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.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

It's complicated

I love the options you get on Facebook for setting your relationship status. Single, married, divorced, widowed, in a relationship, in a domestic partnership ... and then ... there's ...

"It's complicated"

Really?? In my world, that's not a relationship status as much as it is a page out of the Book of DUH! Of course it's complicated ... it's a relationship!

St. Paul said in his first letter to the Corinthians that "we see through a glass darkly but soon we shall see face to face." He's speaking to the truth that so much of our lives and selves are hidden from the sight of others - never from God, but definitely from others.

We all wear masks to show our best selves off to the rest of the world. Nowhere is that more evident than on Facebook where everyone pumps up their profiles with how cool and hip they are - even as their lives are falling apart behind that computer screen. What we put on social media rarely hints as the broken screwed up parts of ourselves - the parts we fear, the parts others will reject, the parts we hate, the ugliness within. No, we put on our masks and pontificate about our brilliant lives, our stellar ideas (especially when those ideas can be positioned as superior to someone else's), our fantastic careers, etc. And yet all the while we are inside knowing this isn't the whole truth.

It's complicated, isn't it? When the public persona doesn't match the private despair. When the face we show everyone else doesn't match the one we show to our spouses or loved ones. Some people have a high degree of transparency and what you see is pretty much what you get. Others have mastered the repressed dual life and hide behind a mask so well that they really don't know they are doing it anymore ... until they are under duress and the mask slips. It's complicated.

Christ died for the whole of us ... but most especially he died for those ugly repressed parts of ourselves that we really don't want to show others - the complicated stuff. "By his blood he reconciled us. By his wounds we are healed."