Sunday, January 11, 2015

The "right question" about Bishop Cook and alcohol

I always try to look for the right question.

The right question can lead us down incredible paths of discovery.

The right question can be the first step in breaking decades-long cycles of dysfunction.

The right question can get us into all sorts of trouble … trouble we both fear and desperately need.

The right question is everything.

Since Maryland Suffragan Bishop Heather Cook tragically killed cyclist Thomas Palermo while driving with a blood alcohol level well over the legal limit, all sorts of questions have been asked.

There have been questions about Bishop Cook and her judgment and whether or not she is an alcoholic.

There have been questions about the bishop election process in Maryland and what information should have been disclosed to the electing convention.

There have even been theological questions about the nature of sin and forgiveness.

I have seen countless articles and Facebook posts since that terrible afternoon asking all sorts of questions … good and valid questions. But I have yet to see what I believe is the “right question” … the question I tremble to ask. The question that convicts us all - myself included.

What does this say about us? What does this say about the family system of the Episcopal Church?

I don’t have to dig too deeply in my own reaction to this tragedy to hit my own utter lack of surprise. Not because I know Bishop Cook – I’ve never met her. But because I know my Episcopal Church.

I know that my own Diocese of Missouri had an active alcoholic as a bishop when I first arrived here as a college student in 1986. His name is Bill Jones. I know there was an intervention done at the end of his tenure and that he lives now in courageous long-term recovery but that our diocese has never truly addressed his alcoholism – or the systems of dysfunction that led us to call him, sustained him and did not magically disappear when he left office.

I know that our own Christ Church Cathedral was serving alcohol at Chapter meetings when I arrived here. I know that consumption of alcohol was a central part not just of Cathedral social events but committee meetings. I also know that when we brought Dale Kuhn from Care and Counseling in to do two sessions with the Chapter and two more with the congregation on the topic of addiction and family systems, there was a great deal of pushback and some people left the congregation.

I know that until we named the power of addiction and family systems head on, the three hallmarks of an alcoholic family system – don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel – eerily described a Cathedral congregation that even today still struggles with communications and trust issues and where feelings were often expressed in unpredictable, triangulating and inappropriate ways.

I know that any progress we have made has been from naming our dysfunction and by embracing alternate and healthier ways of being. I also know that we still have a long way to go.

I know that a year ago, I helped preside at the funeral of my friend, the Rev. Doug Nissing. Doug was a brilliant and charismatic priest. He was a loving partner to his husband, Dan. He died at age 52 --literally drinking himself to death. (Hear the Rev. Susie Skinner's excellent truth-telling sermon at his funeral here.)

I know that my experience of General Convention in 2000, 2003 and 2006 was that I had never seen so much alcohol consumed outside of a fraternity house in my life – and that I participated in that consumption. That is was easy to participate. That it was expected to participate. That it was unthinkable to me not to.

I don’t have to dig too deeply in my own reaction to this tragedy to hit my own utter lack of surprise. If I'm honest, the question I ask myself isn't "how could this happen" but rather "how has this not happened more?" Or maybe even, "how many times has this happened that we don't know about?"

Systems exist to perpetuate themselves. It is a natural part of how human beings function in community. In an alcoholic family system, there is often one “active” alcoholic who is the focal point for the dysfunction … but everyone in the system participates in it and has a role in sustaining it.

When the alcoholic is discovered – perhaps through a tragic event like this – the temptation is to make her the “identified patient.” It's not about us. It's about Heather. It's about Bill. It's about Doug. Their own obvious culpability makes it easy for the rest of us to say that they are outliers  … they are the problem … and not ask the hard but right question. Not ask the question that makes us tremble. Not ask the question that convicts us all.

The right question is everything. And the right question is this:

What does this say about us?

What does this say about the family system of the Episcopal Church?

I believe our church is an addicted family system. That should be no surprise since our entire culture is an addicted family system. We are addicted not just to alcohol and drugs but to pornography and media and even the dopamine hit we get when we check if someone has liked our Facebook status.

And one thing we know about addictions … we will use every power of rationalization and misdirection we have to defend them, because we are convinced we need them and it terrifies us to the core to have them named and challenged. They are in every way the anti-Christ. They are a power counter to Christ to which we give power every bit as profoundly as we promise to give Jesus. And there is no way we can give our lives to Christ fully as long as they have us in their grasp.

But the good news is we are people of Jesus Christ. And we are people who put our whole trust in Jesus' grace and love. And we are people who believe in Jesus' saving power. And so we are people who need not fear any question -- no matter how deeply it convicts us. On the contrary, we are people who must welcome the hardest and most convicting of questions, the questions that reveal the deepest truths, for we truly believe the truth shall set us free.

There are many questions that Bishop Cook’s killing of Thomas Palermo raises. Good questions. Hard questions. Technical questions. Theological questions.

But I believe there is one question we must ask ourselves if we want a chance to prevent this from happening again … as assuredly it has happened before.

What does this say about us ... all of us? What does this say about the family system of the Episcopal Church?

What do you think?

For an excellent book on addicted family systems and the church read "So You Think You Don't Know One" by Chilton Knudsen and Nancy Van Dyke Platt. 

Friday, January 9, 2015

CCC in crisis: A Gospel awakening we will not waste.

“Never let an economic crisis go to waste.” – The Rt. Rev. Greg Rickel, Bishop of Olympia.

Bishop Rickel preached these words on my first Flower Sunday at Christ Church Cathedral in 2009. They were true then. They are true today.

Economic crisis has led us into mission before. Economic crisis led us to partnering with Lafayette Preparatory Academy these past two years, generating nearly $70,000 in annual income and making us contributors in the battle for education equality in St. Louis.

