Sermon on the Eve of Inauguration

Last semester, a group of 15 year olds sat around a seminar table and talked to me about their reactions to Peter Singer’s “The Singer Solution to World Poverty,” a summary of his utilitarian philosophy about sharing the wealth.   His basic thesis: no one needs more than $30,000 a year to live on; everything else should go to other people in the form of charity.  This seminar discussion is without fail always one of my most heated and impassioned every fall semester.

One girl, visibly upset, turned to me and said, “I mean, I think he’s right, I guess.  I feel bad.  But he’s so rude about it.  And I mean, what am I supposed to do to help?”

She felt moved but defensive, the way many people feel when they have their privilege pointed out to them by another person.

For those of you readers who do not already know or suspect, I teach at a prestigious college preparatory school.  Or, as so many of my friends say when I tell them where I teach, “Oh, the rich kids.”

They raise an eyebrow into a tight check mark on their brow that translates as one of two things: good luck with those brats or you’re not a REAL teacher, out of the trenches like that.

Both conclusions bother me.  Sure, I have some guilt about my luck given other schools I’ve taught in with needier, more damaged kids.  I often repeat the story of my first teaching job at 22 years old.  I lasted only one semester–it wasn’t the parole officers or 14 year old girls with their own babies that got me in the end, but the young student who had a dead cockroach stuck in his ear that, as he told me, “The doctor won’t get out, cuz we don’t got insurance.”  His English teacher–a 23 year old Teach for America volunteer–and I used our off periods to find a free clinic that would remove the cockroach from his infected ear.  I was completely unprepared for that job.  I was under the impression the students needed me to teach them Spanish.  They didn’t.  They needed a case worker.  It took me 11 years to return to teaching at the high school level.

My husband and I often worry whether our talents might be better spent in other places.  I have my days: I walk through the hallways aghast at casual conversations between teenagers that include throwaway comments about cruises through the Greek isles, $4,000 jeans, and box seats at Texans games with such-and-such CEOs or so-and-so politicians.

The longer I teach these “rich kids”, though, the more I realize the universe put me exactly where it needed me.  Turns out it’s easier to feel empathy for disadvantaged kids that it is to feel empathy for privileged kids.  But they need our empathy.  And this country needs us to have empathy for them.

Bear with me a second.

The first term of Obama’s presidency saw Occupation Wall Street, a movement that didn’t even reach the outer edges of my students’ little radars.  Obama’s biggest cage match wasn’t against bin Laden or any other foreign enemy.  The championship fight went to John Boehner and company.  The fight is about class, and the we’re still in the late rounds–no one has TKO’ed yet.  The major obstacles to bipartisanship in our country right now are obstacles of privilege: male privilege and economic privilege.

Privilege is tricky–people who have it often can’t see it.  Some never see it.  That’s one of the basic postcolonial arguments: those on the margins have a wider lens than those in the center of power.  My students didn’t ask to be born wealthy any more than a poor child asks to be born into destitution.  They didn’t have a choice, and most don’t have any real grasp on just how high they sit on the economic totem pole. But so often when they’re confronted with the reality of their privilege they feel shamed for something they didn’t do and can’t yet control.  And those that have managed to grasp their socioeconomic position often feel enormous amounts of pressure to live up to their parents’ standards of wealth and status.

As a class, we tried to work out why Peter Singer’s article bothered my students so much.  We finally agreed it was a matter of tone (they weren’t quite ready to talk about the possible limitations of utilitarian philosophy in general).  I used this realization on their part as a teaching moment.   The art of persuasion, I told them, is not only about appeals–ethos, pathos, logos–but about the tone that dresses those appeals, an awareness of audience and situation.  Singer, for all his intelligence, was tone deaf in that article if he meant to persuade rich people.  He shamed them and they reacted they way all of us react to shame.    “Shame,” as Brene Brown tells us, “corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”  When shamed, people resist change and dig in their heels.  They start to feel like people are out to get them, a fear I’ve seen in many rich people, one that makes even the most well-intentioned of them behave badly.  Witness a large part of the leadership of the Republican Party.  If we want privileged people–especially young people–to change, we better move away from shame and toward empowerment, away from bitterness and toward love.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s horribly unfair that we must ask the world’s disadvantaged people to resist anger and try empathy instead, to take the moral high ground.  Just. Not. Fair.   Also, there is a time and a place for anger.

