On Location

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“What’s your agenda being here?” she asked as we sat at the table.

It was close to 3:30 and we had been there since 10 a.m.

“We” being the Presbytery staff and “there” being the coffee shop in Ashtabula, OH.  And why where “we” “there”?  Seven of our 37 churches are in Ashtabula county which is the eastern most boundary for the Presbytery of the Western Reserve.  And from there, it’s about an hour’s drive to the Presbytery office.  Suffice it to say, we don’t have many people from Ashtabula just “dropping by” the office.

Josh, our very capable and oh so valuable office administrator has us on a digital phone system and network that allows us to access our company files even when we’re not in the office.  So, why not take the office on the road?

I had been to Ashtabula earlier and had discovered this great coffee shop right on the river.  So, we set up shop there for the day—Harbor Perk, thank you!  We got in touch with the churches in the area, letting them know we’d be there for the day.  Our current Presbytery Moderator and staff, minus our Stated Clerk who was on study leave, packed up computers, phones, books, writing tablets and set out for Ashtabula.  Not sure if anyone would come by, we wanted to have “work” to do.

Laura arrived first and already people were waiting.  Josh and I arrived soon after 10. Henry got there about 10:30 and we had NOT A LULL the entire time we were there. Toward the end of the day Laura and I looked at each other and said “you know, we actually brought work to do.” And I realized what we were doing—talking with people, hearing stories about their churches, learning where they went on vacation, finding out how long they had lived in the area was our “work” for the day.

“What’s your agenda being here?” she asked as we sat at the table.  “Talking to you,” I said.  And a smile crept across her face. “Well, that is wonderful,” she said. “Because I’ll tell you when folks from Presbytery have been here before, it’s been to tell us what they want us to do rather than listen to us.”

Walking to the car at the end of the day, Josh said “That was wildly successful.”  Agreed. We got to know people—with no agenda other than to sit and listen and learn. Never would have happened sitting in the office.

We’ve already identified the coffee shop for the mobile office on the western end of the Presbytery.

Image:  Harbor Perk Coffe; Ashtabula, OH

Independence Day

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For the past 18 years, my Fourth of July celebrations have been DC centric—concerts on the south lawn of the capitol and fireworks framing the Washington monument.  There was also the one year when Nick and I biked downtown and as we were riding down Constitution Avenue we thought we might end up in the parade (a reflection for another post).

This year, in my new home, I experienced the Fourth in NE Ohio style.  I began the day in Euclid attending a neighborhood parade and flag raising.  I ended the day at Blossom (quite possibly a better music venue than Wolftrap) picnicking on the lawn, listening to the Blossom Festival Band and watching fireworks.  I also, along with all the others who attended the concert, was invited to think of the day as Independence Day instead of July 4th—the thinking being on May 11, people don’t say to me “Happy May 11, Sharon”, they say “Happy Birthday”.

As I moved through the day, I was reminded of the A Prayer of Examen for our National Holiday written by  Steve Garnaas-Holmes in his daily reflection Unfolding Light.  This piece arrived in my inbox the day before and moved by its content I used it as an opening time of prayer for a Presbytery committee meeting.

I am familiar with the examen most notably from the book Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You LifeAt the end of most days, I ask myself

Where did I experience God’s presence?

For what from today am I most thankful?

For what do I ask God’s blessing, comfort, direction, guidance?

On a personal level, I find the examen to be a helpful and enlightening spiritual discipline.  I had not thought of it on a national level until I read Garnaas-Holmes piece. And yet, praying for this nation which is my geographical home is another discipline worthy of practice.

For the committee meeting, I adapted the prayer to include times of silence broken by the tone of the singing bowl.  He offered three areas for examination.  The prayers I made in response to them are:

We call to mind all that is good in our nation, all that is in harmony with Your grace.

  • public servants who commit themselves to service
  • the care for national parks and beauty
  • the professed declaration that liberty and justice is for all people
  • freedom to say what we think, to disagree and to work together to ensure domestic tranquility

We call to mind all that is hurtful in our nation, that is out of harmony with Your grace.

