We’ll begin today with a quote from Father Daniel Berrigan, who passed from this world into the next yesterday after a long life of faithful work for justice-
“Obviously there will be no genuine peace while such an inherently violent scheme of things continues. America will in time extricate herself from the bloody swamps, the ruined villages, the mutilated dead of Vietnam. But nothing will be settled there, nothing mitigated at home. Nothing changed, that is, until a change of heart leads us to a change of social structures in every area of our lives.”
Justice for the Other is a sacred task.
It’s a humbling thing to be talking about justice here today because I know this is a congregation for whom a desire for justice is woven into the fabric of your faith – we can see how it says so right there in your bulletin.
We talked last week about connecting with the sacred in ourselves – and I suspect for many here that’s a more challenging concept than the notion that we would find the sacred among others and especially among the Other – those whom our society marginalizes for one reason or another.
Today we are talking about how people in the spring of 2016 living in Birmingham Alabama, participating in the life of this congregation – how can you encounter the sacred in the lives of others and live out a path of justice?
First of all, I know that many of you already are doing so. Let us take a moment to celebrate the consistent witness of this congregation and you among it on so many vital issues. Let us be grateful that you create and hold a progressive, inclusive faith space in an environment where those can be difficult to find.
Do you do this perfectly? I suspect not. I’ve never known any congregation who did. But from what I know you strive to make the connections between how we ought to live and how we do live – and how we treat one another, both individually and systemically.
Thank you for that. That is a calling and it is a gift to you and through you to the broader community.
That ought to be said.
And because I know you take this commitment seriously, today I’m going to offer to you a few further reflections rooted in my own years of social justice engagement and in my sense of your community – each of you on your individual journeys and along your path together.
I am going to make 4 points (and don’t worry, I’ll make them briefly) –
1) let us realize that we are not all called to do the same sort of work. This was the message I offered the young people – and let me reassert it now. Any work for justice is built on a variety of tasks. Some people are good at critique. Others create. Some people are the logistics folks. Vision and practicality. It takes all of us. Often we devalue our own roles. Or we criticize others because they are not just like us.
Don’t get me wrong – accountability is important and we need to examine critical words to figure out if we can learn something from them. Or to offer some critical words – from a place of love, not ego. But we’re in this together – and we do the work best when we do what we are called to do and support others in what they are called to do.
That acknowledges the sacred in ourselves and in the others whom we struggle alongside.
So that’s first. In the struggle for justice, let us keep building one another up.
2) we know there is a constant struggle for justice and against oppression across difference.
We can name forms of oppression –
Sexism and patriarchy
Homophobia and heterosexism
Systemic discrimination because of economic status or class, national origin, religion (or lack thereof). There are others.
And today we especially honor International Workers Day. We remember the long history of labor demands and the ongoing needs for wage justice across the globe. The obstacles to minimum wage legislation locally are just one example in the ongoing demand for dignity and a fair wage for all working people, for all who want and need to work.
Today is also International Family Equality Day, a world-wide celebration of the LGBTQ parenting and family community and a time of recognition that many parents and their children continue to face discrimination and the threat of violence. In a week that has seen Oxford threaten to jail transgender people based on bathroom use and Chief Justice Roy Moore publically reiterating his claim that same-sex marriage violates state law, we must celebrate loving and caring family in all of its formations.
Each of the causes, each of these demands for justice and experience of injustice bring their own specific conditions.
We can acknowledge that no paths are the same while we at once recognize that the forces of oppression have something in common.
Our culture continues to set forth a particular norm. And with that norm goes power in society. And across that norm – on the other side, you find less power, less value.
Across that norm, we move from subject to object. And if we look around the room, there are ways in which we all cross that norm – you might be a black straight woman or a low-income white man. You might be a Latino man with dementia. Or a trans Muslim youth.
We flip across the continuum of power in all of our identities – and we owe it to the quest for justice to recognize the ways in which we are granted power, even as in other ways we are denied it.
And further to understand that the intersections of those layers of identity render people especially privileged. Or especially vulnerable.
That is the reality of our world. The question to us is what we do with it.
IT DOES NOT HAVE TO BE THIS WAY. This is not some natural order. We have constructed a society in which difference is viewed with suspicion and denied full humanity – or the full respect of creation if we look beyond human life into the health of our ecosystems and the future of the planet.
This is human-made.
Injustice is persistent and pervasive but we always have choices. We always have the capacity to assert that the system as we know it is wrong.
We are not all the same. But our differences can be viewed as a source of richness, as the vibrant texture of our full humanity, as the opportunity to come to come into relationships of mutuality.
We have that choice. To embrace and assert the value of a pluralistic world, one that celebrates rather than erases differences and yet strives for full justice and full value and the recognition of the full humanity of all people and indeed the value and meaning of all creation.
This requires us continually to educate ourselves. No matter how much we know, there is more to learn. Change is a constant. And it is not the responsibility of people at the margins or those whom we have made vulnerable in our society to educate us. We must not assume that our good intentions entitle us to relationship. When we’re in the position of privilege – we have to do our own work.
We can learn to respect people as the subjects of their own lives rather than as the objects of our derision or mockery OR our charity or aspirations for them.
When we bring our open hearts and our open minds – and when we leave our defensiveness and our egos and our need to be the good white person/straight person/ally/and so on back at home – we can find the room to do meaningful work.
We may not always be setting the agenda. Maybe we just need to show up and listen and then take what we’ve learned back to our own communities and circles.
And there, even in the most hard-hearted places of ingrained racism or sexism or homophobia, maybe we find that through our commitment, our compassion, and our ever-growing wisdom maybe we find the opportunities to chip away at oppression at its source.
That is difficult and delicate work – and if we wield our truths like an angry hammer – well, sometimes we have to do that – but most of the time, if we look, we can find ways to speak truth to power has a chance to be heard. And a lot of times, it may not even be about the person you’re speaking directly to. Even if you are just disrupting the illusion of consensus, you may be speaking a truth that someone needs to hear – and doing what’s right because it’s right.
3) Okay, so having talked about justice as own specific identities and at the intersections, let’s widen the circle a little. The way that we do community can be a radical act of justice. In a world of commodification and consumerism, creating spaces of intentional genuine community – community that has porous borders, so that it’s open to all – community where people can join in relationship – that is a justice act.
And it is from that community and from those relationships that we come to understand the visceral realities of the structures of power and privilege. These connections can be counter-cultural. They can interrupt norms.
And I know y’all know that. This congregation is one of those places.
But I also know that – as I said earlier – no gathering of human people is perfect. And I know that times of transition are hard. And the world that we live in today encourages us to harden our edges. So as a friend to this community, I want to take this opportunity to reiterate the importance of building real, non-exclusive, mutually-accountable, open-hearted relationships among yourselves.
