Friday, February 20, 2015

Brene Brown and Bartimaeus: Vulnerability and Healing

From our opening devotion at the Christ Church Cathedral chapter meeting, Thursday, February 19, 2015.

“Vulnerability is not knowing victory or defeat, it’s understanding the necessity of both; it’s engaging. It’s being all in. Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.

“When we spend our lives waiting until we’re perfect or bulletproof before we walk into the arena, we ultimately sacrifice relationships and opportunities that may not be recoverable, we squander our precious time, and we turn our backs on our gifts, those unique contributions that only we can make.
“Perfect and bulletproof are seductive, but they don’t exist in the human experience. We must walk into the arena, whatever it may be – a new relationship, an important meeting, our creative process, or a difficult family conversation – with courage and the willingness to engage. Rather than sitting on the sidelines and hurling judgment and advice, we must dare to show up and let ourselves be seen. This is vulnerability. This is daring greatly.”  - Brene Brown, Daring Greatly

Take a minute and ponder: What makes you afraid to be vulnerable?

"They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way." - Mark 10:46-52

Take a minute and ponder: Where do we as a Cathedral most need healing?

When I ask myself the question "Why am I afraid to be vulnerable?" at the top of the list is REJECTION. It's a scary word and it's a big fear.  I'm afraid that I will show a piece of myself, something that's raw and real, and other people -- maybe even people whose opinion I really value and whose love I really want -- will laugh or ridicule or even just disagree with me in a way that will play old tapes in my head about my own unlovableness and unworthiness.

I love the story of Bartimaeus because there is so much going on here ... and the first thing that is happening is courage.

Bartimaeus dares to be vulnerable. He shouts to this hotshot rabbi, Jesus -- HEY! I'M OVER HERE! HELP ME!  And then his worst fear (OK, maybe it isn't his but it would be mine) happens --- he gets rejected. The disciples say "Sit down and shut up, Bartimaeus!"

But Bartimaeus has got it going on, and we hear that he cried out even more loudly. That's Daring GREATLY! And Jesus LOVES it. And he tells these same disciples that had been sneering at Bartimaeus to bring him into the very center of the community. And Bartimaeus goes all in -- he throws off his cloak, not hiding a thing -- and goes to Jesus.

And then Jesus asks Bartimaeus one of the most amazing questions in all of scripture.

What do you want me to do for you?

Just imagine if Jesus walked up to you and said:

"What do you want me to do for you?" 

Not in an Aladdin/Three Wishes kind of way, but looking deep in your eyes and inviting you to name your deepest wound. For me, it would be the ultimate approach/avoidance situation -- I can have my deepest brokenness healed, but first I have to admit it -- to Christ and to myself.

And Bartimaeus tells Jesus his heart's desire "My teacher, let me see again." And when we tell someone our heart's desire, we put our heart in their hand and give them the potential for throwing it on the ground and grinding it under their heel. But of course that's not what Jesus does ... he says "Go. Your faith has made you well" ... and Bartimaeus not only regains his sight but, maybe even more significantly, he becomes part of this community that just minutes before had been telling him to shut up and stay begging by the side of the road.

There is a link between vulnerability and healing. As followers of Jesus, we know this. We know this because the ultimate instance of power and the doorway to the resurrection is the ultimate instance of vulnerability ... Christ nailed to the cross.

The healing power of Christ is available to each and all of us -- but we have to walk through that doorway of vulnerability first. We have to name our brokenness and risk -- and sometimes even suffer -- rejection.

Where do we need healing at Christ Church Cathedral? Last night at Chapter we named several things -- internal disagreements about budget and mission, old conflicts that still fester, impatience, and our budget and finances themselves (which I know I often describe in medical terms as "hemorrhaging money.").

Where do we need healing in our lives? In our own struggles with addiction? In (in the beautiful words of the Ash Wednesday litany) "our anger at our own frustration?" In our fear? In our feelings of inadequacy, unlovability and unworthiness?

Brene Brown says: "Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement."

