace or heaven, “is deficient as a description of a realizable place on earth, but is not deficient as a description of a place held close the heart.”  

Art scoots us right up against that place held close to our hearts, that place we believe in the way children believe, even if we can’t get in from here.  All three artists, Joseph Havel, Christian Wiman, and Robert Hass implore us to use wonder and thought to navigate art, to use the heart and mind to allow the world “to stream through you rather than reaching out to always take a hold of it.”  Have doubt, they say, and have faith.  All three men urge against the question, “But what does it mean?”   

That our priests and pastors may be artists and may be so wise and so bold as to ask their audiences to approach with wonder the Story and leave the easy, definitive answers to such a childish question to the advertisers.  

 

Amen.

Sermon on Reciprocal Inhibition

So often our bodies are the best teachers.

For the past three weeks, I’ve endured the moans and groans of teenagers who expected to lay around chanting when they signed up for my yoga class.  They staged pouty mutinies every time I asked them to perform a leg lift or plank.  And then, because they’re lovely creatures, they stepped up to each challenge, albeit with giggles and sighs.

I wasn’t trying to torture them or play the tough coach.  On the contrary, I care about their young bodies, already so beaten and bruised by 15 pound backpacks and hours spent in front of screens and windows: iPhones, computers, televisions, windshields, and blackboards.  I also teach over-achieving, and therefore, high-anxiety kiddos.  Plus, they’re teenagers and body conscious as a rule.  The last thing they feel comfortable wearing is their own skin.  Getting them to just close their eyes and breath deeply requires me to have the patience of Job.

What poses do you want to do today? I’d ask.

The inevitable chorus of voices: Savasana!!!  (for those of you not familiar with yoga, that’s the pose where you lay on the ground and do nothing)

But in my yoga teacher training, one of the first things I learned was the concept of reciprocal inhibition.  Reciprocal inhibition describes the relaxation of muscles to accommodate the contraction of opposing muscles.  Our bodies understand this yin and yang already, but we can help them along as well.  For example, if you want to get your tight hamstrings to loosen up, you don’t stretch them as common knowledge would say.  Instead, you strengthen and contract the opposing muscles–your quadriceps–and your motor neurons will send some quick text messages to your hamstrings telling them to CFD (Calm the F-ck Down).   Flexibility requires strength.   Strength requires flexibility.

So before I sent them into savasana, I asked my students to fatigue their muscles in various ways.  And it worked: tighter muscles began to ease open their rusty gates.

In anatomy the flexed muscle is referred to as the agonist, and the “opposing muscle” is referred to as the antagonist, which pleases me to no end as a writer and teacher of English.  The antagonist.  The adversary.  The foe.  The nemesis.  My impossibly wound muscle fibers have a face–The Joker, the orc, the mean girl.

There’s a bigger wisdom here past the warrior and pigeon poses, a lesson literature teaches as well.  Our bodies instruct us: if we want to have more flexibility in our own views, we must strengthen our understanding of the opposing views.  Likewise, if we want our opponents to relax their positions, we will need to strengthen our own arguments.

The concept of reciprocal inhibition might serve us in so many important ways off the yoga mat.

If I want my students to experience more ease with vocabulary or grammar, maybe I need to strengthen my expectations and lessons.

If I want to have a calm and relaxed space in my life to write more, maybe I need to tighten my discipline at other tasks that require time from me, become firmer in saying no to requests for my time by other people.

If I want my husband to speak his feelings to me more freely, maybe I might contract my own voice a little.

If I want my friends to confide in me, maybe I should build up my listening skills.

If I want to stop thinking about my ex-boyfriend, maybe I should find a hobby and dedicate myself to it.

If I want to stop hating that pretty, popular girl in the front row in my Algebra class, maybe I should hang out with her.  Or, as Abraham Lincoln once said, “I don’t like that man.  I must get to know him better.”

If I want my child to stop throwing fits, maybe I should become more grounded and dependable.

If I want Congress to pass my proposed bill, maybe–ahem, Mr. President–I should not compromise it so much as firm up its merits.

And as all of us tighten up, maybe we will lose our inhibitions, release our grip on our antagonists, all those small and big enemies we face down everyday.  Maybe we can breath easy and let them go, confident in our strength, and set ourselves free in the process.

The light in me recognizes and honors the light in all of you.


Amen.