Preaching experts will tell you that sermons should have one main point, and preachers should be wary of “stringing pearls,” which means stringing together a bunch of random thoughts and calling it a sermon. But I freely admit this is a pearl-stringing sermon because I want to share with you some experiences and stories from my sabbatical, and what I learned from them.
My first trip was to Washington, D.C., for the Festival of Homiletics. Homiletics is the art of preaching or writing sermons, and festival is a kind of party. So I guess you could call it a preaching party, or a party for preachers, which meant I got to wear a t-shirt Jackie bought me last year that says: “I like to party…and by party I mean stay home and write sermons.” I got lots of compliments!
Lesson learned: most preachers are nerds.
The conference began with worship on Monday evening, and the sermon was by the Rev. Karoline Lewis. She preached about how crucial it is that preachers address the important issues of the day. She said that any preacher worth the title has been accused of “getting political” in the pulpit. Of course we cannot be partisan, but neither can we shy away from topics being discussed in the political realm. The Bible is absolutely clear on issues like feeding the hungry, caring for orphans and widows, welcoming immigrants, and accepting outcasts. These issues have become politicized, but that doesn’t mean we then get to ignore them. In fact, she said, “When we don’t speak about the political in the pulpit, others will lay claim to a different god to fill the void. We cannot afford a muted pulpit!” She admitted that the church has many faults and failures, but that the Holy Spirit, who she referred to in female language, never lets us go. She said, “Spirit whispers ‘Nevertheless’ all. the. time. Without the Spirit the church is misogynistic. Nevertheless, She persisted! Without the Spirit, the church is racist. Nevertheless, she persisted! Without the Spirit the church is homophobic. Nevertheless, She persisted!”
Lesson learned: The world needs to hear about our persistent God.
I heard a variety of preachers that week, including several excellent African American preachers. I noticed that the white preachers left the microphone attached to the pulpit, while the black preachers held it in their hands. Holding a mic in your hand seems limiting to me, but then I noticed how they used it. If they thought what they said deserved an “Amen,” they would tilt the mic toward the congregation, and we all got the message and said Amen.
Lesson learned: I need to start carrying a mic!
Because I’m Facebook friends with many ministers, I saw lots of posts about the festival, even from those who weren’t there. One of my colleagues said, “I went a few years ago, and it was such a white event.” Someone responded with the count of speakers and preachers—how many were male and female, how many were people of color. It was a good broad representation of the diversity within the mainline and progressive church. My friend wrote back, “I meant the attendees.” I looked around and suddenly realized what he meant. The vast majority of attendees were white. I don’t know why, whether it’s an economic issues or an issue of where they advertised, or the conference’s reputation or what. But that knowledge affected the rest of my experience. I attended a workshop and sermon on racism, and at the end we sang “We shall overcome,” that iconic protest song from the Civil Rights movement. People were moved by the message and the music, and they held hands and swayed together, singing, “We shall overcome some day.” And then the next verse: “We are not afraid, we are not afraid,” and back in the Civil Rights movement, that meant “We know we’re in danger, and we are not afraid—or we will not give in to the fear.” But that day I looked at all these white hands raised together and thought, “Of course we’re not afraid! We’re white! We’re not being gunned down in the streets! We’re not being targeted because of our skin! We’re not being harassed and called terrorists because someone with our kind of skin did something bad. Of course we’re not afraid. We have too much privilege to be afraid.”
Lesson learned: if you’re going to talk about or work on issues of racism, you need to check your white privilege.
After the workshops that day I got on a bus to go to the apartment where I was staying. When I climbed aboard, a man start singing: Mama, I’m a big girl now. I couldn’t tell if he had already been singing, or if my entrance had caused his song choice and was therefore a crack about my size. I tried to ignore him, but there were no seats and the only available straps for hanging on were about six feet away from where he sat. He asked me if I was going to have a baby, and I shook my head “no,” making a note to never again wear a blouse with an empire waist. He stood up and stepped in front of me. “Do you want to have a baby?” I gave him what I hoped was a disdainful, dismissive look, then began rummaging in my purse to find my earbuds, so I could block this out. But while my eyes were turned away, he stepped closer, into my personal space. “With me? Do you want to have a baby with me?” I tried to ignore him. “I’d be good to you,” he assured me in what he clearly thought was a sexy voice. I put in my earbuds. I turned up my music, which happened to be on a track from the musical Hamilton, and I filled my mind with the rap, I am not throwing away my shot. I am not throwing away my shot.