Still, most of my students, those “rich kids”, are kind-hearted human beings.  They need mentors to help them look privilege square in the eye, recognize it, and then do something useful with it.   To this end, I have great admiration for a nonprofit called Resource Generation that aims to empower wealthy young adults to leverage their assets and create social change.

The best feminists have figured out that to transform our ideas about gender, we will need to empower men as much as women.  The same follows for economic injustice.  We will need to empower rich people as well as poor people if we want lasting change, and that empowerment requires us to check our tone.

I want to pull that student aside and tell her she doesn’t have to feel shame about her wealth.  I want to tell her: you’re beautiful, talented, intelligent, very, very lucky, and you have so much worth that isn’t born of and goes way beyond your pocketbook, because if I tell her that maybe–just maybe–she’ll see worth in other people too and she won’t begin to hoard her wealth, cast suspicious glances in all directions, because she believes without money she is nothing.

And in honor of the holiday and inauguration tomorrow, I want to offer a rationale for why I’ve come to accept and even love my job in that school of rich kids.  In the words of the tonally-gifted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

That’s it. There is a power in love that our world has not discovered yet. Jesus discovered it centuries ago. Mahatma Gandhi of India discovered it a few years ago, but most men and most women never discover it…

And oh this morning, as I think of the fact that our world is in transition now. Our whole world is facing a revolution. Our nation is facing a revolution, our nation. One of the things that concerns me most is that in the midst of the revolution of the world and the midst of the revolution of this nation, that we will discover the meaning of Jesus’ words…

As we look out across the years and across the generations, let us develop and move right here. We must discover the power of love, the power, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that we will be able to make of this old world a new world. We will be able to make men better.

 

Amen.

Sermon for Sandy Hook

I couldn’t write this sermon over the weekend.  I didn’t trust my own overwrought emotions in the wake of news from Newtown, Connecticut.  I wanted to write about that horrific event, but I also wanted to avoid overt anger, unchecked sadness, sentimentality, or a callow analysis of what went wrong–all things I’ve been guilty of in the last 72 hours as I attempt to get my head around children getting murdered.

Today, I write this with a no less heavy heart, but with what I hope resembles composure.  Also, what I want to write about has changed.

I wanted to write about what I believe contributed to the shootings, to write about any of the following:

1) our absurd justifications that, no matter how well articulated they may be by lawyers or NRA reps, still insist that our Second Amendment rights trump children’s lives*;

2) what my friend and colleague described to me as “the unspoken pain of the American experience”;

3) what progressive theologian Walter Wink called the “myth of redemptive violence” in our major religious and cultural stories;

4) the travesty that is our mental health care system; or

5) our gendered culture and how dangerous it is for how it alienates and abuses young men as much as young women

I could sermonize about any and all those things at the drop of a hat.  But then my topic came to me instead from Facebook.  One of my “friends” posted the following meme as a response to the tragedy on her Facebook wall:

 

So, today, in honor of Sandy Hook–its fallen students and teachers–I’d like to write about separation of Church and state, about prayer in schools,  because of all the ridiculously stupid things to blame for Friday’s tragedy the secular nature of our public school system strikes me as the lamest and, ironically, the most violent and dishonorable too.

We don’t need the prayers of any particular religion in schools because prayer already exists in school.  School is prayer.  A school is a kind of church, a sacred place where diligent, caring, inspired, and humble souls do God’s holiest of work.  I say this without the thinnest trace of self-aggrandizement or shame.  I am a teacher.  My husband is a teacher.   We both could have been lawyers, doctors, business people.  We did not “fall” into teaching.  We chose it.  We chose it because we have a brand of faith that lives right up against religious faith; no one could do our job without it.  Trust me.

Of the many names given to Jesus in the New Testament, one often used was “teacher”, from both the Greek didaskalos and the Aramaic robbouni, used by Mary Magdalene in John 20:16 and translated literally as “great teacher.”  And in Mark 13-16, Jesus said to his disciples:

“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.”

