Monday, January 16, 2017

WHAT WOULD ATTICUS DO?


You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.
                                                                                    Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird

The current flap over whether our National Cathedral Choir should sing at the Inauguration is the present arena in which a lot of passions are flowing at cross-purposes. People are in very different places. For the record, I fully support what Bishop Mariann Budde and Presiding Bishop Michael Curry have said in defense of the choir singing, but my heart is stirred by the pain of those who feel betrayed.

I am still trying to understand the feelings that have been unleashed, manipulated, and magnified not just in the recent election but in the American public square since roughly 1990. This is not an attempt to say anything definitive, just to notice a piece of the puzzle.

There are very concrete fears and resentments stirring for people threatened with the
loss of health insurance, people on the verge of retirement when Social Security and Medicare are in jeopardy, people whose families may be divided by deportation, people who may have to publicly register their religion at a time when their religion makes them a target of abuse and violence. Others are afraid of terrorism, the financial hardship to support those who cannot fully support themselves, the loss of jobs and changes in culture caused by immigration.

But, perhaps because I am deep into Eric Fromm’s classic, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, I cannot stop seeing the deeper processes at work in people, the surging of so many painful dynamics.  We can’t ignore the psychological dynamics at play, in individuals and in the collective.

For whatever reason, the President-elect stirs our responses to experiences with narcissistic sado-masochistic behavior. Anyone who has ever been bullied, sexually abused, victimized by a domestic violence, harassed for any reason, mocked, belittled, or ostracized is subject to having old feelings brought up.

How that plays out is not simple. There can be PTSD flashback experiences, narcissistic abuse syndrome with feelings of fear, confusion, inner turmoil, and all that goes with co-dependency; identification with one’s status as victim claiming a kind of moral authority and exemption for Jesus’s “love ethic” born of innocent suffering; or – and here’s where it gets really complicated – variations on Stockholm Syndrome in which the victim identifies with the abuser. That means – now ponder this – two victims of the same kind of abuse may respond to a narcissistic personality (or someone perceived to be a narcissistic personality) with opposite reactions. One will fear and loathe him. The other will cling to him like a beloved parent or even savior. The two people may be at each other’s throats, not despite but because they have suffered the same or similar wounds.

Add to that tangled web a dynamic Fromm calls “group narcissism.” To begin with narcissism isn’t just arrogance. It is an inflated view of one’s own importance, being consumed by a deep need for the admiration of others, and an incapacity for empathy. But the arrogance is all on the surface. The Mayo clinic definition says, “Behind this fa├žade of self-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that is vulnerable to the slightest criticism.”

Not a happy way to be in the world. So, what is “group narcissism?” Fromm says, when individuals are belittled and scorned, they want to belong to a group that is great, strong, powerful, commanding respect and instilling fear.

So, where does this leave us as the Church? I don’t know. It definitely would not help to go about pathologizing the political convictions of others. But we might benefit from a touch of humility, curiosity, and compassion. Psychology does not answer the question. But it is one of the voices – along with theology, Scripture, and traditional social justice teachings – that informs our answer.

One thing I do get from this psychology piece is that a lot of people are hurting and our judgments of them will not help or heal. I am sometimes taken aback by the emphatic repudiation of Christian norms, derived from Scripture and enshrined in the Baptismal Covenant (e.g., to seek and serve Christ in all people, to respect the dignity of every human being) by people who are ostensibly Christians. I am mystified by hate-filled rants against Mexico (not undocumented workers but the whole nation). This list goes on. We are dividing up and fighting in ways that are hard to comprehend.  Most days I feel buffeted from the left and the right alike in ways that seem utterly beyond the bounds of civil discourse.

One thing I know: there are stories behind these impassioned statements. Stories I have not heard. There are people with something at stake. That something may be very tangible and clear at least in their imaginations. But in most cases, there is a lot stirring of which even the person with the forceful opinions is not aware. How can I know his or her experience? How can I know what that person has at stake?

