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Saturday, October 31, 2015

To the new - the next - the first

 Dear Bishop Michael,

It is the eve of All Hallows and the eve of the celebration of your installation as the new - the next - the first African American - Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church.

It's an historic occasion, one I'm deeply sorry to miss being there in person to witness. I will, however, watch it live stream on my computer. It will be the first installation I've not attended since Edmund Browning was installed in 1986. There's a story I want to share with you about that but, before I get into that, I've got a few other things to say.

The first is this: Praise God! Praise God! Praise God!

I do believe that the unanimous vote on the first ballot can only be understood by faithful people of a Triune God that the Holy Spirit was blowing through that room full of men and women in purple when you were elected.

It's time. No, that's wrong. Actually, it's way past time to have a person of color as the spiritual leader - the Presiding Bishop and Primate - of The Episcopal Church. You know that. I know that. You're just too humble to say it. So,  I will.

Yes, I know. People of color represent less than 16% of the people who sit in the pews of The Episcopal Church.

I think many of us hope and pray that, as more people, especially people of color, see you and come to know you - and, more importantly, come to know Jesus through you - they might consider walking through those imposing red doors of Episcopal Churches.

And, once they're inside, perhaps they might, as your father did, notice that everyone drinks from the same cup. This, despite how we might treat each other after we leave the altar.

We share the same bread. We drink from the same cup. And, we've got you.

That, right there, is a pretty powerful message we can give without ever opening our mouths. And, maybe that's the point.

Maybe that's exactly the point.

Perhaps we need to put more value on how it is we put what it is we say we believe into action.

When I witnessed Katharine Jefferts Schori preside at the Eucharist at her Installation Service and heard her invite everyone to come to The Table to be fed, I wrote these words:
Any act that provides the Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Salvation for all - and anyone  who comes to the table - will always cause at least a stir. When the one who has been excluded is the one who presides at that Eucharist, or when the one who has been excluded invites absolutely everyone to the Table to be fed, well, it becomes, in and of itself, the revolutionary act which Jesus intended it to be.
As I will watch you, sir, preside at tomorrow's service - this time, through the miracles of modern "live stream" technology - it will also be to witness the revolutionary act which Jesus intends.

My heart is stirring and "strangely warmed" in anticipation.

The second thing I want to say comes from something I was reading this morning in Henri Nouwen's "Bread for the Journey." He wrote:
Like every human organization the Church is constantly in danger of corruption. As soon as power and wealth come to the Church, manipulation, exploitation, misuse of influence, and outright corruption are not far away.

How do we prevent corruption in the Church? The answer is clear: by focusing on the poor. The poor make the Church faithful to its vocation. When the Church is no longer a church for the poor, it loses its spiritual identity. It gets caught up in disagreements, jealousy, power games, and pettiness. Paul says, "God has composed the body so that greater dignity is given to the parts which were without it, and so that there may not be disagreements inside the body but each part may be equally concerned for all the others" (1 Corinthians 12:24-25). This is the true vision. The poor are given to the Church so that the Church as the body of Christ can be and remain a place of mutual concern, love, and peace.
Michael, I'm just going to say this straight up: I'm hoping these words are prophetic of your leadership while Presiding Bishop.

I know you have a heart for the gospel. I know you have taken many risks for the gospel and will continue to do so. And, I know you know the heart of the gospel.

I am not rich and I am by no means poor but I was mighty poor in spirit the day you met up with me on the street in Minneapolis, MN during the early days of General Convention in 2003.

Allegations of sexual misconduct had been made against Gene Robinson, then bishop-elect of New Hampshire, who was seeking confirmation of the deputies and bishops of that General Convention.

Those scurrilous allegations were, of course, proven false but it delayed the voting just long enough to raise anxiety and frustration and anger at what ought to have been a joyful, historical event.

I was scurrying from one place to another, as one is wont to do at General Convention, when I heard my name being called behind me. I turned my back around and saw you, running to catch up with me, calling out, "Elizabeth! Hold up! Hold up!".

I stopped and waited for you to meet me. You stopped, put your hands on my shoulders and looked deep into my eyes for a few long seconds before you hugged me. Tight. Long. Right there on that street in Minneapolis, MN. In front of God and all sorts of passersby who, I discovered when I opened my eyes, were looking at us rather oddly.

I began to cry.

You held me tighter and said, "It's alright. Girl, it's gonna be alright. That's what I came here to tell you. It's gonna be alright. You gotta believe me. You hear? It's gonna be alright."

And then you held me at arms length, looked deep into my eyes again and said, "What did Jesus say? Girl, what did Jesus say? Didn't he say: 'Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven'?"

I nodded my head as I sniffed and wiped my tears.

"And, didn't Jesus say,
'Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account'? Didn't Jesus say that?" 

"Yes," I croaked from my weary throat, not caring that passersby were now actively gawking at us.  

"And, what did Jesus say about that? Do you remember? Well, I'll tell you. He said, 'Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.'"

