Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


Getting Your Head Examined & Exorcising Your Soul

My dad was not a brain surgeon but he was a very brainy history buff. He collected surgical implements of the medieval kind.

In his library, there was a tattered black suitcase on the shelf. Its mysterious contents under lock and key. I remember sneaking the key out of his desk — super curious to find out what was inside. And what I found scared the bejesus out of me.

The suitcase was a Civil War version of my dad’s little black bag. There were saws for sawing off legs. There were pliers for extracting bullets and yanking out teeth. And there was a hammer and a chisel for cracking open skulls.

A hammer and a chisel to tap into the brain.

Brain surgery is not just medieval, it is ancient. Archaeologically speaking, it is the oldest documentable surgical specialty — dating back nearly 10,000 years. 10,000 years – that’s Neolithic. Carefully cracked skulls have been found in Stone Age caves in France. 4000 year old bronze surgical tools have been dug up in Incan Peru. 5000 years ago the word “brain” was first recorded on Egyptian papyrus. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, penned several textbooks on the subject — 500 years before Christ was born.

We may think that such a primitive practice was purely for magical purposes. Not so. It was a medical practice wielded with remarkable success – on patients with epilepsy, head injuries, and even headaches. Some of those carefully cracked skulls, found in those caves, show clear evidence of recovery and healing.

And brain surgery was the cure of choice for those possessed by demons and deemed insane; for those who heard voices and raved like lunatics.

The clerical cure of surgical exorcism.

Guy of Pavia, 14th C.

In fact, Christian clerics – learned in Greek and Islamic literature – were the brain surgeons of the middle ages. Even though the study of anatomy was prohibited, no king would be without such a doctor in his court. No pope would be without such a physician in his conclave.

So where was the surgical exorcist when my mother needed one? There was no crucifix — there was no holy water in my father’s little black bag.

Growing up, my mom was in and out of psych wards.  Her manic-depressive mind was a mystery apparently  no doctor could solve. Her darkness was deep and unrelenting. Her mania zany and out of control. Her behavior sometimes beyond belief. Her thoughts no longer her own.

Once she streaked in the woods behind our house. Free as a forest nymph, she ran wild until my dad wrapped her in a raincoat and brought her back inside. And once, during a hospital stay, my mom had a three way conversation with herself, invisible celebrities (specifically Regis and Cathy Lee) and me.

And during that same visit, she told me that God had opened up holes in her head  — so that the evil spirits in her skull could pass through.

 I did not know whether to laugh or to cry.

Her every circuit firing, her every neuron engaged, her every synapse snapping — my mom, like her mother before her, flew over the cuckoo’s nest.

And I was next.

Sometimes my thoughts also  have not been my thoughts.

In my most manic of days, I too have been so lit up inside – as if by a million fireflies – that I thought I could fly. Driving down the highway – ever so much faster than the legal speed – I truly believed that my car would lift up off the road — like a plane taking its leave of the runway. Down Interstate 95, I would fly over — not under — every overpass. Euphorically grinning from ear to ear. Oblivious to the risk.

I know what it’s like to have my brain so bedazzled with delight that fairies whispered in my ears. I believed I could actually glimpse their gossamer wings outside my window. Better to not tell anyone though. Not the psychiatrist. Not the therapist. They might shoo the fairies away.

I felt as if I had found a portal to another world – a world of things unseen. A magical place, a mystical place where the veil between the worlds was torn. And something godly was calling me to the other side.

Sugar plum fairies dancing in my head —  I never actually thought I was Joan of Arc. But like her, why could I not also hear voices?

Yahweh says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts.”

In my manic brilliance, I began to believe that maybe my thoughts were the thoughts of God. Swept up by angels — mania tastes delectably delicious. So exquisite. Surely this must be what heaven feels like. Right?

Who would want to medicate such mania away?

