The Rt. Rev. Morris K. Thompson, Jr., Eleventh Bishop of Louisiana, addresses the 179th Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana on November 4, 2016. See full transcript below video.
November 4, 2016
The Diocese of Louisiana Convention
Bishop Thompson’s Address
Let us pray: Come Holy Spirit, kill us and make us alive.
In your hands we rest; in the cup of whose hands sailed an ark, rudderless, without mast.
In your hands we rest; who was to make of the aimless wandering of the ark a new beginning for the world.
In your hands we rest; ready and content this day.
What a great day this is. Here we are, the gathered community.
Wendell Berry speaks of the gathered community in this way: “Oh yes brothers and sisters, we are members one of another. The difference, beloved, ain’t in who is and who’s not, but in who knows it and who don’t. Oh, my friends, there ain’t no nonmembers, living nor dead nor yet to come.” (Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry page 97) No one is left out; we are all gathered together in the midst of love. That is what I see as I stand here in front of you, the gathered community. We are different to be sure, but still the gathered community never the less. Anglo-catholic, protestant, low church, high church, big, small, and medium size. We are the gathered community. I hope you know that.
In this gathered community life is not always easy, or agreeable. We may differ on theological positions, liturgical practices or where we stand politically. In my mind, this is the best kind of community because it causes us to listen to one another, lean on each other when we can’t seem to find our way. This kind of community calls us to be vulnerable, to be teachable.
Recently we have been rising to this standard of being. This summer the ugly face of racism was raised in our back yard. The shooting of a black man by white policemen and the shooting of white men by a black man sparked outrage throughout the diocese and the nation. Days later the heavens opened up and over 30 inches of water poured down on homes, businesses and the lives of thousands. Two of our churches, St. Patrick’s in Zachary and St. Francis in Denham Springs, were affected as well as our largest school, Episcopal High in Baton Rouge. As cruel as it was, not all was lost. In the midst of chaos, the gathered community answered the call of presence.
After the shootings, the Racial Reconciliation Commission gathered and showed their support for a better way of life, a way for reconciliation to take place. St. Luke’s Church turned its attention towards caring for the police department that resides next door. In July, the Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry visited us through the invitation of the Union of Black Episcopalians. Hopeful words, kind actions, and serious dialogue have taken place and will need to continue if we are ever going to make a dent in loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.
After the rains came and the flood receded, the gathered community lent a helping hand in ways that best spoke to them. You will hear more about this later, but let it be known that the Episcopal Church, not only in this diocese but from all over the United States has risen to the aid of our wounded community. I have been touched by the generosity of people, people right here and people who have never even been to Louisiana but opened hearts and reached out to us. I am forever grateful.
Another heartbreak for me was the realization that we could not raise the funds needed to reshape the property on Canal Street formally known as Grace Church. As you know we had plans to move the diocesan offices to Canal Street and then restructure our present office into apartments to be used as a way to fund outreach throughout the diocese. Our consultant broke the news to us that the interest wasn’t there with the people with whom he spoke. Therefore, the Executive Board has withdrawn this phase and we are now in the market for a buyer or someone to lease the property. As we all know, everything has a life cycle, even churches. We will move forward discerning the direction God has for us.
Recently I listened to the book, Grandma Gatewood’s Walk by Ben Montgomery. It’s a delightful story about Mrs. Gatewood’s trek over the Appalachian Trail. She was the first woman to have walked all 2200 miles of the trail that stretches from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mount Katahdin, Maine. In 1955 at the age of 67 Ms. Gatewood set out with a pair of Keds tennis shoes, a shower curtain to keep her dry and a rucksack thrown over her shoulders for a few supplies and went walking. As I listened to the narrator, I could see Ms. Gatewood walking up the mountain through the lush green forest along damp trails. To strike out on a trip like she did, one must have the courage and the fortitude to endure the hardship of traveling alone, seeking food and a place to sleep. It is not easy but the marvel of it all makes the trip worthwhile.
One of the ways Grandma Gatewood made the journey was to make friends along the trail. Those at rest stops and those in the small towns she crossed. People were amazed at her resilience of walking the distance. Sometimes she slept in people’s homes or was fed a meal to give her strength. It was the gathered community giving aid to a member of its own. I see our diocese in this light. Giving members the things we need to sustain our lives together.
I often hear that the Episcopal Church is shrinking, that her members are leaving. In some respect this is true. Our average attendance is down, not everywhere, but in many of our churches. I have a question to pose. Why do you think our numbers are down?