This takes commitment and patience. It is active and evolving. We bring the world with us – and all of our own stuff – when we walk through these doors. But in your willingness to do this work, to dedicate this effort, you create something that is greater than the sum of its parts.
4) Finally, I know we could spend all day talking about layers and levels of injustice and the struggle to achieve justice, but I will close with one other matter that takes us out another level into the community.
One element of my own current work is a focus on how we regard the question of economic development in our city and in our state. There are a lot of wonderful things happening in Birmingham right now. But in some cases they are happening – as these things have ALWAYS happened here – on the backs of the poorest among us. I’m talking about what, depending on how you look at it, is described as neighborhood revitalization or as gentrification.
I’m all about cool places to eat and fixing up dilapidated housing and craft beer – seriously, we can say that in the UU church, right? Good beer is a great thing.
But once again it comes at a price – and it does not take much digging at all to realize that this is absolutely a consistent pattern over the whole of the history of this metropolitan area — we put the interests of business and of the relatively affluent above the needs of the poor.
In Birmingham, this is always a racialized narrative as well, so that we have the needs of poor black and brown people subsumed to the profit and pleasure of the affluent, who are predominantly, though not exclusively, white. Poor people of color are displaced in the name of so-called economic and neighborhood development. We see it decade after decade in the history our city and it is happening now.
Unfortunately, the sides on this argument have come to a point where everyone more or less knows what the other is going to say.
Add to that that these are complicated, nuanced issues, where the economic engines involved have become ever-more sophisticated in their presentation and the methods.
Add in the persistent pernicious ideology of globalization which is constantly soaked into our outlook. Gentrification is globalization made manifest at a local level.
If we take it out another level, we see the ways in which the economic development rhetoric in our state tends to happen at the expense of the natural environment.
Disposable people, disposable ecosystems.
Collateral damage laid on the altar of profit and productivity.
I raise these issue here today not because we can fully address it – I myself often have more questions than solutions, but because I would like to invite you as a religious community to participate in a broader religious dialogue on gentrification. This is not a centralized conversation, but instead a grassroots effort to bring our lens of faith to examine such questions as
Who benefits from economic revitalization and neighborhood (re)development and at whose expense does it take place? and
How should we as religious communities and individuals respond to the fact that current models of economic and neighborhood development do little to disrupt systems that marginalize significant groups of people – because they are rooted in neoliberal economic approaches and top-down strategies that reinforce outsider hierarchies rather than grassroots participation.
Make no mistake that they are more sophisticated than past blunt tools of legalized racial segregation and so-called urban renewal. But they are this century’s face of our continued neglect of the most vulnerable among us in the service of a cultural narrative of economic self-sufficiency and continued accumulation of wealth and power for a sliver of the populace.
In a world that does not now and will not ever IN the current economic system have enough living wage jobs for people to gainfully support themselves, I would argue that it is of great relevance on International Workers Day to question the status quo – and the violence it does to people on the economic margins.
If this question of a religious dialogue on gentrification and how you might bring a UU faith lens to examine these issues has any interest to you – either as individuals or as a community, please let me know. This is an organically evolving dialogue and I would love to discuss at some point in the days, weeks, or months ahead how we might productively generate such a conversation here and what sort of action might come out of it.
As we conclude these meditations on finding the sacred among us in everyday life, on living out a path of justice, I offer more words from Daniel Berrigan:
“For my part, I believe that the vain, glorious and the violent will not inherit the earth. In pursuance of that faith my friends and I take the hands of the dying in our hands. And some of us travel to the Pentagon, and others live in the Bowery and serve there, and others speak unpopularly and plainly. It is all one.”
Most of my conversation in the immediate aftermath of the massacre in Orlando took place on Facebook in communion with people in my community. This post documents those reflections as they unfolded that day and since, forming something of a journal of grief and sense-making.
Sunday, June 12 7:58 am
‘THIS IS NOT GOD’S LOVE!!!!’ screamed a protester (who shames the name of Christ by claiming it) an arm’s length from me during last night’s Pride parade. I thought ‘you got that right.’
That is among the more printable of the things that this small, loud group hurled at us as we walked past in last night’s Pride parade. They were particularly incensed by the row of churches that showed up to proclaim the (genuine) inclusive nature of God’s love.
We don’t yet know many of the details about the shooting in Orlando – a shooting that took place in a nightclub much like the one in which Phyllis and I were hanging out into the early hours the other night.
But I do know these things, which I had planned to say today anyway and which take on a particular poignant, painful significance in light of this horrible event:
When you see us LGBTQIA folks celebrating Pride, realize that we are fighting for not only for dignity and inclusion, but for life itself.
We are celebrating our integrity and our full humanity in a society that that often denies it.
We are calling for a world that embraces our diversity and that understands this example of diversity as instructive – for we can help teach the rest of our culture that difference is a source of strength and wonder instead of fear, judgment, and hatred.
Even in this day, there is no shortage of people who would deny us the right to simply live as ourselves. The play we saw Friday night included a wrenching video clip of cases of physical violence to LGBTQIA people. This is not uncommon. And countless more lives are broken by the rejection and stigma that we face daily. That is the sinful behavior here.
There is nothing wrong with us. There is nothing related to our sexual orientation, gender expression, or gender identity that needs to be fixed or changed. We are proud of who we are because of who we are, NOT in spite of it.
I would not choose to be other than I am.
The day that we as a global culture learn to live and let live and to treat people with dignity and respect will be a grand day indeed.
We don’t know yet what led to the slaughter of a score of people in Orlando last night and the injury of many more, but it certainly has the marks of a hate crime. We certainly do know what leads to physical violence, awful insult, and soul injury to LGBTQIA people EVERY SINGLE DAY in this culture.
Please consider this morning if your words and your attitudes and your actions contribute to that. There is no neutral ground in this matter. We are fighting for our lives.
11:47 a.m. – Further news brings us the information that this club was the heart of the scene for Orlando’s Latino LGBTQIA population. LGBTQIA people of color face the dual brutalities of society’s racism and homophobia and it would appear they have born the brunt of this senseless slaughter. There are no words to convey what I feel.
8:06 p.m. – I wrote this as a comment earlier, but it was buried in the long thread of my first post today – and I think it’s worth foregrounding (so I quote myself):
‘Fundamentalism comes in all forms. It can be found in religious and secular settings. It is a mechanism of power – human power, which has nothing to do with the power of faith or divine power, though it often claims that. It is the opposite of pluralism and dedicates itself through a range of violent exclusionary tactics (which include sophisticated and not-so-sophisticated social discourse) to the eradication of pluralism.
I am a pluralist, though I also operate with joy and intensity from my own social location. I respect the right of fundamentalists (whether they be Muslims, Christians, atheists, political ideologues, or any flavor) to live and believe. Their rights end when they move into broader cultural space because their dearest intent is to suffocate pluralist society by sucking the air out of it with their noxious ideological commitments.