Now this happened to me once once upon a time a very long time ago — fifteen years ago to be exact. And it has not happened to me again. Not since I began to get my head examined. Once a quarter by my psychiatrist. And weekly – yes, weekly —by my LCSW. Thanks to them (and me, of course!) my bipolar brain buzzes at optimal speed.

My diagnosis is Bipolar Disorder with a cherry on top. With psychotic features. Seems pretty damned scary when you see it in black and white! But it isn’t really.

When our brains go awry, it manifests itself in our thoughts, our words and our deeds. Thoughts can be distracting or delightful. Creative or destructive. Inspiring or terrifying. Thoughts spinning out of control.

The outward and visible signs of such thinking can be alarming to those who do not understand. And when your own mind shatters into a million little shards — you become disturbing — even to yourself.

You lose your bearings.  You have no longitude or latitude. You are lost and adrift at sea. Your head goes dark — and you have need of something like a brain surgeon.

So, I take one little pill a day to keep the crazy at bay. It’s called Seroquel, an antipsychotic. It’s not the only thing that keeps me thinking straight but like a spoon full of sugar — it smooths the way. It makes my head less cloudy and my thinking more clear.  Seroquel, my little surgical, chemical exorcist.

So friends, consider this. Sometimes your thoughts may not be your thoughts. Sometimes your thoughts may be intrusive or obsessive. Maybe your head races. Maybe you hear voices that are not your own.

Know this. You are not alone.

One out of a hundred — of just about everyone — walks around with a bipolar brain similar to mine. 20% of just about everyone, at any one time, walks around with a mental health issue. (Though sadly only 40% get professional help.) There is help out there.

There are doctors of the mind —  of all kinds. Maybe you don’t need a brain surgeon. Much more likely, a board certified psychiatrist and a fully credentialed therapist will do. Maybe a little medication. A little blessing  – to keep you from flying — like this Peacock who flew over the cuckoo’s nest — once upon a time.

Get a referral from your pastor or your doctor. Check out community mental health resources like CSB of Alexandria. The National Alliance on Mental Illness is a also a treasure trove of resources.

It might just be time to get your head examined. It might just be time to exorcise your soul.


The Unreachable, Incorrigible, but Ultimately Teachable People of God

With the threat of Babylon breathing down his people’s back, the prophet Jeremiah comes out swinging:

For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children; they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil and they do no good.

Yes, he really says stupid children. Hitting them over the head with a two-by-four to get their attention.

And the poet, who penned the 14thPsalm, is no less upset:

The fool said in his heart, “There is no God.” All are corrupt and commit abominable acts; there is none that does any good. Everyone has proven faithless, all alike turned bad, there is none that is good, not one.

Yes, there is none that does any good; the writer writes twice for good measure.

So much for the words of the prophet. So much for the wisdom of the psalms.

It seems we are all incorrigible, unreachable and unteachable fools.

Welcome back to Sunday School!

Once upon a time, there came the earthly Jesus to reach and teach the lost: that rowdy crowd of tax collectors and sinners who listened at his feet. And as he often does, Jesus tells a parable to help them understand. The double parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin. While, all the while, the powers-that-be grumble and grouse behind his back. 

And after he was dead and gone and risen from the tomb, the job of reaching these lost sheep – fell to his followers.  In the synagogues, in peoples’ homes, in the marketplaces, the disciples told the stories of Jesus. And Jesus’ words spread by word of mouth from parent to child, from village to village, and town to town.

But before the stories were forgotten, Jesus’ disciples decided we better write this stuff down! So, a generation after Jesus, the writers we call Matthew, Mark, Luke and John penned their four versions of the Gospel (a brand-new word that meant Good News).

But even before the Gospels, there was the apostle Paul.  A lost sheep of God, he writes to Timothy.

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

His letters reach and teach the earliest Christians of the ancient world.

And kind of like seminary, it took three years in the Catechumenate to become a full-fledged Christian – before you could be baptized on Easter Eve.

