Hit & Run: A Missed Opportunity for the (Episcopal) Church

Opportunity Missed and Taken Green Road Sign and Clouds

By the Rev. Ken Howard

[Updated on May 28, 2015 to reflect more recent developments.]

It was five months ago today in Baltimore that Heather Cook, the newly installed Suffragan Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, while drinking and driving (and texting), struck and killed bicyclist Thomas Palermo…and left the scene…twice. Since that time Bishop Heather was charged with vehicular manslaughter, drunk driving, distracted driving, and hit and run. The Bishop of Maryland asked for her resignation. The Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church convened a Title IV disciplinary investigation. Ultimately, the three reached a settlement in which Cook resigned her episcopal position and voluntarily agreed to be “defrocked” (i.e., deposed from her ordination) and the disciplinary investigation ended. It is said that “the wheels of criminal justice turn slowly,” but since the facts are not in dispute, it seems likely that Heather Cook will be convicted, will serve time, and that justice, imperfect as it is, will have been served.

But tragedies like this don’t happen in a vacuum. Just like alcoholism often takes place in a family system that has becoming perfectly balanced to enable and perpetuate the alcoholic, behaviors like those of Bishop Cook happened in the context of an organizational system that has become perfectly balanced to enable and perpetuate those kinds of behavior. Which means that tragedies like these are an opportunity for the the systems in which they occurred to take a self-critical look at the ways their systems and cultures may have been complicit and to discern the actions they must take to become healthier and less enabling.

At the immediate diocesan level and to a great extent, the leadership of the Diocese of Maryland has done that. Compared to the process that resulted in Cook’s election, the post-tragedy diocesan response has been courageous, transparent, and largely without defensiveness. The Bishop of Maryland, Eugene Sutton, a friend and colleague of many years, has pledged a review of search and selection process that resulted in the election of person with obviously uncontrolled alcohol problems, how those problems continued to be observed without intervention up to and including the eve of her consecration. Just as important, Bishop Sutton has declared the Diocese of Maryland a “diocese in recovery,” and promised honest critical introspection into how the culture of the diocese enabled the kinds of behavior that led to this tragedy.

I hope and pray that Bishop Sutton and his people will follow through on that pledge and carry out its recommendations. So far, I have to say, I have been very impressed with Bishop Sutton’s response and that of his people.

The Church as a whole? Not so much… Continue reading

Pentecost: When Hurry Hung Suspended & Time Stood Still

“God did not invent hurry”
– an old Russian proverb

I’ve always thought it ironic that the origin of the proverb “God did not event hurry” was Russian. Actually, the Finnish claim the proverb, too, so maybe the Russians stole it for the express purpose of pun-ishing the Finns. But whatever the provenance of the proverb, I believe it brings us great wisdom just in time for Pentecost.

Pentecost is the Sunday on which we celebrate birth of the Church: when we remember the day on which the Holy Spirit fell upon the disciples who had gathered in Jerusalem, as Jesus had promised she would, when he expressly told him to go there and wait.  Pentecost is also the name of the Jewish holy day on which they had gathered and on which the Holy Spirit made her promised appearance.

Some crazy things happened on that day, the way the disciples describe it: a mighty wind, doves descending, tongues of fire on people’s heads, hearing and understanding people of other tongues like they were speaking your own language. I’ve seen it depicted so many different ways in so many different icons and illustrations. But one icon caught my attention and hasn’t yet let go. Not only did it show the disciples with fire erupting from the top of their heads, but also depicted them suspended in mid-air, with their toes inches above the floor. It was as if God had lifted them up into a timeless eternity, in which time – and with it the busy-ness of the world around them – came to a halt. For a few-second-long eternity…they were in God’s time.

What would I give for that experience? What would you give? If anything, it seems like time today is running in the opposite direction: faster and faster and faster, until it leaves us feeling stretched so thin, that we feel like we are being drawn into a black hole of busy-ness. We, our friends, our spouses, and our families are so over-scheduled that we seem to be playing tag-team with ourselves, with requests for new dates and times coming at us so fast that half of them don’t even make it to our calendars, with tidal waves of emails and Facebook notifications and Tweets coming at us so fast that sometimes we just seem to sink beneath them until we come up gasping for breath and finding out that the vast majority were requests for your time and attention that have been “overtaken by events.”

