Friday, October 17, 2014

Remembering Bishop Tom Shaw: "God depends on us for that"

Bishop Tom Shaw of Massachusetts, recently retired, died today of complications from a brain tumor.  I knew him most through his religious
Bishop Tom with Bishop Barbara Harris,
who was his Bishop Suffragan during the first half of his tenure.
community:  the Society of St. John the Evangelist.  My friend Susan Russell spoke of him eloquently.  I received similar encouragement from him through the years.

There is also a nice tribute on the SSJE site, following the link above.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

A Response to TREC: How It Actually Worked

The TREC (Task Force for Re-imagining the Episcopal Church) report attributes to General Convention the ability to debate and discern fundamental church issues such as women’s ordination, lgbt inclusion, etc.

General Convention (GC) has historically been most effective in deliberatively discerning and evolving the church’s position on large-scale issues (e.g., prayer book revision, reform of clergy formation and discipline canons, women’s ordination, same sex blessings). This should continue to be the primary role of General Convention.

Without a deeper look this is a simplistic attribution.  These things neither sprung forth from General Convention, nor were taken up by GC with great enthusiasm.  There’s a grassroots story that needs to be told and that needs to inform those who are seeking to modify the GC and other church structures.  If this is what General Convention does best, it is not necessarily in our best interest to shrink and streamline GC.
I can only tell this story from the LGBT experience, but I have spent countless hours with allies working on other issues, and I would say that our experiences are very similar.

In 1976, a GC of some moment, one of the resolutions passed affirmed that gay persons were children of God and equal in receiving the pastoral attention of the church.  How did that resolution get there?  The short answer is that a movement had begun among members of the church, lesbian and gay, to find one another and seek to organize for mutual support and to work towards ensuring that their visibility as lesbian or gay people in the church could not be called into question.

What is important is that a movement was started.  We call it grassroots now, and it was indeed that.  But then how do we get from the movement to the resolution of GC?  It was the openness of our system.  A GC large enough that allies of lesbian and gay people could get elected as deputies, and, within a couple of GC’s, lgbt people themselves.  And these people had access to the system, i.e., a resolution process that was relatively easy to initiate and an open hearings policy that allowed people other than deputies and bishops to speak.

These two factors—a prior movement and a process with much flexibility and openness—were a crucial reason why the Episcopal Church was among the first denominations to open the ordination process to lgbt people and to work relatively quickly toward a blessing for their unions, and, as we continue the journey, to equal marriage.  It took more time in other denominations because their equivalents of GC were much more closed, and it took far longer for lgbt people to be elected to serve in their governing bodies.

This is a critical story to be remembered when we are considering shrinking and streamlining GC, Executive Council, and other church bodies.  I fully recognize the very logical arguments about cost and cumbersomeness.  Yet both have been a contributing factor for any number of justice-related issues in the church to be heard and acted upon.  It’s not obvious to me from the TREC report that positives and negatives of the current system have been carefully weighed.  If the church had had fewer people as decision makers and a much more streamlined process (which cannot possibly happen without someone exercising greater control), it is not clear to me that we would be where we are at least on lgbt issues.  The resistance in the system to dealing with issues of human sexuality, even in the current system, were very strong, and, as one of the leaders of that movement in the late ‘90’s and early ‘00’s, I had plenty of people in positions of power ask me, even beg me, to slow down, and very annoyed and angry that there was not much they could do about it.  If a movement wants to be heard at our GC it is almost impossible to stop it.  That is one of our glories.  We should exercise significant discernment about whether to change that dynamic.

I myself tried hard to make the system work as quickly as possible, although I was not entirely successful in that attempt.  The cumbersomeness of GC did not allow for a quick decision on the one hand, but it also allowed a decision to form over time on the other.  It is certainly true that it takes 800 people a long time to deliberate.  But do we really want that to change?  What future movement will be dealt with too quickly so that a poor decision is made, either for or against, and the church done more harm in the long run?  And who will not be at the table to join in that conversation?  How can we “streamline” without narrowing our scope of vision?

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Unresolved Relationships: Grandpa Major

My step-grandfather, Howard Major, died last night.  He was the only grandfather (on my mother’s side of the family) that I ever knew.  My grandmother, Leah, and he were married before I was born.  I am the oldest of the grandchildren, so I knew him the best, although we had not seen each other in over ten years, and, truth to tell, I had only seen him a handful of times since my grandmother’s death in 1972.

