Friday, May 1, 2015

We are not meant to live alone

My mom started growing African violets when I was a kid. We had a number of them in her garden window in California. I now have several in a south facing window in our home in a garden tray my husband gave me for Christmas one year. They bloom constantly - even through the winter which brings color to our home in an otherwise colorless time.

This little African violet came to me last December. It had been left behind by its previous owner and wasn't in the best shape. The leaves were small and discolored and there were no signs of any blooms on it at all.

But you can see things have changed for it. There are still a few discolored leaves, but now there is new growth and today it bloomed. What changed?

It would be low hanging fruit to say it was the difference in care between the prior owner and me ... but that's not the case at all. I generally have a "brown thumb" ... I'm really not good with most plants. The difference is the environment.

African violets are "social" plants. They flourish when grouped together and wither when isolated from others. Here are this little violet's "tray mates":

These little plants teach us about ourselves. We are not meant to be isolated from the wider community. When we isolate, we wither ... we get small and we get selfish. We refuse to see that our own flourishing and growth requires us to be part of a larger community ... a community where there is commonality AND diversity (notice not all of these violets are pink!).

This has been a hard week for my sisters and brothers in Baltimore. Tensions have erupted between the largely impoverished African American neighborhoods on the west side and the police over the death of Freddie Gray. I have seen people of all races coming together to seek justice as well as the frustrations of years of being unheard erupting in looting and violence. I have seen withered small hearts isolated from these harsh realities passing judgment on social media - people who fail to see that their flourishing has resulted from the very system which has impoverished so many. As folk singer Pete Seeger once noted: "The rich are rich because the poor are poor."

There is an ancient Zulu word: Ubuntu. There is no simple translation of this word but as Archbishop Desmond Tutu explained, it's essence means "I am because of you" ... or "I am who I am because I am bound up in you." Our lives are connected! We do not live in isolation - what happens in Baltimore affects all of us: regardless of anything which appears to divide us. Ubuntu speaks to our need for true community. This is not just surrounding ourselves with like-minded people who look like you, share your values, socio-economic class, and world view. This means building real community and connecting ourselves to people whose lives are radically different from you. It means listening to and learning from the experiences of those who do not see the world as you or I do. It means honoring them as sisters and brothers in Christ knowing that any system which raises some up at the expense of others is not of God and is not, in the long run, sustainable in any meaningful way.

St. Paul speaks of this in 1 Corinthians 12 when he describes us as the Body of Christ. He said:
The eye cannot say to the hand, "I do not need you." Or the head cannot say to the feet, "I do not need you."
We need each other to become what God wants us to be ... just like this little violet needed others to truly become what it could be.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Wounding the weak conscience - Alcohol and the Episcopal Church

The epistle in this week's lectionary reading for Epiphany 4B is a selection from the 8th chapter of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians addressing the subject of eating meat sacrificed to idols. Admittedly, lifting this directly from the Bible into our 21st century context is a bit baffling to those of us hearing this in the pew (whether lay or ordained). After all, we do not live in a culture steeped in religious sacrificial systems anymore. Nobody's heading down to the Temple of Zeus to sample the brisket offered in his honor. But in a bigger sense, Paul is saying something very important to our Church today with respect to our mutuality and responsibility towards each other.

The Episcopal Church is facing this very issue with respect to the issue of alcohol. Heather Cook, bishop suffragan of Maryland, was driving on December 27, 2014 with a .22 blood alcohol content and, while texting, hit and killed cyclist, husband and father, Tom Palermo. This was not Cook's first DUI. Her first was in 2010 when she was serving as a priest and Canon to the Ordinary (which is kind of like the bishop's "chief of staff"). When pulled over, her blood alcohol content was .27. She was so intoxicated in that incident, the field sobriety test had to be stopped due to concerns about her safety. There are other unsavory details in the police report from that first incident which have been widely reported.