If there is any place in our secularized society that God lives, it must be in the schools.  Anyone who doesn’t know this already isn’t paying attention, and perhaps should look toward his own home, his neighborhood, his television if he suspects a lack of holiness in his child.

Like many teachers across the country, I walk into my school today with new eyes, my chest like a taut balloon filled to the popping point.  “Hi, Ms. Fleming,” some students call from their little territories in the library.  Some have commandeered the island near the magazines, others the cave under the stairwell, marking their spots in even this small world.  They smile widely, unaffected by three-day old news as children tend to be.  Most of them can’t see further back than breakfast.  “Hi,” I say back and try to look them directly in the eye.  With my eyes, I am trying to say I love you.  I am trying to say I’ll step in front of a gun for you.  I am trying to say thank you.   I am praying.

So are they, which is precisely what makes the horror at Sandy Hook Elementary so chilling for me.  Adam Lanza walked into–not a mere school–a temple with three guns and mountains of rage.

All day long I watch students send up tiny prayers, little feathers of devotion the wind catches and carries.  They are trying to find out.  They want to know.   Who am I?  Where do I come from?  Why am I here? They ask the questions religion asks under microscopes and scalpels, on canvases and musical instruments, on three-point lines and stages, in syntax and 10th grade vocabulary words like sanctimonious, sadistic, solace.

The boy in sweatpants furrowing his brow over an algebra formula on his final examination.

Lord hear our prayer.

The girl who asks the student in the corner, alone, to join her and her friends at Whataburger for lunch.

Lord hear our prayer.

The English teacher who writes “nice metaphor” in the blank margin of a C student’s essay.

Lord hear our prayer.

The cafeteria worker who has the Chinese symbol for “hope” tattooed behind her ear.

Lord hear our prayer. 

The 14 year old dyslexic boy who cracks open the spine of a dictionary to look up “mortality”.

Lord hear our prayer.

The baby children who like stickers on their quizzes and practice looping their g’s and q’s.

Lord hear our prayer.

The security guard who waves traffic-weary parents into a carpool line.

Lord hear our prayer.

The brown-haired beauty who starts her personal essay with the confession, “Sometimes I make myself throw up.”

Lord hear our prayer.

All of the students and teachers bent over books or lifting their chins toward a midday sun that rips through the classroom window, their silken heads tilted toward the great mysteries of life, of which there are so, so many.

Lord hear our prayer.

 

Amen.

 

 

*In all this talk of semi-automatic rifles and mental illness, people forget that ALL guns are designed to kill.  No one has remembered to mention in all the newspaper catalogues of recent gun tragedies Trayvon Martin, also a child, also murdered with a gun to which no one with the savior complex or xenophobia of George Zimmerman should ever have access.

Sermon for Atonement

Aldo Mondino, Kapparot

 

My fiancee works at a private Jewish high school in town.  He loves it.  Many times the mixture of him (WASP) and the students (mostly Jewish and hailing anywhere from Israel to Mexico) strikes all of us as just hysterically funny.  I find myself amused in no small part because he teaches in the neighborhood I grew up in, then and now chock full of Jews.  Old hat for me, but for my fiancee everything feels new: the Shabbat service on Friday, the abundance of days off in October, the Ma’amad he’ll have to present in December.  My father, a long time fanatic of the 6-man football phenomenon in West Texas, is tickled silly that my fiancee’s school has a 6-man team.

I like when he comes home and says things like, “I love that everyday we get to eat Challah.  Holla!” and lifts the roof with his hands.  I roll my eyes, but it’s still funny.

Occasionally, though, he’ll bring home something sincere and serious, and in truth he takes the whole place sincerely and seriously, as he should.  This past Wednesday Jews all over celebrated Yom Kippur, a day of atonement.  Even I had the school day off.  My fiancee told me a story about a strange act of atonement that the school community performed together based on the custom of Kapparot.  Originally the custom required use of a live chicken, into which the sins of the individual could transfer during the ceremony.   Each person would swing the chicken three times in a circle above her head while reciting these words: “This is my exchange, my substitute, my atonement; this rooster (or hen) shall go to its death, but I shall go to a good, long life, and to peace.”  Then the rooster or hen is slaughtered and given to the hungry to feed them, thus ridding the sinner of his sins.