And if you could not read – the mosaics on the walls, holy icons on wood, the stained glass in the church windows — would be your teachers. Art and faith have long been intertwined in the catholic (lower case “c”) tradition.

Centuries on, we fast forward to the Protestant Reformations (plural) in the West.  With the invention of the printing press, scripture was translated into native tongues. Catechisms came to be. And hymns were published, set to pub tunes and drinking songs. Brand new ways to reach God’s lost sheep.

So, please be seated!  (A phrase not heard in church before!)

Another revolutionary breakthrough was the invention of pews. Yes, pews! Now, you could sit to hear the Word of God preached in your own language. Now you could stay after the service to learn a thing or two — the 16th  Century version of a Sunday morning forum.

The root word of Protestant is protest. It was an affirmation that faith had become a personal quest. Catechisms of all kinds were compiled to answer Christians’ questions.

When I was in high school, I did protest too much! Encouraged by my Jesuit educated father to question absolutely everything, I was discouraged from asking questions in religion class at Immaculata Prep. Sister Mary Clare told me in no uncertain words to stop. And I quote:

“Joani, you have to stop asking questions. You are confusing the other girls. And this is why: You are intellectually gifted but spiritually retarded.”

Yes, a direct quote!

My questions led me away from my childhood faith. While quite ironically, these same questions gained me early admission to Catholic U. There I became a philosophy major where I could ask all the questions I wanted — the answers be damned. 

And I did not darken the door of a church again for a very long time.

Until, as the story goes, I was led by a little child, or really two. Good friends of ours invited our little family; my ex, our toddler and baby to attend Advent services at Immanuel-on-the-Hill.

(Yes, the other Immanuel is my home parish!)

A few weeks in, the rector asked me, “Would you like to teach Sunday School?” 

“No”, I said, “that would be crazy! I am just figuring this new church thing out for myself.”

“No experience necessary!” the rector says, “You can do it!”

“Alright.” I reluctantly reply.

So, I enrolled my three-year-old and myself in the preschool class.  It was pretty loosie-goosey. There was no set curriculum. So, I used the only children’s bible that I knew: the stories of Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel. The tales of two good and faithful friends. Little parables of comfort, encouragement, joy and forgiveness. With lots of pictures and simple text.

But as my children grew, so did my Sunday School repertoire. I began to read the Bible (the actual Bible) seriously for the first time in my life. No pictures, complicated texts and compelling stories of all kinds.

I was filled with wonder, yes. Wonder that took the form of questions. Lots of questions.

Blessedly I was at Immanuel on-the-Hill, an Episcopal community, that welcomed my questions. It was a fertile place for inquisitive souls. They actually had a thing called School for the Spirit.  In small groups we wrestled angels together, seeking after God.

And I got to this faithful place simply by signing up for Sunday School!

How has God sought you out? What person, place or thing led you here? Just how did you get to church, really?

Maybe following in the footsteps of your parents. Maybe a friend. A pastor from your past. The author of a book you could not put down.  A moving speaker. An encouraging teacher.   A camp counselor.  A youth group leader. Maybe even a Sunday school teacher.

Sunday, September 15th, Emmanuel will celebrate all of the above. Thanks to the awesome ministry of Toni Buranen, we will commission six-teams-of-four Sunday School teachers and a quartet of God & Donuts’ leaders. Prayers will rise, like incense to the skies, for this new year of learning. For all the inquisitive minds and inquiring hearts and for all their questions, we’ll ask God’s blessings upon them all.

And after church, there is an Open House. Take a tour of the classrooms. Meet the teachers. Register your young ones. And maybe even volunteer yourself to go on the quest.  No experience necessary!

(And remember, if I could do this once upon a time, surely so can you!)

Grownup questions, of course, are also welcome! Adult Spiritual Formation has forums and films  and plenty more exciting things planned for the coming year.

Stay tuned!

(And if you’re new to Emmanuel, we’d love to have you visit! Services are at 8:00 & 10:30 AM. We’re located in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, VA at 1608 Russell Road.)