Two Sundays ago, Junior Warden Urlene Branch shared that – even with the income from LPA – Christ Church Cathedral faces a deficit exceeding $150,000 for 2015. Even after all our efforts – generous giving of Cathedral members, more than 100 people and $15,000 in the first year of Friends of Christ Church Cathedral, and the fair-market-value rental of the Bishop Tuttle Memorial Building – we are still in economic crisis.
The time has come to explore new options for sustaining
the old buildings that are increasingly becoming an
unbearable burden for the Cathedral congregation.

In December, your Chapter identified four essential realities:

*Christ Church Cathedral cannot continue to function as it has. Pledging and building income can’t make up this deficit. Endowment draw is already on the high end of recommended. Money reserved from the Pope Bequest for program and staff is nearly exhausted.

*The Cathedral congregation is healthy but overburdened. We are growing in health and numbers … particularly with people in their 20s and 30s. Current staffing is inadequate for growth or even maintenance at current levels. Cutting further is not an option for growth.

*The biggest piece of the burden is our buildings. We have two enormous buildings with decades of deferred maintenance that are increasingly expensive to maintain. The nearly $120,000 we had to spend replacing the Cathedral HVAC system this fall is undoubtably just the beginning of what these buildings require.

*The Cathedral as an institution is an increasingly vital part of civic life. We have relationships of mutual respect and are a source of unity and a force for the common good throughout the region. Our profile is as high and positive as it has been in decades.

Based on these realities the Cathedral Chapter believes the congregation will never thrive and will inevitably decline as long as it is charged with the maintenance of the Cathedral and BTM. In fact, we will continue to decline, eat into endowment and close if the status quo is maintained. 

This is not bad news. This is Good News. Economic crisis has led us into mission before ... and it will once again. That the status quo is unsustainable is a gift because it opens us up to new opportunities to be the church in the city in transformative ways. It opens us up to possibilities of partnership for mission beyond what we have previously imagined.

Our challenge and opportunity as we look toward the 150th anniversary of the dedication of Christ Church Cathedral in 2017 is this:

How do we restructure Christ Church Cathedral to be a thriving presence of the Gospel and force for the common good in St. Louis for generations to come?

After naming these realities, in December, Chapter unanimously passed this resolution:

Resolved, the Chapter of Christ Church Cathedral authorizes the senior warden, treasurer and Dean to meet with Bishop Smith to explore new options regarding the structure of Christ Church Cathedral as congregation and institution to ensure its long-term sustainability and impact.

This initial conversation will happen in the next week or so. There are models out there in the wider church that can help us, and we have people throughout the region -- Episcopalian and non-Episcopalian alike -- who recognize the value and potential of Christ Church Cathedral who are able to be (and some who have already offered to be) a part of this exploration.

Our belief is we can create a new structure for Christ Church Cathedral that will enable the congregation to continue to thrive and grow in the Cathedral home it loves ... and that will enable the wider diocese and St. Louis region to bring their broad resources to bear in creating and realizing a new vision for the Cathedral and Bishop Tuttle Memorial Building that both contributes to making our neighborhood and the region better and is financially sustainable for decades to come.

Working with Bishop Smith and others on this task will be my primary focus as Dean for 2015. The work that Chapter is wrapping up on the strategic plan for the Cathedral congregation will be essential not only for the mission growth of the congregation but in providing a framework for this exploration -- whatever new structure we create will have to support the mission of the church. We are before anything a people called to bring ourselves and the world into deeper relationship with God and each other in Jesus Christ.

There will be many opportunities to talk about this ... beginning with our annual meeting Eucharist at 10 am on Sunday, January 18. I hope you will be there.

It's important to note we have lots of company in this struggle. As society transitions from Christendom to post-Christendom (read the Bishop's convention address about this here), the grand buildings that were the hallmarks of the success of mainline Protestantism are both deteriorating and left to far fewer (and less-monied) people to maintain. We are not alone in this struggle. In fact, we can be not only a partner but a leader in helping the wider church be reborn for new generations to come.

We are in crisis at Christ Church Cathedral. But this is not bad news. In fact it is a Gospel awakening and an exciting call into the future. And we will not let it go to waste.




Tuesday, December 23, 2014

NLEC ruling challenges us all to provide inns ... and rooms at them.

New Life Evangelistic Center has been the crux of
downtown's conversations about homelessness
for decades.  If things are going to get better for our
most vulnerable citizens, that has to change.
And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. – Luke 2:7

This line from Luke’s Gospel is one we hear a lot this time of year … and not just because it’s Christmas. When the weather gets colder, we are so much more aware of those among us who go begging for that basic human need of shelter.

In the birth of Jesus, God became human not in one living in the lap of luxury but in one who was literally born into homelessness – laid in a manger, because there was no room at the inn.

And we shudder thinking how many people are turned away for lack of shelter today. And we long for a day when there is always room enough for everyone at the inn.

This image was on my heart as I attended the meeting of the Board of Public Service this afternoon where a ruling was made about New Life Evangelistic Center.

In the culmination of more than a yearlong process, the board ruled that New Life Evangelistic Center, which still has the same permit it received in 1976 to operate a 32-bed shelter but for years has operated at significantly above that capacity, has until May 12, 2015 to do one of three things:

*downsize its capacity to its permitted size of 32 beds.
*apply for a permit to increase its capacity.
*appeal to the state or federal level to have this decision overturned or altered.

This ruling is completely reasonable and actually gracious. Most important, the ruling is a clear challenge to all of us that it is time for us to do better by our most vulnerable citizens.

The ruling is reasonable because it is asking NLEC to obey existing laws and play by the same rules as Christ Church Cathedral and everyone else. They have a permit for 32 beds – either live into that capacity or apply for an increase through the proper processes.

The ruling is gracious in that it does not shut down NLEC immediately – which would be a disaster across the board -- but gives it nearly five months to choose one of these three options.

But all of that pales in comparison to what this ruling really is – an opportunity and challenge to all of us to do better.

