Friday, September 23, 2011

Episcopal School of Dallas found grossly negligent for millions

(This appeared first on Episcopal Cafe)
The Episcopal School of Dallas is liable for $9 million for how it dealt with the sexual abuse of a 16-year-old female student by a 34-year-old male teacher.
The jury found that the school was not liable for failing to prevent the relationship, but was grossly negligent in how it handled the incident when the relationship was discovered.
Claire St. Amant wrote an in depth article for D Magazine of the scandal and how the private Episcopal School handled things.
The article is disturbing not only due to the details of the abuse, but by the school's apparent self-intrest in their own reputation and comfort.
The overall sense of the article is that the parents were more than willing to work with the school going forward, even though the school erred in the beginning by not telling the parents immediately upon learning the extent of the abuse.
The school then worked with the family until the rumors started flowing around the school and the girl started processing aloud what had happened.
(the article uses the name "Emily" for the former student)
No longer suffering in silence, Emily was disrupting the entire campus. Feeling Emily was a long way from closure, Mayo met with Royall and Swann, and, without input from Emily, her parents, or her therapist, the trio of administrators decided Emily had to go.
In an email that would become central to the civil case against ESD, Mayo wrote to Royall: “I don’t want the girl haunting the halls with her sad story for the rest of the week.”

The administrators then forced the family to withdraw her from the school.
The unwillingness of the school to deal with the messiness of the aftermath from the inappropriate and criminal relationship on the part of one of its faculty is a sad and shocking reality. The desire to withhold or gloss over truth to keep people from "disruption" is counter to the Gospel and the ethics of The Episcopal Church (although clearly the church has chosen a similar route at various times in its history).
The administrators of The Episcopal School of Dallas missed their responsibility to wade into the ugliness of broken trust and emerge with real healing. They could have worked with the victim and her family in facing the challenging issues concerning balancing her privacy and the need for the school community to have some understanding of the truth. By choosing the "easier" path of removing the girl from the school, the administrators failed their charges.
And it will cost them more than just the $9 million...

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A sermon on September 11th, 2011