Heavenly Coffee, Heavenly Feast

When I was growing up, there was a pecking order at the Peacock house. It played out in different ways.  It would be sounded out every time my mom called for one of the six of us. She would recite a litany of our names from the oldest to the youngest: Maureen, Timmy, Joani, Bernie, Clare, Joseph. One of us was bound to show up. This pecking order was also on display at our dinner table — or should I say dinner tables

Each evening at dinner time, my parents ate in the dining room while my brothers and sisters and I were relegated to the kitchen.  My parents’ table was set with Lenox china and Waterford crystal. While the kids had Melmac Plastic and Flintstone Jelly Jars. Sometimes my parents even ate different food: Beef Wellington on their plates, fried chicken on ours.  We actually had to serve my parents their dinner first before we could sit down to eat ourselves. Even on vacation the ritual was observed. My parents would dine at a fancy restaurant and leave it to my older sister to schlep us to a cafeteria.

These table arrangements taught me a lot. I did not learn much about food, but I did learn to know my place.

Such is the story of Babette’s Feast, a 1987 film based on the 1950 short story by Isak Dinese and set in the 19th century. Maybe you have seen it.  It tells the tale of Phillipa and Martina, daughters of a protestant pastor in a little village in the north of Denmark. Their father’s strict religious discipline shaped not just their lives but the life of their community. There was not much joie de vivre going on in the little village.

A very possessive father, he prevents his daughters from marrying.  And even after his death, to honor him, the sisters feel bound to carry on his austere unhappy ways. 

One stormy night, a woman, a political refugee from Paris shows up on their doorstep. They, reluctantly take her in.  She is called Babette and she is very grateful for their hospitality. In exchange for food and lodging, Babette agrees to take care of the two aging sisters. She keeps her promise and cares for them for many years to come.

Then one day, a stroke of luck befalls Babette.  Every year since she has left, a Paris friend, has purchased a lottery ticket in her name.  Babette wins a small fortune and is beside herself with joy.  She decides to throw a feast for the sisters and the little village that took her in. The neighborhood buzzes with excitement but the sisters worry. Will Babette leave us when the feast is done?

Babette, in a frenzy prepares for a feast — the likes of which this little peasant village has never seen.

But the sisters and the locals have a dilemma on their hands.  According to their dear departed father, such a feast is sinful, gluttonous. Their religion is about fasting not feasting.  They don’t want to hurt Babette’s feelings, so they do accept her invitation to the feast.  But they intentionally decide that they will not enjoy it! Absurd, right?  (Party poopers, one and all.)

Ah, but Babette has worked her culinary magic. She was a chef in a former life before she sought refuge.  She knows how to throw a party. She spares nothing and cooks up some awesome food. Every single villager, from the highest to the lowliest, gets swept up in the excitement of it all.  Even the dour sisters cannot help but join in. Someone starts to sing a hymn. And then another someone says, 

The stars have moved closer tonight.”

But the sisters hang their heads. Surely Babette, with her fortune made, will be leaving them now.  “I cannot leave you” Babette declares “I don’t have a penny left. I spent it all on the feast.” 

After all the food is gone, after all the money is gone, the village is not poor. They are enriched by the little community communing round the table. 

In Luke’s Gospel, we find Jesus communing with some Pharisee friends on the Sabbath.  A scholar writes:  Jesus is certainly preoccupied with eating. Not only does he imply that some think he is a glutton and a drunkard (7:34); there are in Luke more references to eating, banquets, tables and reclining at tables than in any of the other Gospels. (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4)

At his friend’s table, in intimate gatherings, Jesus teaches, spins parables, and hangs out with a motley few. But for a wedding feast, Jesus needs a really big table where you pull out all of the leaves to extend it as far as it is able.  To make room for all that food and all those chairs and all of those unexpected guests – especially the uninvited ones.

