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.

Advertisements

Sermon for Brokenness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every Riven Thing

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

sing his being simply by being

the thing it is:

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

 

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

means a storm of peace.

Think of the atoms inside the stone.

Think of the man who sits alone

trying to will himself into the stillness where

 

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

there is given one shade

shaped exactly to the thing itself:

under the tree a darker tree;

under the man the only man to see

 

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

the things that bring him near,

made the mind that makes him go.

A part of what man knows,

apart from what man knows,

 

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

 

Christian Wiman, from Every Riven Thing (2010).

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

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

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

Imagine illness as that light.

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

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

Imagine we could not have a soul without a body.

Imagine the necessity of Jesus’ human body.

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

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

Even, and especially, when the flesh is broken.

 

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.