At my fiancee’s school, they did not use live animals, thankfully.  Instead, in a more compassionate version of the ceremony, each student wrote down his sins on a piece of paper, wrapped the paper in a dollar bill and swung the dollar bill over his head three times while reciting the requisite words.  Afterward, the rabbis took the money to the needy and burned the papers filled with the all the sins of teenagers.

“What was your sin?” I asked my fiancee.

“I didn’t write one down.  The teachers didn’t have to write one down.  Just the students,” he said.

I forgot about it after a few hours.

But yesterday morning I remembered.  I woke up and shook my fiancee awake.

“Baby.  We should write down _________ and put it in money and then give it away.”

He didn’t laugh.  We had some atoning to do toward each other.

I’m sure our version of Kapparot differed in almost every visible way from the original custom.  We used the back of a torn envelope.  Both of us wrote something down about abusing alcohol a little too often; I quickly scribbled down a few more things I never said out loud.  And won’t.  I only had a $10 dollar bill so that’s what we used.   He went first.  I recited second.  We stood on our rained-out deck, the deep green ivies dripping fat drops of water onto the brick walls, steam rising up from the humid earth beneath the wood planks below our feet, cars humming past toward the makeshift entrance to I-10 at the end of our block.

We burned our scraps of envelope with a citronella candle that never staves off mosquitoes, ever.  We watched them fizzle and curl their way way down to black and ash.  Because of the cry-your-eyes-out downpour so typical of a September in Houston, we couldn’t find anyone outside to pass on our $10 dollar bill to, even in the usual places under the freeway.  We’ll do that today.  I am under no illusion that we will improve the world in any real way because we gave a homeless guy some money, nor should we permit ourselves any self-satisfaction from this symbolic act.

But listen.  I have always been moved by the idea of atonement.  My favorite holy day of obligation in the Catholic church was and still is Ash Wednesday.  I love that mass.  I never miss it.  Let me here say something about the difference between atonement and repentance.  A Jewish colleague of mine told me her rabbi conceptualizes atonement as “at-one-ment”, a way to become whole again, to recreate the sacred unity between man and the divine, and man and his fellow man.  Certainly “at-one-ment” captures the spirit of Ash Wednesday too.  On these days–Yom Kippur and Ash Wednesday–we are not called to repent or wrack ourselves with guilt.  We acknowledge our broken and torn souls, and ask for stitches.  We do this in communion with others, because a god will use these people around us as the thread through which she passes her needle and stitch them into our skin like train tracks or road paint methodically spread down a long, lonesome highway we all must travel, the entire act like any healing both public and intensely private at once.

Frivolous and antiquated as it may seem (I kept picturing the narrow backyard of a Brooklyn brownstone, the poor fowl screeching for dear life above the din of taxis, Latin beats blared into the streets, and subway cars tumbling overhead), I like the idea of the chicken, or at least the idea that we may release our “sins” instead of bury them inside our bodies to be confessed again and again and again.  So many useless Hail Marys.  I like the idea even that atonement may require a blood-letting of sorts, that our ability to forgive ourselves and others is a matter of life and death.  I also like the final movement of Kapparot, that instinct toward generosity and giving, without which no atonement can ever come full circle.   Confession is not enough; one much actively love others and engage with the divine to repair the world.  And no matter how dirty and down low we get, we always can engage in such repair.

What an invaluable lesson for teenagers.  And for all of us.

Amen. 

 

Sermon as a Faith Story

I grew up Catholic.

I was baptized, confirmed and educated in the Church, but I learned what it meant to be Christian mostly by example.  When I was a child, my father resettled refugees for the YMCA, and then worked for many years as Vice President of Catholic Charities in the Houston-Galveston diocese, and my mother taught science at a troubled, inner-city high school.   We often had 3 or 4 people living with us while they were transitioning from one country to another, and my parents also welcomed several foster children and exchange students into our modest home. 