My commitment to respond to dehumanization leads me to speak and act against fundamentalism in all of its forms. I have lived long enough, however, to recognize that it comes in far more forms than we commonly name (i.e., far beyond the Islam and the Christianity that we typically associate with extremism).’
I will add to that now: peace and prayers and love to all who – in myriad meaningful ways – counter the forces of dehumanization. It is essential work.
Monday, June 13 11:59 a.m.
Dear God, today I pray especially for all of those working in LGBTQIA service and advocacy organizations and groups, for they are dealing with their own grief while also trying to love and serve the whole community. Give them strength of soul and peace of heart and wisdom of word in all that they do – and rest and well-being for themselves. We offer our gratitude to them and to you. Amen.
Tuesday, June 14 9:56 p.m.
A reminder to my LGBTQIA friends – you can turn off the news if you need to. It’s okay. You can walk away from it for a while. Take care of yourself. The struggle and the honor of memory will still be there when you get back.
Wednesday, June 15 6:42 a.m.
May we remember today that kindness and advocacy need not be mutually exclusive.
May we be filled with both compassion and a whole-hearted commitment to justice for all.
May we honor that which is holy within each person and on this earth, even as we ask for accountability and discernment.
May we be wise.
8:10 a.m. – If you are ally or friend of LGBTQIA people and especially LGBTQIA people of color – or want to be – or just respect people period – I have a suggestion.
Our cultural space is really, really noisy right now.
The LGBTQIA community is not of one mind about where we go from here (and that’s okay), though we’re pretty universal about taking note of and condemning individual and cultural homophobia.
So while we’re not monolithic, one way you can support people is to make room for our voices. You can listen, ask respectful questions (NOT devil’s-advocate, opinions-disguised-as-questions, or argumentative questions) IF the person welcomes questions, and research and read what’s being said by LGBTQIA people about all the different issues.
This is about hearing, not about being heard yourself.
When you help to create that space where LGBTQIA people’s voices are made central, you are helping (even just a little bit) to shift the power in our cultural conversations. No one speaks for the whole community (ever – for any community), but there’s good learning in seeking out a range of perspectives.
I believe this to be good solidarity practice across the board, but today let us keep in mind the context of LGBTQIA people, Latino/Latinx folks, and the intersections of sexual orientation and gender identity, race, and ethnicity.
11:13 a.m. – An update about tonight’s Religious Memorial Observance for the Victims of the Orlando Massacre (let me know if you have questions) –
we will gather tonight at 8:00 on the first floor of Beloved. After an opening welcome, there will be 5 separate spaces for prayer and reflection in honor of the lives lost and disrupted at Pulse in Orlando. You will be able to move among them according to your own needs. They are:
1) downstairs at Beloved – a diverse group of faith leaders from around the community will offer their prayers
2) upstairs at Beloved – a space for silent prayer, meditation, centering prayer, and silent worship. this space will also be open before the service beginning at 7:00.
3) at The Abbey – names and images of those who were killed
4) at The Abbey – a memorial creative art space
5) at The Abbey – a place to talk and pray individually with ministers and chaplains
We hope that all will feel welcome and that all can find a forum for their own grief and healing.
Thursday, June 16 7:06 a.m.
Prayer versus action – this is a false binary.
It’s not either/or. The best action is grounded in prayer*.
And the lessons of action give clarity to prayer.
These are complementary means, not opposite ones.
*as a Christian, I pray to a gracious and loving God in the name of the Incarnate Christ, but I’d certainly never say that is the only meaningful form of prayer. Translate for yourself and your own traditions or non-traditions accordingly.
Friday, June 17 7:06 a.m.
Sweet friends and family have been reaching out since the Orlando shooting to offer words of comfort, affirmation, and love. That’s meant a lot. And many of them (many of y’all 🙂 ) will also include a concern about safety. ‘Be careful.’ is the refrain.
Here’s the thing – I don’t feel any less safe after Orlando than I felt before it. That, sadly, is because I didn’t feel safe before Orlando. And I know very few LGBTQIA people who do feel wholly safe. And – with no disrespect intended at all – I think those few who do are probably not staring at the reality of things.
We construct communities of love and relationship – or at least the fortunate among us are in a place to do so – that provide for support and meaning in the rhythms of life.
But there are a lot of people that hate us, that consider us sinful, or find us disgusting. There’s an entire spectrum of dis-affirmation and down at the far end of it is a small violent group.
We are harmed by that whole spectrum – and that’s why I keep repeating that there’s no neutral ground. I want people to get off of that spectrum and locate themselves in a place that at least embraces ‘live and let live’ and eschews rhetoric about sin or anything less than the full humanity and dignity of LGBTQIA people.
But we are all – and always have been – at real risk of significant harm from genuinely dangerous people. The reality of that has been magnified by Orlando, but it was no less true before. People often remain closeted in whole or in part not because they are ashamed but because they are afraid. And they ought to be.
The awful murder of British MP Jo Cox yesterday further illustrates the vulnerability of good people to those who are willing to make their hatred manifest in the most brutal ways. That wasn’t about LGBTQIA issues, but it’s a related form of extremism that from all reports led to her death. I am 100% aware that in every public presence I claim as an out lesbian – and this is true for all of us – that it is good fortune that my path and that of some violent hater doesn’t cross. I am especially aware of that in terms of a pastoral presence. I am never not aware of it.
I want every-body to feel and be safe from needlessly inflicted harm. Queer bodies. Black bodies. Brown bodies. Disabled bodies. Poor bodies. Women’s bodies. Old bodies. And all of the intersections of those things. Every body. Every body to live knowing that their inherent worth as human beings – their right to live, to love, and to face each day with the integrity of a whole self – is fully respected by all.
That’s the world I strive for. It is not the world we have now. And I know it.
There is no neutral ground. Either you stand with love* across all our differences or you are somewhere on that spectrum that tips downward to the most horrible of places.
(* and some conservative Christians – will say “Oh, I love everybody. I just . . .” STOP RIGHT THERE. Where that sentence goes from there indicates that they really don’t get what the radical love of Jesus Christ is or means or demands of those of us who claim to be his followers. They do NOT love everybody because THAT.IS.NOT.THE.LOVE.OF.CHRIST.)
9:17 p.m. – It has been a week of horror and grief, including today the anniversary of the white-supremacy-driven killings at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston.
It has been a week of human connection that embraces and celebrates our diversity and our innate capacity for joy and relationship. We bear witness to the brutality, but all around me, people are responding with love. Real love and care and concern.
Amen and Amen.
Tonight Temple Emanu-El invited both the LGBTQIA community and the Muslim community to worship and grieve in a memorial in their Shabbat service. It was heartfelt, inclusive, and deeply resonant with the spirit (Spirit) of promise for a better world.