"Rejoice and be glad, my sister! Rejoice and be glad! Don't you see? God is in this place! God is here! This is of God and it will have out. We just got to get through this part, first. So, don't cry, my sister. No weeping. No, rejoice and be glad! God's will be done. You just wait and see."

I've never forgotten how my heart felt as we walked together to wherever it was we were going. The pain was gone. The heaviness lifted. My soul felt emptied of all that and suddenly, it was full and fat and rich with the Spirit of Hope, flooded with the Possibility of Light that conquers darkness, pressed down and overflowing with an abundance of Unconditional Love. 

That's what you do, Michael. 

You have an internal GPS system for those who need a word of hope. You do not romanticize 'the poor' but find them wherever they are, whatever their poverty is, and bring them the Good News of God in Christ. You fill them with good things and help them to see the strong arm of God, lifting them out of oppression and depression and recession into the fullness of the life of Resurrection. 

Do that. Please, do that, as Presiding Bishop as you did as Diocesan Bishop. 

Help us to "recalculate" our ecclesiastical GPS systems away from "manipulation, exploitation, misuse of influence, and outright corruption" and steer us in the direction of the Gospel imperatives. 

We've got a lot of work to do to get us closer to a nearer vision of the Ream of God, but with your leadership - and, of course, God's help - we can do it. 

Presiding Bishop Katherine has done the really hard "housecleaning" work.  Most of it is done.  

Oh, there are just a few more corners for you to clear out, a few shelves to dust off, and a couple more men behaving badly that still need to be  . . . um, "addressed," but, for the most part, Bishop Katharine has done most of the heavy lifting for you. And, she's paid a very heavy price for it.  I know you will be mindful of and grateful for the way she has cleared for you. 

Which leads me to close with that story I promised. 

It was at the reception after the service of the Installation of Edmund Browning as Presiding Bishop at the Washington Cathedral in DC that I met Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  It was 1986 and he had sought a season of asylum in the United States because the hell fires of apartheid had become too dangerous for him there. He could continue to speak out, but from the more protected pulpits in The Episcopal Church. 

I was not yet ordained (that would happen in April, 1986) and we had a wonderful conversation about GOEs and the ordination of women in South Africa and his first church and, oh, yes, we shared a bowl of ice cream and he rubbed my feet. But, that's another story for another time.

Ten years later, I saw him again, this time in New York, where he was being being given an award by New York University for his work on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.  

He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer just before taking on the task of chairing that commission and, although he looked well - thin, but well - he was still being treated for it. 

To my great surprise and delight, he remembered me, greeting me warmly and recalling parts of our conversation back then in DC, especially sharing that bowl of ice cream. After I inquired of his health, I told him I thought that the timing of his cancer diagnosis and his leadership on that commission might lead one to question the stability of his mental health. 

He laughed in his wonderful uproarious way and said, "You are right. Let me tell you about that."

"When my President. . . you know 'My President', yes? Nelson Mandela - when Mr. Mandela asked me to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I declined," he said.

"I said to him, Mr. President, I am not well suited for this position."

"'Of course you are,' said President Mandela."

"'No, no, no, sir,' I said to him, 'You see, there are three problems. I have three problems. I am tired. I am weak. And besides, I laugh too much.'"

"'Hmmm, said Mandela', who then brightened and declared, "Then you are perfect to be the Chair of Truth and Reconciliation Commission!'"

"'How is that, sir?'" I asked."

"'Well,' said my President, 'if you are tired and weak, then you know something about the hard work of telling the truth, and if you laugh too much then you know something about the nature of reconciliation!"

That description - understanding fatigue, weakness and the ability to laugh as the gifts that enable one to seek truth and reconciliation, even in the most difficult situations - gave me an entirely new model for servant leadership. It's one I try to follow, all these many years later.

So, dear Bishop Michael, that is my prayer for you as you become the new - the next - the first African American - Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church.

May the inevitable weariness you will feel arise from the hard work of telling the truth. 

May the weakness that makes you human be perfected in God's power.  

And may your life and your work be filled with the laughter which arises from the joy of the work of reconciliation. 

All the ancestors who have carried us to this day are now gathering to carry you through tomorrow and the next nine years. They are blessing you with stories of their lives. They are blessing you with their legacy. They are - and always have been - blessing you with an outpouring of their spirit which brought you to this day and will carry you beyond. 

You have been - and are - blessed to be a blessing, Michael.

May it always be so.


Ann said...

"And, she's paid a very heavy price for it. I know you will be mindful of and grateful for the way she has cleared for you. " So true.

JCF said...

"You held me tighter and said, "It's alright. Girl, it's gonna be alright. That's what I came here to tell you. It's gonna be alright. You gotta believe me. You hear? It's gonna be alright.""

What a beautiful story. ++Michael is a Godly man, for our time. Thanks, Elizabeth!

Melody said...

Amen to all you said. I have loved everything that he has said so far. I am looking forward to the next 9 years!