January 14 – May 31, 2019
By Meredith Guest
The following is a sermon by BPFNA member Meredith Guest that she shared with the Unitarian Universalist congregation of Petaluma, California on September 1, 2014.
In his brilliant little book Ishmael, Daniel Quinn makes the astute observation that every culture has a Story, a Story which plays continuously in the background of our lives like music in the mall, haunts our collective consciousness like a ghost, guides our thinking, informs our judgments, insinuates itself like fog into the fissures of unconsciousness, and surrounds us like a wall protecting and preserving the familiar. Rarely do we actually notice this Story, and even more rarely do we question it, since questioning it threatens to disrupt the social homeostasis upon which the status quo, and we as parts of it, depend. Not only is The Story hard to change, but, according to Quinn, defying it results in a very persuasive punishment: we are not fed.
Like so many young ministers newly minted from seminary, I started my brief ministerial career working in a small, rural town as the associate minister of the First Baptist Church in Wiggins Mississippi.
I think it’s fair to say that small, rural church going people are often characterized either as superstitious simpletons or fundamentalist, neo-Nazi rednecks. Based on my experience, both stereotypes are as far from the truth as are the stereotypes of gays as child molesters or atheists as hedonistic, immoral, blasphemers…well, okay, maybe atheists are blasphemous, but so am I. While I consider myself a harsh and unrepentant critic of religion, what I observed of the people in the pews was that religion, for all its faults and frailties, usually had a salutary effect on its practitioners, especially those who gave it a practical priority in their lives.
Nor are ministers of small, rural churches rubes and charlatans as they are so often depicted. Usually they are men (and yes, they’re almost always men, unfortunately) of genuine caring who must not only bear the impossible burden of trying to be the standard by which all men are measured; they must also be the ones who single handedly hold out hope when all is hopeless, who are expected to find meaning in the ashes of despair, or who try with little more than baling wire to repair relationships that have been tearing themselves apart for years. Maybe they don’t always do such a good job, but who can throw stones when it comes to that? And do we really think we will be better off when religion has been replaced by rationalism, secularism and science? The last time I checked, it was not the followers of God, even the most misguided ones, who were in danger of destroying the planet. For that dubious distinction, credit must go to the rational, secular scientists.
Wendell Berry, in one of his excellent novels, speaks sympathetically of the requirement laid on small town ministers to try and speak words of comfort and hope in situations that can only be endured. What could I say to the parents of a teenage boy who killed himself with a drug overdose – intentionally or unintentionally would never be known? What comfort could I give? In what could they place their hope in the face of the senseless death of their child? God? Heaven? Anyone who thinks so has never really been there. And yet, as a minister, I was expected to say something, if not by the bereaved, then by the others standing around not knowing what to say. And so I did, knowing that whatever I said would likely be swallowed up like a whisper in the cataract of hopeless grief.
Fortunately I was never one of those ministers who offered pietistic platitudes like: it was just her time, or, they’re at home with God now, or God just wanted your precious child back with Him in heaven. I was myself too acquainted with grief for that. Mostly I tried to just be there, which, in the end, is all anyone can really do – including God.
After two and a half years at the rural Mississippi church, I started my expected climb up the career ladder by accepting a good-paying associate minister position with a renowned pastor of a prestigious church in the state capitol.
I had been there less than a year when, in the senior minister’s absence, I preached a sermon based on the story of the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt. In it, I postulated that if the story was reenacted today, the U.S. would be in the role of Egypt, the oppressor. The priests of the pharaoh who pronounced divine sanction on his acts of exploitation and cruelty would be the modern church, while the world’s poor and oppressed would be the Hebrews, God’s chosen people. Even though I made a compelling Biblical case, this largely white, wealthy, Republican congregation welcomed my words of wisdom with the same enthusiasm they would have welcomed a tax audit.
While the sermon ruffled some feathers, the vigilantes really mounted up when, in a moment of prophetic zeal a few weeks later, I published an article in the church newsletter proposing that the Iran hostage crisis (which was going on at the time) presented us with a perfect biblical metaphor. In this metaphor, we, the U.S., were just like the Iranians who were holding our citizens hostage; except we were holding the entire world hostage to serving and satisfying our selfish interests and insatiable greed through the threat of nuclear annihilation.
As further evidence that I was not the sharpest tool in the shed (as if more evidence was needed), I thought my article was nothing short of brilliant drawn as it was from the finest of the biblical prophetic tradition – and Southern Baptists were, after all, great believers in the Bible, weren’t we? What in my youthful naiveté I failed to foresee was that, also acting in the finest of the biblical prophetic tradition, the Powers-That-Be decided to bestow upon me the special reward reserved for prophets – they fired me. No job, no food.
Unlike Jesus and a lot like Judas, rather than make a stink, I accepted a handful of silver and resigned like a good boy. Mr. Bigshot senior minister eventually left, too, though he joined the Episcopalians, which, according to Southern Baptist thinking, means he turned out to be a bigger sissy than me.