Saturday, June 18 7:54 a.m.
A word I need to say:
if anyone were ever to come for my Muslim friends, they would have to come through me.
And I’m small, but I’m mean when people mess with my peeps.
Please don’t think you know anything about Islam if you are not in personal fellowship with any Muslims.
(and yes, that’s a dramatic statement, but given the nature of our sociopolitical discourse these days, I wanted to say something equally unequivocal)
(and yes, I feel that way about my other friends too, but this is the claim that is called for in this particular moment)
Sunday, June 19 7:59 a.m.
In a week where I have been critiquing the violent culture of toxic masculinity, it’s lovely to have a day to celebrate all the good men in this world.
I know a LOT of them and I’m sure you do too. Not only in my own biological family – my father, step-father, grandfathers, and uncles – but among my friends, the fathers of my friends (and now days the sons of my friends), and countless other men who put their energy into caring for the people around them and for the world.
I critique the culture of patriarchy, but I do so in the hope of freeing us ALL from the pressures that cause some men to miss the joy of living, the capacity to care, and the pleasures of non-conforming individuality. I count a bunch of non-conforming, open-hearted men as my chosen brothers in this world and the world needs more like them (even though they are nothing alike on the surface).
Keep fathering, good men, whether you are a biological father or not. The world needs you – and I’m grateful to travel in it with you.
9:59 p.m. – I’ve been thinking about how the victim total for the Orlando shooting was reduced from 50 to 49. The 50th fatality was the shooter, Omar Mateen.
Something bothers me about that. I had the same reaction about Newtown when Adam Lanza was removed from the count.
Now if I were an injured victim or a loved one of those killed or injured, I doubt I could manage any equanimity about these men. I would not make this argument to those people.
But most of us are not those people. We are a step or many steps removed and our perspective can be different. We can carry some of the load that those closer to the tragedy cannot.
I suggest that a part of that load is grieving for the man who did the killing and whatever happened in his life to turn him into the person who committed mass murder – and analyzing with some compassion (rather than just polarized vitriol) the factors that led to it.
None of us can know what peculiar alchemy turned Omar Mateen into killer, but we can look for the causes and try to deal with them. And we can pray for his soul and for the souls of other damaged people out there.
There are no simple answers – and we won’t find answers with simple judgments. I am not in any way recommending that we excuse the behavior or fail to hold people accountable.
But hurt people hurt people. And maybe if we can figure out what about our culture and our individual lives within it harms people to the point of their doing harm to others, we might make a difference.
Tuesday, June 21 2:53 p.m.
After I prayed last week at the Central Alabama Pride/City of Birmingham vigil, I was quoted in a local NPR-affiliate interview as saying “Our responses are what teach us how to live,” *
Tragic moments remind us that we want to live lives of genuine meaning.
We want lives that matter.
It doesn’t have to be on any grand global scale.
It’s really about living with integrity and commitment in whatever context you find yourself.
This is counter-cultural. Our culture insists that we must purchase something to bring ourselves that sort of contentment and connection. The system depends on our always wanting (convincing ourselves that we need) something more.
But the horrible moments, along with the truly joyous ones, reveal that for the fiction that it is.
Everyone of us can live a life that matters. That’s a choice we make in our engagement with one another every single day.
In this contentious season, I pray that we all remember this basic truth.
*(otherwise I probably would have forgotten I said it – but I’ve been reflecting since I read them on those words, which I did indeed say)
Sunday, June 26 2:28 p.m.
Been catching up on a couple of back yard chores this blazing afternoon and thinking about a book by the noted American Buddhist Jack Kornfield. It’s called ‘After the Ecstasy, the Laundry’ and it’s a skillful reminder of how we live in the realm of the daily even after moments of enlightenment and insight.
What I’m working with this afternoon – two weeks after waking up to the news about the Orlando shootings – is more the concept of ‘After the Tragedy, the Laundry.’
For those who are personally touched by horrible events, sometimes things are never the same. Our lives are surely as shaped by our losses as by our joys and triumphs. But often from a bit more remove we bear witness to the terrible things that happen in this world and then we move on. What else are we supposed to do?
Getting stuck is never a good option. The meaningful choice, I believe, is in how we go about moving forward.
It’s easy to get caught up in the cause-of-the-moment. It becomes a lightening quick grief fad.We can move on from that to the next awful thing – or to ignoring the next awful thing or to ignoring the chronic misery of many in our world. Or we can acknowledge that in this interdependent world we are all changed by the suffering of others. Then we choose to let that embitter us or open our hearts.
That’s our fundamental choice – slide right on by, turn ugly, or keep letting our spirits grow with a heart of compassion and care.
It’s really up to us. The laundry still has to get done. The backyard still has to be mowed. It’s really all about what we bring to it and what we give back into the world around us. That comes after ecstasy and it comes after tragedy – and it’s one better measure of the meaning of our time on this earth.
This is the first of two-part sermon series given to a Unitarian Universalist congregation earlier this spring. The second week’s sermon, which I will post tomorrow, focuses on finding the sacred in our justice-oriented connections with the world around us.
We’re talking today about the everyday sacred. First let me say that I’m not going to define sacred here. I’m not going to try to tell a group as spiritually diverse as you what ‘sacred’ or ‘holy’ means to each of you, though I’m certainly glad to talk to folks about that later if you want. But I’m going to trust that most of you have a sense of what sacred means for you – and it’s probably why you’re here – in this particular place rather than out on the lake or over at the Baptist church on this fine Sunday morning.
Now our reading, which comes from Father Greg Boyle, who happens to be a Jesuit priest in Los Angeles. This is not a Jesus sermon – I do those elsewhere – but some of you may have heard of his long-term community-building and job creation efforts in gang-dominated areas of Los Angeles. They’ve built a group of enterprises called Homeboy Industries. So hear these words –
“If the intent is to save people, or even to help people, then . . . you’re going to be depleted. But if the task is allowing yourself to be reached by people, can you receive people? Can you be anchored in the here and now and practice the sacrament of the present moment? if you can do that, then it’s all delight and it’s all amazement and it’s all awe. . . Our choice is always the same: save the world or savor it. And I vote for savoring it. And, just because everything is about something else, if you savor the world, somehow – go figure – it’s getting saved.”
Let’s talk for a minute about getting depleted. Anybody here ever feel depleted? Like you’ve given all you’ve got to give? Frustrated? Angry? Weary? Anybody ever despair of the state of the world?
Yeah. We’ve been there. Maybe you’re there now.
We are surrounded by avoidable death. Every time I turned around this week I read about people getting shot. How many endless wars are happening on our planet? Avoidable death and Donald Trump and mass incarceration and anti-LGBTQ legislation. We lost Prince this week – he sang much of the best of the soundtrack of my high school years – and he’s not the only cultural icon who has died recently.