I think it is because we have become distracted from the ways of knowing God. We seem obsessed in the largeness of the offerings of life. We want big things, big homes, big churches, big cars, and large salaries. We are so obsessed with super sizing that we have forgotten the still, small, gentle voice where God is found in majestic ways. Where like Elijah we can hear the discerning call of God in silent ways that speak directly to the soul.
In the coming year as I make my visitations, I want to hear what you are hearing and how it is forming your church, your communities, and your very soul. I want to hear how God is touching you, changing you. I want to know what you are learning and how your learning can teach me.
In her book, The Soul of Money, the book I hope every church will read for Lent, Lynne Twist tells a wonderful story about meeting Mother Teresa. Twist’s work involved The Hunger Project. She was committed to ending world hunger by raising funds to make this a reality. Just meeting Mother Teresa was an overwhelming experience, she said. Twist spent time telling Mother Teresa about her family, her work and Mother Teresa said how much she admired Twist for her work of raising funds to support this very important ministry.
While the two were meeting a noise occurred down the hall. First Twist said she smelled them and then she saw a couple trying to get past others to see Mother Teresa. Twist at first didn’t know what was going on but as time played out it was evident that these two individuals who happened to be married, wanted to see Mother Teresa. They had been with her earlier but didn’t get a photo of Mother Teresa and the two of them together. Both husband and wife were decked out with what Twist describes as lavish bangles and diamond studs in the ears and nose. It was clear these people were very wealthy and as far as Twist was concerned, very obnoxious.
Twist immediately disliked this couple because they had interrupted her sweet moment with Mother Teresa and imposed themselves on her, shoving a camera in her face to take their picture with Mother Teresa.
The rest of the day and into the night Twist was furious first with the couple and then with herself. She had allowed this experience to bring out the worst in her, her prejudices and dislikes of rude people. She was so upset with herself that she sat down and penned a letter to Mother Teresa asking both for her forgiveness and her counsel.
A few weeks later Mother Teresa wrote back. In her letter to Twist, Mother Teresa admonished her, saying “that while she had expressed compassion for the poor, the sick, the faint, and the weak all her life, that would always be a place where her self-expression and service would easily flourish. The vicious cycle of poverty, she said, has been clearly articulated and is widely known. What is less obvious and goes almost completely unacknowledged is the vicious cycle of wealth. There is no recognition of the trap that wealth so often is, and of the suffering of the wealthy; the loneliness, the isolation, the hardening of the heart, the hunger and poverty of the soul that can come with the burden of wealth. Mother Teresa told Twist that she had extended little or no compassion to the strong, the powerful, and the wealthy, while they need as much compassion as anyone else on earth. ‘You must open your heart to them and become their student and their teacher, Mother Teresa wrote. When we think of the poor only in dollar signs and forget the soul, we have perpetrated a grave sin on ourselves. We have judged some to be worthy of attention and others not so.
This story made me wonder, what are we teaching in our congregations? Do we provide adult formation where these and other issues can be discussed and learned? Once again, we have allowed our attention to turn towards menial matters and have forgotten our calling to teach, and raise up informed members of the body, but we can’t do this work if we are not providing places of intentional learning. I want to strongly encourage every congregation to create forums where adult and youth education take place on a regular bases. It is not enough to say we say our prayers in the morning. Our world calls us to wrestle with complex issues and for the Christian, our formation begins with reading scriptures in the context of our surroundings. Where is God in this moment is a beginning question to always ask.
Another area I want us to tend is the Stewardship of our Environment. If this year hasn’t gotten our attention regarding the changes in climate then we are not paying attention. Extreme drought out west has brought millions of dollars in fire damage. In the south, heavy floods have wrecked havoc to the tune of billions of dollars and on the shores of Louisiana, our coastline is ever so quietly creeping inward. The erosion of our state is increasing at a pace that is frightening. Scripture has something to say about the stewardship of our environment.
The Psalmist tells us the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it. Ps.24:1, and Ps 95: 4-5 says, “In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land.” God has given us this planet earth our island home to care and nourish. It was not created for us alone but for our children’s children. You and I are called to care for it like we care for ourselves. Shortly after this convention ends I will pull together a group of individuals who have a passion for environmental matters so they can teach us how we can better care for the gifts God has given us. Being mindful is the first step in acknowledging our dependence upon God and all that God has provided for us.
