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Monday, December 28, 2009

Standing in the Whirlwind

I'm taking a few minutes out from what has been a whirlwind kinda week to tell you about this book.  I'll be on my way to LSD (Lower, Slower Delaware) tomorrow to rest up from the week that was before returning to face the New Year, so I probably won't be posting anything until tomorrow evening.

When we haven't been celebrating the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord, we've been clearing out the sacristy for the renovation.  It will take about four weeks but when it's done, we'll have lots more room to move around and lots more organized storage space.  It's very exciting, but hupboy, what a chore to empty, purge and then reorganize.

 I got the space where we're storing stuff all organized so we can have some semblance of order over the next few weeks, did a few pastoral calls, got the bulletins done, did some chores and then settled in to "start" (yeah, right - "start") this book.

I know.  Not exactly the best read after the exhaustion of Christmas.  A clergy sister recommended it to me.  I ordered it and it came in the mail today.   I got home around 4:30, started to 'browse' and haven't been able to put it down.   I'm about 3/4 of the way through.  'Riveting' is a good descriptive.

This is how the inside jacket describes the book:
'Standing in the Whirlwind' focuses on the author's tumultuous tenure as a rector of two rural Episcopal parishes in Virginia after working at a Washington, D.C. jail and teaching at Lorton Reformatory. Initially, both of the author's parishes supported her charitable idea of inviting homeless African American individuals from Washington, D.C. to periodically join them for picnics. However, this acceptance quickly changes to a malicious plot of a few parishioners who begin to mercilessly harass her, kill her pets, damage her property, and actually attempt to arrange her "accidental" death. Some members of local law enforcement even take bribes, turning their backs on her cries for help.
This is a true story.  You can't make this stuff up.

This is probably one of the more extreme situations I've ever heard of, and I've been at this for 23+ years, but sadly, it is very believable.

The presenting issue in this case is, of course, racism, but the fact that the rector was a woman can not be easily dismissed as not being a contributing part of the dynamic.  Not surprisingly - at least, not in The Episcopal Church - issues of class are also a factor.

A rector - of either gender - has life tenure, so s/he can not be summarily fired without cause.  And even then, it is the bishop who declares a 'dissolution of pastoral relationship'. 

When most congregations begin to understand this - that there can't be a 'backroom business deal' (unless that's what the priest either agrees to or is coerced into) - they can then settle down and work out a reasonable, equitable settlement that is fair to both the clergy as well one that does not inflict any more wounds on the Body of Christ.

In most situations I've been privy to,  however,  the Wardens and Vestry try to 'scare off' the priest, usually by escalating the tensions so as to drive away members or average Sunday attendance, drive down pledging units and amounts, make mission and ministry impossible and/or to soil - or ruin - his or her good name. 

It's pretty clear to me that the bishop in this case - and, oh, by the way, except for parishioners, the author names's names - by his turning a blind eye, only emboldened the 'good folk' of both rural congregations and made the situation worse.

Oh, he came riding in on his white horse at the end, but it was too late to save anything but his own sense of himself.  Reading that chapter was a bit like watching a Greek drama - so sadly, tragically predictable.

Thankfully, the current crop of bishops seem more savvy and knowledgeable about these situations.   The "College of Bishops" seems to be having a tremendous effect on helping bishops become the leaders they were elected to be.

What is most impressive about this priest is that she never seems to lose the center of her spirituality.  James finds strength and solace in remembering the roots and wings of her Alaskan childhood as well as in the mystical theology of Mme. Jeanne Guyon, who was incarcerated by Louis XIV for being a female religious thinker.

For my money, the central story here is the story of the gospel. Once the rector tried to get both "communities of faith" to move from being a sleepy little rural 'country club at prayer' and into the mission of the gospel, all hell broke loose.  Yes, it was about racism.  Yes, it was about sexism.  Yes, it was about classism.  But, mostly, i was about the power of the gospel.

There is so much rich stuff in here - issues of power and authority, the destructive nature of secrets, the way the Gospel message continues to disturb and convict - that will have to be the subject for another day and time. 

I'm going back to finish the book before I put my head down on my pillow tonight.  Yeah, it's that good.  I know the way the story ends.  That's not what I'm looking for in the remaining pages of this book.

I'm looking at this sister priest as someone who has much to teach me about the ultimate power of spirituality which is shaped by the authenticity and truth-telling which is inspired by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I'm hoping to be taught something more about how to stand up for the Gospel - and yourself - in the face of Evil borne by "good people of God".