After a wonderful ten year sojourn in Maryland living on Dayspring, the retreat farm of Church of the Savior, Marsha, the kids and I moved to California where I began the upper elementary program at a private Montessori school here in Petaluma.
After about ten years, I left the idyllic, little private school where I was loved and honored, to help create a public Montessori charter school. I knew it was risky. Others warned me that public education and Montessori wouldn’t mix, but I had always believed that a Montessori education should be available to children without regard to income, and the newly passed charter school legislation in California was designed to make that very thing possible.
As I feared and as they had warned, the whole public school thing turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. The straw that broke the camel’s back was my strident objection to standardized testing, which was just becoming the ultimate assessment, the sine qua non of educational success or failure. Now, I tested my students in a variety of ways. I needed to know if they were learning what I was teaching and if they knew what they needed to know to advance to the next level. What standardized testing does, however, is it values efficiency over accuracy, and it cares nothing about the emotional impact it has on students. Consequently, those who excel end up thinking they are superior to their peers and those who fail end up believing they’re stupid. But in a culture whose story gives preference to the masculine, efficiency and the hard data of scientific measurement far outweigh any feminine considerations, especially those having to do with emotions. After what I would come to think of as the worst two years of my life, the director, a truly lovely woman, said, “I’m tired of fighting with you.” No job, no food.
No longer with a job to lose, I came out of the closet. Little did I know that when I opened that closet door, a thousand other doors of opportunity would slam shut.
When the teaching position I had created and served with distinction for almost ten years came open, someone suggested to the director he rehire me. His response was, “I don’t want to be known as the school where the transsexual teaches.” No job, no food.
Years later, when my vocational life had degenerated to levels of unimaginable dreariness driving a school bus, memories of teaching would return, haunting me, filling me with regret and doubt about what I had done. In the loss of teaching I realized the full measure of what coming out had cost me. Defying the Story of what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman had not cost me my life; it had cost me what gave it meaning.
Toward the end of my tenth year driving a school bus, I drove a group of fourth graders to the De Young museum in San Francisco. I was out taking a walk when I ran into them outside the museum, gathering to come back to the bus for their lunches. The teacher, a delightful woman who seemed to truly love the kids, was surrounded by children as restless and inattentive as a swarm of bees.
“Would you like for me to take them?” I volunteered.
“Oh, that would be wonderful,” she responded gratefully. “Children,” she called, “go with Meredith back to the bus to get your lunches and then come straight back here.”
“This way,” I called.
Walking the distance to the bus, I remembered the many times as a teacher when I had been surrounded by such a swarm of children, some hugging close, others running ahead and still others straggling behind. Especially in places like the city, places with which I was unfamiliar, I’d be constantly on guard, circumnavigating the scene with the protective eyes of a lioness, accounting for all my cubs, alert to any danger. “Ya’ll hold up there,” I’d call to the ones running ahead. To the stragglers, I’d turn, hold open my arm, and call, “Ya’ll come on. Catch up.” Often in times like this, I would feel a small hand slip into mine, like a blessing, a benediction, and in that moment, who I was and what I did became one, and I became more than who I had been. All longing to be someone else, to do something else would pass and being a teacher to these children would be enough.
They got their lunches, and under my watchful eye, returned to their teacher. Back on the bus, the pandemonium of sound and movement was replaced by a haunting silence. What had been a place of life and color filled with the music of children’s voices was now a tomb. I was no longer a teacher; these children were not my students; I would never know them, and they would never know me; and I would not feel the touch of a small hand in mine, much as I ached for it. Why? What had I done to deserve this? And where was my God now?
This is not new. And it is certainly not unique to me. Empires throughout time have employed various devices to impose their story on subject people. In our time, the preferred methods of coercion are not so much brute force as a sinister cocktail of fear (no job, no food) and addiction. Corporations have spent billions of dollars learning how to take the chemistry of pleasure built into our brains and turn them into sources of profit.
So on this Labor Day, what are we to do? We are to resist. We need to wake up and realize our government is being taken over by large corporations whose only value is profit. Their interests and their power are preserved and protected by an increasingly militarized police force. And like other peoples whose countries have been taken over by oppressive powers, we need to resist.
How are we to resist? I have 3 suggestions.
First and foremost, we need to resist with imagination, because we can never create what we cannot imagine, and what we imagine has the power to create.
It’s so interesting to me that we have no trouble imaging a dystrophic world. Dystopias are all the rage – Hunger Games, Divergent, The Giver, even the movie Noah – yet, we have so little imagination for a utopia. We can never create what we cannot imagine, and what we imagine has the power to create.
I know a person, a lovely person, who cannot imagine not being a victim. She’s a victim of her husband, her boss, her circumstances and she has raised two children who will victimize her for years to come. No matter how her external life might change, she will still be a victim, because she cannot imagine being otherwise.