We were not a typical “parish” family—I was only required to attend CCE classes until I was confirmed, and even then, my parents did not require regular attendance at mass.  However, somehow my brother and I still intuited that we were to act within the walls of our home and in the larger world as loving followers of Christ’s example.  We were not told this in any explicit way; rather, we witnessed it.  Both of us can recite the Corporeal Works of Mercy faster than we can the Nicene Creed. 

In this way, Catholicism for me became a familial, cultural, and private aspect of my identity, a thing I was born into, a thing I could no more choose than I could my hair color or height or Southern accent.  I never felt the need to proclaim it or restore it in public—it was as deeply hidden and powerful in me as my chromosomes. 

 I did not recognize my Catholic upbringing as an influence on my behavior or my writing until recently.  In 2007, a man I loved asked me to marry him, and I said yes.  He was raised in the Baptist and then Presbyterian traditions and after our engagement began to push me about my spiritual life.  At the same time, I was experiencing a crisis in my writing life.  I spent three years in an MFA program swinging back and forth between writing fiction and nonfiction, having much difficulty discerning between the two and convinced one—fiction—was the higher form.  This crisis grew out of an earlier one.  When I decided to dedicate my energy and time toward writing by leaving my job at a human rights non-profit organization, I suffered a crisis of conscience.  After all, I had been heavily schooled in the idea of vocation and service—how could my writing serve the world in any real way?

 What saved me was my teaching obligation.  Teaching was certainly a form of service, as I knew from watching my mother.  I still believe that teaching is sacramental in that it is a kind of “anointment”—teachers anoint their students with knowledge and thought.  And teaching, of course, is a kind of communion, the classroom a sacred space.  

But at that time, as my fiancée began to push harder—our disagreements as political as they were religious—I found solace in reading and writing the personal essay.  As a friend of mine once described it to me, the personal essay is a space for provisional truth.  That is, the essayist never reaches her destination but is ever-arriving.    The personal essay, then, becomes a space for deep contemplation, a tool for the vital attempt we all make to transform the private and personal into meaning.  The essay form offered me a way to voice what I like to refer to as my “intellectual faith”, or what Marilynne Robinson refers to as “faithful doubt.” In my romantic relationship an expression of doubt was a touchstone of failure and in my academic community of writers an expression of sincere Christian struggle was laughable.   This paradox often left me feeling bound and voiceless.  The personal essay unshackled me.

I began to study and be moved by writers like St. Augustine, Robert ColesSimoneWeilThomas Merton, Marilynne Robinson, and Andre Dubus.  Formative books for me during this time were Dubus’ “Mediations from a Movable Chair” and Coles’ “The Harvard Diaries” as well as his biographies of Weil and Dorothy Day and his writings on the relationship between story-telling and moral imagination in children.   One particular passage of Coles’ rang true to me.   He writes:

…in the lecture halls and seminar rooms of our colleges and universities, where relativism and deconstructionist criticism make a mockery of any person’s struggle to find a faith that persuades, convinces, and even a mockery of the attempts that particular novelists, or poets or short story writers have made to find meaning in life, and render it through words, through images, through narration that bespeaks of, well, the utter essence of their humanity: we are the creature of language, and through it a moral awareness that gives us a sense of the ought, and naught.

For one thing, I felt protective of my fiancée.  His increasingly traditional and conservative religious practice and beliefs left him susceptible to ridicule by my university colleagues and contemporaries.  In my soul, I agreed with them.  But I also knew from my experience as an undergraduate student in the Northeast that liberals and academics, many of my closest friends, could be some of the most intolerant people on the planet.  I did not want to be intolerant—what kind of liberal would that make me?  How could that kind of intolerance inspire people to change?

Still, a fierce loyalty to my family’s variety of Catholicism made it impossible to abide my fiancée’s shifting beliefs about homosexuality and abortion.  My own relationship to God, while cultivated and real was less literal than his, and occasionally his language and the language of his church alarmed me.  We both worried about raising children together.  Most of all, both of us wanted to be loved for who we were and not in spite of it.  Our friends and family members, at best, were good skeptics.   Every day we endeavored to avoid name-calling and blaming, to praise each other’s sincere efforts, and to hold each other accountable for our actions and beliefs so that we could live together peacefully.  At that time the country was in the thick of the 2008 election season; the political and religious climate heightened our awareness of discrepancies in our worldviews.  I was all in for Obama.  To my dismay, my fiancée was not.  In many ways we became a microscopic reflection of the painful reconciliation required at much higher levels in the nation.

