Recovery Sunday

Several years ago a new family joined my parish.  They were engaged in worship, came back to coffee hour and were otherwise showing all the signs of settling in.  However I noticed that they never came up for communion.

Eventually I found the right moment to ask.  It was at that time that the husband told me that he was an alcoholic.  But, since we only offered wine (and not juice) he didn’t feel like he could fully participate.  This was a real eye opener for me.

While I’ve done a lot to try to help establish a healthy and balanced relationship with alcohol at church, since then I have been increasingly aware of the ways in which addiction affects the lives of my congregation.  Just two weeks ago after services I spent hours counseling parishioners about coping with their own addiction or those of a family member.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. This past Sunday alone 9 people in Philadelphia died when they overdosed on heroin.   All around my neighborhood I see people with the telltale signs of “meth mouth.”   The real trouble is that for every person willing to talk about their problem there are many more who are silent.

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The shield of Recovery Ministries

Last year it was estimated that 40 million adults struggled with addiction to drugs or alcohol.  If you start to account for their immediate family that number grows geometrically.  The Church needs to respond.

Thankfully many denominations and individual congregations already are.  Within my own denomination there is Recovery Ministries of the Episcopal Church which offers support and resources.

Taking their lead, I am pleased to announce that St. Tim’s is holding its first Recovery Sunday on December 11th at both the 8 and 10:30 am services.

In worship we will offer prayers, encouragement and support for those affected by addiction.  After church several members will speak about their own struggles and recovery.  And we will have resources on hand to help you get more support once you leave.

I don’t know how many people will be helped but I do know that offering love, acceptance, hope and support is an essential expression of what it means to be a Christian.

If you are affected by addiction and need support and happen to be in the area, I sincerely hope you will join us.  You don’t need to talk about it.  You don’t need to stand up and introduce yourself.  You just need to come and be with us.  Sing with us.  Pray with us.  Let us pray for you.  Or just sit quietly.  Whatever works for you.  Just come be with us as we acknowledge the reality of addiction and celebrate the hope and possibility that can be found through the love and grace of Jesus Christ.

Mosh Pit: 1 Medial Meniscus: 0

“Did you go in the pit?”  My wife’s frown made it clear that this was no casual question.  She didn’t really need to ask.  I limped very slowly down the stairs, leaning on the bannister.  As I collapsed into a chair, exhausted and in pain, one question kept running through my mind, “If only…”

“If only…” How many times have you asked yourself that same question?  If only I had ordered chicken instead of fish.  If only I had zigged instead of zagged.  That morning the question concluded with the words, “If only I had gone to see Ruby the Hatchet instead of Alestorm.”

It was one of those rare occasions in which I had to decide between two concerts.  It’s rare enough that I have the time and energy to go at all.  Now I faced an embarrassment of riches.  Behind Door #1 was Ruby the Hatchet, my favorite slinger of stoner-doom-occult rock that’s straight out of 1972.  Door #2 was a wildcard.  Alestorm is unique, being, as far as I know, the only Scottish-pirate-metal band in the world.  Plus their tour mates, Nekrogoblikon, a melo-death act out of LA sporting a guy in a goblin costume, were pretty unusual themselves.

Perhaps you can imagine (then again, maybe you can’t) just how vexing a choice this was. What tipped the scales in favor of Alestorm was the fact that good friends were also going .  If I went to see Ruby, I would be flying solo.  Not the end of the world, but it’s always more fun to go with friends.

The Voltage Lounge (formerly Whisky Dick’s) was dark, filthy and cramped… in short, everything you want in a venue for this kind of show.  The all-ages crowd was remarkably diverse and included the usual motley assortment of denim, leather and obscure metal t-shirts.  But there was also a dude sporting an old school Mohawk, people in pirate and Viking garb, a few black metalers and a surprisingly large proportion of women.

Appropriate disposal of a PBR in the men's room at Voltage Lounge

Appropriate disposal of a PBR in the men’s room at Voltage Lounge

The first two bands were local acts whose surprisingly good chops were obscured by bad sound work.  There was a small pit going but nothing exciting enough to entice me, especially because I was still feeling right knee injury from a Gogol Bordello show in the spring.  I was happy watching from the balcony and resolved to take it easy.