Of course, imagination alone is not enough to create external reality. We also have to live into and out of that imagination. Look at what we’re doing here today, for instance. This worship service has been planned, coordinated and brought to you by the combined efforts of an atheist and a Christian, and it’s not the first time that’s happened here, and it won’t be the last. In this congregation, an atheist and a Christian can combine their gifts in an act of worship because someone, somewhere, at some time imagined such a thing. And then, they lived into and out of that imagination. Now this congregation and others like it all over the world are living into and out of that original imagination. We cannot create what we cannot imagine, and what we imagine has the power to create.
Furthermore, when we imagine the world differently and live into and out of that imagination, others are inevitably drawn in, even if they reject the world we imagine. Let me give you an example. A couple of years ago I drove the first graders from Grant School on a field trip to the Oakland Zoo. On my bus was Ella S., a child of this congregation. Her mother, Rachel, was there as well, but because there wasn’t enough room on the bus for all the kids and adult chaperones, Rachel rode in another parent’s car. On the way there the other parent said to Rachel, “I can’t believe we got that transsexual bus driver.” Now this parent feels free to make this judgment and express her disgust, because she lives comfortably within the walls of the Story. She feels confident expressing it to Rachel because she assumes, based on what she can see, Rachel does, too, and will, as a result, share her disgust. This is not a safe assumption.
“Oh, you mean Meredith?” Rachel responds. “She’s a good friend of ours. We love Meredith…” and then Rachel goes on to say wonderful things about me many of which I’m sure I don’t deserve. Unlike the other parent, Rachel’s imagination is not circumscribed by the boundaries of the Story. Rachel and I and all of you share an imagination of the world in which people like me, transgender people, have as much a place as anyone else. By me showing up and just being who I am and by Rachel’s bold, confident witness – not to me – but to the world she and we imagine, this woman’s smaller version is inevitably swallowed up by the larger. And in that brief moment, this woman has an opportunity to imagine her world differently. Now do you thing she did? Do you think she had a “come to Jesus” moment and realized her former view of the world had been too small, too narrow, too mean? Do you think she wanted to hang out with Rachel and hear more? Not likely. She probably wanted to get away from Rachel as fast as a rabbit wants to get away from a fox. She probably couldn’t wait to get home and tell her husband and in the telling, repair the tear in the Story caused by Rachel and me, the Story that’s designed to limit what she can imagine. But you know what? It’s going to be hard to repair, and it’s not going to go back together like it was before.
Of course, I realize it works the other way as well. The Israelis and the Palestinians imagine a world without the other, and in the past few weeks we witnessed – yet again – what they have created, living into and out of that imagination. But at least this time, Rachel and I got to paint a world that’s inclusive, not exclusive, a world that’s bigger – and better.
We are to resist with courage, and resistance takes courage. The man who said he didn’t want to be known as the school where the transsexual works is not a bad person. If you knew him, you would like him. The minister who fired me was not a bad person. He was, in fact, quite a lovely person. They simply did not have the requisite courage. No job, no food applied to them too, and they knew it.
People sometimes compliment me on my courage, but I don’t feel courageous. Hiding inside a closet for almost 50 years, enjoying the privileges of a tall, handsome, straight, white man doesn’t seem like courage to me. But I recently realized something about courage. We often think of courage as something you carry around with you, like a sword, and maybe it is that for some people. For me, courage is like manna, you know, the food the Hebrews gathered each morning in the wilderness after their deliverance from Egypt. You find it when you need it. And you can’t save it up. When you put yourself in the place of needing courage, or when you find yourself in the place of needing it, it shows up.
We need to resist with compassion. Some years back in one of their Christmas letters, David and Florence sent me a copy of the Lord’s Prayer in Old English they had found in one of their travels. “We thought you might like this,” the note said. You remember the line in the prayer that goes: “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” or sometimes it’s translated “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us?” In the Old English, it’s, “forgive us our guilts as we forgive the guilty.” I say that prayer almost daily, and I love that translation and have used it ever since. It reminds that I must exercise compassion, even for those I resist, and that’s a reminder I often need. I also like to imagine what that would mean if applied to our judicial system.
We also need to resist out of compassion, because compassion is not subject to hope. There are many, many signs of hope. They’re everywhere, and we need to learn to recognize and celebrate them, but they’re almost always tiny and fragile and fleeting. By comparison, the forces of hatred, war, oppression, and injustice are huge and formidable and solid as mountains. No one can look at the world with open eyes and feel very hopeful. Frank Bruin in last Tuesday’s New York Times wrote, “[People] are hungry for hope but don’t spot it on the menu.” If our actions are based on hope, we will quickly find ourselves paralyzed, despondent, and/or impotent. That’s why we need to resist out of compassion and love, because compassion and love are their own ends and their own reward; they need nothing else.
Dorothee Soelle in her book Mysticism and Resistance says: “We [the developed world] are at once overeducated and underpowered. We have knowledge that has no consequences for action and makes us helpless. Knowledge is not power, as the classical workers movement believed, but impotence. We do not use our education sensibly in the sense of turning back from ways we have found to be wrong…We use it toward even greater hopelessness. In the rich world we still have to learn resistance.”
It’s time we learned it and called it by its name and committed ourselves to the joyful/painful practice of it.