Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Bishop's Breakfast Club: A reflection on House of Bishops Spring Meeting 2017

I woke up this morning in a very cold, 18 degree, Kanuga cabin in North Carolina. I made my way to breakfast and ate with fellow bishops. This morning people left for home, board meetings, visitations, and all kinds of episcopal ministry. We just finished 5 days as bishops of the Episcopal Church. Our time together this retreat was an ebb and flow of worship, Bible study, reflections on "isms", and personal story telling. 

When I come back from a meeting of the House of Bishops people will ask, "How was the House of Bishops meeting?" 

You may not know this, when we gather, we gather in table groups. We will sit together, 8 of us, for 6 meetings. We mix up the tables every 3 years in conjunction with General Convention. My table is a bishop of the armed forces, a seminary dean, the pastoral bishop for the House, two Texans, an easterner, and a Mississippian. A little bit like the motley crew of The Breakfast Club. It's a good table and this week I got to listen to stories about growing up, adversity, poverty, and the various cultural contexts that formed and shaped our ministries. 

I am always reminded a bit of the movie the Breakfast Club. In the movie, a diverse group of people spend all day in a high school detention. They are supposed to write an essay for Mr. Vernon (the teacher assigned to Saturday detention) on the topic of "who they think we are."

"Dear Mr. Vernon:

We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong, but we think you're crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us... In the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain... ...and an athlete... ...and a basket case... ...a princess... ...and a criminal.

Does that answer your question? Sincerely yours, the Breakfast Club.

They of course are exactly the people they describe and more. You find out in the end that you had the same ideas about the group at the beginning of the movie as Mr. Vernon. Now though, after spending the day with them you see a diverse community with a variety of stories. 

I know some people don't understand and some may even think that the House of Bishops is drudgery or a bit like a mandatory sentence of detention. I think some come to our meetings hoping we will speak with one mind on important issues. Still others come hoping for retreat. I think another expectation is that we will debate the great theological debates of our age. And, still others hope that we will solve the problems they see before us as a church. I can't imagine the pressure on the planning committee to come up with something to please us all. We are all very different you see – not only in our expectations but in our stories.

I am struck with a bit of self-reflection today as I await my plane ride home. I feel privileged first to represent the good, hard working, visionary, and mission minded people of Texas to the wider group. I am so humbled by the gifts and work of my fellow bishops. The trials and tests so many of my fellow bishops face, and the grace by which they steer into the storm is amazing and awe inspiring in some cases. 

I love attending our meetings of the house because I have friends there. I enjoy my time because of the stories I get to hear. I think the fellowship and friendship and worship are the most important parts. The program is good too…but sometimes I think we in the west over emphasize the program to the detriment of relationship. I don't really need the meeting to be much of anything other than, as I learned in Alanon, a place where I might have to read something challenged, have the opportunity to learn something new, do something good for someone else, share the journey with an intimate group, and share a bit of gratitude for life and ministry.

I think if I were to draft my letter to "Mr. Vernon", I would say this:

Dear Mr. Vernon:

I accept the fact that as a bishop there are many sacrifices I make for ministry but attending the House of Bishops' retreats is not one of them. It is probably crazy to think that any of us deserve this privilege and honor or can explain why we get to be here. 

I imagine that as you look at us individually as bishops or as a collective house you will probably see us as you want to see us – as you imagine us… in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions: a brain... ...and an athlete... ...and a basket case... ...a princess... ...and a criminal.

But what I have found out, and we are learning about one another, is that we are more than bishops. We have families, we have stories, we have walked crooked paths, we have made pilgrim journeys, we have been despised – even hated, we are often dismissed because of color, gender, political stance, or language. We love our church and want to be part of the living mission of Jesus. We are excited to see growth and we grieve when we see death. We face the reality of institutional life  – but relish being a part of our clergy and parishioner families as they journey from birth, struggle to make it, celebrate the good, shed tears in the pain, and face death. We make these journeys together. When I leave the House, I leave it with a host of bishop colleagues behind me, praying for me, and supporting me. I too pray and support my colleagues wherever they may be. 

One of the most poignant moments in the movie is when they discuss if they pass each other in the hall will they say, "hello." Let me tell you that I love this house – the new bishops and the old. I am proud to call them friends and co-workers in the vineyard. I will always claim them as fellow pilgrims. 

One of the tag lines for the movie is: "They were five total strangers, with nothing in common, meeting for the first time. A brain, a beauty, a jock, a rebel and a recluse. Before the day was over, they broke the rules. Bared their souls and touched each other in a way they never dreamed possible." Same.

I am glad to be coming home. I miss my family and love my work in Texas. But as I do so, I am mindful I am not traveling alone. 

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  • "Christianity is not a theory or speculation, but a life; not a philosophy of life, but a life and a living process." Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  • "Most people are willing to take the Sermon on the Mount as a flag to sail under, but few will use it as a rudder by which to steer." Oliver Wendell Holmes
  • "Perfection, in a Christian sense, means becoming mature enough to give ourselves to others." Kathleen Norris
  • "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can." John Wesley
  • "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried." G. K. Chesterton
  • "One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans." C. S. Lewis
  • "When we say, 'I love Jesus, but I hate the Church,' we end up losing not only the Church but Jesus too. The challenge is to forgive the Church. This challenge is especially great because the church seldom asks us for forgiveness." Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey
  • "Christians are hard to tolerate; I don't know how Jesus does it." Bono
  • "It's too easy to get caught in our little church subcultures, and the result is that the only younger people we might know are Christians who are already inside the church." Dan Kimball