Claiming our moral authority

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By Richard Helmer

“We have no moral authority in this town,” said a local minister in a closed-door ecumenical meeting shortly after I was called as rector of Church of Our Saviour. What followed were a few knowing chuckles around the table. Spurred on by worried parents in my new parish and a youthful naiveté, I had brought up the subject of sports practices and games pulling our young people away from Sunday morning Christian education and worship, with no clear ecclesiastical remedy in sight. We’d mulled over all the alternatives: Sunday afternoons were for additional games, rest, or homework. Sunday evening was for more homework. Saturday night was preparation for the game, or the ever elusive goal of “family time.” Weeknights were a maze of extracurricular and school-related activities (read: even more homework). Maybe a churchless society becomes an overscheduled society. Maybe an overscheduled society becomes a churchless society. “Should we write a letter together to the local paper?” I wondered aloud, prompting blank stares from my new colleagues.

Another pastor at last responded by noting that the Jewish community had come together a few years before to protest the crowding of sports into the Sabbath. They got some traction, but not much. The local Christian churches, on the other hand, had simply rolled over in reaction to the proliferation of teams and the encroachment on Sunday mornings. We apparently had even less “moral authority” over secular affairs than did our Jewish sisters and brothers.

I chewed on this for quite some time both in prayer and in conversation. Lacking moral authority seems to be the sum of all fears. It smacks of the irrelevancy that every Christian leader dreads, that every struggling faith community must confront in an ostensibly post- or even anti-Christian society. I looked across the yawning chasm between the Gospel and militant secularism and nearly despaired. Not seeing any tenable action to take that would bridge the chasm left me with the gnawing question that often appears from the pens of our harshest critics: If the church, or at least somewhat credible Christians, have no moral authority anymore, what then? Shouldn’t we just throw in the towel? Had we at long last sold our children out to the tide of secularism?

Soon after, our largely affluent, suburban community was gripped by a teenage suicide. A local high school student joined the hundreds of people who, over the course of several decades, had jumped off the Golden Gate bridge. Our small parish youth group spoke about Clive’s death and made mention to our youth minister that his was only one of a series of recent deaths in the local school system – to drinking, drugs, or suicide. One of our youth members opined that there would be a month of triage at school: therapists, counselors, and experts would descend upon the student body for a few weeks. Then the subject of Clive’s death would fade from attention and fall off the priority list…until the next tragedy added to the already overpowering sea of shared pain and bewildered grief.

In the ensuing months, a 19-year-old graduate of the high school, while home from college, overdosed at a party. His non-religious memorial, led by his own parents and teachers, was held a week later in the high school theater, which was jam-packed even in the height of summer vacation season. I was awestruck by the finger-pointing and despair that was given a platform to speak during the memorial. But what utterly silenced me was the rampant co-dependency and addiction evident in the room. This wasn’t the realm of the individual, which I had learned to understand and perhaps fathom. This was corporate, communal, and widespread. Josh was yet another canary in the coal mine, the next in line to go over the edge, which was even celebrated in a letter from one of his teachers that was read to the assembly. His picture and impish eyes in the memorial bulletin haunted me from an office bookshelf for the next month. We at Church of Our Saviour had to act. If not us, who? But how?

“We have no moral authority in this town.” The words stuck in my head, playing over and over like the refrain to a cheap song.

To hell with it, I finally decided both figuratively and literally, and I called the counseling staff at the local high school to discuss the situation. Expecting resistance, I was instead greeted with a surprising “When can we meet?” In a week or so, with a group of parishioners, I sat down with the counseling staff, who welcomed us with open arms. They were practically running an ER on top of the usual academic counseling, with high-powered parents on one side, harried students on the other, no time and scant, mostly gutted state resources at their disposal. Could the church start helping organize the community? Could we step out and begin the hard work of breaking down barriers between institutions? Could we help rebuild a community of support for our youth over and against the isolation and addiction that was consuming so many?

We said yes, and within a year we had gathered together a variety of church leaders, non-profits, and health professionals into a coalition. We were before the city council helping advocate for a social host ordinance, so law enforcement could at last hold parents accountable for serving alcohol at youth parties in their homes. We were setting up community forums for parents and teens to talk about the pressures and dead ends of adolescence and an affluent, success-driven culture gone pathological for its children. We were reopening a conversation that had long been silenced by shame and fear: about the loss of human dignity in our young people that was fueling addiction, depression, and self-destruction.

When a 17-year-old member of a neighboring Episcopal parish jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge this January in an impulse suicide, we joined Casey’s parents and her priest, in witness to the board that oversees the world-renowned landmark. On what began as a recent ho-hum Friday, I found myself present in a history-making meeting that made international headlines. The bridge board, after decades of carnage, finally set aside the laissez-faire myth of “they’ll do it somewhere else,” heeded the pleas of religious leaders, countless family and community victims, and the mounting evidence of the psychological and psychiatric communities, and agreed to seek funding for a suicide barrier. The “silent cult of death,” as a mentor and colleague deemed the pattern of complicity and suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge, was at last starting to break, and the church had played a part in that sea change.