  • the heightened expressions of hatred and violence, especially in regards to race, gender identity and sexual orientation
  • the lack of civility
  • the scapegoating of the poor
  • the use of power for personal gain

We thank You for all who share in prayer for our nation, and who share in Your spirit of justice and mercy.

  • congregations who voice both the celebration and sadness of our national life
  • the prophets who voice the uncomfortable truths
  • Authors who make me think and challenge my assumptions: Diana Butler Bass, Jon Meacham, Richard Rohr, Michael Gerson
  • faithful preachers who challenge their congregations to embrace, claim and live hesed (loving-kindness)

The examen then ended with this prayer, which I invited those gathered at the committee meeting to pray together: Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. May the Empire of Your Love overthrow our human powers and dominions. May we be faithful citizens of Your Realm of Grace. Amen. 

It’s been almost a week since we marked Independence Day and I now know that my daily examen will be expanded.

Image:  Freedom Forever china–who knew?!

The Opioid Crisis, the Theatre and the Church

Recently, I ushered for “How to Be a Respectable Junkie” at Dobama Theatre.  It is one of the most gut-wrenching plays I have seen.  “Respectable Junkie” is written by Greg Vovos and tells the story of Brian, a heroin addict. Christopher M. Bohan as Brian takes command of the stage and the story from the moment we first see him.

When I realized God was calling me to the Presbytery of the Western Reserve as their General Presbyter, I thought it might be helpful to learn something about the area to which I would be moving. I’d never spent much time in Ohio so Google got quite a workout.  Whether I typed “issues” or “challenges” or “problems” facing northeast Ohio, the first entry was always the same—opioid crises, heroin addiction.

Whoa—what is going on here?  I will confess I wasn’t aware of the extent of the crisis coming from metro-DC.  If there were stories posted and written about this epidemic, they didn’t make it to my newsfeed or I didn’t “see” them as I read the morning paper.

Soon after arriving in Cleveland, this article appeared in The Plain Dealer.  It begins “Heroin and other opioid-related drugs have become the scourge of Ohio, racking up dozens of deaths by overdose each month and leaving a trail of heartbreak that shows no signs of letting up.” The article then goes on to examine how we got to this point—major factors include legal prescriptions of pain medications, a growing aversion to pain, the liberal use of opioids for chronic, nonterminal pain, and the aggressive marketing of OxyContin by Perdue Pharma. Lawsuits have been filed and settled; the CDC has issued new guidelines for the treatment of chronic pain; the Ohio General Assembly passed a law shutting down pill mills in the state.  While the number of opioid prescriptions in Ohio is decreasing, at least 4,149 Ohioans died from unintentional drug overdoses in 2016 and many coroners say that 2017’s overdose fatalities are outpacing 2016’s. Ohio also has the unfortunate reputation of leading the nation in opioid overdose deaths.  One in 9 heroin deaths across the US happened in Ohio.

The statistics and news articles are, unfortunately, easy to find.  As are other writings.  The latest book I’ve downloaded is Dreamland by Sam Quinones.  The subtitle is “The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic.”  This is not necessarily the education I was hoping for and yet realize that this is reality for my new home and if I want to be community minded and engaged, I need to learn as much as possible.

So, back to the production.  In the playbill, Nathan Motta (artistic director for Dobama) wrote in part: “as Greg (playwright) was doing rewrites, article after article and statistic after statistic kept popping up about the rapid growth of the opioid epidemic in the United States—and Ohio was the epicenter.  This crisis was touching everyone.  With every passing day we were more convinced that our work on this production was becoming increasingly vital.  HOW TO BE A RESPECTABLE JUNKIE gives a brief look into living with this disease, puts a face on heroin addiction, and shows the heroism, heartbreak, and hope that comes with fighting opioid dependency.”  Leaving the theatre, two competing thoughts were running through my brain—thanksgiving for the theatre and wondering how the church is engaged.

The Theatre:  Thank God for the theatre—for actors and playwrights, directors and stagehands, costume and set designers, make-up artists and choreographers.  All those who take words and ideas and bring them to life on the stage—so we can be challenged, disturbed, comforted, and propelled to act.