In my nearly six years at Christ Church Cathedral I have learned that none of the players -- residents, NLEC, business owners, city officials, other service providers and people struggling with homelessness themselves -- have a corner on the market of virtue or vice. As a whole, the way we treat people struggling with homelessness is deeply broken -- and there is enough fault to go around for everyone to share in ... including Christ Church Cathedral.

The system is broken. The status quo is not worthy of defense.

We can do better. And now, with the clock ticking, we must.

For decades, we all have addressed homelessness downtown by splitting into predictable pro- vs. anti-NLEC factions ... and over and over again spent much of our energy fighting amongst ourselves. This helps nobody and has only kept us stuck in the same terrible place and convinced the region that downtown is not a place you want to be.

As a community, we have a deeply disingenuous relationship with NLEC. We point out rightly real public health & safety issues surrounding the property. We also point out rightly that there is not statistically relevant data that their programs help a significant number of people transition out of homelessness (the same can be rightly pointed out about the ministries of Christ Church Cathedral, by the way).

At the same time, it is also true that we have let NLEC do much of the heavy lifting so we wouldn't have to. Nobody has stepped up to provide superior services. Often the very people who criticize NLEC the most are the first to drop people off at their door and complain the loudest when people are sleeping outdoors.

We have – all of us – been happy to perpetuate a system dependent on emergency shelters, let NLEC bear the greatest burden of providing those shelter beds and at the same time lambaste them for the way they provide those services. It has been patently unfair to NLEC and not worthy of us as citizens and human beings.

The problem is not NLEC. Nor is the solution NLEC. A long as we focus on NLEC, we will be stuck in a toxic status quo, and the people who need help the most will continue to be trapped as well.

So what is the answer? We need to look back to that night in Luke’s Gospel. We need to look at a very pregnant Mary and what she was looking for and how we can provide it.

We need inns. And we need to build them together.

Inns are waystations. They presume that a traveler, like Mary, is on a journey and needs just a little help to get where they are going. They presume that the traveler will pay what they can but also that there is an ethic of hospitality that will allow grace to come in -- providing a manger when there is no room – when payment isn’t possible.

Inns are not destinations themselves but they exist to help people get to a destination that is a better place – and to give them a place of safety and dignity along the way.

In St. Louis we don’t have enough inns to help people along their way. Instead we have emergency shelters, day shelters and feeding programs that meet immediate needs but don’t help people get anywhere different and better – and in fact serve to trap them where they are. I should know – Christ Church Cathedral sponsors both a feeding program and, in our open Nave, a de facto day shelter. And over the past six years, I have seen the same faces over and over and over again.

We don’t need to spend our energy fighting over who can provide emergency shelter beds that while filling an important need also foster a crippling dependency. We need to come together to build a system where instead of shelters we have inns --- places where people not only get a bed but help -- in this case, professional assessment and connection to a housing-first model that will allow them to actually get somewhere different and better for themselves and for us all.

This is our challenge and our opportunity. The Board of Public Service has done us a public service. They have said the status quo is no longer acceptable. The rest is up to us (with them being a part of the us, too).

We must resist the temptation to spend our energy fighting the same old NLEC fight and instead work together to create a better system. And it will take all of us – residents, city and county government, business owners, homeless service providers and those struggling with homelessness themselves.

The good news is, we have good people and good models and good partnerships already developing. Last month, Bridge executive director Irene Agustin brought Iain De Jong to Christ Church Cathedral where he shared hard data about a housing-first model that breaks dependency on emergency shelters, takes advantages in recent shifts in HUD funding and has been proven to work in a variety of others cities.

The Bridge, St. Patrick Center (which has an excellent track record of moving people out of homelessness to housing) and the Partnership for Downtown St. Louis (which under Doug Woodruff's leadership has shown a new willingness to devote energy and resources to this issue) have already teamed up on a mobile assessment vehicle that has been gathering data for this project and helping connect people in need with resources already out there.

We have wonderful people downtown with sharp minds and big hearts who are ready to take this on. Contrary to the rhetoric, I have found most of the residents and business owners downtown to be compassionate people – but ultimately frustrated by our inability to uphold a standard of public health and safety and to actually help people in need. We have wonderful people like Teka Childress who have stepped forward time and again to meet needs through programs like Winter Outreach. And we also have Larry and Chris Rice, who I believe are trying as I am to follow Jesus devoutly and at their best out of a purity of heart -- there certainly is a role for them to play as well.

And, yes, we absolutely need the City of St. Louis to step up and be an active, productive part of a public-private partnership to create a new system. To make sure there is plenty of room at the inn for everyone … and that after a good night’s sleep people don’t end up back there again the next night, and the next, and the next.

This is a moment of great challenge an opportunity for us. The status quo is not worth one more ounce of our energy. As Pastor Kathleen Wilder says, our dream should be nothing less than a city that makes glad God’s heart – and I can’t believe anyone looks around us now and believes that is happening.

I am grateful the Board of Public Service ruled as it did. It has thrown down the gauntlet to us all – and I hope it realizes it is part of the challenge themselves! It has given us the opportunity to come together and commit to do better. To provide room at the inn so that Jesus doesn’t end up being born on the street – but neither does he end up living in a shelter day after day, week after week, month after month, with no hope for a better life.

The challenge is before us. The clock is ticking. Christ Church Cathedral is committed to being a part of something new and better … and I know we are not alone.

What role will you play?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

"Coming Home" -- Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows' sermon on Advent 3, 2015

The Rev. Jennifer-Baskerville Burrows is the
Director of Networking for the Diocese of Chicago
I'm giving you a break from my writing to post an incredible sermon preached by my friend and colleague, the Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows. 

There has been some amazing preaching going on in the Episcopal Church these past several weeks ... and this sermon is right at the top. When Jennifer told me she didn't have a way to post it, I jumped at the chance to share it with others. Thanks for this gift, Jennifer.