I can ask!  I can inquire!  I can ‘hold space’ for a human being to tell the story lying behind the passions and the behavior.  Daryl Davis, whose story is told in the documentary, Accidental Courtesy, is a stellar example. A black man, he has converted 200 members of the KKK – not by arguing with them, not by calling them names, but by listening to them. http://accidentalcourtesy.com

It is a cardinal virtue to know the situation, to plug into the reality at hand. If I am to have any hope of acting wisely and lovingly, I need to stop and breathe long enough to realize I don’t know what I’m dealing with and perhaps to ask a few questions that might help both of us find out.


Wednesday, January 11, 2017

29th EPISTLE TO THE NEVADANS: THE COLOR PURPLE & OUR PENCHANT FOR PICKINESS



I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.    
                                       Alice Walker

When I am an old woman I will wear purple, with a red hat
That doesn’t suit me . . .
But maybe I ought to practice a little now
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.
                                       Jenny Joseph

We Episcopalians find many details to fret over. I wonder if the fretting is a self-protecting device to distract us from a big picture that might be too wonderful for us to bear.

One thing we are particularly prone to fretting over is colors. For example, there is the color purple. Episcopal bishops wear purple clergy shirts. Some wear a darker shade called blue-purple; others wear a lighter version called rose-purple. Some say the two shades distinguish the high church from the low church. Others say they label the liberals and the conservatives. I could never find a consensus, so I wear both, alternately, mostly to assure that people will know I do in fact change my shirt daily.

Recently I have come across a sartorial scruple that strikes me as unhelpful. I have encountered both clergy and laity who feel that they cannot wear purple or that they cannot wear purple in my presence. They are under the impression purple scarves, blouses, skirts, socks, etc. are liturgically verboten.

I want to go on record, just for here in Nevada, that this Bishop does not see how God’s Kingdom Mission is advanced by such fussiness over purple. Purple clerical shirts help color code our clergy so we can tell the bishops from the priests and deacons, but with regard to any other item of clothing, the episcopacy cannot claim a monopoly on a band of the color spectrum. So, Nevada brothers and sisters, please, in the spirit of Alice Walker and Jenny Joseph, wear purple to your heart’s content.

While we are on the subject of purple, let us speak of Advent. It used to be normative to use purple appointments in churches during the Advent season. In recent years, some churches have replaced the purple with blue. Strong opinions have arisen dividing the Purple Party from the Blue Party over this difference. I wish to say emphatically and with the deepest of convictions, it doesn’t matter. True, there is no real precedent for this use of blue. Blue, I am told, was the color used by the Medieval English Church EXCEPT during Advent and Lent.  Saying that blue is somehow less penitential than purple is as subjective as the interpretations of different shades of bishop clergy shirts. The argument has been persuasively advanced that this use of blue is a ploy by liturgical suppliers, “whose names must not be spoken,” to sell more frontals. But, so what?

For a little perspective, the practice of using liturgical colors to help set the spiritual tone of the season – like the different opening acclamations, collects, proper prefaces, and dismissals actually prescribed by the Prayer Book – goes all the way back to the 4th Century. But different churches have used different colors in different times. See, http://fullhomelydivinity.org/articles/colors%20full%20page.htm
The liturgical color scheme is written in water colors, not stone. Moreover, it is a matter of custom and practice, not a rule guiding our liturgy.

Blue is not “less penitential.” Royal blue is associated with royalty so in Advent it suggests the coming of the King. Bright blue is associated with the sky or Heaven where the Angels proclaim the incarnation. It is also associated with Mary, the “Queen of Heaven,” and so the Church waits with Mary for the birth. But the Purple Party has a perspective too. Purple also represents royalty and the coming of the King as well as penitence. So, there is truly no right or wrong about the choice of color for Advent.

Another confusion arises over the liturgical colors on the bishops visit or at baptism. The answer is that the regular color of the day is appropriate. Galley, The Ceremonies of the Eucharist, p. 174.

