Sermon for Wendy Davis

The year I met my husband, I didn’t have health insurance.

I left a well-paying job at Rice University where I had great insurance coverage, because I was miserable there and I wanted to return to teaching.   I knew, also, that I wanted a certain kind of teaching job, which meant I might have to scramble for a while to find it.  That year, I worked 4 part-time teaching jobs: I taught a section of 9th grade English at my current private school, I taught 7th graders for Writers in the Schools, I worked in the Houston Community College Writing Center, and I taught an adult memoir-writing class in the Woodlands.  I made a total of $19,000, barely enough to place me above the poverty line.  But I was blissful, using my best skills and talents in the best ways, and living my life on my own terms; and, luckily, I had parents willing and able to supplement my income to help me regroup and recenter my life around my educational and vocational interests.

When it came time for my annual well-woman exam, I went to Planned Parenthood, where I was treated with respect and professionalism.   I went through the normal array of tests–the pap smear, the breast check–and waited to check-out.   A nurse called my name from behind the waiting room door, a different nurse than the one who had examined me.

“Can I talk to you?” she said.

Listen.  No one ever wants to hear their name called after a pap smear and then be pulled into a room to talk privately.  My hands started shaking.

“I was reviewing your paperwork and exam as part of our normal routine,” she said.

“Okay.”  I waited.

“It says here you’re mother had breast cancer before the age of 30–is that correct?”

“I think so,” I said.  “I mean, she was around 30.”  I couldn’t remember her age; I could only remember crawling onto kitchen counters to reach into the higher shelves of the cabinets when she couldn’t because of the bandages wrapped tightly around her chest after the partial masectomy.

“Well, I just want to make sure you have a mammogram,” she said, and then handed me information for a clinic in Houston that would provide me with a mammogram at reduced cost because I was uninsured.

Then she smiled and let me out the door.

At check-out, a young Hispanic woman helped me fill out a form to enroll in the Women’s Health Insurance Program, which covered my basic care for the next year and a half until I finally landed the teaching job I wanted.  When my husband and I decided to consider contraception options together, he came with me to Planned Parenthood. When he left, he said, “That’s not how I imagined it.  So normal.  So helpful.”  We didn’t see a single woman there for an abortion, although I’m sure there were some.  We did see two meager protestors outside the parking lot holding badly made posters and wiping sweat from their hair-sprayed bangs.

Planned Parenthood serves many women in many ways.  Some of the women look like me: white, educated beyond the college level, professional, smart, healthy.  Some of the women do not look like me.  All of them, including me, want choices and some solace in a society that doesn’t always offer us any fiscal rewards for being good, decent human beings or people who want to live outside of restrictive expectations.  All of them want a little help creating meaningful, workable lives that best serve their families, their partners, and their own personal dreams and desires.

The way conservatives and religious people reduce Planned Parenthood to an “abortion provider” is adolescent.  It’s the level of thinking that my 14 year old students have: simplistic, willfully blind, comfortable.  In short, it’s embarrassing coming from grown men and women.  It’s also often hypocritical: I’m sure many of those senators backing SB5 in Texas have wives who’ve conceived through IVF or donor eggs or with the help of fertility drugs, most of which wasn’t covered by their insurance.  They have choices because they have privileged lives.

This week I remember why I can’t back away from this issue as much as I’d like to back away from such an ugly fight.  About eight years ago, I wrote an editorial aimed at Catholics, but I think it still holds today, especially in light of upcoming immigration reform.  Substitute Michelle Bachmann for Sarah Palin, or “drones” for the Iraq War, or Christians for Catholics, and everything written here remains achingly relevant.

Here it is:

For Catholics, It’s Time to Take Down the Old Signs and Erect New Ones

Yesterday I picked up the paper and read this headline: “Houston Planned Parenthood site draws protest”, and saw photos of religious women carrying signs depicting bloody fetuses. Then, as I was driving to visit my parents’ home in Southwest Houston, I passed the Catholic Church in which I was confirmed at the tender age of 14.  Outside the church, someone had posted a large sign, which read: “Choose Life.  Your Vote Matters.”  The “o” in “Vote” carried a baby, as if inside the uterus.  The message was clear, and I found myself angry, and then extremely disappointed.

I worry about the motives of a church that focuses its efforts on supporting candidates who think criminalization is a better deterrent to abortion than access to social services, education, and health care, and freedom from fear and violence in the home.  According to the Guttmacher Institute, 57% of women in the U.S. who had abortions last year were economically disadvantaged.  Single or married, 61% already had one or two children for whom they were trying to provide care.  Those statistics say nothing about women who have been raped, or are emotionally or physically incapable of caring for a child because of abuse, addiction, or mental illness.