My own life is enriched by friends who are actors; the gifts they bring to the stage are surpassed only by the gifts they share in their daily living. One quality they exhibit and that I greatly value is their willingness to push the boundaries, to face issues head on; they don’t shy away from challenging issues or pussyfoot around, on or off stage. They tell the truth; they are direct; they hold up a mirror so we can see more clearly.  They take seriously real life issues and offer them in such a way as to say “Here, look at this; think about this; reflect on this; act on this; make this better; work to bring about wholeness; help this change.”

In order to act, we first have to be aware.  And for me, the theatre is the one place where my awareness is heightened.  Oh yes, I always look forward to stage productions—what could be nicer than a night at the theatre—and more often than not, I walk away “Dang…they did it again; they’re making me think; they’re challenging my assumptions; they’re bringing to light something I didn’t even know needed attention.”  And once again, my worldview shifts and I have to figure out what I’m going to do with this newfound awareness.

As hard and as difficult it was to sit through “Respectable Junkie”, I can no longer ignore the destruction and pain of opioid addiction.  The personal question for me is “what now?  how am I called to respond?  will I respond?”

Which leads me to The Church.  I’ve got two thoughts here (well, more than two and for the purposes of this note, I’ll stick with two!)—a broader question:  how does the church decide how and whether it addresses the tough issues of the day and a more narrow question:  how are churches in the Presbytery of the Western Reserve (and their sister churches in the state of OH) responding to the opioid crisis?  I’m going to start narrow and then go broad.  As for the more narrow question—I don’t have an answer.  In making my way around the Presbytery thus far, I haven’t seen or heard of specific involvement by churches.  To be fair, I haven’t yet been to all churches or spoken with all pastors or sessions.  And I am hoping someone will read this and offer some correction and insight—which I look forward to receiving.  And also, to be fair, if I have this question, what would involvement by churches look like?  And here is where my education needs to continue.  What resources are needed by those committed to addressing this crisis—money? volunteer hours? space? How many churches in the geographical boundaries of the presbytery have been touched by this crisis?  Does that experience lead to a discernment of action?  Yes, I have more questions than answers, which is how I usually roll initially.  PWR people, what say you?

And now the broader question—how does the church decide how and whether it addresses the tough issues of the day?  My own experience is that faith communities first have to be aware of the neighborhoods in which they live and move.  What are the pressing issues here?  What is it that is breaking God’s heart where we live?  What is breaking our heart?  And how do we respond to that brokenness?  The tough issues of the day vary from community to community.  As many have heard me say “all ministry is contextual”.  And so, what is the context here?  Again, questions that invite thought and reflection—which will hopefully lead to “answers” and action.

A hard reality for faith communities is that at times, we weigh community engagement over against acceptance—or put another way—we don’t want to offend people.  This outlook has unfortunately become something of a prevailing reality in churches today.  We don’t want to rock the boat; we don’t want to ruffle feathers.  On some of my more “combative” days, my response is “really, have you read the gospel lately?”  Meaning, in an unoffensive way, that Jesus was in the midst of the pressing issues of His day; He did not shy away from community engagement.  Jesus rocked many a boat and ruffled many feathers.

In this respect, I think faith communities have much to learn from the theatre.  I don’t mean to suggest that theatres seek to be offensive.  I do think that companies worth their salt aren’t afraid to name, tackle and address the pressing issues of the day.  And their willingness to engage those issues means they are brought out into the light; they are presented in such a way that they can be examined and thought about.

After the performance of “Respectable Junkie”, there was a talk back—those interested stayed and with Mr. Motta’s direction, talked about what had just happened and what their reactions were.  That was pretty powerful as well.  With the play still fresh in their minds, people were free to share their own stories, ask questions, express sadness, sorrow, anger.  It was a bit like what I wish worship was like on a regular basis.  Interacting with the gospel and the community in which we are located calls for response.  We’re not meant to be left alone with no avenue for conversation, reflection or action. This is life changing stuff we’re dealing with!

In this instance, I think the theatre was better at being church.  We who love and value the possibilities of faith communities can learn much from our brothers and sisters who take to the stage.

Images:  Signature Theatre (Arlington, VA) and Dobama Theatre (Cleveland Heights, OH); two voices telling important and needed stories