We celebrate Earth Day while we can’t seem to do a thing to interrupt climate change and wanton ecosystem destruction. We blame the poor, the immigrant, and the mentally ill for our problems. We starve Medicaid but legislate bathroom use.
And in our own lives we contend with stacks of bills, dozens of errands, and overflowing e-mail inboxes. We try to help but there’s always another cause, always another person, always another wrenching image, always another hand, always another word we’ve got to speak against. It never ends – and it’s entirely possible it never will.
Some days we’re up to here. That, my friends, can seem mighty bleak.
But here’s the grace moment – it’s right here in Boyle’s words – Can you be anchored in the here and now? Can you practice the sacrament of the present moment?
(and he not the first one to use that phrase but we’re going to stick with his context this moment)
Last August I had a detached retina in my right eye. Pretty scary stuff, but the surgery to repair it went well. But I found for a time that I could not read comfortably. I ordered a basic Kindle Fire from Amazon because I learned they had a text-to-speech feature that would enable them to read books to me. It’s pretty mechanical, not like a real audiobook though the technology for these things has improved.
As my eye slowly healed, I was able to keep up with much of my reading by having the device read to me. So it’s reading a book to me that quotes from the Bible and you know how scripture is set up chapter and verse, right? – so chapter 6, verse 30. Six colon thirty. Well, my kindle read that like it that – and I heard it like clock time. I heard 6:30. Like clock time.
And I went ‘Hunh.’
Ever have something just click for you? You’re there one minute and something just shifts? Well, that happened to me when I heard that.
And instead of thinking about sacred texts (the actual reference), I got started thinking about sacred time. And the more I thought about it, the more it seems like we are capable of seeing all time as sacred time. Not just the moments when we are gathered here in church – or those precious moments of birth and death and marriage and other milestones. We can choose to see time as sacred.
So let’s hold that for a moment – imagine that – all time is sacred.
For us to filter time like that, for us make that one lens through which we encounter the world, we have to make it a part of us. We have to take that sense of sacred-ness and know that it’s part of who we are. It’s something internal to us – and if it’s internal to us, it’s internal to all – so we hold the sacred within us, as do we all.
But here’s the thing – it’s already there. The sacred is already there in you and already all around you. However, it is mighty easy for it to get covered over by all the mess of our material culture and all the busy-ness of our routines.
We have to make the deliberate choice to see it that way. We have to CHOOSE to see the moments of our daily lives as sacred – both the monumental and the mundane, the joyous and the sorrowful moments. All of it.
Can you do it? Some of you may already do so. Most people don’t. Our lives obscure it most of the time. It becomes a muddy smudge except in special moments. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s there, if only we decide to see it.
All time is sacred time.
Can you see it that way?
Nothing has changed. And yet everything has changed.
Then here’s our next step. We are moving through this sacred time. We are always on the go, right? There’s stuff and stimulation of all sorts. What happens? For this we turn to some of the great wisdom passed down from Buddhist teachers. We see the sacred in all things around us, we do what we can do, and then we let it go.
Because nothing, my friends, is permanent. We can try to hold onto joys, but we can’t. We can try to push away pain, but we can’t. Sometimes we hold onto our pain – and that works for a time though it’s miserable. But we find if we fill ourselves with any one thing, then we are unable to greet what comes next.
When we see time as sacred, we experience the moment – the fullness of the moment – we do what we can in that moment, as skillfully as possible – and then we let it go so that we are prepared to face the next sacred moment.
We are called to do all that we can, but not more than that. We can only do what we can do. By acknowledging the sacred within us, we can work through that sacredness in all that we do. And that is bound to help us do what we do better.
I am going to give you a small example. And I don’t actually know if this guy framed his time as sacred or not. But he sure acted like he did. Some of y’all may remember there used to be a Quiznos in downtown Homewood. I used to go in there from time to time back.
One day I was in a crummy mood because I was having a crummy day.
The man behind the counter – this man who took my order, made me a sandwich, and took my money? He was an instrument of perfect grace. He simply did everything he was supposed to do in the kindest manner possible.
It stopped me and my bad day in my tracks. And I realized that I did not have to go through my time like that. Friends, that was probably 10 years ago. And I can still remember that moment.
Do you change the world by making a sandwich? That man – and I don’t know a thing about him. I never even got his name – he changed my world. I learned a great deal about the everyday sacred from a man who made me a sandwich. This ordinary thing was turned into an extraordinary gift.
We can see and use our time as sacred moments. Time that enables us to touch the sacred in ourselves and to honor it in others.
Back to our quote – But if the task is allowing yourself to be reached by people, can you receive people? Can you be anchored in the here and now and practice the sacrament of the present moment? if you can do that, then it’s all delight and it’s all amazement and it’s all awe. . . Our choice is always the same: save the world or savor it. And I vote for savoring it
So here is the savoring part: we see the sacredness of all things. The joys and the sorrows – both are real and both are true. We see it and we savor it. We hold it for the moment. We discern in that moment what we can do and what we cannot do. And we let. it. go, doing what we can and not doing what we can’t.
Friends in that moment, we have touched what is real. And we have blessed from our deepest capacity to do so.
Savor that. It is a moment. And then we move on. But the next moment is sacred too.
Let’s be real. Everybody is going to get tired. There is no way around it. There are times when our outrage overwhelms us – and rightly so. But we must remember that both the joy and the sorrow are true. We hold them in tension.
What are some things that help to make this a sustainable practice? Just like I can’t define sacred for you, I can’t tell you what is going to make the most sense for you. I know some things that work for some people, some possible ingredients in the mix:
creative expression, generosity, kindness, meditation, music, rest, humor, sharing food, love, forgiveness of both the self and others, silence, worship, solitude, relationship, compassion, giving and also receiving, wisdom.
That’s hardly an exhaustive list. You do not have to do any of those things. You do not have to do or believe anything I’ve said. You can go right on seeing the world exactly as you have done and I will wish you nothing but blessings and a lovely journey.
But I offer this to you – humbly – as a notion – as a person who works at the intersections of different faiths and different issues and different people. Consider how we might come to see time as sacred, how in the process we might find it possible to savor the world, and in so doing, perhaps we will find new ways to save it.
I’ll close with a bit of a poem by the Jewish poet, Marge Piercy. It’s a nod to the indisputably sacred moment, the celebration of Passover, which we’re in the midst of now – and very much in keeping with our day –
But the discipline of blessings is to taste
each moment, the bitter, the sour, the sweet
and the salty, and be glad for what does not
hurt. The art is in compressing attention
to each little and big blossom of the tree
of life, to let the tongue sing each fruit,
its savor, its aroma and its use.
Attention is love, what we must give
children, mothers, fathers, pets,
our friends, the news, the woes of others.