The 2010 arrest was the first time Heather was caught drinking and driving. But, with a .27 BAC, it was not her first time drinking nor was it just "a glass of wine over the limit." In the words of the AAs in my home group - "she was shitfaced!" One does not drink their way to a .27 and still be conscious without having built up a serious tolerance level to the drug of ethyl alcohol. However, people who don't work with alcoholics or do not suffer from the addiction largely have no clue what BAC numbers mean and how they can be indicative of addiction.

In May 2014, Heather Cook was elected bishop suffragan - just a scant 4 years after her first DUI for which she received probation before judgement (very common on a first offense). Both criminal and church investigations are underway and many more details, both about Heather's high-functioning binge alcoholism and the many small failures in our search process which elected her, are coming to light.

Heather Cook is responsible for the death of Tom Palermo. Period. She showed poor judgement because of her addiction and chose to drink and drive. This could have happened if she had been a bishop or a bricklayer.

What the Church is responsible for is providing the enabling system to cover up their alcoholic leaders (both ordained and lay). The Church is an alcoholic family system. It is because so many of us come from alcoholic families and bring those behavior dynamics into our church. Alcoholic families have several behavioral traits:

  • Rigidity - alcoholic families are rigid due to being a highly anxious system. As the alcoholic gets more unpredictable, the family members compensate by imposing rigid rules on everyone else.
  • Silence - nobody talks about the alcoholic's addiction or behaviors. Truth tellers are bullied into silence or destroyed through behind the back rumors and character assassination (known as triangulation - and alcoholics are masters of this!)
  • Numbness - alcoholic family members are not allowed to have feelings. Better to numb the feelings, either by using alcohol or by repressive coping, than admitting what hurts.
These traits set up an enabling system which allows the alcoholic to persist in drinking and which will, along with the alcoholic, rationalize, minimize, hide and explain away the addicted behavior rather than confronting it and dealing with it. Anyone who breaks the rules by telling the truth pays a high price and will be targeted for elimination. This is why denial is such a powerful part of the alcoholic game.

Which is why, in the midst of all of this mess, the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church is celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Episcopal Relief and Development Fund. As part of this fundraising effort, the Steering Committee in charge of the celebration announced on January 6, 2015:
Just to sweeten the pot, here is an incentive: Deputy William Miller of the Diocese of Hawaii, author of The Beer Drinker's Guide to God,” will host a beer tasting at the Beer Hive Pub in Salt Lake City during General Convention for the deputation that raises the most money in the campaign. The winning deputation will be announced during the first legislative day of the House of Deputies at General Convention.
You can read the whole release here.

Not only does this action appear utterly tone deaf in light of the Bishop Cook incident, it also appears to be a violation of the General Convention's own rules regarding alcohol at church functions. The 68th General Convention of 1985 passed a resolution regarding alcohol which, in part, stated: "The service of alcoholic beverages at church events should not be publicized as an attraction of the event." What gives?

I do not advocate banning alcohol outright; however, it is time to acknowledge our family's alcohol problem: from our church's reputation as "Whiskey-palians," to the many jokes about alcohol in the Church, to our systemic enabling of actively alcoholic leaders who continue to damage themselves and the people in their charge. This is wounding the Body of Christ. While it is the responsibility of the alcoholic not to drink, are we placing a stumbling block in the path of our alcoholic sisters and brothers when we push alcohol front and center the way the House of Deputies appears to be doing? Where are we, in the words of Paul, wounding a weaker conscience by our enabling or our denial?

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 6:
"All things are lawful for me" - but not everything is beneficial. "All things are lawful for me" - but I will not be controlled by anything.
While alcohol is lawful for us, it is not always beneficial. While alcohol is lawful for us, we have let it control us ... to the great detriment of our Church and its witness to Christ.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Trust the process

"Trust the process."

Anyone who has been down the road of following Christ's call into ordained ministry hears something along those lines - "trust the process." Call me snarky (go head ... it's ok. I've been called that a lot.) but I am not inclined to trust the process. Why? Because processes are run by people and, well being a people myself, I know what we're capable of doing and the level at which we can wreak havoc, destruction and colossally screw things up.