In the end, while the nation found the common ground to say, “We can,” my fiancée and I failed to say, “We do.”  I left him.  In one of the saddest and more pathetic moments of our demise, I cried and screamed at him, “I don’t want to marry a Republican,” and he whispered back, “I know you don’t.”  At that point neither of us could tell the difference between “Republican” and “Christian” and “conservative” much like the rest of the country.  I threw myself into writing essays in the wake of our dissolved engagement.  While my pain was personal and private and real, in my writing I did not want so much to vent or confess as to relate and work through what I recognized as an essentially American story—a Red State story, a Christian story.  I also began to see my nonfiction writing as a form of service and vocation that harkened back to my spiritual upbringing.  I recognized what I thought of as a failure of liberal Christians in the face of rising Christian fundamentalism.  We had lost our voice, or at least our willingness to use it. The ascension of fundamentalism and its hold on vulnerable young people like my ex-fiancée was, as Marilynne Robinson writes, “the fault of the liberals in large part, because they have neglected their own tradition, or have abandoned it in fear that distinctiveness might scuttle ecumenism.”

I think what I have been trying to achieve in all my essays is a return to the beautiful “story” of Jesus, because as I writer I know the metaphor moves people, the symbol.  This is because when an artist uses a metaphor she is reaching toward something God-like that is unreachable.  The metaphor is the artist’s confession: the best I can do is approximate.  There is no symbol, no representation that will suffice, there will never be a symbol that will suffice, and so those symbols must be graceful, thoughtful, and sacred. I think the writers of the Gospels instruct us to read their words metaphorically, and encourage us to use our own metaphors.  Each book of the New Testament is replete with similes, sentences that begin, “God’s Kingdom is like…” or “God’s love is like…” We cannot know God, we see, as Peter reminds us, “through a glass darkly”.  Our imagination brings us closer to God—to be a Christian (or religious in any way at all) is to have a wealth of imagination.  St. Paul says in is a hard life, Kierkegaard says it is a foolish life precisely because it requires a faith in the improvable thing. (I cribbed that line from my father.)

It is not important that I write my life from a doubtless and fixed place, and therefore reduce God to a concept that fits neatly into my narrow vision, and then live a rigid life according to that vision.  No, what is important is that I seek in the direction to which those symbols point—that I look unflinchingly toward redemption, forgiveness, and hope even when I suspect these things might elude me in my work and in my life.  The artist’s job is to open new avenues of hope, widen the space for definition and representation, and welcome others into grace.

 Or, as Thomas Merton advises in his New Seeds of Contemplation, “Let no one hope to find in contemplation an escape from conflict, from anguish, or from doubt.”

 I will always be “catholic.”  But when I go to church now, I attend the Episcopal church—close enough to Catholic that I feel comfortable (I don’t want my grandmother rolling over in her grave), but the Episcopalians have demonstrated great foresight by moving with the tide of history in terms of gender and sexuality issues.  I am most recently inspired by the writings of Henri NouwenAlain de BottonRebecca Solnit, and Bishop John Shelby Spong.  My (new) fiancée finds the ritual and serenity of the Episcopal Church inspiring, having grown up, like my first fiancée, in more spartan churches.  We live inside our doubts; they form the walls of our home and church.  Inside these walls we observe our own unique brand of shared faith.  We will both vote for Obama in large part because his story more closely resembles our own faith story.

 Architects build skyscrapers to withstand wind load by making them bendable at the top, much like nature’s trees.  A tall building’s ability to lean in strong wind protects it from falling.  I think the long tradition of intellectual debate, contemplation, and personal writing in more progressive Christian sects—as in Judaism and other faiths—acts in a similar manner.  Moreover, this tradition matters a great deal in a culture where ego-driven confession is sold on television and in bestselling books as entertainment and our politicians and religious leaders engage in nuanced debate less and less frequently. Our doubts and fears, thoughtfully considered and expressed, are the wind-bearing architecture of a kind God, given to us so that we may bolster ourselves and construct meaningful lives.  

Amen.