I found Sunday’s church service to be a profoundly spiritual event.  We had a Service of Remembrance within our Eucharist service.
The service started with words written by Bishop Shannon Johnston, of Virginia:
“We remember all whose lives were changed ten years ago on September 11, bless our remembrance and bless our prayers as we come before you.”
Bishop Shannon’s prayers included those who found themselves in the midst of the attacks:  the victims, those who responded directly in the moment, and those who offered their support and prayers.  They also included prayers “for innocent people who were treated with hatred or suspicion because of their religion or nationality,” as well as “for this citizenry of many nationalities, races and religions.”
Our collect prayer came from Bishop Griswold:
God the compassionate one, whose loving care extends to all of the world, we remember this day your children of many nations and many faiths whose lives were cut short by the fierce flames of anger and hatred.  Console those who continue to suffer and grieve, and give them comfort and hope as they look to the future.  Out of what we have endured, give us the grace to examine our relationships with those who perceive us as the enemy, and show our leaders the way to use our power to serve the good of all for the healing of the nations.
(Note:  both of these were made available by Church Publishing)  
We then sang In Christ there is no East or West, read the Gospel for the day, and then I began my sermon.  I spoke without a text...only a few notes.  This is my best at recalling the sermon:
In Christ there is no East or West is my favorite hymn.  I love its vision:  “One great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.”
I have a “phantom memory” of this hymn, by which I mean that I have a remembrance concerning this hymn that actually did not happen.  
The powerful movie Places in the Heart, set in 1935 Texas, begins with the small town sheriff responding to gunshots.  Wiley, a young African American boy, has been drinking and firing off a gun.  The sheriff calls Wiley by name, who then tosses the bottle in the air and shoots at it a few times till the gun misfires.  Playfully, Wiley points the gun at the sheriff and pulls the trigger, and is stunned when the gun goes off.  
The sheriff dies, and the boy is lynched.
The movie tells the story of the sheriff’s wife Edna as she fights to hold on to her farm, helped by a African American drifter named Moze, and a discarded blind war hero named Will.  
The movie is full of complicated brokenness as well as heartwarming hope in humanity.  They succeed in making it though the season, but Moze is driven to leave after a confrontation with town-members in Klan garb.  Edna tells him that their success was his accomplishment, and that he should never forget this.
The final scene was church on Sunday morning:  and communion is passed throughout the congregation as a hymn is sung.  
(This is my phantom memory:  I remember In Christ there is no East or West.  In reality, the hymn was In the Garden.  They SHOULD have used East or West!)
The shock of this scene, however, is who is present:  somehow EVERYONE is there together in the passing of communion:  protagonists and antagonists, those present and absent (including Moze), and even the dead.  The movie ends with Wiley passing communion to Sheriff Royce, the man he shot and killed, with the words “Peace of God.”  
Somehow, all are forgiven.
In looking at the Gospel today (Matthew 18:21-35), I can’t say I’m happy to see a complicated passage on forgiveness.  Because, if I’m honest with myself, there are plenty of people concerning 9-11...from those who planned and executed the attacks, to those who responded with self-serving violence...who I simply don’t want to forgive.  
Bishop Desmond Tutu says that “Forgiveness is an absolute necessity for continued human existence.  Without forgiveness, there's no future.” 
So whether I want to or not, I have to take forgiveness seriously...
The Gospel passage starts with Peter saying “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
Those of you may remember a few weeks ago when I pointed out the Gospel writer’s use of the word “church”.  There was no “church” during Jesus’ ministry, but after his life, his followers had to figure out how they would live in community together.   The Gospel writer is addressing the way church of his time should treat each other.
There are a number of possibilities.  What is most likely is that, in the living out of Jesus’ general teaching to forgive others as necessary, that the church used “seven times” as an example.  (Perhaps Jesus had said this in a conversation about forgiveness.)  Some took this literally, keeping tabs on the number of times someone messed up and required forgiveness.  The spirit of forgiving as needed to restore relationship was being lost.  Matthew’s dialogue has Jesus say “seventy-seven times” to illustrate the understanding, and not as the new literal number.
What follows, however, is a complicated story from Jesus about a king and his slaves.
There are those in the church who see this as a simple allegorical story:  God is the king, we are the slaves.  God’s tenedncy is to forgive, so long as we forgive others the same way.  If we don’t forgive others, God won’t forgive us.  
The biggest problem I have with this understanding is that it doesn’t fit the premise.  The story does not in any way illustrate forgiving multiple times.  So perhaps there is another way to understand it.
The story begins with a king settling accounts with his slaves.  One owes him ten thousand talents, and the king is going to have him sold with his family and possessions.  The slave pleads “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.”  
The intent may be honest, but it’s not going to happen.  The sum has spiraled too out of control.  There is no way for the slave to ever truly “pay what he’s owes.”  
The king, however, has pity.  Having the power to do so, he forgives the debt entirely.
This slave turns around and encounters someone else who owes him money:  a hundred denarii, an attainable amount.  Despite the same words of pleading, he has him thrown in prison.
We do not know why this first slave, forgiven by the king, fails to do the same for his fellow slave.  Maybe it is his understanding of “the real world”:  a king with abundance has the luxury to forgive, but my survival depends on doing what I need to do...seizing by the throat and payment before someone can be released.    He is either unwilling or unable to see himself in the position of having the power to forgive.  It is tragic that the first slave cannot break free of his understandings.
In comes the forgotten characters:  fellow slaves, witnessing this event, demand action.  It is worth noting that their distress leads to the first slave being condemned, NOT necessarily to the second slave being released.  There is the subtle reality that the bystanders are more interested is seeing someone get punished rather than wrong righted.  For all we know, the second slave remain in prison:  after all, he still owes a debt...
Finally, we return to the king, who originally chose to forgave.  Now, upon hearing that the person he forgave did not live up to expectations, he acts in anger and hands over a man to be tortured.
I don’t think this represents God.  Instead, the king illustrates how easy it is for one in the position of power (in this case, the ability to forgive) to feel justified in resorting to violence instead of forgiveness.  
I ask you:  who in this story is not poisoned?  Everyone is damaged in the end.  All fail to live up to the vision of God and the way things could be.  
I believe that Jesus, among other things, was an extraordinary storyteller.  I think he saw the complexities of human beings and their interactions with one another, and weaved a powerful narrative to illustrate that the kingdom of heaven (which refers to how we are to live our lives) is ultimately full of people who struggle to forgive.
Coming back to today’s anniversary, I am reminded that, in the grand scheme of things, 10 years is not that much time.  We still have time to determine what kind of people we will ultimately be post September 11th, 2001.  
It occurred to me that it has been almost 100 years since the event that came to be known as “The war to end all wars”.  I have no wish to judge our actions from that time, except to observe that it now seems clear that you can’t end war thorough war.
I feel strongly that the same is true about a war on terror.  It doesn’t work either...which leads us back to forgiveness.  
What if we, as Deacon Paul observed the other week, reacted not with bullets, but with food, clothing, shelter, and clean water?  What if we sought to make our legacy of September 11th be a new age of compassion and solidarity:  that out of the ashes of destruction comes not an age dominated by control and fear, but one of new life?
What could we do together if we found the way to forgive?

