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.

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Sermon on the Nature of Prayer

“I will pray for you,” the mother says to her lost son.

“You’re in my prayers,” says the funeral attendee to the grief-stricken relative.

“Pray for me,” the frightened hero says to his love interest.

Lately, I’m not prone to turning down prayers from strangers or loved ones.  You want to pray for me, go ahead.  Your prayers certainly won’t hurt me, if they don’t necessarily help.  The world never suffers from more kindness.

But sometimes the statement “I will pray for you” falls flat.  I can almost see it die somewhere between the speaker’s mouth and my ear cavity.  Or, it’s so vaporous, so full of casual levity, that the wind catches it as soon as it exhales into air.

So I’ve been thinking about the nature of prayer–what is it, exactly?

“I will pray for you” is an active statement.  I, subject.  Will pray, verb.  Direct object, you.  As a statement it also implies that the speaker will create something–the prayer–as though our bodies can conjure up a physical, produceable thing with shape and form and then offer it to God.  Here, God, I made you this prayer. 

The syntax implies that we provide the contents and God the vessel for them.

What if prayer works the other way around?

Mother Theresa once said, “May God break my heart so completely that the whole world falls in.”

Similarly, Ghandi said, “Prayer is not asking.  It is a longing of the soul.  It is a daily admission of one’s weakness.  It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”

Both of those quotes evoke emptiness, a void, a lack of words or desires, and turn the person who prays into the vessel for God’s grace.  What is longing if not a chasm?  And if the goal of prayer is not to request or complain or beg, if we are not the subject but the object, not the giver but the receiver, and in prayer we hollow ourselves before God, then prayer must be intensely personal and private.  I could no more do it for someone else than I could peel back their scalp and read their thoughts.

Prayer is not purpose-driven, but instead a motion toward the most sublime passivity.  And in that sense, it strikes me as essentially feminine in nature.

For example, one synonym of empty or hollow is barren.  

Prayer is an emptying out, an act of becoming the vacancy, the womb, into which the seed of God’s grace implants itself and grows into a thing we could not have conceived of on our own, and is never what we ask for or expect, a thing that we carry, a wondrous thing that sails through us, but is not of us.

When I understand prayer this way, I feel more comforted lately than when I imagine prayers said for me dissipating as they aim upward with their flimsy wings.

Sylvia Plath–less virtuous and well-adjusted perhaps than Mother Theresa or Ghandi, but nevertheless a mentor for me–said, “I talk to God but the sky is empty.”

May I be that empty sky and God talk to me.

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 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 the Resounding Gong

My first yoga teacher had a serious savior complex.  He was gifted at teaching the basic foundations of yoga poses, and is, in large part, why I practice yoga safely and intelligently.  But he was so messy—getting overly involved with his students personal lives, making the class about his humor and his experience more than the students’.   One time I heard him say to a young—attractive—woman:  You should be prepared to start crying in pigeon pose because women carry a lot of sexual trauma in their hips.  Don’t hold back if you need to cry.  That kind of crap sets my blood boiling—it abuses the power of suggestion and potentially keeps clients from getting real help for real problems.  At best, yoga can provide the physical counterpart to other healing processes, but it cannot cure cancer or quell mental illness, nor was it ever designed for such miracles.  Of course, that girl in class did start to cry in pigeon pose.   What other option did she have, really, if she wanted to stroke her teacher’s ego as he so clearly needed her to?

The yoga studio is fertile ground for such characters, because given the historical connection of yoga to religious practice, people often arrive to class with more than their physical well-being in mind.  They want their bodies and their souls healed.  Or, they want a bastardized version of yoga that gives them six-packs and defined deltoids, but compromises their bodies.  They want the Dalai Lama or David Koresh, and not a simple person trained to offer a student the tools to develop her own strength, heal her own body.    Nothing more, nothing less. 

Spoiler Alert: I’m not really a preacher.  Or a priest.  Or a deacon.  Or ordained in anything at all except, perhaps, my own experience if we think of our births as conferring holy orders on us.   