And ... Jennifer will be preaching at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, March 1, 2015. 

Sermon preached at St. Paul and the Redeemer, Chicago
14 December 2014
Advent 3B
The Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows

As we continue to process the events of the day--the continued protests over the killing of black men at the hand of police and generally lament the poverty, disease, mudslides, and other disasters these days, this Advent, seem darker than usual. And I don’t think it’s my mood. Advent is supposed to be dark—this period when we intentionally look forward to the second coming of Christ with all of the upheaval that comes with it. But this is a bit much.

We are given scriptural texts specifically chosen for this third Sunday of Advent and though there are nice words in here—rejoice! freedom! Oil of gladness! I find no comfort. Let’s take a look at this passage from Isaiah.

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me to preach good news. At first blush, Isaiah sounds remarkably comforting to us—and we so want to be comforted--all of us. Isaiah’s message told by the unnamed prophet is “to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion…”

After years spent in exile, after a period of being called back home, after confronting the monumental task of rebuilding a broken and dispersed community of people called Israel, all of the promises that come before in the 60 previous chapters of Isaiah—promises written over many, many years by different prophets—these promises are still being made. The people still mourn and grieve because there had been no glorious kingdom of God established after the exile as they anticipated. They still needed comfort. And we live now, in a world into which Jesus has already come once—this Jesus who preached on these texts in his first sermon in the Temple and declared that all of these promises were being fulfilled as the listeners heard him. We hear these words in the light of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in Staten Island, the second anniversary of the massacre of the innocents in Newtown, CT and I’m clear, are you not, that not only do we still want to be comforted--we are still in exile. We have not yet found our way back. The superhighway that Isaiah spoke about in last Sunday’s passage is like the Eisenhower at the evening rush—going nowhere fast. We want to cry freedom, we want an end to the mass incarceration of young black and latino men, we want the year of jubilee—the year of the Lord’s favor—and we want comfort for those very many who are in mourning.

Being comforted and being comfortable are different things. Advent time—this time we are in—is not about being comfortable. Advent is about waiting for Christ’s return, it is about waiting for the consummation of all things when all people, all of creation will be reconciled to each other and to God. Advent is about finding our way back—home. It is about loving a God who made a home, here among humanity, in the person of Jesus. So when I’m asked, what “can we do” in the wake of Ferguson and the rest; what can we do, when the protesting is over—all I can say is that it is complicated. Sure there is advocacy work to be done and policies to change and reforms to effect. Ultimately, though, the answers to that question—which I believe is aimed at getting at the structural and systemic forces that make institutional and hence, individual racism and privilege so difficult to dismantle—the answers to the question will vary with each of us. But let me tell you what I’m doing. It’s a small little thing called “going home”.

So let me say, by way of confession, that over the past few years I’ve been slowing coming out as a kid from the projects. I cannot express enough what a big deal that has been for me. It is an admission that has me examining my own internalized racial oppression, identity, feelings of abandonment—and my own acts of abandoning my community in the name of survival—and I hope ultimately giving me the courage to use what little privilege I have as a multiple degreed, Ivy educated black professional to actually do something to make a difference.

At the age of ten my family to a housing project in Staten Island—not too far where Eric Garner met his fate. We had left Brooklyn and relocated to a place where my own innocence of people of many races and backgrounds living together more or less peacefully was shattered. This was the place where I had to learn to navigate the White adults spitting on me and calling me the N-word as I walked home from school each day and the Black school kids wanting to fight me because I spoke funny and used words they didn’t understand. I hated this place. I took solace in the library and the classroom and dreamed of getting out. Each night gun shuts would ring out on the basketball court below my window as I did my homework. I strategized and dreamt about a different life—frankly, a Park Avenue classic six apartment was the dream. I saved my allowance and later after-school job money so that I’m pretty sure I was the only teenager walking around the projects in a Brooks Brothers navy blue, brass-buttoned blazer. Success meant getting out and never looking back. But as it turns out, going back just may be my salvation.

For me, confronting the pain, violence, and for many, hopelessness of that place is critical in order for me to take all of this talk of racial reconciliation and social justice from an academic exercise that I can study and read about till there’s no tomorrow, to an experience of true compassion, empathy, and solidarity. This is about me amending the hashtag, BlackLivesMatter to #AllBlackLivesMatter. All Black lives—especially, especially, the ones seen as expendable and disposable because of where they live, how they speak, what they wear. I don’t have time to do it, I’m hearing and remembering stories I don’t want to hear or remember. But this little bit of “putting myself back together” and finding wholeness, will be I pray, a key to me effecting that wholeness that I desire for the whole community. This is about intentionally entering the brokenness to find that actually, those who made it out are not the only survivors.

This is also an exercise in Advent hope. It is about paying attention and believing in spite of the “evidence” that in the darkest of days, a light shines forth. From broken and abandoned dreams, hope is birthed. It is about trusting that transformation comes from unexpected places—whether it is the backwater of Nazareth or the housing projects of Staten Island, or the streets of Englewood. In her book The Liturgical Year, Joan Chittister says of Advent, “… this is the season that teaches us to wait for what is beyond the obvious. It trains us to see what is behind the apparent. Advent makes us look for God in all those places we have, until now, ignored.”

I don’t know what “going home” looks like for you. Maybe it is a hard, difficult look at the places that have made you who you are and being curious about it. Maybe it is looking at the place where you live and move and have your being right now, and asking yourself, is this life you’re living and creating, helping to effect the change you desire for the world. Returning home—moving toward wholeness-- is what God most desires for us and the pathway as Isaiah and other prophets make clear, will not always be simple, clear or easy. But each time we go to those places—whether it is a street address or the part of your heart that has been hollowed out by complacency, sorrow, fear, and anguish—each time we go to those places we have to look oh so carefully lest we miss what God is doing in front of our very eyes.