I'm remembering something a wise bishop once told me:  That those who cried, "Crucify him!" were not bad people. Basically, they were good people. They were just scared and confused people who were then more easily able to be led into participating in an act of heinous evil.

I suspect this sister priest will have much to teach me - teach us all - about the grace and solace that come from living out your faith, standing in the whirlwind.

I'll let you know.


Elaine C. said...

Thanks, I ordered a copy too -- I'm in a parish with a "reputation" and I could use some inspiration to help me stay in a good centered place ...

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Well, I ordered it. But I have this weird sense I will feel for the protagonist in this story in a very "upside down" kind of way. Maybe that is a good thing, you know?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Elaine - If you are in a place with a "reputation" the real gift you can give them is to have them tell the truth about themselves. It's the only way they can find healing so they can move from a Body with a 'reputation' to one with a mission.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Kirke - just wait till you read the book. Of course, the story is told from her perspective but I am amazed at her spiritual strength and how she tried to make it work. I am appalled by the power that racism - and sexism and classism - still have over our hearts and minds.

motheramelia said...

Elizabeth, I've something of her story and will order the book. As one who only does interim ministry, I've seen the power of a few people to hinder the work of the kingdom in a parish and have served in the aftermath of perfectly good priest being hounded out for far lesser reasons than this book speaks of. Speaking the truth about the past is healing.

Caminante said...

She was selling this book at GC 2006 and I bought it and talked with her. She seemed amazingly centered for someone who had gone through what she described in the book.

odd that word verification should be 'potion'

susankay said...

Re: Caminante's comment on "potion" -- this sounds a lot like Salem a long time ago -- or so I thought.

Strong women remain frightening, apparently.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

motheramelia, caminante and susankay - thank you for your affirmation of what so many of us know to be true but many will still try to deny.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Sounds very horrible and at the same time most interesting. Maybe I shall order it when I come home ;=)

Muthah+ said...

I am somewhat adverse to getting this one. I have too many memories of these kinds of parishes. But I would love to hear how a sister kept her faith.

Bill said...

Elizabeth writes: “In most situations I've been privy to, however, the Wardens and Vestry try to 'scare off' the priest, usually by escalating the tensions so as to drive away members or average Sunday attendance, drive down pledging units and amounts, make mission and ministry impossible and/or to soil - or ruin - his or her good name. “

And motheramelia said... “ I've seen the power of a few people to hinder the work of the kingdom in a parish and have served in the aftermath of perfectly good priest being hounded out for far lesser reasons than this book speaks of.”

It’s always disturbing to see how a few disgruntled people can cause so much destruction. These are usually the self-important, self-empowered people who feel that it must be there way or else. There are elements of control and envy in them and a total lack of humility. They seem to feel that they and only they have the right of it and anybody who differs from their point of view, is just plain wrong. It leads one to question if they read the same Gospel as the rest or if they just make it up as they go along.

I would point out that often the congregation or group as a whole are happily ignorant of the discord. I say happily because I think they know that something is wrong but choose to stay out of the turmoil. Then there are others who sense something significant is going on but aren’t privy to the facts. These people can surprise you by being exceptionally strong and vocal defenders if only they knew the subject matter and if only they were released from any imposed constraints against replying. I know that we all hate to turn the church into a battle field but in retrospect, the church has always been a battle field.

Festering wounds do just that, they fester. Sometimes it’s better to pick the scab and apply the disinfectant. It hurts like hell but then it begins to heal.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

What's really amazing to me - astounding, actually - that, in every situation I've been involved in as consultant or privy to with my friends, the Vestry and Wardens are clueless - completely, totally clueless, that they are behaving according to script. That what they're doing is somehow is innocent, isolated, and (most astoundingly), creative and original.

Thanks for your comment, Bill. I look forward to our "coffee and . . ."

Two Auntees said...

I would say that this sort of tactics was imposed on our last Priest. It didn't help that the vestry rented a home for them in another town some miles away; and this was when gas prices was so high.
He is still being blamed for things he had no control over. He was the force that put to rest the bathroom question for those congregation members who identify as gender variant; such as myself. We have remained close since he has moved to Alabama.

Anonymous said...

Did anyone wonder if the facts in the book are true? It seemed hard to believe.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I have it on good authority that this is a true story.