Dear Bishop Heather,
Grace, peace, and mercy to you from God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
I haven’t met you personally, nor am I a resident of your diocese. In fact, I’m fairly certain I’ve never set foot in the great State of Maryland, although I’ve been to Virginia several times and D.C. twice. I’ve spent pretty much my entire life living in either the Diocese of Western North Carolina or the Diocese of Upper South Carolina. To be honest, I don’t think I had even heard of you until December of last year.
All of that is to say that I don’t know you. I don’t know your story, except what’s become public knowledge through various media sources. (You may get a chuckle out of the fact that I very nearly said “via media” there. I’ve been an Episcopalian for twenty-three years and four months—that’s my whole life—and I’m often surprised, and sometimes amused, by how unconsciously ingrained my Anglicanism is. Were you born an Episcopalian, or something else? What has your faith journey been like?)
I’ve never shaken your hand. We’ve never had lunch together. I don’t know how you take your coffee—or if, like me, you don’t drink coffee at all. I don’t know what your guilty-pleasure TV show of choice is. Honey Boo Boo? The Real Housewives of Someplace? Duck Dynasty? (No judgment here—I’m a faithful Dance Moms enthusiast myself, and if that doesn’t qualify as trashy TV, I don’t know what does.) I don’t know what you think of your parents, or what your best childhood memory is, or the coolest trip you’ve ever taken. Have you ever been to Europe? Hiked the Appalachian Trail? Driven across the country just for fun? Where did you go to college, and what classes did you enjoy most? Who are your heroes? When did you first feel the call to be a priest? Are you a good dancer? Can you carry a tune? Are you named after someone? Do you have a favorite hymn or a favorite Bible verse? Cat person or dog person? What’s on your bucket list?
My point is, I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, because I don’t know you. I don’t know much about who you are. Pretty much all I know is that you’re the Bishop Suffragan of Maryland and that, on the third day of Christmas last year, you killed a cyclist with your car while driving drunk. That’s all the average person really knows about you, because that’s what’s been on the news, and those are the only things upon which most people are able to base opinions and judgments of you.
Because of that, a lot of the opinions and judgments people have about you are extremely negative. There is so much anger and confusion and hurt surrounding the whole situation. And I’m not going to say that what you did isn’t bad. It was really, really bad. But you know that. I think you’ve probably heard that enough. I know firsthand what shame and guilt can do to a person, and I have no desire to contribute to whatever vortex of shame you have swirling around inside you right now.
And I certainly don’t think I’m any better than you. While I’m not an alcoholic or a substance abuser, I do understand addiction, and I know that it can happen to anyone. As I’ve heard many wise voices in the Church say about your situation, “There but for the grace of God go any of us.”
I honestly can’t fully understand how you must feel right now. I don’t know how to drive—I’m supposed to start learning this semester—but one of my worst fears is that I’m going to hit a squirrel or a bird or, like, a possum or something. (Or, God forbid, a cat or a dog.) I can’t even begin to imagine how it must feel to have hit a person, particularly since he died as a result. Just killing a squirrel would probably be enough to scar me for life.
I want you to know that you’re not a horrible person. I say that with authority, because you are God’s child, and God doesn’t make horrible people. Granted, all of us do horrible things, to varying extents, but none of us are horrible people. Our actions can make it harder for others to see the image of God in us—although one might argue that’s just as much their problem as it is ours—but nothing we do can ever, ever erase or even damage that image. We are God-bearers, all of us, and that is what defines us in God’s eyes. In the eyes of others, we are often defined by the worst thing we’ve ever done—particularly if the worst thing we’ve ever done ends up all over the news, like in your case—but that’s because other people are just as human as we are. (I have no formal theological training and may be way off-base here, but I’m going to attempt to get into some theology here. Bear with me.) It is our sin—our tendency to deviate from the character of God because we aren’t God—that causes us to do things like drink and drive, but when others define us in terms of whatever we’ve done, I think they’re sinning too, because they’re denying the image of God in another human being. (That actually sounds a lot like the sin against the Holy Spirit, at least the way I understand it.)
You are not the sum of all the worst things you’ve done in your life. You are not your alcoholism. You are not the blood on your tires or the liquor on your breath or the addicted neuron pathways in your brain. You are not the news headlines or the angry blog posts or the Facebook comments. You are not the opinions and judgments that anyone—including me—has of you. You are not your sin. You are not your shame.
You are a child of God, created in God’s image, blessed with God’s gifts, and sent to this world to do God’s work. You are God’s beloved, God’s treasure, and God’s masterpiece. You are God’s partner in bringing about the reign of God—shalom, as Bishop Katharine is fond of saying—and an heir to the abundant feast God has prepared for us.
You are Heather, and you are God’s. Nothing you have done or ever could do has the power to change that. At baptism, you were “sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever”. Forever does not mean “contingent upon you not getting drunk and hitting anyone with your car, in which case, all bets are off.” Forever means forever, always, no matter what. world without end.
Many have dubbed your situation a “fall from grace”. Some of the more liturgically-savvy among them point out that perhaps the phrase is especially appropriate in your case, since you’re a bishop, and the correct way to address a bishop is “Your Grace”. Ecclesiastical wordplay aside, however, I would argue that invoking the term “fall from grace” is not appropriate at all, because there is nowhere we can run to, fall to, or otherwise end up in that’s outside of God’s grace.