About a week ago I finally made it over to the Holocaust Museum in Skokie—I pass it all the time but never made it in. I’d been urged by friends from church and the community to check out the exhibit on race. It is a well done exhibit that takes the anthropological approach to reinforce the idea of race as a social construct but that also explains the evolution of physical features that account for the diversity in the human family. It also has what seems to be hours of video of personal testimony from folks speaking of discrimination, bias, and genocidal violence because of racism in this country. The exhibit is a good one but, frankly, didn’t tell me anything I didn’t really already know. It reminded me that what is happening to Black men today is part of a long string of racial atrocities. I left feeling a bit exhausted and a bit resigned that it was ever thus, and ever shall be. After I exited the exhibit I made my way to the gift shop. I thought I might check out the permanent exhibit about the horrors of the Jewish Holocaust but I didn’t want to take in more depressing narratives—I was full up. As I entered the gift shop a man pointed to a table where another, older, White man was siting and he asked me, “would you like to meet a Holocaust survivor?” So I gave the only answer I could give. “Of course. Of course, I do.”





Tuesday, December 9, 2014

#FergusonTheology: “What about personal responsibility?”

Since Michael Brown was killed, there are many questions I have heard repeatedly from fellow white people. These are questions asked honestly that deserve thoughtful consideration. Christ Church Cathedral is a place where we wrestle with the tough questions – and look to our scripture, theological tradition and best thinking for answers. Over the next couple weeks, I’m going to explore some of these questions with the hashtag #FergusonTheology.

In the world of “Yes, but…” the question of personal responsibility has been one of the most common raised by my fellow white people over the past four months.

Yes, I understand and support the actions taken to address larger issues of race and class, but…

What about Michael Brown shoplifting/walking down the middle of the street/reaching for the police officer’s gun?

What about Rasheen Aldridge, a Ferguson Commissioner, shoving a police officer to try to get into City Hal?

What about the people who threw jars of urine and burned down buildings?

Without getting into the specific details and debatable accuracies and inaccuracies of each situation, the core issue in each is: “What about personal responsibility?”

It’s an excellent question. At the core, it is a question about sin.

Sin is whenever we put anything other than God and God’s dreams for us (love God and love our neighbor as ourselves) at the center of our lives. Sin occurs whenever our actions come out of anything other than that radical ethic of love and instead create distortions or breaks in relationship.

As followers of Jesus, we believe God forgives sin but that it is not cheap grace. There is a process of reconciliation of relationship – one that involves self-examination, confession, repentance, and amendment of life before absolution is finally offered and received.

As someone who hears confessions, much of my priestly job in that sacramental rite is holy listening. It is walking with people through that self-examination and helping them discern what is sin, what is not, and what the role of personal responsibility is. When sin is identified, personal responsibility is key. We were created in God’s image with freedom of choice, and our choices matter greatly. We cannot receive absolution and restore right relationship unless responsibility is acknowledged, damage is repaired and a commitment to a changed life is made.

But sin doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Context is critical.

Is it living into God’s dreams for us to punch someone in the face? No. That is not love of neighbor. That is sin. But is there a difference between walking up to someone who has done nothing to you and punching them in the face and the teenage son punching in the face his alcoholic father who has once again come home drunk and angry after beating him time and again to the point where he has to say, “no more!” Yes.

Sin doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Sin is messy and embeds itself in the webs of relationships that are our lives. It doesn’t mean that personal responsibility goes out the window. But it does mean recognizing at least two things:

*First, as Paul says, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) We never talk about sin only with a finger pointed toward another. We talk about sin as sinners and that means we only talk about it not in judgmental tones but in humility, gathered together at the foot of the cross looking at the one who bears all our sins.

*Second, we first talk about sin with a mirror held up to ourselves, as Jesus bids us “take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (Matthew 7:5).

In other words, if we are going to have the conversation about personal responsibility – and we should – we don’t start with Michael Brown and Rasheen Aldridge and the rioters. We begin with ourselves.

Our theological tradition identifies two primary types of sin – things we have done (sins of commission) and things we have left undone (sins of omission). A more contemporary confession adds, rightly, “the evil done on our behalf.”

If I am to look at the acts of Michael Brown, Rasheen Aldridge and the Ferguson rioters after the grand jury announcement, before I get to the question of their personal responsibility for whatever they might have done, FIRST, I have to ask these questions of myself:

What evil have I done?
What evil have I allowed to happen by my inaction?
What evil has been done on my behalf and from which I have benefitted?

Those questions convict me … and they should.

Sin doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Sin begs the question “why?” … not as excuse but seeking understanding so that reconciliation and healing may occur for all of us.

The truth is, just as the boy who has been pushed to the limit by his alcoholic father is much more likely to punch his dad in the face than my son is to punch me in mine, people are much more likely to do things like shoplift, or shove or even burn down a building if they have been oppressed and pushed to the limit themselves. This does not absolve them of personal responsibility but it is cause to examine how we all share in that responsibility.

Let’s take the most egregious of the sins I have been asked about … the rioting and burning of buildings. I have heard many people hold up the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and his commitment to nonviolence as an example in shaming those who did such things. And yet King, while resolute in his stand against violence, recognized that sin doesn’t happen in a vacuum and in fact there is deep shared responsibility.

King said, “I think that we've got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.”

Sin is at times “the language of the unheard.” It is the same way that teenage boy punching his father was the only way he felt he could say “no more!” in a way that would be heard. And those of us who have been and are still the unhearing need to recognize that as a call to look for logs in our own eyes, not as a substitute for helping our neighbor taking the speck out of theirs, but as the first step Jesus demands before we search for those specks.

So should we talk about personal responsibility? Absolutely. And I need to start with me.

I need to look at the choices I have made – the things I have done and left undone – to widen or at least not close the education, economic and opportunity gap between white and black in St. Louis and our nation. The things I have done and left undone and the evil that has been done on my behalf to increase a culture of hopelessness, solidify the school-to-prison pipeline, and encourage an environment that screams Black Lives DON’T Matter … or at least they don’t matter as much as mine.

