Sermon for Ferguson, Missouri

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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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 for Sons Leaving

I’ve been thinking about motherhood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

 

 

Sermon on Kairos: A Goodbye

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

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

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

God’s time as opposed to human time.

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

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

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

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

The rest is up to me.

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

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

Amen. 

Sermon for Sybrina Fulton

from Psalm 43

Do me justice, O God, and fight my fight

against a faithless people;

from the deceitful and impious man rescue me.

For you, O God, are my strength;

why do you keep me so far away?

Why must I go on mourning

with the enemy oppressing me?

Dear Sybrina,

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

Because I spent last night weeping for your dead son.

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

I spent last night weeping:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wept and I wept.

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

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

Your neighbor as yourself.  Your neighbor.  Your neighbor.

Amen.

Sermon for Wendy Davis

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

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

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

“Can I talk to you?” she said.

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

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

“Okay.”  I waited.

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

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

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

Then she smiled and let me out the door.

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

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

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

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

Here it is:

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

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

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

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

And that is my point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Apophatic Sermon

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

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

Sermon for Clarice Starling

Recognize any of the following names?

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

No?   How about this one?

Clarice Starling.

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

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

The girl saves the girl.  Finally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or maybe I should try sitcoms.

Amen.

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

Clarice Starlingsarah-linden-photototl_rgriffin_535x320tumblr_mms7dmfmhp1rkrwmdo10_1280

Welcome to Nonsecular Girl

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

Grace and Peace,

Casey

Sermons Against Memes and Guns

All this talk about guns is getting to me.

We’ve all, I’m sure, been bombarded in our news feeds and Twitter worlds with memes that hastily point out the bad logic of NRA reps or the naivete of liberals.  I got this one in my news feed this morning:

 

The meme is a response to a comment made by a Colorado Representative, Democrat Joe Salazar, about recent gun control measures passed in his state that include a law making college campuses gun-free zones.  He argued that the possibility of rape should not justify a woman’s right to carry a handgun in her purse.  He added, “It’s why we have call boxes; it’s why we have safe zones; it’s why we have whistles.”

I guess the creator of the meme is making an argument that whistles don’t prevent rape as well as guns. It’s an argument about as emotionally mature as an Aerosmith song.  Still, I found myself unable to ignore it or tsk-tsk my way out of thinking about the implications of such a meme and people’s willingness to pass it around as a solid argument.

Let me use a real rhetorical device here (as opposed to a meme) and appeal to my own authority.

I am a woman.

I am not naive.

I am a woman who feels endangered.   I am a survivor of sexual assault.  If I go through a list in my head of my 10 closest female friends, at least 6 of them have survived rape or sexual abuse, in some cases severe abuse. Those numbers match up with national statistics.

I am a woman who also feels rage more often that I care to admit.   Last week I even had a dream that I shot someone.  A pregnant woman.  In her stomach.  When I woke up I didn’t feel guilty or horrified.  I felt relieved.  Then I went about my day, a day that included me writing a joyful letter to a pregnant friend expressing my sincere, genuine happiness about her new baby.

I am a woman who understands the all-too-human instinct toward violence, revenge, anger.  My psyche  is capable of violence too.

I am a woman who knows the difference between dreams and reality.

I do not want to carry a gun in my purse.  I do not want guns anywhere near my home, my school, my family, or my person.

Let me say that again: I do not want to carry a gun in my purse.  Or mace.  Or a whistle.

I want to live in a world where women are safe.

I want to live in a world where my option isn’t whistle or gun, victim or perpetrator, passive resistor or co-conspirator to a culture that accepts violence as its modus operandi.

I want to live in a world where people have the intelligence to recognize that rape and gun violence stem from the same sickness, and that arming women against male violence doesn’t solve male violence so much as quietly assent to its existence.

I don’t want to see your stupid memes, because they are violent too.  Memes are a huge part of the problem here.  Don’t get me wrong, I like the occasional purely humorous meme, those aimed at nobody.   But politicized memes are a bastardized form of rhetoric and logic, only persuasive in the basest sense, and they lend themselves to all kinds of fallacious reasoning.  Politics or activism on the cheap, memes oversimplify and are the psychosocial equivalent of poking someone in the ribs again and again and again or flexing ones own muscles in the mirror.  Posting a meme onto your Facebook page is a passive, pathetic attempt at real dialogue, a convenient way to avoid dealing with complexity and gray area, a great way to feel safe inside your own smugness.  Never mind other people’s safety.

I want to live in a world where we arm women and men with the weapons of love, gentleness, and respect.

As Galatians 5:22 reminds us, ” The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  Against such things there is no law.”

Or, wait.  Let me get a woman here.  Bell Hooks says it best:

“It is not easy for males, young or old, to reject the codes of patriarchal masculinity. Men who choose against violence are simultaneously choosing against patriarchy, wherther they can articulate that choice or not….

Ultimately, the men who choose agaisnt violence, against death, do so because they want to live fully and well, because they want to know love. These men who are true heroes.”

Amen.