But I am not interested in a debate about the morality of abortion, or the best way to make it rare. I know that even if I preface my pro-choice position by saying, “I believe a fetus is a human child, and I believe every abortion is tragic”, my argument will be lost on conservative Catholics, who, unfortunately, still harbor a deep-seeded misogyny that is fostered by too many leaders of the Church, a misogyny internalized in the psyches of men–and as Sarah Palin and others prove, women too–who endeavor to lead us.

And that is my point.

I wonder if the conservative churches in America focus so much attention on abortion because the purported sinners in abortion cases are women, and mostly poor.

And even if it were appropriate to post political signs outside a church—which it is clearly not—why not urge parishioners to be proactive and vote on other issues that appeal to the good Catholic’s sense of social justice and caritas? For example, imagine a poster that said:

1. “Choose peace.”  The Vatican has made it expressly clear that the Church opposes unjust wars, and has labeled the Iraq War as unjust. When Bush and the Senate members who supported him sent our young men and women into battle they started a war that failed to meet most of the conditions for “just” war, including just cause, competent authority, right intention, probability of success, and proportionality.

2. “Choose human rights.” In 2006, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, reminded all of us that immigration policy, in any country, should be based on Judeo-Christian ethics and a respect for basic human rights.

3. “Choose love.” Poor men, women, and children in this country often suffer from a lack of health insurance, which limits their choices in terms of employment, education, and family planning.   Many Catholic and non-partisan organizations in this city offer opportunities for churches and concerned citizens to speak truth to power and help solve this crisis, including Catholic Charities and the Texas Metropolitan Organization.

I worry about the motives of a church that shames women for their choices, but does not shame a government whose choices endanger women and children, often the most vulnerable and innocent victims of war and ineffectual social welfare and economic policy.  I worry about a church that puts more effort into promoting the opportunity for its members to pray publicly outside Planned Parenthood—a surefire way to shame young women—than promoting an opportunity for service to the hungry, unsheltered, and imprisoned.

In the end, the sign posted outside that church does not say much about the devotion of its leadership and parishioners, which I believe in my heart to be strong, nor their concern for their fellow citizens.  It says much more about their cultural, economic, and gender-related biases.  It says more about their need to place the blame for society’s ills, and the responsibility for the cures, on someone else.  And like so many other times in history, the scapegoats for our sins are women.

As Catholics we are called to service, by participation in the sacraments as well as by praxis, “the reflexive relationship between theories and action.”  But, whenever possible, praxis should be preventative, not punitive.   Too much time is spent preaching about immorality and sin—and how, impossibly, to protest and vote against it—than in enacting the virtues spelled out for us in Scripture and Church doctrine.

In our politics and in our faiths we spend too much time finger-pointing, and not enough time actively loving one another.

Amen.

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Sermon as Triptych

Some weeks, the world provides you clues.  This week, I experienced a triptych of elbow nudges from the world, telling me to think seriously about a few things.  This trifecta took the form of a guest speaker at my school, an essay I accidentally read in American Scholar at my teacher’s desk, and an essay from a collection given to me on my birthday by a dear friend.  

I. Left Panel

 

“Drape”, Joseph Havel

Every year the students at my school receive the rare gift of a visiting fellow, someone who has made a name for herself, say, in the arts, sciences, or other academic field.  This year, we invited Joseph Havel, sculptor and director of the Glassel School of Art here in Houston.

Often the fellows speak over the students’ heads–not on purpose, but most 15 years olds cannot see why certain things should matter to them.  Teenagers are like solar flares, burning, on fire, propelled, whose light others can see from miles away, but they have not yet learned the dimming that comes with age or distance; they have not learned to turn around; they haven’t yet realized that they, themselves, are not in fact the sun but only small pieces of it.  

I also think they resisted some of Havel’s lecture: given the task of answering how art relates to ethics, he told us that the artist’s job is not to create meaning for the audience, no clear message for us to consume.  Sending clear messages, he said, is the job of advertisers, not artists.  The artists’ job is not to commodify people’s desires and hopes and fears, but rather to translate a moment of the physical, emotional, and mental life into form and then set it free for an audience to encounter and give meaning.  That process, he said, is essentially an ethical position.  Some students didn’t care to imagine such an ethical position since it requires something from us as readers of art–we cannot simply consume or pay for an explanation or walk away undisturbed.  

I was rapt with attention, thinking Havel’s explanation of art and ethics as a way to also understand the best impulses of religion.

Havel then offered the students instruction on how to view art in a museum.  Don’t read the information card tacked next to the painting, he said, like so many visitors (Alain de Botton has a great argument for why museums should toss out informational placards altogether).  Instead, let yourself experience the work of art.  Then you can go back, he said, and read the information about the piece and approach it again with a critical awareness.  But if you skip that first step, you miss the ethical imperative of art.  You are trying to go for clear meaning and missing the encounter.  