He was (and is, as his death won’t change much) a divisive figure in the family.  Two of his five step-children kept in touch with him; my mother (the eldest) wasn’t one of them.  She tells many tales of his temper and drunkenness, all of which I believe to be true.  I only have fleeting glimpses of him from my childhood, and they are by and large positive.  I remember most getting rides in his semi-truck (he worked for a long defunct company called “Penn Yan Express”).  He and my grandmother would often take me with them to the Moose Club in Hammondsport where there was a sliding-puck bowling game I liked, and free sardines for me at the bar (I know, yuck, but I’m told I loved them then).

When my grandmother was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1970, we began to see less and less of him.  He more or less abandoned her as she was dying.  I spent many times over more time with her than he did in that last year.  He remarried within months of her death.  My mother broke relationship with him and I more or less went along with that.  I adored my grandmother and was angry with him for disappearing.  For most of my adult life we did exchange Christmas cards.  About five or six years ago, I sent him our annual Christmas letter instead of a card just from me.  I never heard from him again.  It’s possible that he had no idea I was gay and the letter was how he found out.

I find myself sad today mostly at the memory of my grandmother.  I admit to a significant level of indifference toward him, although I let go of the anger a long time ago.

In an ideal world I would have reached out to him and tried to work through what had happened.  As a Christian person it feels like something I should have done and failed at miserably.  I don’t, however, feel anything like guilt today.

I am just wondering at unresolved relationships.  I know very few people who do not have any.  Forgiveness does not come easily to any of us, I don’t think, and it is certainly easier to push a relationship away rather than attempt to repair it.  If I do feel guilt today it is that here I am a priest, with relationships, including with my grandfather, that are unresolved.  I have counseled countless numbers of people to repair the breech when I myself have never been very good at it.  Truth to tell, neither were they because my experience is that very few people actually attempt the repair.

I can’t say I was estranged from my grandfather, or that I harbored hatred and really any ill will toward him.  I have just been indifferent.  Sometimes, I think, that is all we can accomplish (even if it does not seem like much of an accomplishment).  My faith tells me I have eternity to repair the relationship breeches in my life, and I have to believe it is easier on the other side, but I also have this nagging suspicion that it is those people who will meet me at the gate.  I hope I have the courage then that I have not had now.

I do wish, as I do for all, that he rest in peace, and rise in glory.  He died a sinner of God’s own redeeming as we all do.  If my relationship has to wait for resolution, I know that his with God does not, and I find comfort and hope in that grace.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Struggle for One World

In a column on September 6th in the Democrat and Chronicle reflecting on the deaths last week of Officer Daryl Pierson and developer Larry Glazer and his wife Jane, David Andreatta said,

Just two miles separate Larry Glazer's Midtown Tower from the trash-strewn street corner where Rochester Police Officer Daryl Pierson was gunned down..
It might as well be 2 million.
The neighborhoods are worlds apart, one brimming with hope, the other beset by hopelessness, with the space in between a purgatory of broken homes and broken lives.
Worlds apart.  I perfectly understand the metaphor and how it does seem to describe reality (and I do not think for a moment that Andreatta meant it as anything but a metaphor), but it also points to the problem at the heart of all our problems.

It seems like we live in different worlds, and many of us are invested in that assumption, but we do not.  We live in one world.

What do I mean by "many of us are invested in that assumption?"  I mean simply that there is a certain comfort level, particularly for those of us who live in Larry and Jane Glazer's "world," in believing that we are not part of the world of Hudson Avenue, where Officer Pierson was shot and killed.  For our sense of security and well-being, we are quite happy for there to be "2 million" miles between us.

Here is the reality, however.  There is not "2 million" miles between Hudson Ave. and Main St. in the City of Rochester, nor is there that kind of distance between any street in any town of this county or this state.  Nor is it helpful, even if you accept our actual closeness, to speak of Hudson Ave. as the center of hopelessness and Main or any other street, the center of hopefulness.  In my ten years as a parish priest in Rochester I have had the privilege of leading a community from every conceivable part of this county, including Hudson Ave. and Main St. in Pittsford, and the reality is there is hopelessness and hopefulness in each situation.

Until we find ways to break down the illusion of two worlds, of "others" who live in a world that we think is fundamentally different than ours, our problems will persist.  There is only one world, one struggle for "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."  We all have the responsibility of finding some way to bridge the divide, break down the illusion and participate in one another's well-being.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Robin Williams

Robin Williams’ death ought to put two things front and center for us.  With all the talk in the media about 
ending the stigma of mental illness, it is time for us to get real about it.