It used to be that we could schedule a church social or educational event mid-week and people would actually come. Now, with extracurricular demands on our time – and especially our children’s time – we can’t even count on people being free for church on Sunday mornings. We keep getting the message from the culture around us that unless we get our children into the right soccer, swim, drama, or T-Ball club by age three, we can throw away any thought of them attending any decent college someday. We feel like we are being driven before gale force winds that we can never get ahead of.

I’m not sure what the solution is. People don’t even have the time to read all their emails (and yes, I know we in the church often contribute to that flood), and even when they do read them, don’t have the time to respond to them, let alone transfer the church event dates to which they refer (events from which we or our children could benefit and which we would really like to attend) onto their calendars. Maybe it’s a call for us to be more of intentional and discerning in our choosing. Maybe we have to totally re-think the way we schedule church. Maybe we just have to wait a while until God brings us an answer.

Meanwhile, I invite you to claim next Sunday (May 24) as a time of timelessness.


3 False Dichotomies That Limit Faith

My friend from Zimbabwe has some interesting thoughts on the relationship between science and faith.

“Whitemail” – Using Social Media to Achieve Justice

Do the right thing or well tell the truth

By Ken Howard

As the ordained leader of a relatively new and growing congregation on the outskirts of the nation’s capitol, I have seen Facebook used for many things: evangelism, congregational communication and networking, event publicity, even providing a stealthy, back-door reentry into church life for those who have been away long enough that they want to avoid those awkward “where have you been?” questions that would happen if they came back through the front door. But I had yet to see anyone use Facebook to achieve justice for a parishioner.

That is, until something I tried just a few weeks ago. Something I call, “Whitemail.”

Here’s what happened:

One of my older parishioners was rushed to the hospital (part of a major chain of hospitals) and ended up in the ICU as a result of what at first appeared to be a stroke. After several days, it became clear that it was actually the result of a dramatic worsening of his congestive heart disease, and that he was dying.

After the hospital determined that death was inevitable, the hospital, in what appeared to be an attempt to save money and free up an ICU bed, transferred him to intermediate care, but in a regular hospital room. While this action demonstrated a somewhat disturbing attitude on the part of the hospital, they hadn’t crossed any bright red lines…yet.

Soon, however, it became clear that despite the fact that they had classified his level of care need as intermediate, they were only going to provide him with regular care. When my parishioner began to try to remove his feeding tubes and IV lines, and to get out of the bed, the hospital staff told his wife that she would have to hire a service to take care of her husband. Not wanting to see her dying husband suffer a fall or die prematurely, she indeed engaged such a service. By the time her husband eventually died, she had spent over $3,000, of their limited savings, to provide for her husband a service that should have been provided by the hospital.

After her husband’s death and following his memorial service, she told me that she had resigned herself to writing off the expense. She would just work a little hard to conserve the savings she had left.

But I could not let this injustice go unchallenged. I tried the usual and customary ways to seek redress for the surviving spouse. First, I called the patient advocacy department, and then tried to speak with the hospital president, all to no avail.

Then I had an idea…

I looked up the companies Facebook page. On the page, on the upper left, there was a place to rate (and comment on) company services. I gave the hospital a single star and briefly explained why. Then I sent a direct message. In that message, I simply told them that if they wanted me to avoid a more detailed explanation, they would issue an apology to my surviving parishioner and reimburse her for the money she paid out of pocket for services they should have provided. If they did this, I explained, I would remove the rating and explanation. However, if they would not do the right thing, I would expand upon the explanation, and maybe alert our newspaper, the Washington Post.

Within a week, my surviving parishioner received a check for a little over $3,000…and several apologies.

Who knew that Facebook could be used to achieve social justice?

Whitemail… Maybe you should try it, should the need arise.