Friday, September 2, 2011

"Spiritual but not religious"

(This was originally posted in The Lead on Episcopal Cafe)

Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo. Next thing you know, he's telling me that he finds God in the sunsets... 

Like people who go to church don't see God in the sunset! Like we are these monastic little hermits who never leave the church building. How lucky we are to have these geniuses inform us that God is in nature.
Harsh? Probably. Funny and accurate? Oh yes: I can't tell you how many times this has happened to me. Rev. Daniel goes on to make her point:

Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn't interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.

She has a point, but I would add a caveat: eight times out of ten, what the person telling me that they are spiritual but not religious is really trying to do is justify to me (clergy) why they don't go to church. And behind that reason, usually, is either wounded (or turned off) personal experience, or world fed assumptions about religion.
In truth, they owe me no explanation: as Rev. Daniel said, the spiritual not religious viewpoint is "now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture."
However, there is opportunity here. Engaging in the conversation is a great place to be interrupted by God. By asking things like "Can you tell me more about your Spiritual life?" or "How does it impact your daily life choices?", I not only learn their language for God, but I actively help break the stereotype that clergy have (or think they have) all of the answers.
There is also the invitation to talk about the value of religious community.
After all, in the term "spirituality", most people are referring to their encounters with the holy and divine. By saying that they are "not religious", they are telling me that they are not part of an established way of understanding the meaning. I think this comes from an assumption that religion primarily defines rules for where one is to see God, what one is to believe, and how one is to live.
I think this understanding misses what religion is supposed to be about. Religion, at its base, is asking the "so what" questions that often comes from the spiritual encounter: what meaning does this have, what does this point to in terms of the world, how does it affect the way I live my life, and what does it say about my relationships to others.
Additionally, the word "religion" assumes community. Human beings grow and are challenged by the depth of their interactions with each other. Hearing the viewpoints of others (even if we don't come to agreement) keeps us from wrongly assuming that we have the complete picture, and holds us accountable both to further relationship with others and committed to personal growth. Within the context of a "religious way", we wrestle with not only the lives of other people living in today's world, but also with the recorded struggles of peoples past.
It is worth remembering that "the Church" often fails to remember that the "so what" questions are far from answered, and that our offering to the world is the opportunity to explore the fabric of life's meaning within the context of community (past, present & future).
And people might just discover the promise in being religious...