What we want to change we curse and then
pick up a tool. Bless whatever you can
with eyes and hands and tongue. If you
can’t bless it, get ready to make it new.
It’s the season of grades and graduations and celebration by students and teachers alike at the end of a long school year. I’ve been reading about honors accumulated, understandable parental pride, and the amount of scholarship money earned by graduating senior classes.
I join in the rejoicing at the transitions that mark new life chapters and the beginning of summer.
However, I’m also reflecting today on what we laud as worthy educational achievement. Thought I might suggest some additional alternative measures for our educational institutions – I’d like to know how many of your students:
are genuinely kind?
can pay bills on time, shop for groceries and prepare meals, rent an apartment, and file their own taxes?
can balance ambition with human connection, work with the other stuff of living?
see value in the process or journey as well as the end product?
understand the complexities of the governance system in our country and how to participate in it?
engage with respect and sincerity across differences, especially where differential power is involved?
are dedicated to devising creative solutions to care for the earth and halt the rush of climate change?
can drive a car without putting themselves or others at risk of either physical danger or road rage?
can competently care for another living thing, whether that’s a plant or an elder or a pet or a child?
understand that vocational choices need to be made in the context of a realistic assessment of what day-to-day life in that field actually consists of rather than idealized images of any given profession?
know to treat people below them in society’s food chain with respect and dignity as well as those above them?
can locate a reliable auto mechanic, plumber, tailor, dentist, worshiping community, primary care provider, and mental health practitioner?
can identify the ways in which they are always vastly interdependent with the rest of the world?
These things are difficult to measure, you say?
Well, sure they are. But we presume to measure intelligence, aptitude, and achievement as if they were single, easily quantifiable constructs. I don’t think we get that right either, so why should that stop of us from attempting to grade our schools on their capacity to do teach these essential life skills?
Or better yet, forget about measuring them altogether and just teach them as a priority, as a requirement for dignified, decent, and capable human living in the 21st century.
Why can’t we do that?
We have a lot to do tonight.
That fits, right?
Tonight we are staring at the role of women in our lives and we come to a point of saying, ‘There is a whole lot to do. ‘
And we’re going to get it done.
That sound like any woman you know?
Plenty to do.
And it’s going to get done.
Let us start with the recognition that today is Mother’s Day and that every soul in this room was born of a mother.
Sometimes that relationship went well from there. And sometimes not.
For those who can wholly celebrate their mothers’ enduring presence and wisdom in their life, we gathered here – we celebrate that with you.
This is not a competition. The world may teach us that we are supposed to be better than everybody else, that for somebody to win, somebody else has to lose, that if you are all happy, I am going to be talking about you behind your back.
You know what I say about that?
I say that is from Hell. Those are the world’s values. Those are not God’s values. That is not love of my neighbor. So I look on Facebook or I look around this room and I see that you have an incredible relationship with your wonderful mother and y’all had brunch together today and it is all so happy.
For those you who have great relationships with your mothers and great relationships with your children and all or any of the things that are supposed to make this a great day, I say blessings on you for your joy.
But that may not be the relationship that you have – or had – with your mother. Or maybe your mother was wonderful, but she’s gone. Maybe gone earlier from your life. Or maybe, excruciatingly, just recently.
So maybe you look at the fact of Mother’s Day and your heart hurts. You look at all those blasted sappy Hallmark cards and you look all those smiling brunch pictures and your heart hurts.
But you know what we are going to do tonight? We are going to celebrate. We are going to be happy that we were born onto this Earth of a woman who – for whatever was going on in her life – did what she could do. For some of us that was grand and wonderful and perfect. And for those of you among us, those people who know this day as a joyful one, we rejoice with you.
Even as we grieve our own losses. What was. What was not. What could never be. What has been lost to us.
We rejoice with you. You acknowledge our pain. That is the compassion born to you.
Together we are healed. Together we look upon the faces of women in this world and we give thanks and we know and release our pain and we forgive.
We can say the same for the mothering we have or have not done. We who have given birth to a child may rightly rejoice on this day. Thank God for our children. But at the same time it is no less true that there are hearts which are broken – hearts to whom a child was denied. Or lost. The suffering. Oh my God. Women who for whatever reason wanted a child that was denied to them. Or bore a child who could not be the child they dreamed of. Or who didn’t want a child and somehow felt the judgment of the world. Or maybe there are no words.
It takes a village, my friends. No truer words have ever been said. Somehow all of us have to come to this moment in our lives.
This evening, you know what we do? We celebrate. We celebrate all the good mothering that happens in this world. That good mothering happens through biological mothers and through incredible women who offer that into the world because that’s what they do.
Thank God for all the mothering that happens in this world. Thank God that we do not have to rely on some single chain of biology for us to give or for us to receive.
While I tend to shy away from describing God as a Father or as a Mother because I believe that God is way, way, way beyond our human conceptions of gender and role, let us fully assert in this moment that in our life – no matter who we are separated from in this earthly realm, no matter what – we are wholly immersed in the love of God.
Whatever the best love that you got from your mama or that you didn’t get for but yearned for from your mama? That? That is the love that God wraps you in every minute of every day. And whatever love that you have to give? The love that you would give to a child? God calls upon us to offer that back into the world.
Because the world so desperately needs it.
You get to decide what that looks like.
Know that the world needs a mother’s love. And that you – whether or not you are anybody’s biological mama – and in the unlikely event that you are a man and sure ain’t going to be anybody’s biological mama – the world and its people still need that kind of love. And you, my friends, by the nature of being here, by the nature of listening to the call of God can consider yourself summoned to provide it.
The world needs the kind of love we are supposed to learn from our mamas. If you received that kind of love in your life, excellent! Turn around and share it. If you didn’t, well then, you know what you missed. Help make sure no one goes without it.
Now let’s turn to our Scripture to teach us something about what it means to do this work in the world.
Women’s work, that is.
We look tonight at the story of Deborah, kept deep in the book of Judges – which is not a book we preach from too much in our tradition because it’s hard. These are not for the most part the easy stories of morality, our legacy of ethics and tradition.
Judges is a brutal book, the story of the Israelites, finally settled in Canaan, getting it wrong over and over again and finding themselves accountable to God for that fact. The Israelites have spent their time wandering in the wilderness under Moses and Aaron. They’ve followed Joshua in gaining control of their promised land. They occupy this territory now and they are trying to figure out how to live.
Brutal, bloody stuff. This is not a pretty story, but it is a powerful one.
In the Hebrew Bible, judges are not judges quite like we think of them today. We’re not talking formal courts and appointed or elected legal arbiters. The judges of this book are respected leaders. They are the folks that others turned to for wisdom and direction.
And of all things the amazing thing in this incredibly patriarchal society? One of them was a woman. Her name was Deborah.