If I’m going to talk about personal responsibility, I need to talk about how I send my kids to private schools and have opted out of the public school system when I know the thing that changes schools more than anything else is committed parents and families.

If I’m going to talk about personal responsibility, I need to talk about how much money and time I spend south of Delmar and how most of the businesses I patronize are white-owned.

If I’m going to talk about personal responsibility, I need to talk about how my church has several million dollars in endowment and we don’t invest one dollar of it in helping community development in local minority neighborhoods.

If I’m going to talk about personal responsibility, I need to talk about how I have spent most of my life being silent about racial profiling and have failed to hear and act on the cries coming from black mothers and fathers as their children have been treated as criminals without cause and over and over again died in the streets.

If I’m going to talk about personal responsibility, I need to talk about how I and my family have generated personal wealth over the last 100 years primarily through property appreciating in value … a wealth escalator that people of color were almost entirely left off of.

If I’m going to talk about personal responsibility, I need to talk about how I have benefitted from systems that discriminate on the basis of race (among other things) but have never been discriminated against myself and have done little if anything to call attention to this fact.

If I’m going to talk about personal responsibility, I need to realize this list is just getting started.

This is not bleeding heart self-flagellation. This is the sacrament of reconciliation. This is honest self-examination and confession of my sin as a necessary first step toward even beginning to help another do the same.

And I can’t stop there. I have to commit to repentance – how am I going to do the best I can to repair the damage done by my sin?

And I can’t stop there. I have to commit to amendment of life – how am I going to, with God’s help, “go forth and sin no more.”?

This is not a neat and tidy process. I don’t think we need to wait until we have completed it perfectly before we lovingly hold each other to account for sin … before we try to point out the speck in the other’s eye. But we do need to engage in it deeply enough that we are aware of where our own contributory role in this sin is and are actively engaged in our own process of repentance and amendment of life before we begin to point our finger at another.

Is personal responsibility important? Absolutely. It is at the heart of reconciliation from sin. But repentance and reconciliation is never something we order someone else into – which is why I personally regret that repentance and reconciliation was expressed and experienced quite differently at the clergy demonstration I was a part of at the Ferguson Police Department in October. It is ground we ascend ourselves first and then invite the other to join us. It is why the last words I as a priest say in the sacramental rite of reconciliation are: “Go in peace, and pray for me, a sinner.”

Is the question of personal responsibility for Michael Brown, Rasheen Aldridge and those who rioted in Ferguson important. Yes. It absolutely is. But if I am to follow Jesus, I can only invite them to see the speck in their eye if I first do what I can to take the log out of my eye. And that means first instead of judging them, I need to listen to them … not in supporting their actions but recognizing them as the language of the unheard.

Recognizing that it was the unheard that Jesus time and again stopped to listen to.

Recognizing that the most important personal responsibility is my own.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Shut it Down? Why I was a part of the Black Friday action at the Galleria

Last Friday, I participated in the “Black Friday” nonviolent direct action at the Galleria. It was incredibly powerful. Several hundred people – black and white, young and old, marching and chanting through one of the region’s most popular malls. Two different times, we participated in a “die-in,” a dramatic method of demonstration to draw attention to the 4 ½ hours Michael Brown’s body lay in the street and also to the fact that black people are four times more likely to die in custody or while being arrested than white people (Source: Mother Jones).

My participation in this demonstration has been controversial. I do not seek controversy but if it can further understanding, I certainly don’t shy away from it. So I want to address some of the extremely valid questions I have received over the past few days so that – agree or disagree – you might better understand why I did what I did, and why I believe it is consistent not only with our Christian beliefs but the mission and values of Christ Church Cathedral.

What was the demonstration about?
The purpose of a demonstration is to get people’s attention. On that level, the purpose of this demonstration was the same as so many of the others have been – to get people to hear the voices of young black and brown women and men that we have been ignoring for too long. To jolt people like me, white people of privilege, out of our complacency by the sheer force of determination and passion.

Because the purpose of demonstrations is to get attention, they are intentionally disruptive, though not violent. Demonstrations might block traffic or clog lanes in a shopping mall. The purpose of the disruption is not to inflict pain but to draw attention to something important or something tragic. To make us stop and notice.

Think of a time in your life where you witnessed something deeply offensive or hurtful. Someone shoving an elderly person on the street or kicking a puppy … or maybe even when your way to the Cathedral has been completely blocked on Sunday morning by a marathon! Our lives have been offended and disrupted so our instant human reaction is to disrupt … to stop people whatever they are doing and say, “Wait! Hey! Did anyone see guy? He just kicked that puppy!” “Everybody call the mayor and tell them not to let the Rock n’ Roll Marathon back in St. Louis” (almost my exact words in an email when I was irate one Sunday not too long ago!) That’s our impulse because in the moment we believe that directing people’s attention to what just happened is more important than letting them go about their business -- and often we are right! That’s the purpose of demonstrations. When we have been injured, offended or disrupted so much that we want people to experience it themselves not as punishment but so they will do something about it.

Of this demonstration, my friend, Pastor Shaun Jones of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, captured a big piece of it when he said it was about “affecting the lives of those who think that Mike Brown’s death doesn’t affect them.”

At their best, demonstrations come out of the best of the Judeo-Christian prophetic tradition. They express the pain of a people in a way that holds a mirror up to ourselves and confronts us with our complicity in that pain. They show us that our own complacency and complicity with sin has real consequences for all of us. They also tear down the illusions we create for ourselves that everything is well and help us to see where all is not well … and confront us with our responsibility to use our power to create a better world for all.