Aether Realm took the stage and my friend Ben (remember Ben), who was already pumped from a round down in the pit, headed back.

I don’t have a rational explanation as to why I followed.  Maybe it was testosterone.  Maybe it was the Fatheads Headhunter IPA I just finished.  Whatever the cause, my better judgment checked out for the night.

By and large the pit was extremely energetic but good natured.  One standout was a young woman who didn’t just make a cursory pass through the pit but hung with the big boys most of the night.  In between songs I shouted to her, “You rock!”  She turned to me, gave me the finger, screamed, “Fuck you!” then immediately broke out into a grin and high-fived me.  But highlight of the evening had to the stage diving.

I haven’t been to a show where stage diving was allowed in more than twenty years.  But during Nekrogoblikon’s set people would surf up, dance on stage or even join in the singing, before hurling themselves onto the hands of the crowd.  It was so much fun that John Goblikon got into the act, jumping off the stage and surfing to the back of the crowd before making the return journey.

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When Alestorm finally took the stage things reached an even more frenzied pitch.  By that point I was not only winded but beginning to feel that my knee was worse for the wear.  Again, logic would have dictated a hasty retreat to a safer distance.  Yet I stayed.

It would be tempting to say “The beer made me do it.”  The only problem with this is that I had only two at the show and had been drinking only water for the last hour.  So I truly have no alibi.

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Halfway through the set I was done.  Looking across at Ben I could see he was fading too.  By the last couple of songs the whole pit was barely bumping into one another.

As I hobbled very slowly back to the car I knew something was seriously wrong.  But for now there wasn’t much to do about it.  It was 1 am and all I wanted was a big glass of cold water, a hot shower, a handful of Advil and bed.

This brings us back to the beginning of our tale and my well-deserved spousal admonishment.  Fast forward through several trips to the orthopedic surgeon, some MRI’s, large needles draining pale yellow fluid from my knee, cortisone shots, a brace, a cane and a bottle of Advil and here we are.

As I suspected, the medial meniscus is shot If you don’t know what a meniscus is, that’s not surprising.  In simplest terms the meniscus is the rubbery knee cartilage that cushions the shinbone from the thighbone.  It can tear from being forcefully torqued which happened plenty in the pit.  Since I tore the meniscus of my left knee eight years prior, I have a pretty good idea of what I’m in for.  For the next three weeks I’ll be hobbled and have to take it easy.  Then comes the arthroscopic surgery.  The jagged edge of the tear will be trimmed and all the loose cartilage pieces floating around in my knee get suctioned out.

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Recovery isn’t too bad.  Walking cast for a day or two and some pain meds.  Then it’s just a matter of carefully working my way back.  More brace, more cane, more taking it easy.  Lord willing I’ll be back to 100% before Christmas which isn’t too bad.

But the real point of this cautionary tale is not so much the what, as the why?  Why did I go in that pit when I knew there was a real likelihood that I would get hurt?  It’s not the first time I have asked this question.  I’m not sure I can explain it but I am sure that at least part of it has to do with trying to deny the fact that I am getting older.  At 47 I can tell you my body just ain’t what it used to be.  Although I exercise regularly and eat a more healthy diet than I have ever before, the plain facts are that my joints ache and it takes me much longer to recover from a strenuous workout or injury.

So why do I continue to attempt such age-defying stunts when I know that there will only be an ever-increasing price to pay the next day?  If I ever discover the answer, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, if you have ever done something stupid and found yourself asking “If only…”, please share your stories and, if you have any, insights as to why.

I Rise to Offer an Amendment

“I rise to offer an amendment to resolution A158.”  Thus I began my plea to ensure that Amendment 2the Episcopal Church did not effectively ban Theology on Tap, Pub Theology, The Biblical Brew Off and other beer-centric programs that are so near and dear to my heart.