Bartimaeus enagaged. Bartimaeus dared greatly. He cried out to Jesus, risked and braved rejection, flung off his cloak and spoke the truth of his deepest pain and his heart's desire.

Our ability to receive the healing power of Christ's love is up to us. And our only choice is a question of engagement.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

An invitation to a Holy Lent -- Face to Face

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church,
to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance;
by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by
reading and meditating on God's holy Word. 

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of our Lenten journey that will culminate with our gathering at the foot of the cross on Good Friday and, ultimately, rejoicing at the empty tomb on Easter Sunday morning.

We begin this journey with ashes on our head as a reminder that every one of us will die but that God's love for us will never die. The ashes we place on our forehead today at noon and 6 pm at Christ Church Cathedral are reminders we are free to be completely unafraid of anything, even death, because our lives are built on a foundation that is even stronger than death -- the love of God in Jesus Christ.

Like everything else in our Christian journey, we never do this alone -- always together. 

We are calling our Lenten journey this year "Face to Face." Throughout the 40 days we will be looking each other in the face both as a Cathedral community and as a wider St. Louis community. We will strive to see each other as we truly are. To have the real conversation. To speak our own truths and listen deeply to each others'. To live our mission of "embracing diversity joyfully" by facing each other in all our difference and daring to be vulnerable with and even love each other enough to give ourselves for one another.

We're offering many ways to take part in this Face to Face journey through Lent:

Faces in the Nave - In addition to seeing each other's faces in worship, we will spend Lent with other faces. Cbabi Bayoc's faces of African-American fathers and their children in his "365 Days with Dad" will continue to grace the Cathedral Nave. In addition, throughout Lent the Cathedral Nave will host a display of "Faces Not Forgotten" -- these are portraits on handkerchiefs of young people who have been killed by guns here in St. Louis. We will be looking at these images of God throughout Lent and considering how their ongoing witness is calling us.

40 Essential Bible Passages - Every day during Lent, someone from our Cathedral or downtown community will share a Bible passage that is essential to their lives and why in a 2-3 minute video on our YouTube Channel and our Facebook and Twitter accounts. It's a great way to see a new face every day and hear the diversity of ways scripture is shaping our lives. Click here to see our Digital Missioner Brendan O'Connor kick this off with Ruth 1:16-17. 

Lent Unedited --An online Lenten discipline of being real with each other, showing our messiness and

imperfections with one another -- unedited, unfiltered, imperfect -- and letting the grace of community and the grace of God shine into our darkness and joy. To join, every day (or whenever you remember) post an unedited, real moment of your life on Facebook or Twitter with the hashtag #lentunedited. You can join the Facebook group by clicking here. This is the inspiration of the Rev. Hopie Welles Jernagan of St. Peter's, Ladue.

The Real Conversation  - From 1 - 4:30 pm, Saturday, Feb 28, the Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, director of networking for the Diocese of Chicago, will enlighten and equip us in:
    *learning to build relationships even while discussing difficult topics such as race and class               
    *exploring recent events as opportunities for organizing for change.
    *learning to create more authentic communities of faith by listening, learning and communicating well.
There is a $10 per person suggested donation to cover expenses. Please RSVP by clicking here

Why Protest: Worship and Conversation About The Movement:  -- On Sunday, March 8, the Rev. Traci Blackmon will be our guest preacher at 10 am and following the service at noon she will be joined by three other faces of the Ferguson protest movement -- Alexis Templeton, Brittany Ferrell and Deray McKesson for a community listening session around three questions:

*WHY Protest -- what is driving the protests?
*Why PROTEST - why choose this method of expression?
*How can everyone get involved in The Movement?

More opportunities will be offered as we move through this season. But one of the best "face to face" Lenten disciplines is to take the time to sit down with someone you don't know very well, maybe someone of a different racial, ethnic, economic, political or theological background than you. Look each other in the face, seek the beloved image of God on each other, and let yourselves be challenged by one another. Once a day, every day, try truly to see a new face - so when we gather at the cross and the empty tomb we have a stronger sense of the deep ways we are connected by God's love in Christ.

I'm looking forward to this journey together.

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.