I mean, look at King David. Not exactly the most upstanding guy, right? They didn’t have cars back then, but he definitely killed somebody, and he did it in a very calculated and intentional way. It wasn’t a drunken accident. (Again, I’m not trying to say that what you did was okay, or that you’re not responsible for it.) In fact, within two pages of becoming King, he’d broken every single commandment. All ten of them. Probably committed all seven deadly sins too. He definitely managed to screw everything up pretty royally, if you’ll pardon the pun.
But how do we remember him? How did the Israelites remember him? Being compared to King David was about the highest compliment you could be given back then. They didn’t define him as “David, the murderous man-whore who had someone killed so he could sleep with the dude’s wife”. They remembered him—and we remember him now—as “David, a man after God’s own heart.”
I mean, yeah, there was the thing with Bathsheba and Uriah and that was really bad. But that’s not ultimately how we define David as a person. He’s not the sum of all the bad things he did. And neither are you. What happened with Tom Palermo was really, really bad. I don’t want to disrespect his memory or brush off his death as anything less than a tragic and unnecessary loss of human life. I’m just saying that his death, or the fact that you caused it, isn’t what ultimately makes you who you are as a person.
I like what St. Julian of Norwich says about how God sees our sin. (She’s my confirmation saint, and she’s influenced my theology a lot.) Julian saw no wrath in God, even in response to human sin. Why? Because God’s so much bigger than us. Julian visualized the whole Universe, all things seen and unseen, as a tiny thing no bigger than a hazelnut, while God was this infinite, glorious, radiant light that filled up a never-ending room and then some.
God sees us, according to St. Julian, not as rebellious teenagers who know better and choose to deliberately defy our parents anyway. When we’re teenagers, most of us are about the same size as our parents, and, even though our brains aren’t all the way developed yet, we’re very close to being considered adults and expected to do a lot of the adult things our parents do, like get jobs and apartments and pay our own bills. Teenagers may not be as worldly and wise as they fancy themselves to be– I was a teenager just a few years ago, and I only very recently stopped knowing everything– but they know enough to be held accountable, within reason, for their behavior most of the time.
But to God, we aren’t teenagers. We’re toddlers. We’re tiny. We’re just learning. A toddler’s brain is not even close to being done developing. Sure, some toddlers are smarter than others, but either way, we’re talking about someone who eats glue. Yes, toddlers throw tantrums, but not because they’re “bad”. They throw tantrums because they don’t have the communication skills or the reasoning ability necessary to express themselves the way adults might like them to. Toddlers make messes in their diapers, but not because they’re “bad”. That happens because they’re not potty-trained yet. And, according to St. Julian, we never get to be much more than a toddler compared to God. And just like we don’t hold it against toddlers too much when they escape in public places or pitch a fit in the grocery store or eat glue (because after all, they’re two years old), that’s how God sees us, because God is just that much bigger than us.
Remember when David was talking to Nathan, and Nathan told him that story, and then David realized he was really talking about him? And David had that giant—excuse my language—“oh, shit!” moment, and that’s what turned things around for him. That’s when the healing and reconciliation began: when he realized his sin and took responsibility for it. I think healing and reconciliation are what God desires for all of us, including you. It’s when we decide to repent—turn around, teshuvah in Hebrew—that the process of being healed and restored to right relationship with God and the rest of the world can begin. God loves repentance and turning around more than anything, I think. In the words of my mentor, “God loves much teshuvah more than instant perfection.” The prodigal father killed the fatted calf not for the son who got it right all along, but for the one who screwed up everything beyond belief and then had the humility to come home. Was he mad about what his son did? No! He threw a party because he came back!
I think God throws parties like that in Heaven when any of us makes that choice. It doesn’t just take humility—it takes courage, too. Do you have children? I’m not sure if you do. But how would you feel if any of them did something wrong and then thought that they couldn’t come to you about it because they honestly believed you might not love them anymore? Devastated, right? And I think that’s how God feels when we make the same mistake of believing we might have done something too bad for God to love us. I think God is horrified and heartbroken when we worry that we might have gone too far this time, or that we might have sinned bigger than God’s grace can cover. Yes, God weeps with the family of Tom Palermo, and the community that loved him. But God weeps with you too, Bishop! God aches because of the awful shame and guilt that must be consuming you. God is like a mother who desires nothing more than for you to run headlong, full speed, back home to her and climb up onto her lap so she can kiss you and tell you that she loves you more than you’ll ever know.
I want you to know that I love you, Bishop Heather. I may never have met you, but does that matter? You’re a part of the Body of Christ. You’re a child of God. And so am I—that makes us family. It makes us sisters. And as your little sister, I want you to know that I love you, that I forgive you, and that I’ve prayed for you daily ever since your accident. Whatever ends up happening as far as ecclesiastical and judicial proceedings, and whatever anyone says to you or about you, please don’t forget who you are.
And please don’t forget who God is, and how desperately he loves you, and that his will for you is reconciliation, healing, and growth—not death or shame or divine punishment. (This is the Sulfur-Free Jesus blog; if you’re looking for hellfire and damnation, you’re in the wrong place.)
God loves you. I love you. Whatever happens, you’re in my heart and prayers, and probably the hearts and prayers of many others too.
I believe fervently that so much good and so much redemption can come out of what has happened, tragic and awful though it may be. I don’t believe God ever causes suffering, but I believe God redeems all things. Even horrible things. And as horrible as this situation is for everyone involved, I think God will find a way to be revealed through it.
In the words of St. Julian, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Respectfully yours in Christ,
Anna M. Howell