Let me explain how I found myself standing on a podium defending beer-based ministry in front of 1000 people. It started back in late December when now former Bishop Heather Cook struck and killed a bicyclist while drunk.  You can read more about the details and my thoughts here.

The result was a great deal of internal discussion. While there were many questions about complicity and failure in her election process, the more important issue centered around about the role that alcohol play in our common life as Episcopalians.

With General Convention on the horizon there was a bit of hyperbole and handwringing with some even calling for Convention to be alcohol free.  But in time the online fervor started to die down.  However a special legislative Committee on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse was formed to ensure continued engagement.

This Committee produced two primary pieces of legislation.  The first had to do with acknowledging and repenting of our complicity in creating a culture that enables substance abuse and can be hostile to those in recovery.  The second focused on establishing policies and procedures meant to ensure that our parishes are safe and welcoming places for all people including those who are in recovery.  This was a very thorough piece of legislation that covered a whole range of circumstances.

The trouble was that it singled out “Theology on Tap” by name as a program that could not use reference to alcohol, bars, etc., in promotional material or advertising.  (Disclaimer: TOT is copyrighted and owned by the Roman Catholic Church.)  While this requirement would bring our related programs in line with other church activities, it would also effectively kill them.

This was the crux of my argument to strike “TOT” from the resolution.  Unlike a “wine and cheese party” which could easily be re-titled as a “garden party” or the like, there is no way to remove the association with alcohol from such beer/bar based programs. If the legislation remained unchanged it would have halted one of the most creative and effective means we have for reaching out to those who might otherwise feel alienated from the Church.

Amendment

Thankfully the amendment passed overwhelmingly, in part thanks to the support of many people from the Committee on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse in moving the amendment.  To ensure their support we added additional langue to the amendment in order to ensure that any such gathering have fellowship, conversation and evangelism as their primary purpose, as opposed to simply being drinking clubs.

I will share more about this collaboration and what I learned  in a coming installment.

Wherever you find four Episcopalians, you’ll find a fifth. Alcohol, the Episcopal Church and the death of Thomas Palermo.

Since December 27th, 2014 the Episcopal Church has been in embroiled in grief, controversy, and questions about the clergy, addiction, responsibility and the place of alcohol in our denomination.

Heather Cook’s arrest photo

In short this tragic situation involves Bishop Heather Cook, the recently consecrated Suffragan (assisting) Bishop of the Diocese of Maryland.  On December 27th, 2014 Cook struck and killed Thomas Palermo, a cyclist.  She then fled the scene only to return about 30 minutes later.  When the dust settled, it was found that Cook was drunk, blowing a 2.2 BAL (which is almost 3 times the legal limit) and was also texting when she hit Palermo.

As awful as these revelations were they were just the beginning.

It turns out that in 2010 when working as diocesan staff in the neighboring Diocese of Easton, Cook was also arrested for DUI, this time blowing a 2.7.  When pulled over it was found that she had vomited on herself, had bottles of whiskey and wine in the car as well as pot and pipe.  Cook went to rehab and was given probation before judgment meaning that her record was expunged once she completed  her probation.  Most recently it was reported that she was inebriated at a dinner the night before her consecration as Bishop.

In addition to the many criminal charges now facing here, the Diocese has  called for her resignation and a formal investigation by the Episcopal Church has begun that could bring its own charges and trial.  A complete timeline and other information can be found here and here.

Thomas Palermo with one of his children

Her prior problems have raised a multitude of questions and criticism regarding the process by which she was vetted and why her 2010 DUI was not publically disclosed during the process leading to her election.  There is a great deal of debate about where responsibility lies and you can read a number of essays and op-eds on the matter.  It is not my intent to rehash them here.  However, if you wish to make a donation to help fund the education of Thomas Palermo’s two children, you can do so here.

church and boozeAs you might imagine this tragedy has also ignited a discussion in the Church about the role that alcohol plays, not just among addicted clergy, but in our culture.  The Episcopal Church has a rather boozy reputation.  It is a commonly repeated joke that, “Wherever you find four Episcopalians, you’ll find a fifth.”  It is not uncommon to find wine, sherry or beer served at parish events and sometimes, even at Vestry meetings. Here at St. Tim’s we brew beer in the basement to serve at parish events.   Indeed, my whole “Priest in a Bar” shtick is made possible only because of my denomination’s alcohol-tolerant attitude.