Deborah was a prophet and a wise woman. Under her leadership, the people of Israel defeated those who were attempting to conquer them. And under Deborah the Israelites lived and prospered and stayed faithful – those folks had a real hard time with false idols sometimes – but they stayed faithful for 40 years.
That’s pretty amazing. This text tonight is a part of the song that affirms their victory. And we hear Deborah named as a mother in Israel.
A mother in Israel?
We don’t know if Deborah was the biological mother of children. We don’t know the story of her family life. But we do know here that through her wisdom and skill, she gives birth to something very, very important – 40 years of peace and faithful living on this land.
Let’s think about this for a moment – she gives birth to peace in the land. She is a woman called to do important work and she does it seriously.
On this Mother’s Day, we celebrate the literal births – the wonders of children and family. But I also put to each of you – what do you want to give birth to?
It may be children – literally. Precious beings you guide in this world.
For you, it might be a community of nurturing and care for other people’s children. Or other people’s mothers. Or for people who have no family of their own.
Deborah does not do this work alone She’s faithful to God and she works with others. She summons Barak and together they lead an army. And through her prophecy, Deborah knows that the courage of yet another woman will bring them a key victory – a bold woman named Jael who single-handedly killed the Canaanite general Sisera to secure the peace.
What can you give birth to?
Maybe you give birth to a great idea, something that makes a difference not only in your own life but in the lives of those around you.
Ella Baker gave birth to a powerful grassroots organizing tradition in the Civil Rights movement. Dorothy Day gave birth to the Catholic Worker Movement in New York City during the Great Depression, Jane Addams gave birth to the Settlement House Movement for immigrant welfare in early 20th century Chicago. Rachel Carson gave birth to the modern environmental movement.
Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and Adrienne Rich and Mary Oliver and Sandra Cisneros and Denise Levertov and Barbara Kingsolver have given birth to words in the shape of poems and stories and essays and novels, words that move us and teach us and change us, words that will endure for centuries.
In the country of Myanmar, Aung Sung Suu Kyi gave birth to a non-violent revolution that ended decades of military dictatorship.
I know dozens of women – some of them in right here in this room – who have given birth to communities of love and care, where people find connection and friendship and prayers and support. Women who mother children and grown children who are not theirs by birth all the time.
Thank God for that. It sure enough takes a village to raise any child or even to live in this world – and we give birth to and sustain that village for one another each and every day.
Sixteen years ago a group of women – and men – gave birth to this church. Today we all tend it, nurture, keep it growing with a deeds and our wisdom. Who says you even have to be a woman to give birth to the stuff of a better world? This is a message for us all.
In 1971 in East Harlem, New York, a former Black Panther named Afeni Shakur gave birth to Tupac. I have great respect for hip hop and hip hop culture, but I don’t claim it as my own. But of course I know Tupac and appreciate his work and his genius. As some of the friends in my Facebook feed began to call the name of Afeni Shakur on Monday morning and to mark her sudden passing, I started to pay attention.
Afeni Shakur was a mother – a mother who grieved the tragic death of her gifted son – a mother who grieved for and fought the sins of the world, its systemic evils of racism, sexism, and economic disparity. Even before Tupac was born, Afeni helped give birth to a chapter of the Black Panther Movement, nurturing along others in the struggle for a world of freedom and equality for black people. Later, in her sorrows about the world, Afeni mired herself in the awful clutches of drug addiction. She became dependent on crack cocaine. And then she gave birth to a new life for herself. She got clean and stayed that way, even after Tupac’s devastating murder. She gave birth to a foundation from his earnings, reaching out to people in need and good causes all over this country and indeed around the world. She continued this work up until the time of her death this week.
In that time, she also gave birth to this wisdom, which I share with you this evening –
In this speech, she’s been talking about the example of the great Sojourner Truth, the 19th century former slave, herself a mother of enslaved children, who fought men to gain rights for women and white people to gain rights for blacks during the post Civil War Reconstruction and the ugly early grip of Jim Crow and the lynch law.
Afeni Shakur instructs us – “Things are worse that you think. Worse, much worse, than you think. But remember Sojourner. Don’t make no difference how bad they are. It is our responsibility to look it square in the face and say ‘What should I start with? Where shall I begin?’ You hear what I’m saying? That is what it is that all of us must do.”
Afeni Shakur stared at the face of her own pain, the irreconcilable loss of a child and she tells us – and this is a quote “You can do this thing. You can turn that garbage, that pain, that awfulness, you can turn it into something else. We must challenge each other to do that. . . [we must ask ourselves] What can I do different with this pain? I am not asking you to do something that I didn’t do.”
Look around you at how messed up this world is. Look at your own pain – whatever its source, I know it’s there. Look at the example of Deborah, a mother of Israel, who in the middle of a society that viewed women as property made her way to leadership and gave birth to 40 years of peace and faithfulness among the Israelites. Look to Afeni Shakur and know that though there is pain, there is also life. We can live life and we can give and nurture life. Whether it’s a biological child or the hopes and dreams of child that’s not our own or an idea or a poem or a way to save the world.
So we have this day.
What do you rejoice in?
What must you grieve?
What you might you give birth to? In ways traditional or something altogether new.
What will you do?
My grandmother quoted many things to me when I was a child, but one of the most oft-cited sayings came from Luke 12:47, which in the NRSV reads “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.”
While I appreciate the inclusive language here, older texts use a (masculine generic) pronoun, suggesting that this is not a general, easily dismissed “everybody” but indeed an actual individual person. That’s how Grandmama said it and that’s the mandate I heard.
I believe she set this passage before me regularly to sing into my soul a dual sensibility: that I was blessed in many ways and that I in turn needed to share those blessings with others.
The communal responsibility of us all, one for another, is so clear in this verse. I suppose you can hear it as a endorsement of individual ambition, but such an interpretation does not do justice to the Gospel message.
I’ve spent my life not only trying to live up to that call, but also continuously refining my understanding of how to do so skillfully. Good intentions are a necessary but not sufficient condition. The desire to love the world and to be a blessing in it requires not only intent, but knowledge, insight, and relationship. It’s always an ongoing journey.
However, I often see in our culture – then, in my childhood, and now – a refusal on two counts.
The first is of the very idea that we are responsible one for another, that in what we have been granted in this world (and yes, that for which we have worked very hard), we are called to share and love and give, to carry each other along. And that our responsibility increases proportionately with our blessings and freedom.
The second involves going beyond the good intention – so that as we take seriously the requirement to care one for another, we pay attention to the vast web of complex structural forces in play in our culture. We will all make mistakes – and there has to be room for that – but we can at least do our best to treat people not as objects (even as objects of our care and concern), but as subjects in their own lives and deserving of our respect as such.
It’s a start. I think we can do better on both counts. I really do.
