Friday, January 30, 2009

Stay in touch, blockhead!

I was once asked on another blog to tell about St. Lucy. Seeing how I did not have any clue, I followed the time-honored tradition of all clergy and simply made up answer that went like this: St. Lucy was the sister of St. Linus. She was widely known in church history for pulling the football out of the way just as St. Charlie was about to kick it. Church authorities excommunicated her for her prolific use of the phrase "blockhead”. This was known as the great "blockhead controversy". St. Peppermint Patty led the orthodox defenders of the view that all heads are created round. Legend has it that the pagan Pigpen, who only bathed once a year, persecuted her until he heard a voice from an unseen source that said "Mwahnawawaw Wampwahwa" Pope Snoopy the Great reversed her excommunication and her influence continued to grow. She is the patron saint of people who feel compelled to charge money for worthless psychological advice. It is widely rumored that Dr. Phil is a devotee of the cult of St. Lucy. On her feast day crabs are traditionally served since, by her own admission, she often felt "crabby." In the 20th century a group of English lads from Liverpool wrote a song about a vision they had of her "in the sky with diamonds." Ethel Mertz, a resident of New York reportedly saw a vision of St. Lucy's face on a piece of toast, but then she later sold it on Ebay.

I have been a target of the St. Lucy Society ever since I gave that answer. They have wanted to hunt me down in order to deal with my blasphemy. However, I remain an unrepentant follower of the notion that if one has to learn ecclesiastical history, then it should at least be mildly interesting, if not always true. (Evidently this was also the view of early hagiographers as well.)

The real reason that I know anything about St. Lucy at all has to do with a letter I have to write every so often. When my Bishop granted me postulancy, he asked me, “Do you know about Ember letters?” I am sure the dumb look on my face revealed the answer long before I shook my head and said, “No, Sir, I do not.” In my mind I was picturing a Varsity Letter jacket from High School with a small charcoal grill as an emblem for the sport I excelled in. Around my house I am called “the grill master”, so I could easily envision myself lettering in embers if grilling became a sport. (Yes, I had better stop this before I completely embarrass my Archdeacon. I try very hard not to embarrass her in public.) Four times a year, the Church sets aside days to reflect on God through creation. These “Ember Days” take place in winter after the Feast of St. Lucy; in spring following Ash Wednesday; in summer after Pentecost and in fall after Holy Cross Day. Our Canons state that I “shall communicate with the Bishop in person or by letter, four times a year, in the Ember Weeks.” The purpose of these letters is to reflect on my “academic experience and personal and spiritual development." In other words, I am supposed to let my Bishop know what is going on with me. No, I have not, nor will I ever communicate to him my version of St. Lucy’s story. The whole point of being a postulant is to get to go on and become a candidate for ordination! As strange as it may sound, I actually enjoy writing Ember letters. I received an email from the Bishop’s administrative assistant this week reminding me that another one is due in a couple of weeks. It is sort of nice to know that your Bishop wants to know what’s going on with you. Heck, it’s sort of nice to think that anyone wants to know what’s going on with you. Very often the difference between solitude and loneliness is whether or not you have someone who is thinking of you while you are alone.

I have come to value that type of communication in my work at the shelter. No, I do not require the homeless to write Ember letters. Sometimes I have people who come in saturated with the smell of wood fires they have stayed around for days. Occasionally a person will pass out too close to one and serious injury will occur. I can only imagine what I would get if I said, “I want you to write me an Ember letter.”

On one of the tours of the shelter that I conducted today I was asked, “ How do you know if people continue to do well after they graduate from one of the your programs?” I told her that follow up was largely done through voluntary self-reporting. In other words, we ask people to stay in touch and check in with us from time to time. I cannot track people down, but I genuinely want to know what is going on with them. I was asked, “How do you know if they are not doing well?” I replied, “We stop hearing from them.” In the world of addiction recovery, when someone drops off the radar screen it is never a good thing. When people are doing well they love to tell me about it. I have one fellow who still calls me regularly from Seattle just to let me know how he is doing. I also have a regular stream of people who come by to stick their heads in my door on occasion and let me know they are doing well. It is a very subtle form of accountability, but it works.

I have worked with people on the journey of recovery long enough to know that I really know nothing when it comes to recovery. If I had a magic pill or a secret program success formula, the world would be beating my door down. The irony is that the people who I often think will not make it are the very ones who graduate from my program. The ones who come in showing the most potential are often the first to relapse. We simply try to take the best of the 12 steps traditions and combine them with the most intensive mentoring discipleship and pray that we get it right with each person seeking help. I have discovered that everyone’s journey is unique and there is no cookie-cutter cure-all for addiction that is “one size fits all.” However, I have discovered some important themes that seem to run through all of the lives that continue to do well after leaving the shelter. One of those themes is accountability. Whatever form it takes in each individual situation, there is always a degree of surrender to being open to others. We strongly encourage people to find a faith community to become engaged in so they can make the transition to independent housing with the accountability and companionship of their church families. I tell them it is the difference between playing defense and offense. It is a plan for failure to simply go home alone at night and sit in an empty apartment and say, “ I will not use drugs, I will not use drugs.” That is simply sitting back waiting for temptation to come. I encourage my guests to be proactively involved with their new communities and get some real face time with people who are interested in how they are doing. I have come to believe that is not only critical for the battle against addiction, but for the struggle to remain human in the midst of the dehumanizing indignities of our modern culture.