Why a mall on Black Friday?
Because it guaranteed us a broad and diverse audience for our message. Also because it provided an opportunity on a day when, more than any other, our attention is focused on things, to direct our attention to people. Jesus doesn’t call us to seek and serve him in things … that would be idolatry. Jesus does call us to seek and serve him in people … particularly those that have been the most abused and neglected.

Aren’t you just hurting the little people … the shop workers and others?
It cannot be argued that there were some hourly wage workers who took home less money on Friday … and that they are among the people who can afford least to lose income. That is not to be celebrated ,and I wish that was not part of the story of what happened the same way I wish that police officers were not pulling incredibly long back-to-back (and more) shifts for the past four months. But it is part of the story. So a few thoughts:

*In the demonstration I participated in, I witnessed a vast majority of the workers supporting the demonstration. Two Macy’s workers (pictured left) even walked off the job and began leading chants. Many, many others gave us thumbs up signs and high-fives.

*There was never a need to shut down stores or, indeed, the entire mall. Yes, shutting down the Galleria was seen as a successful disruption. But there really was no need. The demonstration was 100% nonviolent. We never entered a store or prevented anyone from entering a store. The shutting down of stores and the mall was a fear reaction.

This is a key point. There have been acts of profound violence against property on a couple nights immediately following Michael Brown’s killing and again after the grand jury decision. Those acts are abhorrent, have no place in a nonviolent movement and in fact set the cause of love and justice back considerably. But there is no evidence that any acts of property damage or violence have been committed by the nonviolent young people who have consistently led these demonstrations with integrity and discipline. In fact, on the night Vonderitt Myers was killed in Shaw, they (together with the St. Louis Police and the clergy) actively prevented a situation from becoming tragically violent (for details read my account of that night here  ).

Time and again over the past four months, we as St. Louis have been unable or unwilling to distinguish between the nonviolent demonstrators and the people who on a very limited number of occasions, had their rage boil over into property damage and violence. This inability has actually escalated tensions, not reduced them. There was no risk of property damage or violence. As I participated in the demonstration I invited others to join us, reinforced that there was nothing to fear ... and in fact most of the shoppers I interacted with seemed to understand this. The Galleria could have stayed open.

*The argument “aren’t you just hurting the little people” is the same one that was used during actions like the Montgomery Bus Boycott. “Aren’t you just hurting the bus drivers and the low-income people who need to get to work?” The simple answer is while there is pain and it is regrettable that it is born by the hourly-wage workers, the answer today is the same as it is then, which is there is a greater good at stake. I pray I never take pain caused to others lightly, and I believe we should always ask ourselves what shared sacrifice looks like (And I am open to that conversation). But again, I will point to my personal experience that the number of workers who actively showed their support to what we were doing far outnumbered those who did not react or who indicated disapproval.

Is this appropriate for the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral? Doesn’t this damage your and the Cathedral’s credibility?

I do believe this is appropriate for the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral. As I said on Facebook, You might be surprised to know that going to demonstrations and marching is outside my comfort zone. I really don't relish it. I'm much more comfortable behind the scenes or writing and preaching.

I push this comfort zone in myself because I recognize people need to see white church leaders – including the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral -- out there with the young people who are leading this movement. They are risking so much for the same theological principle we all hold so dear -- that all God's children are beloved and should be treated with honor, dignity and high regard -- the least I can do is stand with them.

I particularly believe it is appropriate for me to be out there as Dean of Christ Church Cathedral because we believe God is calling us to be “A Cathedral for the City.” Our vision statement Chapter is crafting reads:

Christ Church Cathedral is a place where people, all people, can gather to seek God and to be present to each other while being a catalyst for change and growth within the wider community.

That means I don’t have the luxury of just considering the people who show up on Sunday morning for worship. We need to be a Cathedral for all St. Louis. And that means I need to be available to everyone. And Jesus clearly calls us to seek and serve him in those who are most oppressed and cast aside. I need to be out there as Dean of Christ Church Cathedral (and I invite you to join me) because it doesn’t take you showing up at worship for me to consider you part of our flock. Our flock is the city and the region. We are our sisters and brothers’ keeper.

Does this damage my and our credibility with some? With some, it is possible and even probable. But I hope not irreparably. Following Jesus is always about risk and with risk there is usually cost. I hope any credibility lost or relationships damaged can be healed by our willingness to be in loving relationship with anyone and by what I hope will be people’s respect for our integrity. But yes, there may be damage.

There will always be those who will be deeply offended by us taking a stand about anything. We have offended greatly in the past by standing up for our sisters and brothers who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered and by advocating for our sisters and brothers who struggle with poverty and homelessness. Our way is the way of the cross. My main hope is not that we avoid controversy but that I and all of us maintain a posture of humility and avoid the trap of self-righteousness.

What does this have to do with the mission of Christ Church Cathedral?

Our mission statement is:

We seek a deeper relationship with God and each other in Jesus Christ through: Celebrating the sacraments faithfully; Proclaiming the Gospel boldly; Embracing diversity joyfully; Serving all passionately as a Cathedral.

Under “Proclaiming the Gospel boldly,” a strategy that is included in the current draft strategic plan is this:

We will be courageous in our proclamation and advocacy for those in our Cathedral and in our community who experience discrimination in any form. Speaking out for those who experience e discrimination carries risk and requires courage. The Cathedral community both stands behind its members who have the courage to speak out, and recognizes its corporate responsibility to do so as a community of believers.

Our mission, vision, values and strategies are the result of nearly two years of prayerful deliberation. That process is about over as we are now seeking input on this final draft. But I feel confident enough in the work your Chapter has done and how truly it stands in line with both our theological tradition as Episcopal Christians and the specific history of proclamation and advocacy of Christ Church Cathedral to say that actions like the Black Friday demonstration at the Galleria have everything to do with the mission to which Christ calls us.

What are your thoughts?