Jesus’ table is where the last are welcome as the first. There is no seating chart. The have’s do not get better seats than the have-nots (though not for lack of trying!) There are no dueling dining rooms like there were at the Peacock house. Jesus’ table is a healing place where divisions cease. Divisions, between rich and poor; black and white; male and female; gay and straight; refugee and native born; maybe even Democrat and Republican!  

Sounds like a table only Jesus could set, right? A fantasy feast only possible when the kingdom comes. But the kingdom also comes to kitchen tables. 

Has the kingdom come to your house? 

Just how many of your grade schooler’s soccer friends, how many of your spouse’s random coworkers, how many of your college student’s roommates, how many of your in-laws’ outlaws, just how many more strangers can you squeeze in around your dining room table? I am not talking about Martha Stewart here — I am talking about biblical hospitality — the thankless kind! Ha!

And what about that larger table? The Lord’s Table. Here, every Sunday, we break bread and share the cup with those who are different than us, disagree with us, and who are new to us.  (Make no mistake, despite outward appearances, there is a lot of diversity sitting in Emmanuel’s pews.)

And what is true of communion, is certainly true for coffee hour. Or at least it should be!  

Coffee hour is not a church invention, it was a marketing scheme cooked up by coffee companies to sell more coffee. In the 1950’s, companies like Maxwell House and Chase & Sanborn gave away free coffee urns and free coffee samples to churches. Instead of just shaking the pastor’s hand as you headed out the door, you could linger after the service and get to know your neighbors. 

Coffee Hour (Capital “C”, Capital “H”) is a nearly universal Episcopal tradition.

With a little caffeine, coffee hour can help you climb out of your comfort zone. I bet dollars to donuts, there are people you share a pew with each week who maybe you have not ever really met.

Don’t be shy. Walk up to someone you have never talked to before and introduce yourself. Pour them a cup of coffee, have a conversation. Appreciate what you have in common. Respect any differences. Laugh at each other’s jokes.

Coffee Hour is a sacrament, you know, Holy Communion by another name. A place where everyone is welcome – whether you drink coffee, or not.

(And today at Coffee Hour, you can also purchase some Fair Trade Singing Rooster coffee to help support our partner parish, St. Croix in Leogane, Haiti.)

So, let’s toast the Great Feast of Jesus, and lift a cup-of-Joe in thanksgiving for everyone crowded around this crazy table. 

And in the words of Saint Brigid, let us also pray,

 I would like a great lake of the finest ale for the King of Kings. I should like a table of the choicest food for the family of heaven. Let the ale be made from the fruits of faith and the food from forgiving love. I should welcome the poor to my feast, for they are God’s children. I should welcome the sick to my feast, for they are God’s joy. Let the poor sit with Jesus at the highest place and the sick dance with the angelsGod bless the sick.  God bless the poor. God bless our human raceAll homes, O God, embrace.  Amen.


Remembering Mork: The Inner Sanctum of Outer Space

Five years ago, Robin Williams, gifted actor and comedian left this world by his own hand. The world was incredulous. How could a person so full of light struggle with such darkness? He was Mork, right? The hysterical alien who took up residence in Mindy’s attic.

We loved this lovable visitor from outer space. Weekly, he traversed the universe to inhabit our TV sets. But it was Mork, the out-of-this-world persona that we knew – not the personal inward workings of Robin Williams.

He died on August 11th of 2014. Three days later I posted this. U&U was just a few months old back then. A few of you may have read it but most not. And so, I am posting this update to honor and to remember this remarkable soul.

You are only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” Robin Williams said.

So….

In 1966 the universe  — namely my universe —  tilted.  Thursday nights at nine o’clock on NBC, I boarded the U.S.S. Enterprise. “Space, the final frontier” called to me.. This was a mission, this little missionary, could barely conceive of – to “explore new worlds, seek new life and new civilizations, and boldly go where no man has gone before.”

Well I was “no man”. I was an awkward eleven year-old, a little Roman Catholic cosmonaut. Star Trek sounded like heaven to me. So in 1966, this little Trekkie was born.