Which brings me to steps towards healing. This convention’s theme is Grace and Addiction: Saved by Grace. Our desire is to raise awareness of the brokenness that addiction so often brings to everyone involved and also that one does not have to travel this road alone. The church can and often does play a significant role in supporting wholeness and healing. There is not a family present that has not been affected by the addiction of drugs, alcohol, or other forms of addiction. It is all too common and for many the pain of living with an addictive person or being addicted is a pain that runs deep.
As the year unfolds I want to encourage every church to have an active community in some form of recovery work. Open your doors to Alcohol Anonymous, Al-anon, Ala-teen, Narcotics Anonymous or any other group that is supportive and life-giving. Hold Recovery Sunday’s where the 12 Step Eucharist is used. There is so much that we can be doing to help the gathered community.
The last initiative I want to address is our relationship with the Diocese of Tohoku. As many of you know, our diocese and the Diocese of Tohoku, Japan have been in a partnership that began before WWII. It began with a missionary from our diocese going to Japan. Recently, I traveled to Sendai, Japan, the See City of Tohoku. I met for the first time, Bishop John Kato and his wife Joann. The people are so generous with their hospitality. Everywhere I traveled their welcome overflowed.
One of our common bonds is our propensity for terrible weather, their tsunami, our Katrina, their earthquakes, our floods. As I traveled their diocese I saw the destruction from their tsunami. If I hadn’t known any better I would have thought I was looking at New Orleans after the storm. Five years after their disaster there are still many people displaced who lived around the nuclear power plant that will never be able to return. They live on a fragile island. While I was there, riding on the bullet train we came to a crawl because an earthquake was shaking the ground. We have much in common.
Before I left we made an agreement to work harder in building relationships between our laity. It is our dream that every two years we will visit one another to begin building the bonds that are so important. We don’t need another fifty years to go by before another bishop or delegation from our diocese visits our partner. So get your chopsticks ready!
As I close my remarks, I want to thank you for the work you do for your church, your community, and this Diocese. You wouldn’t be here if you were not invested in the work of this body.
I want to also thank my staff for all their dedication. They are willing to move mountains for you if that is what it takes to get the job done. I am very blessed to have such committed individuals working beside me.
The clergy know this but some of you don’t. Beginning in January of 2017, I will be taking a three-month sabbatical. This will be the first one I’ve ever taken and to be honest, I have some reservations about taking the time. This job is demanding and I find I need to be refreshed. So I will be spending time reading on the subject of reconciliation. The question of what it means to be reconciled to God and neighbor is of great interest to me? I also plan on helping our son and his wife when their daughter is born in January. I’ve discovered the joy of having grandchildren and it gives me great delight. I look forward to a trip to Kansas City, Missouri where our daughter and son-in-law have made a home.
In my absence, I’ve asked Bishop Brown and Bishop Jenkins to assist in making some visitations. The Standing Committee will be ready to assist if the need arises. And, I’ll be just a phone call away.
I want to close with a poem written by James A. Autry, titled Paying Attention. (Life After Mississippi pp. 54-55)
There came a time in my volunteer life
when I began to give in
to the seductions of righteousness
and to think of my work as a sacrifice for the good of others.
I would make schedules no one should try
so that people would ask
how it was possible for one man to do so much.
It was a time of three speeches
and three cities
in one day,
and in all the scurrying
I did not want the delay
of a restroom conversation
with a hesitant little man
in a cheap new suit.
I needed a quick pee, five minutes to think,
and two minutes to get to the podium.
But there he was,
with the side effects I knew so well,
the puffy cheeks, the swollen gums
as he smiled and told me he had a job now
and hadn’t had a seizure in six months.
I gave him the quick pat on the back
and the smile,
never expecting to see him again.
But he sat in the front row
and smiled a greeting when I rose to speak,
the dignitary from the national office,
bringing word from Washington,
the National Commission,
the Hill, the White House.
He smiled too often
and over-nodded and made too much of his notes,
clicking his pen and turning pages,
back and forth,
as if studying what he’d written.
When our eyes met he smiled and nodded,
another guy, I thought who wants people to think he knows the speaker.
So I avoided looking at him
until he shuffled, crossed his legs,
and stretched them in front of him.
When I saw the soles of his shoes,
slightly soiled, less than a day worn
I realized he had bought the suit and shoes
just for this meeting
just to hear a speech squeezed
into an afternoon between two other cities.
He had looked forward to it,
planned for it,
put new job money into it,
and would make notes
so that he could remember always
what the important man came to teach.
But the lesson was mine to learn—
and counting blessings,
and paying attention to teachers
wherever I find them.
May God give us the grace and courage to pay attention, to live fully into the gathered community.