If you’re reading this blog, you know I’m living in a precarious space between tongue-in-cheek and sincere, between my instinct to poke and prod and provoke and my genuine desire to write about my own spiritual experience.  I’m often uncomfortable with myself here in the Cyberworld: on the one hand, I write from the persona I create, a persona that protects me; on the other hand, I expose myself dangerously to strangers.  I’ve longed believed that this straddling between performance and confession lends blogging, as a form, its tender credibility, its vibrancy in the hands of a decent writer, and its disproportionate draw for women writers.   Also, the ephemeral nature of the Internet—a place where one’s writing both remains and disappears into the void created by thousands of other users mimics, for me, the slippery way divinity works in my life.

I’m glad you’re willing to follow me into this shadowy territory.  I’m also appalled, the same way I’m appalled when my students turn on their peers because they’ve adopted a position I posited in class, when they’ve taken something I said while playing devil’s advocate and digested it as God’s own truth, usually because they want my approval more than they believe what they’re arguing.   If you’re reading my blog, you’re reading in part because of the personality my blog implies that I have.  You hear a voice and imbue the person you imagine behind that voice with an authority and respect I haven’t exactly earned. 

That puts me in disquietingly close proximity to that yoga teacher and those church leaders who assume a pulpit with very little education or formation, the ones that scare me silly.

As someone who grew up in the Catholic Church, I feel suspicious of informality and a lack of credentials.  I’m a snob that way.  I don’t care.  I want my priests and pastors, my professors, and my politicians to be smarter than me, more educated than me.  I do not want George W. Bush’s nicknames, for example, and I don’t want to call my reverend Billy or Ed or Mitch.  I prefer something more titular….like….I don’t know….Mr. or Mrs. President, Sister Bernice, or even Reverend King.   These titles protect us from the person while respecting her expertise.  Rather than create false authority, when used correctly titles promote healthy personal space and appropriate boundaries.  I do not have my students call me Casey, for example.  But nor would I have them call me Dr. Fleming if I haven’t earned a doctorate. 

I disapprove of any Cult of Personality.  I distrust leadership based on charisma and reputation, leadership that promotes a kind of hero worship that impedes true learning and undermines mentorship, informalizes and mythologizes the relationship between student and teacher, and makes the humble sailing vessel into the majestic sea upon whose depths it can only rest.

The high school classroom is equally fertile ground for such misguided heroism.  Teenagers are aquiver.  They vibrate.  They’re like exposed nerves, susceptible to even the slightest breeze’s burn.  They’re also hormonal and given to high drama, ripe for hero worship and indoctrination.  It’s no coincidence most religions have their youngest members confirmed or Bat Mitzvah-ed during the teenage years.   But in my opinion, students at that age need to be directed toward the big questions and then empowered to find their own answers rather than being baptized into certainty.

On this blog, I’m twisting the form, using the idea of a sermon to structure my writing for a while.  I have some things to say, and have ordained myself to say them.  But do not anoint me with an authority I have not earned except through voice and style.  You’ll be disappointed, because you’ll be the spectator of my spiritual journey instead of the protagonist in your own. 

We do not save our followers—in the church, on the page, in the studio, or in the classroom.  They do that.  And when we start to think we can be our students’ saviors, we’re playing God.  When we rely on our reputations or personalities rather than our knowledge and experience to keep our students afloat we’re really sinking their ships.  We’re also taking more love than we’re giving, since love is always active, not passive.  We’re acting out of need more than power.  We’re keeping them from finding other, equally important teachers by tethering them to our influence.  And we’re acting in direct opposition to St. Paul’s advice in Corinthians 13:1-3:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge,and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,[b] but do not have love, I gain nothing.

 Last, but certainly not least, many people who end up leading cults of personality didn’t start out superficial or twisted, the popularity turned them that way.  Hero worship is detrimental for followers, certainly, but it’s also a painful spiritual death for the leader.  

Beware and Amen.

 

Sermon on Reciprocal Inhibition

So often our bodies are the best teachers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Amen.