First of all, we need to be clear that first and foremost, the human brain is an organ of the body, and is as subject to physical ailment as any other organ.  It may actually be more so because the brain is such a complex network of neurons and chemicals that control every aspect of our lives.  Underlying what we call mental or behavioral illness is the very physical function or dysfunction of this vast network.  Those of us with a functional disorder in our brains can no more “snap out of it” than someone with diabetes can do so without a combination of medication and lifestyle changes.

Second, those of us suffering from mental illness are everywhere doing just about anything.  We are your neighbors, your teachers, the guy who plows your street in the winter, even, as in my case, your priest or pastor.  Creativity, imagination and, yes, humor are not only possible for people suffering from either unipolar or bipolar depression, they are often enhanced by it.  Yet these things, like Williams’ comic genius, come at a great cost:  a daily struggle to keep ahead of the negative, hopeless messages that are firing off in our brains.  Most of us do this fairly successfully most of the time.  But it is inevitable that from time to time the hopelessness gets ahead of us.

So many people needlessly suffer because they do not have the tools to cope.  If you are suffering from unrelenting depression, talk to your doctor about it.  If you know someone who suffers from mental illness, let your compassion be known and help the person to talk about it openly as much as they are comfortable.  We all have to do our part to humanize these diseases of the brain.  If we do not, the body count will continue to rise.

One last thing:  Was it me or did the revelation that Robin had been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease give us an excuse to stop thinking and talking about this?  It is as if we said, "Oh, of course, that's why he did it. That we can understand."  Interestingly enough, Parkinson's itself is a brain disease, but because it has physical manifestations we put it in a different category.  Yet, as I understand it, Parkinson's is really both a physical and a mental illness.  Which brings us back around to the bottom line.  This artificial divide between physical and mental illness has got to go.  It is extraordinarily unhelpful, and even dangerous.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Here Comes This Dreamer

The brothers saw Joseph from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him.  They said to one another, "Here comes this dreamer.  Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.  (Genesis 37:18-20)

Over the years, I long lost count of the number of times I was told
in relationship to my sexual orientation that I "would not see _______ in your lifetime."  The blank could be openly gay and lesbian people ordained, or being called to lead a congregation, or have our relationships known and honored in public, blessed, and even married.  All of these things I would not see in my lifetime.

Off and on I succumbed to those predictions and tried to tow the party line.  Occasionally I was seen as colluding with the system that these predictions served.  And I was colluding because a very slow gradualism seemed to be the best way forward.

I never stopped having the dream of full equality both in the church and in society,  but I was willing to play my part in inching our way forward, knowing that we were claiming ground inch by inch.

God, however, graciously, seemed to have another timetable.  It turns out that God is a bigger dreamer than any of us can be.  As I said, I often succumbed to gradualism, but God has never let me stay in that safe place, just as God has not allowed the Church to stay in that safe place.

Generally speaking, we do not much like dreamers, we do not trust them, and, when their dreaming sounds like it will result in a diminishment of our power or a re-direction of societal (or theological) norms, we can, like Joseph's brothers become murderous.

Sometimes that murderous intent, and the actions it inspires (like selling Joseph to the Ishmaelites), ends up working for good, as it did eventually in the story of Joseph.  It is certainly true as I look back at the gay and lesbian movement toward equality in church and society, we were helped along by our detractors as much as anything else.  A moderate person who has been unsure about full equality has been shown the results of inequality:  quick and pompous moral judgment, and a level of invective that can inspire only the extreme of the "orthodox," etc.

The advice of Gamaliel in the Acts of the Apostles (5:38-39) becomes apropos:  "So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!"

Or struggling to put down God's dream when you think you are putting down the dangerous dream of some other who seems a threat.

By the way, every one of those predictions that "you will not see_______ in your lifetime," have proven to be untrue.  God's dreaming, and God's inspiring, and God's timing are rarely, thanks be to God, our own.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

God is Always Running Toward Us

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on Saturday, August 2, 2014, the Celebration of Ten Years of Ministry Together and the Ending of Our Pastoral Relationship:  Philippians 4:1, 4-9 and Luke 15:1, 11b-32

          Grief, Grace and Gratitude.  I chose those words to describe this Service for selfish reasons:  They describe how I feel as we have come to this moment.  But I have the strong suspicion that the words capture much of what you are feeling also.

          I said from the beginning that I wanted this to be a celebration and in the last newsletter I compared it to the joyful dance our Jewish sisters and brothers make on their feast of Simchat Torah.  I want that celebratory spirit here this evening.

          So why trouble the waters with the word grief?  Because it is real.  Because it is like unto the valley of the shadow of death of which the psalmist speaks, what we must walk through before we can grasp the other reality that our “cup runneth over.”