But when I returned to my classroom, my teenagers remained unconvinced.  I don’t want to be confused, they said.  When I read or see something I want to understand what it means.  Don’t make me work.  

My students complaints and Havel’s instructions reminded me of theologian Marcus Borg‘s advise about how one should approach the Bible, a model I use to teach my students how to read other literature as well.  According to Borg, religious men and women should go through three major stages:

1) naivete 

2) critical thinking

3) post-critical naivete

Or, as I conceptualize it:

1) blind faith

2) critical doubt

3) doubtful faith

II. Middle Panel

 

“Untitled”, Lee Bontecou

I must clean my desk.  I must clean my desk.  I must clean my desk, I repeated to myself Tuesday after school.  I began to rashly throw old vocabulary quizzes into the recycling bin, shove pencils and pens into the far nooks of my desk drawer and straighten stacks of unexcused tardy sheets and extra handouts about dangling participles or how to visualize Shakespeare plots as Venn diagrams.  Among those stacks I discovered a recent issue of American Scholar, a journal I love.  I was loathe to throw it out before skimming the contents and I landed on an essay by Christian Wiman, poet and long-time editor of Poetry magazine who is, as we speak, dying of bone cancer.  

I thought I’d read a few sections, but I ended up reading the whole thing in one sitting, weeping over my laptop, forgetting briefly that I needed to get home and let my dog out to pee.  As if to explain Borg and Havel’s theories about post-critical naivete, he wrote this:

It is as if joy were the default setting of human emotion, not the furtive, fugitive glimpses it becomes in lives compromised by necessity, familiarity, “maturity,” suffering. You must become as little children, Jesus said, a statement that is often used to justify anti-intellectualism and the renunciation of reason, but which I take actually to mean that we must recover this sense of wonder, this excess of spirit brimming out of the body.

And then, as if to illustrate Havel’s point to the kiddos that art, which certainly the story of Jesus qualifies as, must be encountered rather than consumed, Wiman wrote this beautiful statement of faith:

I’m a Christian not because of the resurrection (I wrestle with this), and not because I think Christianity contains more truth than other religions (I think God reveals himself, or herself, in many forms, some not religious), and not simply because it was the religion in which I was raised (this has been a high barrier). I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” (I know, I know: he was quoting the Psalms, and who quotes a poem when being tortured? The words aren’t the point. The point is that he felt human destitution to its absolute degree; the point is that God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering.) I am a Christian because I understand that moment of Christ’s passion to have meaning in my own life, and what it means is that the absolutely solitary and singular nature of extreme human pain is an illusion. 

Wiman returned to the faith of his childhood toward the end of his young life, passing through the often adolescent or post-adolescent critical stage that so many intellectuals get stuck in, especially, I’ve found, young writers, more especially young male writers.


III. Right Panel

Immanuel Kant

 

My friend gifted me Robert Hass‘ new collection of essays “What Light Can Do” for my birthday last month.  How well he knows me.  It was the best present I got.   I have only read one so far, “Study of War: Violence, Literature, and Immanuel Kant.  

Hass attempts to break down and revive a lesser known Kant essay called “Perpetual Peace.”   In “Perpetual Peace”, as Hass understands it, Kant acknowledged in his Kantian way that violence is the natural condition of man, and that the state of peace “is unnatural and must be struggled toward.  Its nobility is its rebellion toward innocence and against the brutality of things-as-they-are.”  Hass then tries to explain how literature and art can serve the purpose of struggling toward peace.  He imagines in his own way Joseph Havel’s argument for the ethical position of art.   

Haas remembers the term “perpetual peace” from his childhood as a Catholic, particularly from the Mass for the Dead “may the perpetual light shine upon them.”  He remembers that as a boy he thought the idea of perpetual peace a naive idea, an ideal only reachable with death and an undesirable ideal at that.  He was in his critical thinking stage.  

But then, he says, so many writers remind us otherwise.  He calls particular attention to Czeslaw Milosz, who returned to a sometimes-tortured Catholic faith in his old age, and Henry David Thoreau.  Thoreau stood firmly in the last stage of faith and art: post-critical naivete.  An idea expressed in his poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” according to Hass, is that the concept of perpetual peace or heaven, “is deficient as a description of a realizable place on earth, but is not deficient as a description of a place held close the heart.”  

Art scoots us right up against that place held close to our hearts, that place we believe in the way children believe, even if we can’t get in from here.  All three artists, Joseph Havel, Christian Wiman, and Robert Hass implore us to use wonder and thought to navigate art, to use the heart and mind to allow the world “to stream through you rather than reaching out to always take a hold of it.”  Have doubt, they say, and have faith.  All three men urge against the question, “But what does it mean?”   