And it feels right now like the church I love has screwed up and one of its leaders has colossally wreaked havoc and destruction. I speak of the collision between the SUV driven by our Bishop Suffragan Heather Cook and bicyclist Tom Palermo who died as a result of his injuries. Bishop Cook is now in jail on a $2.5 million bail. She is charged with manslaughter, drunk driving and texting while driving. And it isn't the first time. She was arrested on a DUI just four years ago. In both cases, her blood alcohol content was extremely high (.27 & .22 respectively) indicating a high tolerance to alcohol ... meaning she is alcoholic.

Heather Cook was elected as bishop suffragan in May 2014, consecrated in September 2014, and this collision happened on December 27, 2014. According to the reports from our Bishop Diocesan and members of the search committee, they were only given minimal information about "a candidate" having "a prior DUI." Anyone who works with alcoholics and those in recovery know that this was just insufficient information to make an informed and pastoral decision about letting a candidate go forward in the process. Too many people looked at this and wanted to be forgiving. But forgiveness without accountability is nothing more than enabling. And our church enabled Heather Cook's disease and set her up to fail by not asking the tough questions about her plan of sobriety and putting her forward too soon. Heather failed us by choosing not to treat her alcoholism. Trust the process? Hell no!
Base coats going on

So imagine my frustration when that phrase bubbled up while I was writing an icon. I've just started writing icons. I've always loved them but for many years was too afraid to try writing them myself. My growth as an artist was stunted somewhere between crayons and finger painting. But back in August, I took a leap and enrolled in a class on iconography. I was encouraged by someone I knew who was an artist ... and suffering from alcoholism. Sadly, his relapse resulted in a catastrophic meltdown of our relationship - mainly because he began to turn his abuse on me when he drank. I refuse to put up with abuse. But before that meltdown, he encouraged me to take this iconography class ... and for that I will always be grateful to him. I ended up really liking it and it helped me get through some very difficult times this fall.

First skin highlights ... in orange!
I had always heard icons are prayed into existence. It's true. You can lose yourself in this if it is your calling. You "write" or paint them beginning with dark colors and adding highlights - moving from darkness to light, from chaos to Christ. The funny thing is ... you have to trust the process of writing them because there are times when you just cannot see how this whole thing is going to turn out. That's especially true when you start working on the faces of the figures. They start out with a base coat called "protoplasmos" ... yeah, protoplasm ... and it's this olive drab color that looks hideous. This is followed by a first flesh highlight that is tangerine orange ... yeah ... tangerine on olive drab. It just looks weird and I felt my anxiety going up when I looked at it. Then I heard it ... "trust the process." OK ... here goes ... yellow oxide next ... then yellow oxide and titanium white ... then the enliveners of titanium white. Getting better with each coat ... still looking a little weird.
Finishing the icon

And then it happened ... painting the eyes and suddenly BAM! There's this face looking at you. Seriously, a real honest to goodness face! Trust the process ... it worked ... and it taught me something. Our process isn't finished - God is still working things out. This horrible tragedy of death resulting from alcoholism and our church's behavior as an enabling family system is a wake up call to us. A wake up call that our process is flawed, we have been in denial and we need to start holding not only candidates for ordination and leadership accountable to sobriety but also have a consistent pastoral way to remove clergy from their charges when their disease becomes active and give them the opportunity to get treatment to be well.

Trust the process of revising the process. I pray we have the courage and faith in Christ to do a step 4 ("Taking a fearless moral inventory") and move forward into a more life giving future for the sake of Christ and the people he loves.

Trust God's process - there is one, though we may not know it. God isn't finished with us yet. God isn't finished with Heather yet and hasn't given up on her. God isn't finished with the artist who inspired me to try and hasn't given up on him either. And God isn't finished with me either.