Yet now many are questioning whether or not it has gone too far.  And they do not simply mean the lost life of Thomas Palermo or the ruined career of Heather Cook.  People are now wondering what impact the prevalence of alcohol might have on enabling addiction among members and clergy alike and also whether or not it creates a hostile atmosphere for people in recovery.

It has prompted a response from The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, President of the House of Deputies (made up of priests, deacons and lay people).   In it she calls for both a re-examination of the process by which our bishops are elected and also our polices on alcohol and other drugs.

A more unusual response comes from Bishop Scott Barker of Nebraska who has publically declared that he will not drink during the coming General Convention.  (General Convention is the triennial gathering of the whole Episcopal Church.  Each diocese sends a deputation made of clergy and laity elected by its own membership to take part in the deliberations and governance of the parent denomination.)  Looking at the comments when this has been shared on Facebook it seems that many are agreeing with him in questioning the place alcohol has in our Church life.

All of this is particular importance to me, not simply because I am an Episcopalian who engages in beer-based ministry, but also because at present I am involved with bodies directly affect by this tragedy and ensuing debate.  First, I serve on the Standing Committee which is currently in the midst of designing and defining the search process for our next Bishop.  This task has been made all the more sensitive given the questions raised about the reliability and transparency of how bishops get vetted and elected.  Moreover, I am a Deputy to this year’s General Convention where no doubt there will be much discussion about bishops, booze and their role in our Church.

Yet to me the real issue is not actually alcohol in and of itself.  It is a larger question of how we as a Church sometimes enable destructive behavior.  Let’s face it, it is hard to confront people about their serious problems.  It is even harder to continually hold someone accountable in order to actually deal with them.  And so we, especially those of us in leadership, tend to gloss over problems like addiction, depression, anger management and other pervasive issues that can affect health and performance of individuals and organizations.

As a result, many bishops and priests simply pass on problem clergy and staff without fully disclosing their issues.  Many times we do so in order to rid ourselves of having any further responsibility for them.  It is far easier to just pass them along than it is to openly deal with the real issues, not to mention the conflict and potential lawsuits that would ensue from fully disclosing them.  As we know this kind of complicity can have devastating consequences for our people as well as for the Church and its credibility.

But in the case of Heather Cook and people like her, the problem is even more insidious.  When it comes to bright and talented leaders we tend to minimize and even gloss over their issues.  Why?  Because we like them.  And so we want to believe them when they tell us they have it under control.  We don’t want to risk losing the energy and talent they bring should we actually did deeper.

In the case of Heather Cook everyone, and I do mean everyone, with knowledge of her 2010 DUI seemed to want to see it as a “one time event.”  Why?  Because by all accounts she was great priest.  Even the judge who sentenced her bought into this reasoning.  The prospect of digging deeper must have made too many people uncomfortable and so she was able to continue to lie and convince everyone that she had her problems under control.  More than our denomination’s acceptance of alcohol, it is our difficulty with confrontation and accountability that is truly responsible for the death of Thomas Palermo.

That said is still important for us continue to ask questions about the role that alcohol and addiction might play in our culture and structures.  We must make sure that people who are struggling with addiction can still find refuge in our pews and feel secure at our social events.  We also need to become more aware of the dynamics that addiction can create.  Just like in a family system there are some parishes and even some dioceses that work to enable their alcoholic priest or bishop.  We need more training and more awareness.  We need more sensitivity and greater courage to confront the problems addiction can cause.  We need to keep talking, listening and praying.  And above all we need to examine our own hearts and confront our own complicity with and capacity for addiction.

As more news emerges and I reflect further, I expect to write more on this in the weeks to come.  As always I welcome your thoughts on how the Church should deal with this tragedy and how we can work towards becoming healthier and more like the one whom we claim to follow.