Moral authority is an odd thing. Claim it as an abstraction, and no doubt we’ll be laughed out of the town square in this day and probably in any age. My learning as I dug through the accounts of the New Testament in search of Christ’s example, was that Jesus and his earliest followers never went into a town or village waving their moral authority credentials in people’s faces. They simply began to heal the sick, restore sight to the blind, and proclaim the Good News.

Their example was telling us all we really needed to know: When we respond from the heart of our faith directly to the world’s deep need for healing, we will find all the moral authority we need.

After sharing this with the parish I served, I was awestruck one morning when a parishioner stuck her head in my office door to thank me and say that she and her family had agreed not to sign up for any sports teams that practiced or played on Sundays. Church was that important to them.

The chasm, I realized, between church and secularism, the path to the church’s moral authority, was bridged already…by God’s grace. All we have to do is walk across and invite others along.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer, a priest, pianist, and writer, serves as rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. His active leadership in the church includes interfaith, ecumenical, and wider church organizations, especially Episcopal Asiamerica Ministries, stewardship, youth advocacy, and ethnic and multicultural ministries in the Diocese of California. Richard’s sermons and reflections have been published widely online, and he blogs about spirituality, ministry, Anglicanism, church politics, music, and the misadventures of young parenthood at Caught by the Light.

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3 Responses to "Claiming our moral authority"
  1. Richard,

    Many, many thanks for this provocative, memorable personal story. My work as priest after parish ministry gave your piece particular significance to me. My work focuses on encouraging congregations and clergy to ask what it's all for and then how, with called purpose and intention before us, we can make our Sunday morning liturgies reflect our real commitments (and therefore support Christian formation and mission).

    Your story walks that same path beginning instead with mission, not 'how do we form people and community to serve,' but 'how do we find a voice that speaks to ordinary people's day to day lives.' But it goes the same place - from a glimpse of vision to faithful practice.

    I loved the power you (and the Spirit) gave your frustration at finding yourself in a community where people's anxious priorities had programmed church out of their lives. (I believe our compulsive busy-ness comes from fear and that a lot of the 'have to' of kids' extracurricular over-commitment comes from fear to get resumes in order for school and college applications).

    I loved your persistent pursuit of the question of how the church could find a moral voice that really contributes to the life of the community.

    And I loved the grace-filled and surprising welcome you found for the church to make a contribution as church and community at large felt helpless facing multiple tragedies.

    I just finished reading Rabbi David Wolpe's remarkable little book, "Why Faith Matters." Your piece, like Rabbi Wolpe's book, and like Obama's deliberate work to recover a public language of faith for religious progressives/liberals sparks a flame of hope. The mother who got how church mattered to her whole family was blowing the tiny flame to a real fire.

    Thank you!

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  2. Richard,

    This is a beautiful story and I so appreciate you sharing not only the events of it, but also some of the struggle that you went through at various times of it. I applaud your courage to say "to hell with it" when you stepped across a presumed divide and ended up engaging with people who were also struggling so deeply with the tragic event of the young person's suicide.

    I think your story touches exactly the sense that many of us are feeling in the church as the church is finding its way in an increasingly "secular" society which also longs for religious tradition and spiritual guidance. The idea that moral authority was once granted sight unseen may or may not be true in decades past. Perhaps it is true that in times past the church and its leaders could speak with moral authority and society would listen and heed the message. My speculation is that we always have to walk the walk before people can here us talk the talk.

    You have given me much to think about and much to pray about. Thank you!

    May we work to claim moral authority in the particular and in an incarnate way!

    As you said:

    "Moral authority is an odd thing. Claim it as an abstraction, and no doubt we'll be laughed out of the town square in this day and probably in any age. My learning as I dug through the accounts of the New Testament in search of Christ's example, was that Jesus and his earliest followers never went into a town or village waving their moral authority credentials in people's faces. They simply began to heal the sick, restore sight to the blind, and proclaim the Good News."

    I pray we do this, and continue to do this with gusto!

    In Gratitude,

    Peter+

    http://santospopsicles.blogspot.com/

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  3. Richard,

    very interesting, dude.

    I think a good bit of working Christians are struggling with that, too. After all, there are some professions where there's no way you can take Saturdays or Sundays off. My friend who brought me to my church is one of them, since she's working in the ER of a local hospital. Because of her schedule, she could only come to church once a month now, if she's lucky.

    What can we do? If I am a parent of these youths, I would say, "Sometimes you need to take a step back. So, we would set aside a time for church no matter how busy our schedule is. Also, set aside 10-15 minutes a day on spiritual devotionals/meditations. After all, we want you to have a balanced life."

    As for young adults who are in college and/or working, it would be trickier. Parents couldn't keep them in check as much. However, encourage them to build up a good support system through prayer, advice, etc.

    - Bill Wong

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