But here’s my one actual concern: Episcopalians would be shocked to hear themselves called “fanatics,” but I once heard fanaticism defined as becoming so obsessed with the means that one forgets the ends. I might use the word “idolatry,” worshiping the creature instead of the Creator.  We sometimes fret too much over details – “getting it right” – without thinking of the meaning the colors and other liturgical symbols are intended to express. The soul is not expanded by fussiness over details but rather by immersion in the spirit of the liturgy. True, in ignorance of the spirit of the liturgy, we are apt to get the details wrong. But then the problem is not transgression of a rule of etiquette to which the more scrupulous say “tsk tsk” but rather a deafness to God’s call.

I hope our people will learn the liturgy, not so they can be perfectionist and “get it right” more often than others – but so they can soak it in and let the ancient symbols of the faith grow their spirits and embolden their hearts for God’s mission in our suffering world.



Friday, January 6, 2017

A TIME OF PROGRESS/ A TIME OF CHALLENGE




Looking back on 2016, there is much to celebrate. In the Reno-Sparks-Tahoe area, our congregations work with each other and ecumenical partners to sponsor Syrian refugees. This ministry is exactly how Moses taught us to care for the alien and how Jesus taught us to welcome the stranger. This is how Jesus comes to us today -- as the refugee. The voices of fear shout that we should send these people back to the tender mercies of the Assad regime just as we sent Jews back to Germany into the hands of Hitler. Our churches have the courage to follow the voice of Jesus instead of the voice of the mob.

Also in Northwest Nevada, the Empty Bowls Banquet which supports the food pantry at St. Paul’s, Sparks outgrew its old venue and had to move into The El Dorado. After Trinity’s exhibit of Russian icons made Reno sit up and take notice, they began a Wednesday night education program that is well attended by both adults and children.

In the Las Vegas Valley, our work with Nevadans For the Common Good continues to change the face of our community. In the past, we won an omnibus bill to fight the modern-day slavery of sex trafficking, played a key role in increasing funding for public schools, and expanded home health care to keep elderly and disabled people in their homes instead of institutions. The list goes on. Today, every Episcopal Church in the Las Vegas Valley is a dues-paying member of Nevadans For the Common Good.

Last Fall, our Diocese and Nevadans For the Common Good co-hosted a Regional Forum at All Saints on how to form and deepen partnerships with public schools. We had workshops presented by the All Our Children Foundation in Boston, Nevada Communities in Schools, the Clark County School District, and Nevadans For the Common Good giving workshops. We had Episcopalians from Reno and Ely as well as Clark County. Christ Church, Las Vegas is in the thick of the fight to save Fremont Middle School. Grace in the Desert had an overflow crowd for its Vacation Bible School this summer and Epiphany has a burgeoning children’s ministry with 30 to 40 kids each Sunday.

To the East, St. Paul’s, Elko has taken on a new role in Underdog Ministries serving the homeless; and St. Bart’s, Ely remained a driving force in the Committee Against Child Hunger. Our largest congregation in central Nevada is St. Thomas the Believer, which worships inside the Lovelock Correctional Center. They are also the most Biblically literate and theologically educated congregation in the diocese. Holy Trinity, Fallon supports that ministry as well as our new church plant in Silver Springs/ Stagecoach, St. Hugh of Lincoln.

All of that, and many ministries I have not mentioned, help explain something. In 2015, the membership of The Episcopal Church throughout the United States and several other nations went down by 2%. But our membership went up just shy of 3%. That’s a 5% spread. Sunday attendance in the wider church went down by 3.5%. Nevada’s attendance went up by 3.4%. That’s almost a 7% spread.

Most of our larger congregations are growing at an impressive rate.  Our smaller rural congregations prove resilient as a sagebrush. Death and relocation deliver blows that look fatal. But their attendance remains just as strong. While the wider Church is getting older, our rural congregations are getting younger -- more young adults, more children. We are growing because people can see we’re up to something that looks like God’s Kingdom happening here.