          We grieve especially when we lose something and the loss is outside of our control.  We feel like something unfair or even wrong is happening to us and we are not being given the chance to make it better.  It is outside our control.

          That feeling, noticed and accepted, prepares us for grace, the unmerited favor of God toward us that is also, like grief, outside of our control.  We notice it when, again like the psalmist, we notice that our walk through the valley of the shadow of death is not alone.  We are never alone.  That is the promise of grace.  God is with us, for us.

          Then if we notice that presence and accept it, our response is gratitude, thanks.  And that is all God really wants from us.  But it is a very large thing.  God wants gratitude to be our primary response to the world, day by day.  It is so much at the center of our true spirituality that week by week we enact it, practice it, if you will, in what we call Eucharist.

          Grief, grace, and gratitude.  Unfortunately it is not a linear process.  The truth is that we hold these things in tension all our days.  It is what we call “the paschal mystery.”  Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.  Paul instructs us to “rejoice always.”  He does not mean never to mourn or experience sadness or anger or despair.  But he does mean that we not allow ourselves to get stuck there.  He says elsewhere, “Grieve, but do not grieve as if you have no hope.”

          There we are.  Grief, grace and gratitude.  It is a package deal.  On an occasion such as this we can both grieve and be grateful.  We are not fooled that it is an either/or proposition, it is, as it almost always is, both/and.

          Now, take a deep breath, and let me out of my own grief, grace and gratitude, tell you the Gospel, the good news, one more time.

          It is why I chose the parable of the prodigal son, my favorite of all the parables, because I believe it is the Gospel in miniature.

          It is a story we think we know.  We call it “the prodigal son” because we believe the prodigal son is the main character and the parable’s primary purpose is to warn us not to make the choices the prodigal son made.  But that would be a mistake, because the parable is not about us.  Jesus’ parables are not the morality tales that we often think they are.  They are primarily stories about God.

          This story is not primarily about the son.  It is primarily about the father.  The son’s choices are important.  They are the set-up.  Here we have a son who exhibits many of our worst tendencies:  impatience, self-centeredness, and an addiction to “loose living,” which is any attempt on our part to do life solely as we want it to be done, attempting to be in control of our own destiny.

          But sooner or later we discover that it is all an illusion.  It gets us somewhere for a while, but sooner or later the bottom drops out and we find ourselves in some equivalent of feeding the pigs.  Perhaps that causes us, as it did the younger son, to “come to our senses.”  That is good, but we have a tendency, like the son, to think that what we must do when we have bottomed out is to do something to haul ourselves out of the hole we have dug, to earn our way back into the good life.

          But if that is what we think God wants from us, then we are quite wrong.  Yes, God demands repentance, but all that word really means is to turn ourselves in a new direction with at least a little humility.

          So the son returns home with a speech in his pocket.  I want to come home, but I know I do not deserve to, so I offer to earn my way back into your good graces.

          And what does the father do?  He sees the son coming in his direction from “far off.”  That says to me that he has been waiting.  All the father knows is that the son has turned to walk toward home.  And what does the father do?  Well, perhaps it is important to see clearly what the father does not do.

          He does not wait until the son comes crawling to him, so that he can point the finger of judgment and say, “Your sin against me was great.  There is so much you have to make up for.  Yes, be my slave and perhaps you can prove to me that you deserve to be my son again.”  But the father does not do that.

          Neither does the father turn his back on the boy, and with resentment that has built up during his absence, declare, “I do not recognize you.  You treated me as if you wished I was dead.  Well, you are dead to me.”  Go.  You are on your own.  You are only getting what you asked for.  But the father does not do that.

          The father neither turns away in disgust nor points the finger in judgment.  He does not even wait for the son to come to him, preserving his dignity as the wronged party.  No, completely out of character for a middle eastern head of household, he hikes up his skirts and runs to meet the son.  Dignity be damned, my son is home.

          The son begins his speech, but the father is not even listening and the son never gets it all out.  Welcome him back as if he has returned from some adventure in triumph, a son to be proud of, whose life deserves celebration.  And that is what the father does.

          My beloved sisters and brothers in Christ, I want to leave you with that image.  God is always running toward us.  God is always running toward us, and not so that he can announce his disgust or point the finger of judgment.  God is always running toward us to welcome us home.

          Most of the world believes that we worship the God of disgust and judgment.  Tell them differently.  Tell them this story, tell them of the God we know who is our companion on the journey, and, whenever we find ourselves feeding the pigs is eager to welcome us home.