And the man has stepped back but he’s still talking or singing, and I don’t know what he’s saying and whether it’s addressed to me or not, so I close my eyes and silently sing along with Alexander Hamilton,
Every burden, every disadvantage
I have learned to manage, I don’t have a gun to brandish
I walk these streets famished
And I’m trying to move with the rhythm and act cool and unbothered, when on the inside I’m afraid because I don’t know if I should get off at my stop, because what if he follows me, and I don’t know where this bus goes beyond my stop, or if I’ll need more change to get back, which I don’t have, and now he is standing in the middle of the bus moving his hips suggestively and I dare to look around and see people laughing at him, and I wonder if this is a daily routine on the 4:20 Bus from Logan Circle.
And suddenly he waves goodbye and steps off the bus. Once he is gone, I try to laugh it off. I even post on Facebook that someone on the bus offered to father my next child, and it takes a friend of mind to say, “Cindy, this feels like a #metoo moment. How did this feel to you?” And suddenly I’m alone in my rented apartment crying because I was sexually harassed in broad daylight and did NOTHING to stop it or put him in his place, and it took a friend of mine—a man—to name it for me. All week I had been looking forward to participating in a silent prayer vigil walk to the White House that night—a thousand clergy and other people of faith praying together for the future of our country. I would be walking with great elders of the church at large, not to mention the celebrity Episcopal priest who had just performed the royal wedding the previous week! And I almost didn’t go because I was afraid—afraid to get back on the bus, afraid of the unknown Lyft driver who would be my ride home after dark. I almost didn’t go because a crazy old man on the bus thought he had the right to harass me simply because I’m a woman.
After I got some time and perspective, I remembered that I was probably not in real danger. We were in public, and even if he had gotten off the bus at my stop, he was probably too drunk or wasted to chase me. But he made me feel dirty and vulnerable and afraid. And I wish I could follow my sermon formula so far and give you a simple “lesson learned” but I didn’t learn anything new from this encounter—other than that harassment doesn’t end just because you carry an AARP card. Besides, I’m guessing almost every woman here has experienced this and worse. But I was reminded of many things—the importance of teaching our children to respect others, to be brave, to stand up, and to refuse to let fear define our choices.
Speaking of fear, I also attended a writers’ conference. I went to a workshop on how to build suspense in fiction. The teacher was a novelist in the genre of horror and suspense, and he talked about how to build suspense by instilling fear in the reader. He said, “Suspense writers traffic in fear.” I’m sure he’s accurate from a novelist’s perspective, but I thought, “What a horrible way to live: to traffic in fear.” And then I thought about how many institutions do it—they try to create fear, try to sell fear, so that their audience can be controlled. And I don’t want to traffic in fear. I’ve got better things to give away.
Lesson learned: I want to traffic in hope.
Something else I learned was what many of you pointed out when I left—I was trying to do too much this summer. I didn’t accomplish everything on my list. I didn’t read all the books I intended to read, and I didn’t work on the documentary I’d planned to work on because I couldn’t face spending my time off looking at videos of wonderful people we’ve lost to cancer in the last year. So in addition to the two conferences and two retreats I attended, I rested. I read some and I wrote some and I loved on my family lots. And that’s where I learned my best lessons.
Most of the time that you see my son, he is running around here like he owns the place. He is a bundle of noise with dirt on it, non-stop energy and perpetual motion. But in the evenings, at bath time, I get glimpses into what’s really going on in his mind. One day he announced, out of the blue, “Care and hope and love are all that matter, right Mama?” I have no idea where he got that list, but I decided it was a pretty good one.
If you follow me on Facebook, you’ve already heard this story, but I can’t resist sharing for those who don’t. When Joshua was in the bathtub one night recently, I walked in to hear him saying over and over, “I want to be a koala. I want to be a koala.” I asked (rather stupidly) “You want to be a koala?” He said, “I can’t decide. I can’t decide if I want to be a human so I can celebrate Christmas or a koala.” I asked, “Can you be a koala who celebrates Christmas?” He looked at me like I’m an idiot and said “no.” “So why do you want to be a koala?” I asked. “Because koalas are held by their parents until they’re grown.” I said, “How about you stay a person but I hug you more often? Will that work?” He smiled. “That’ll work, Mama.”
And now my daughter, who is sixteen, will walk up to me and simply say “koala,” and I know what she needs, and I wrap my arms around her or take her on my lap. We grownups have trouble asking for what we want, what we need, especially if we think someone will judge us for it or if we think we shouldn’t need it. How wonderful if, with one word, we could ask for what we need. It’s an important lesson. I hope you’ll learn it, too. Koala.