I am a Trekkie still — a closet Trekkie.  I don’t go to conventions or dress up like a Romulan or speak Klingon, but I am still quite an officianado of Star Trek – especially the original Star Trek. I have all 80 episodes on DVD and a commemorative edition that came with a fluffy, purring, pink Tribble. I dorkily have plastic action figures of the crew, including the Captain and his coffee pot. Nothing could clear the room quite so quickly at my house as when I hunkered down to watch the reruns marathon style.

(An extended ritual I go through about once a year! I am especially fond of the episodes where the brazen and brash Captain James T. Kirk quite literally loses his shirt.)

This 1960’s series is still  a great solace to my dorky soul. While the cast and crew battle the unknown forces of the universe, I am comforted by the plethora of “M” class planets. “M” class planets are scattered all across the Milky Way and each one is capable of sustaining human life. I think “M” stands for miracle. Miraculously even the aliens speak English. The 430 crew members may be  “Lost in Space” but they are  never ever really far from home.

Star Trek was light years ahead of its time. Light years ahead of the space operas that came before it. But it is missing something that those quaint and quirky sci-fi series deeply understood. What is it like to truly be a stranger in a strange land?

My Favorite Martian blinked off the air the same year that Star Trek blinked on. Exigius, the exo-anthropologist from Mars crashed his one-man spaceship in Hollywood Hills. Stranded, he was taken in by a newspaper reporter who passes him off as Uncle Martin. (Sitting on the biggest story of his lifetime!)

Weekly Uncle Martin tries to keep his antenna down and and stay undercover. The going gets difficult though — especially when he breaks out in Martian mumps and measles. Things get crazy and confused. The laugh track prompts the television audience exactly when to laugh.  And the audience does as they are told. They laugh in all the right places not just because it is funny but because somewhere inside them it feels kind of true.

“Being a stranger in a strange land” was a sure fire formula for sit-com success. After My Favorite Martian came ALF – the furry Alien Life Form from  Melmac with an appetite for cats. 3rd Rock from the Sun debuted in 1996 with a house full of  extraterrestrials disguised as a college professor, a curvaceous military expert, and a teenager. And of course, there was the hilarious 1970’s series — Mork and Mindy.

Mork, from stardust he came, to stardust he returns.

Mork – the world of course knows – was played by the manically comic and the manically gifted Robin Williams. And on August 11th of 2014, the world was stunned to learn that Mork had died by his own hand. After battling a lifetime of depression and addiction, he succumbed to the darkness.  Mork hung himself quite literally from a metaphorical tree, the frame of his bedroom door. And the whole world wept for the loss of this amazing man who never failed to make us laugh.

So how could this possibly be? He was hilarious. He was happy. He was a comedian beyond compare. He was “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Patch Adams”. He was our ever-shining star of stage and screen.

But even stars run out of fuel. Even stars implode. Even stars turn dark.

Mork’s mood disorder – likely bipolar disorder  — was the demon that plagued him most of his life. Depression and its companion mania are commonly misunderstood. Happiness and sadness are ordinary human emotions. They ebb and flow with the ups and downs of everyday life and they ebb and flow in  us all.

But different in kind are the moods that manifest themselves in the heights of mania and in the depths of. depression. It’s not about being happy or sad; it’s about the size of your universe. On the up side you are exploring the galaxy with Captain Kirk. On the downside you can barely climb out of your black hole.

Barely is the operative word. While those who live with depression struggle to get out of bed —  they, in fact, regularly do. The effort it takes  to change out of your pajamas can be painstaking. Brushing your teeth can feel like a burden.

And yet — even so — depressed folks get to work on time. Depressed folks work hard and get promoted. Depressed folks run companies. Depressed folks run marathons. And depressed folks also run like crazy to escape their depression. Depressed folks are very good at disguise. Depressed folks are marvelous actors. They have to be.