Southern states – and most especially Southern state legislatures – are rightly getting a lot of negative attention these days because of a series of regressive moves. Those stories feed the caricature that serves as the popular image of our region. The reality is more complex, as realities always are. The South belongs to the rest of us too – and we belong to it. So I add this portrait of my South in this moment to the mix.
My South has –
- dogwoods in bloom outside my window as I write this.
- people fighting to protect Medicaid for our most vulnerable low income residents.
- awesome Mexican/Vietnamese/Southern/Chinese/haute cuisine/chain restaurant/meat & 3/Waffle House food. We have boiled peanuts and grits and barbecue and farmers markets with watermelon and tomatoes and sweet corn.
- excellent art museums and public gardens and small & community theaters and opera and dance and poets and essayists and novelists – all a part of an artistic community with incredible vision and unparalleled talent.
- one hell of an ugly history of racial oppression – and it’s not just history, it’s now – systemic and individual-level racism are horrifically real.
- black and brown and white people doing our damndest to rid the world of racial oppression – (and yes, even when we are really trying, we white folks still get it wrong, time and again, because we are so soaked in this from the time we are born. But some of us are determined to get beyond that and will keep at the work of addressing systemic racism at its white source until we either succeed or breathe our last breath).
- gay bars and LGBTQ+ community centers and Pride fests and passionate, powerful QTPOC (queer & trans people of color) who might yet succeed in teaching us all how to live without crushing the souls of others.
- plenty of money for prisons, but never enough for teaching children or ensuring access to healthcare or making sure that no one goes hungry.
- churches – tons of churches – a church home for you no matter what you believe or how high church or Spirit-breathing you’re looking for – (and a whole bunch of sincere, God-loving LGBTQ+ Christians – we are faithful people too).
- not just churches – we have mosques and synagogues and temples and meditation centers – there are people practicing their faith in myriad ways and Sunday brunch and picnics in the park for the humanists, agnostics, and atheists among us. In my South, we practice live and let live and we learn and work together.
- no frickin’ public transit to speak of – it’s a shame.
- music in all forms and venues – songs worth singing and musicians worth listening to – music that moves the soul and the body.
- undocumented people in indefinite detention in harsh conditions and a general climate of suspicion toward people for whom English is not their first language – and committed, multi-ethnic coalitions of activists working to change that.
- the most incredible ecodiversity and stunning beauty – these ecosystem treasures that we often don’t even realize are there until after we’ve destroyed them.
- people who will come get you in the middle of the night when you’re stuck on the side of the road – even if you disagree with them on about absolutely everything.
- coffeehouses and craft beer and public libraries and parks and bookstores and cafes.
- far too many people who do not understand the conditions of their own oppression and who thus consistently speak, act, and vote against their own interests.
- Alabama football – Roll Tide!
- activists staring at the evils of environmental racism and organizing to overcome it.
- some of the most assbackward corrupt politicians on the face of the planet, looking after their own power and profit rather than the true public good.
- my people – blood kin and family of choice and (some of) the friends I’ve made across a lifetime – and an incredible community that cares about all of the above.
This my South.
“Are you my sister?”
asked the white-haired
woman stretched out
in bed as I
from the harsh
light of the noisy
Blinds drawn tight.
A pair of highback
on hard tile
against the doors
set as out
of the way
She smiled then
Moving a chair
beside her bed
I tried to
We spoke of the
bed next to
that might not
I dipped the
dry wafer in
the juice and
placed it in
silently for one
“How about we pray?”
“Yes. I’m sorry.”
“So cold. Let me
July 9, 1978 – March for the Equal Rights Amendment, Washington, DC
That’s me in the yellow shorts, just shy of my 9th birthday. Beth stands to my right in the white shirt and blue skirt.
Last week a longtime friend of my first stepmother, Beth, called to tell me that Beth had died after a long period of poor health and a short acute illness.
The news left me surprised and sad and casting about for what to do with what I’ve termed awkward grief.
Born in a small town in the mountains of East Tennessee, Beth became the most cultured person I knew. I lived among smart people, but she was a true intellectual. She modeled feminism, the creative impulse, and dry wit, none of which was everyday currency in other parts of my 1970s childhood.
She and my father were together from the time I was 3 until I was 13. Their marriage crumbled in acrimony, which I was there to witness. She never remarried and had no other children, but we stayed in touch. I would stop by her Tennessee home and spend a few days at least once a year. She sent packages with art, clothes, and books. She was delighted when my daughter was born and doted on her during early visits.
But when I came out as a lesbian and my ex-husband and I split, somehow he got Beth in the divorce. In some ways that was okay. I had more supportive people around me than he did – and in spite of the contentiousness of our own parting, I genuinely wished him well. Beth was a steady and gracious soul, a good person to have in one’s life and I was glad of that for him.
On another level it was a peculiar rejection, particularly from someone who spent her later life in the close companionship of women. She was just gone from my life and it was both sudden and unexplained.
At her memorial service yesterday, she was remembered as caring and compassionate, conscientious, giving, and dependable. It was noted that she had lived a life of service through a career in non-profit work and that she was always “concerned with excellence in living.” All of these accolades captured Beth’s presence. Except with me. She disappeared from my life for reasons I can only guess at and that seem inconsistent with the generous and caring spirit she brought to the rest of her living.
Thus the awkward grief.
We don’t deal very well with grief in general in our society. And we certainly don’t know what to do with grief that doesn’t fit neatly into boxes. I share this story and these reflections here because I know I’m not the only person who has experienced such emotions.
Here’s what I’ve learned so far –
I’m helped by having already done a part of the necessary grieving. I started it years ago when I realized that Beth was effectively gone from my life. I mourned the relationship we had, which was never perfect, but was important to both of us. I mourned the relationship we might have had.
I had thus made some peace long before her death. I had forgiven her in large part, even while I wondered (and still do) if she needed to forgive me. While reconciliation is now beyond this realm, I find comfort in the active work of loving forgiveness that I’ve been engaged in for years.
Grace and forgiveness are important tools for this work.
There will always be people in our lives with whom we have fractured relationships. They have been important to us and we to them. We loved them. They have shaped us. But something crucial is broken in our connection. Though it can take many forms, the essential fact is that they are here and one day they are not. Or perhaps they are still in our lives, but not in the way we would want for them and for ourselves.
The task given to us is to acknowledge the gift of their presence, the fact of their absence, and the meaning of their significance. And then we must let go. No good comes of refusing to acknowledge the realities of a given situation or relationship. We can wish something was different, that something had been different. But our own healing can only begin when we cease to cling tightly to our vision of how things should/could/would be.
That is simple, but not easy.
I will mourn Beth’s loss to the world – and I will continue the work of grieving her loss in my life. I will acknowledge that this grief will always feel awkward. I will pay tribute to what I learned from her. I will wonder at what I might have done differently. I will accept that things are not always made right. And I will let go – and let go again – and let go again.