That our priests and pastors may be artists and may be so wise and so bold as to ask their audiences to approach with wonder the Story and leave the easy, definitive answers to such a childish question to the advertisers.  

 

Amen.

Sermon for Dr. Ed Young

As I drove down I-10 yesterday, I passed one of the many billboards that line Houston highways.  Sometimes I forget the signs exist, the way sometimes you can’t see the biggest thing in front of you, the proverbial forest for the trees.  But this billboard sucker punched me, my awareness jolted upright and already starting to swell.  It read:

Truth, Lies, and America Today: How to Vote for a President  (insert red, white, and blue rectangular graphics and Dr. Ed Young’s best smile in the background)

I don’t know Dr. Ed Young personally, nor do I attend his church.  I went to a service there once in high school and many of the high schoolers I teach are members at Second Baptist.  I only know him by reputation and insider gossip (mostly from a friend who attended school there and considers herself a recovering Baptist).  I am biased and somewhat uninformed.  But I couldn’t help my fear and terror and deep wish for a sermon I suspect he won’t give.  I so wish he would.  So here you go: my instruction manual for Dr. Young.

How to Give a Sermon on How to Vote for a President

for Ed Young

Tell a story.

What story you tell–its plot lines and poetics, its heroes and villains–will depend on your intentions.  Check your intentions, dear sir.  Comb through them with fine-tipped bristles.  If one thread of ulterior motive exists, revise and rewrite.  Consider the wastebasket lined with coffee grinds and yesterday’s headlines.

Wear the right tie.  The occasion calls for red or blue.  Try red and blue stripes.  Avoid binaries.

Tell a story about privilege.  Ask your parishioners to take out paper and pen (you may need to provide these; the modern faithful are not all notetakers).  Ask them to list every privileged group they belong to–not by choice, but by pure luck.  They may need help uncovering these categories from a giant heap of dirt we’ll call the Pile of Entitlement.  Here’s a sample list of categories to help them out:

Race: ____________

Gender: _____________

Sexuality: ____________

Employment status: _________________

Marital status: _________________

Citizenship: __________________

Religion: _________________

Health insurance status: __________________

Ethnicity: ____________________

Physically abled or disabled: _________________

Economic status: _______________

Neighborhood: _________________

Level of education: __________________

Amount of money (estimate) in savings: _______________

Renter or owner ______________

 

That’ll be a good start.

Have them kneel down.  Have them recite the following prayer, which is actually a poem.  Tell them poetry is prayer:

Thanks

by W. S. Merwin
 
Listen 
with the night falling we are saying thank you 
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings 
we are running out of the glass rooms 
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky 
and say thank you 
we are standing by the water thanking it 
smiling by the windows looking out 
in our directions 

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging 
after funerals we are saying thank you 
after the news of the dead 
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you 
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators 
remembering wars and the police at the door 
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you 
in the banks we are saying thank you 
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank youwith the animals dying around us 
our lost feelings we are saying thank you 
with the forests falling faster than the minutes 
of our lives we are saying thank you 
with the words going out like cells of a brain 
with the cities growing over us 
we are saying thank you faster and faster 
with nobody listening we are saying thank you 
we are saying thank you and waving 
dark though it is

Then, give them the definition of a strong leader.  Make eye contact here with the camera.  Quote Roosevelt:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Ask them if they know the most important trait in any human.  Eager followers, A-students on Sundays, they will call out guesses from the pews: Strength?  Power?  Intelligence? Faith?  Hope?  Fame?  Wealth?

Say no.  Say it again.  No.  Say: the most important trait in any person is kindness.

Tell them to build and nurture compassion.  Feed it everyday. Remind them literature and music help with this endeavor.

Tell them to ask questions.  Tell them questions are the pump jacks that dot the rich oil fields of their lives, the nodding donkeys that dig deep, that bellow their slow, yes, yes, yes, from the distances.

Tell them good men have flaws.  The best men acknowledge them in public.  An anecdote from your own life might serve you well here.

Tell them they have spectacular brains.  Tell them they have big, huge, red hot hearts.  Tell them to use both.

Tell them they are worthy.  Tell them you trust them.

Tell them about city ordinances and local races.

Tell them about the beggars that stand everyday under the Texas sun two blocks down from your megachurch at the cross-section of San Felipe and Voss.  For those who may not speak Spanish, translate San Felipe into Saint Philip.  Tell them he was an original apostle of their Lord and Savior.

Tell them Jesus loved women.  Refer directly if necessary to your Bible.  Check the footnotes for specific passages.  There are too many to include here.

Tell them of the people, by the people, for the people.

Tell them separation of church and state, poll and pulpit, oil and water.

Tell them you love them.

Mean it.

Love them.

And then let them go.

 

Amen.