And this is how a star implodes. Every last little bit of fuel is exhausted. Every energy source is completely depleted – be it physical, spiritual, or emotional. And you are Lost in Space. The universe may be expanding but so does the void within you. You have absolutely nothing left. Today is an unthinkable burden and the thought of tomorrow is unbearable. And you go to bed not wanting to wake up anymore.

You believe yourself a “foreigner and a stranger on earth….looking for a country of your own” (Hebrews 11:13-14) A country not of this world.

People tell you to be patient; that the pain will subside; the crisis will pass. But you do not believe them. How could they possibly know if they haven’t suffered so? You just want it to be over, now and forever more. So in the depths of despair people take their own lives. In the U.S. more than 47,000 people in 2017 died at their own hand. 23,851, virtually half, by firearms.

Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. There is no greater taboo – than suicide — a taboo that sorely needs to be brought out into the open and talked about.

Difficult as it may be, we need  to speak this truth in love. When we believe a loved one, family member, coworker or friend is thinking of hurting themselves  — we need to ask them just that. With compassion and concern: “I am worried about you. I have noticed (whatever you have noticed) and I want to ask if you are you thinking about hurting yourself?

It’s a myth that discussing and naming a loved one’s suicidal thoughts — puts these thoughts into their heads. Not true. Directly asking a person whether they are thinking of suicide can save that person’s life. Mentioning it out loud can be an enormous relief. Mentioning it out loud allows your loved one to name and claim the demons that haunt them.

If your loved one answers yes – or if you believe the answer is yes — then call 911. Stay with them until help arrives. Don’t be afraid to appear foolish or wrong. You cannot diagnose your friend but you can perform first aid, call an ambulance and get them to  professional help. And if you need help finding the words — sign up for Mental Health First Aid.

In ages past, the Church classified  suicide a mortal sin, denied the dead burial in sacred ground, and condemned the sinner to the fires of hell. Christianity was not alone in its error.

Historically in Judaism, suicides were also segregated in cemeteries and the dead buried with lesser rites. Islam views suicide as the gravest of sins and anathema to eternal life. Muhammad says that anyone who throws themself down from the mountain will eternally be falling into the depths of hell. For Hindus, suicide violates the code of “ahisma”, the code of non-violence and one who takes their own life will forever wander the earth as a ghost.

Blessedly for Christians  — and believers of other kinds —  this theology is mostly no more. But old beliefs die a hard death. Its seems virtually beyond belief that anyone could still believe in such a cold-hearted god – a god so devoid of compassion. But people still do. So  —  biblically speaking  — let me speak to the matter of suicide and how God decides the disposition of our souls.

Frederick Buechner writes: Saul may have fallen on his own sword; Judas may have hung himself from a tree. Out of the depths of despair, both may have condemned themselves to hell. But God did not.

God  understands the depth of despair because  God himself has been there. Our God knows what it is like to lose his own life — to be emptied with nothing left to give. God knows what it is like to lay down his life and to lift it up again. That the whole world would taste and see that God is good.  Be they Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Mormon, Scientologist, Wiccan, Agnostic, Atheist, Romulan, Vulcan, Klingon, Earthling, or none of the above.

We may be lost in this space and in this time, but lost to God — NEVER.

At least, that’s the God I believe in. And It’s the same God I believe that Episcopalian Robin Williams believed in, as well.

From stardust he came. To stardust he returned..  All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia! Alleluia! Nanu! Nanu!


Doctor’s Hours & the Great Physician

I’ve talked about my dad on U&U before. Maybe too much! Permit me, please to do so once more.

Dr. Peacock was a yeller and a screamer, but he was also a very gifted healer.

Playing sick was no game. To get out of school, you had to provide evidence – scientific evidence. My dad would pull out his little black bag: listen to your heart, look down your throat, peer into your ears, palpitate your stomach, tell you to take two aspirin, and send you off to school.

Case closed.