Looking forward to 2017, I see us beginning a time of challenge and opportunity such as we have not faced before. The challenge and opportunity is not about survival or institutional strength, but about rising to the occasion of God’s mission in a hard time.

Never in our lifetimes has our community been so broken. The shootings of unarmed Black suspects by police officers (102 in 2015) and the 21 ambush shootings of police officers are a bloody example (part of 56% increase in shooting deaths of police last year). These tragedies are not inevitable. While even one lost life is one too many, through intentional efforts to change, incidents of police killings of unarmed Black people were reduced by half last year. Still, the trust level is far from what we need in order to keep our people of all races safe. Quite the opposite, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, homophobia – the list goes on – have all erupted. Political discourse has descended to character attack; and, in some cases, like the menacing of National Review journalist David French’s family during the presidential campaign, it has sunk to harassment and threats of violence. Fear has become the driving force of our public life, breaking relationships and splintering us into our multiple little fortresses of righteous indignation at one another.

In the midst of this internecine strife, the Church’s mission remains “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” Our Baptismal Vows remain “to seek and serve Christ in all people” and “to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.” How do we seek and serve Christ in the person whose views are morally reprehensible in our eyes? Would Christ really want us to befriend a sinner? Even if the sinner sinned by corrupt political oppression (like St. Matthew) or violent rebellion against society (like St. Simon Zealotes)? What is to be gained by sullying our hands associating with such people? 
  
I wonder what we might learn from Nelson Mandela. In prison, they served sufficient food for the day, but they served it all at once. By evening the supper was cold. Mandela wanted a hot plate but the racist Afrikaner guards would not speak to him. So, he studied soccer (not a popular sport for Black South Africans) to lure the soccer-fan guards into conversation. That got him a hot plate. Then he asked them about their support of apartheid. Not by arguing – but by listening – he converted them. And he went on converting people in this way up the chain of power until apartheid was ended. He did not accomplish this through prophesying out of his righteousness but by connecting on the human level.

In the coming year(s), our most urgent challenge will be the art and spiritual discipline of mindful conversation. We can be the healing, reconciling presence the world desperately needs today. We can draw on Anglican practices, particularly from Africa, indaba groups and Ubuntu theology. I will devote two weeks this year to resuming my training with Parker Palmer’s Center for Courage & Renewal to help me find better ways to minister to the diocese in these times. A Courage & Renewal facilitator will train our deacons in the art and spiritual discipline of mindful conversation. Our first task is learning to listen deeply and speak authentically out of our own personal experience, to tell our own stories from the heart – setting those conversations in the context of our shared identity as the Body of Christ.

We do not develop our relational spirituality at the expense of working for justice – also a Baptismal vow. We can develop our relational spirituality in the process of working for justice and the well-being of the vulnerable at a time when they are apt to be thrown under the bus. Nevada ranks 51st in funding Meals On Wheels. Elderly and disabled people in Las Vegas go on a six months waiting list for their first meal. That waiting list typically has 600 people, plus 200 in Henderson.  Medicaid reimbursement for institutional care increases each year, but home health care in Nevada has not had a cost of living adjustment since 2002. Home health care agencies are closing and people are being forced into nursing homes, that cost the state more money. Inmates languish in prison though they are eligible for parole and the Department of Corrections wants to release them – but we do not have sufficient half-way houses to manage their re-entry. This keeps them in prison, again at greater cost to the state. We are taking these issues on.  
     
    To prepare our hearts so that we may better serve God’s broken, bleeding, crucified world, we need prayer – lots and lots of prayer. Canon Catherine and the Rev. Douglas Gregg will be traversing the diocese this year sharing ways of praying that promise to enrich the spiritual lives of our people. We will need this if we are going to sit in the center of our saddle while riding through the times to come.
        

         All in all, I have good hopes for our Diocese in 2017 precisely because it will be hard. G. K. Chesterton famously said, “It is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and not tried.” As we face the challenges of the closing years of this decade, it may be time to give it a try. And if we try, we will grow strong – together.