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.


Sermon for My Dear Fellow Clergymen

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

My Dear Fellow Clergymen.

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

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

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

My Dear Fellow Clergymen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does Paragraph 14 have to do with anything now?

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

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

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

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

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

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




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.