Monday, December 1, 2014

The sacrament of uncomfortability

“Of all the choices we have to make, there is none harder than having to give up something good for the sake of something better. Giving up a present good for the promise of a greater requires faith and a willingness to risk.” – Alan Jones, former Dean, Grace Cathedral, San Francisco.

We are a sacramental church. We believe God makes the divine self known to us in tangible ways – outward and spiritual signs of God’s inward and spiritual grace. We believe sacraments are revelatory and sustaining. We believe God through them aims fundamentally to change who we are.

The two great sacraments of the church are Baptism and Eucharist. Both are about death and new life.
In Baptism, we die to an old life of sin so we can be born to a new life in Christ. In Eucharist, we lay our lives on the table as an offering with each other and with Jesus so God may make us into something greater than our individual selves … the Body of Christ given for the life of the world.

Bread broken. Wine poured out. Be what you see, receive who you are.

For many of us, the lives we lay down in baptism and lay on the table in Eucharist aren’t bad. On the whole, they are quite comfortable and even enjoyable. Particularly those of us who enjoy lives of great privilege love our lives the way they are. And yet we cannot escape the fact that God calls us out of that comfort. God calls us to give up something good for the sake of something better. And it absolutely requires faith and a willingness to risk.

Living the baptized, Eucharistic life of following Jesus absolutely requires us to see uncomfortability not as something to be avoided and feared but embraced. To see uncomfortability as an invitation to meet Christ in raw places. To see uncomfortability itself as sacramental ... as a sign of God's living, breathing, challenging and transforming grace in our lives. The giving up of something good for the sure and certain hope of something better.

Right now, in St. Louis, in America, White people like me are growing more and more uncomfortable.

And as hard as it is to hear, it is a good thing. And as hard as it is to bear, it must not stop.

For nearly four months, we as white people have been listening to people of color crying out on the streets. They've been crying for far longer, but it's only for the past few months that many of us have begun to hear.

These voices make many of us uncomfortable because they are loud and raw. They are angry and pained. They challenge our own complicity in a system that causes great pain and injustice. As white people, these voices feel like they are directed at us personally … and some of them are.

These voices make us uncomfortable because the reality they are crying out is so different from ours that often we have trouble believing it could be real. And so we are tempted to dismiss or rationalize it away.

We are uncomfortable because the voices are getting louder, and they are reaching us wherever we go. Even when we try to turn away, they are there – they are in the shopping mall, blocking the streets we’re trying to drive, even holding their hands up in our face as we try to watch the Rams on a fall afternoon.

Because of our privilege, many of we who are white have for most of our lives been able to avoid extreme discomfort, to view things like racism as "issues" that we either choose to engage or not. But now, these voices are telling us it's not optional anymore. That we have to deal with it or they will "shut it down."

And we are uncomfortable ... and confused ... and afraid ... and annoyed ... and even angry.

And we find ourselves just wanting it all to go away. More and more over the past week, people have come to me saying how weary they are of the protests and "how come 'they' can't do something positive" and "why can't 'they' just tell us what they want" ... with the subtext being "so we can get back to being comfortable again." And shouldn't I be doing something productive and reasonable instead of encouraging this nonsense?

I feel that pain. I feel that weariness. The learning curve for we white people on this one is so, so steep (I know it is for me) because most of our own previous experiences of pain and weariness ... though certainly profound and real to us ... have not prepared us to encounter the extraordinary pain and weariness people of color have in this country just trying to live every day of their lives.

Jesus was never one to preach comfortability. In fact, the Gospels paint a pretty clear picture of a Jesus who invited us to leave our places of comfort behind and follow him. To give up something good for the sake of something better.

To have faith and a willingness to risk.

To embrace the sacrament of uncomfortability.

That is where Christ is calling us today. To resist the temptation to flee from the uncomfortablity, to lash out at the uncomfortability or even to reach for the quick and easy fix for the uncomfortability.

If uncomfortability is a sacrament, and I believe it is, then we need to lean into it ... to dive into it even. We need to feel it deeply, knowing that it leads us to the very heart of Christ.

If you are annoyed, angry, confused and weary by the demonstrators, I really do feel you. This is a hard time. But Christ calls us to do what is hard and promises to walk with us every step of the way. So I urge you, instead of lashing out or throwing up your hands in despair ... instead of dismissing the protesters as "thugs" or criticizing their methods ... instead lean in.

Listen deeply.

Feel the anger and the pain and ask "Why?" and don't be satisfied with the initial answers you give yourself ... answers which will tend to reinforce your existing beliefs and stereotypes.

Let your own anger, annoyance, confusion and weariness guide you to empathy with the great anger, annoyance, confusion and weariness our sisters and brothers of color experience every day.

Resist the temptation to tell the demonstrators what they should and shouldn't be hurt and angry about (as if that's how anger and pain works) but instead try to understand how hurt and angry you have to be to day after day, night after night, shout in hopes that someone might hear you and actually do something.

As white people, we must let our uncomfortability be a mirror held up to ourselves. A mirror that humbles us all before the cross of Christ. A mirror that invites all of us to confess how we have fallen short of the glory of God, to confess to God how

We have denied your goodness in each other,
in ourselves, and in the world you have created.
We repent of the evil that enslaves us,
the evil we have done,
and the evil done on our behalf. (EOW confessional prayer)

that through self-examination, confession, repentance, and amendment of life we all might be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

We are a sacramental church, and our present uncomfortability is a sacrament.

Through it God is making the divine self known to us in tangible ways.

Through it God aims fundamentally to change who we are.

Through it God is inviting us to embrace that hardest of choices -- to give up the comfortability of the lives we have loved for the sake of something better -- a life of love, dignity and justice for all. A life where all people are treated as beloved images of God.

We are a sacramental church, and our present uncomfortability is a sacrament. Unlikely and difficult as it seems, it is a gift Jesus offers to us in love.

And if we choose not receive it now, Jesus promises it will be offered again.