We all need someone who wants to know what is going on with us, even if it’s just to say “Good Grief” every time the world pulls the football away just as we are about to kick it.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Storm clouds

“God is raging in the prophet’s words.” ---Abraham Heschel

“You build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say ‘ If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” Thus you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets.” ---Jesus (Mt. 23:29-31)

"And you can swallow
Or you can spit
You can throw it up
Or choke on it
And you can dream
So dream out loud
You know that your time is coming ‘round"
---U2, Acrobat

“You cannot invite those children over here. They are black.” The man standing in front of me was the leader of a little church that I worked in right after college. He wielded all of the power. It was a very rural area. I had gone over to the “poor section” and invited children to come over to a church activity we were having and I was being chastised for it. It had never crossed my mind that there might be a problem. It was not 1963. It was 1993, but it was still very much in the heart of the old Confederacy. I only made him angry when I pointed out the fact that the church sent financial support to people who served in Africa. That was different in his mind. That was Africa. This was America, more specifically, his America. I could not resist stating the obvious irony that if those missionaries were successful in Africa then this man would be spending a long time in heaven with black people. “When we’ve been there ten thousand years...” was sung almost every week in that church. If he could spend ten thousand years with black people in heaven, I could not figure out why his grandchildren could not spend an hour with black children at a church function. He looked me in the eye with all of the seriousness of men who are serious about such things and growled, “There will be no black people in heaven.” Except he used another very offensive term to refer to African-Americans. I sputtered and stammered in shock and he continued. “When we get to heaven we will be made like him for we will see him as he is and everyone knows that Jesus was not black.” I had to know just how he knew that Jesus was not black. His reply was, “God is light and in him is no darkness at all.” He was serious. The problem was that he was not some uneducated bumpkin from the sticks. He was a retired insurance salesman and an elected official in the town! It had never occurred to me that people really believed that white missionaries were going to Africa to help make people white one day in heaven and let them practice being Anglo-Saxons until then. After a long argument, he finally conceded that I could invite those children with one qualification. He said, “Just don’t let them play in the back yard. The neighbors who live around the church might see them.” He obviously knew our neighbors better than I did. He was afraid of their racism as only a fellow racist could be. He knew that what was in his heart was also in theirs.

I barely escaped that tradition. It was a hellish nightmare that nearly destroyed my soul. I have encountered racism all of my life. It was present in the school where I was a ministerial student. It was present in my church, neighborhood and the culture I grew up in. I do not remember the struggle for civil rights. Dr. King was murdered before I was born. The world I grew up in was a world that was still reeling from the collision of two storm fronts. One front was the prophetic word. The other was the status quo of “devout” Southern culture. The prophetic word in the Hebrew Scriptures declared that God was not interested in songs and sacrifices. God wanted justice. Worship with a blind eye toward injustice was blasphemy to God, declared those troublesome prophets. No matter “how sweet the sound” of Amazing Grace sung beautifully in Southern churches each week, there was a stain on the very soul of our culture that could not be wiped away with sacred melody. Classic Christian theology teaches that sin cannot be really be dealt with until it is truthfully named, owned and claimed in the process of repentance and reconciliation. Racism is a sin to be repented of. It is not simply a “blind spot” that otherwise good people happen to have. People act as if it is a minor problem like constipation. It is a terminal cancer that devours souls.

Everyone bemoans the silence of God until it is broken. People long to hear God speak. They want to hear the “word of God”…that is, until they finally get it. Then they want to toss it back as if they are playing a holy version of “hot potato.” Prophets are always inconvenient because the prophetic word is a sword. The prophetic proclamation is always bigger than the person speaking it and it is always like lobbing grenades into a fireworks factory. It destroys security and privilege so that justice may sprout and thrive. We love to venerate prophets long after they are gone, but at the time of their visitation “respectable” people want to silence their uncomfortable, radical rumblings. They put them on a cross or assassinate them on a balcony in Memphis.

This photograph is of our local monument to Dr. King. He had long passed away when I had that confrontation with the elderly church leader. That man whose theology of exclusion still held sway in his little fiefdom had lived through the storm currents of Dr. King’s prophetic word. He had heard and chose not to respond. Sadly, he had allowed it to pass over him and he missed the truth. That was then, but as we pause to remember the martyred prophet today, I cannot help but be a little frightful for the church. What uncomfortable prophetic word are we in danger of missing ourselves because it would mess up “the way we have always done” things? We deride the hard hearts of our ancestors a generation ago at our peril if we cannot learn from their mistakes. Abraham Heschel once wrote, “The things that horrified the prophets are even now daily occurrences all over the world.”