“Too sick to go to school?” Norman Rockwell

Being a doctor, of course, my dad worked crazy hours: weekends, holidays, Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter – no exceptions. As a child, it seemed to me he was always making rounds. And on very rare occasions, I got to go ‘round with him and troop behind him, at the hospital like an acolyte

Be it bedside at the hospital or in the examining room at his office, Dr. Peacock gave his patients whatever time they required to heal.

He was forever coming home late. After dinner was over. After we had already gone to bed.

Healing requires a deep, deep well of patience. Healing is exhausting work – for both doctor and patient. 

In the Gospel of Luke, an incredibly patient patient approaches the Great Physician.

Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and quite unable to stand up straight. Jesus saw her, called her over, laid hands on her and said, “Woman, you are set free.”

And what seems to be a momentous and instantaneous miracle, really took eighteen years — eighteen years of hope.

 In 1stcentury Palestine, eighteen years is half a lifetime. Imagine struggling half your life with whatever ails your body, mind or soul. For some of us that might be a stretch. For others, struggles of a lifetime come easily to mind.

A chronic illness. Depression.

Poverty. Disability. Dysfunction. 

Dislocation. Isolation.

What cripples your body and soul?  What keeps you from living to the fullest your God-given life? 

How do you hold onto hope? 

Well, just ask Jesus – the Great Physician, who worked overtime on the sabbath. Healing work does not get a day off (to the chagrin of the powers that be). But after working weekends, Jesus is just exhausted as you or I would be.

Jesus’ reputation precedes him. A wonderworker who restores sight to the blind. A wonderworker who makes the lame to walk. Wherever he went, crowds pressed in upon him just to touch the hem of his cloak.

Jesus, just say the word and I shall be healed.

He cared, of course, for all who came to him. He got to everybody the best he could but even Jesus has only twenty-four hours in a day. Just like us he needs his eight hours of sleep and three-square meals. Time to gather his thoughts. Time to recharge his spirit.

And so, what does the Great Physician prescribe? 

Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.

That includes him. That includes everybody.

Sunday is the Christian sabbath (which we swapped out for Saturday, the seventh day of the week). God rested from hanging the stars and stocking the oceans. God rested on the sabbath and made it sacred.

The old Blue Laws, once upon a time, helped us to keep it holy. (Called blue, I know not why. Maybe because they made Sundays so boring?)

Once upon a time, when I was a little Roman Catholic kid, on Sundays we went to Mass. We slid into a back pew, squirmed in our seats, snoozed during the sermon, rattled off a few Hail Mary’s and nodded our heads in prayer.

Our Sunday afternoons after church were lazy and uneventful. Even my workaholic dad, Dr. Peacock put on a pair of jeans and puttered around his workbench. We read the funny papers, played board games, took cat naps. 

It was not let all mortal flesh keep silence. There were nine of us, after all, but we slowed way down. God gave us the gift of a lazy day.

Not so 21stcentury true, right? On Sundays we shop ‘til we drop. We’re glued to our devices, our smartphones and our MACS. We answer email. We return phone calls. We slip into the office.

(And by definition, I am literally required to work on the sabbath. Counting seminary, I’ve been working weekends for twenty-eight years!)

Sunday blurs into Monday. Tuesday. Wednesday. You know what I mean.

Being summer, we are a little better at this but many of us schedule our vacations out the wazoo.

God created sabbath time for healing time – not busy time. So how to tell the difference? 

By following the example of the Great Physician, of course.

Pick a Sunday and give it a try. Try and see if you can keep it holy. 

If there is any truly healing work to do, you must do it, of course. But be honest, how much of that stuff you feel compelled to do is truly healing?

Otherwise, put down the newspaper. Leave the dishes in the sink. Leave the beds unmade. Go no further than your back yard. Swing in a hammock. Listen to music. Read a good book. Soak up a little silence along with the sun.

Close your eyes and listen. To the birds in the trees. The airplane overhead. The occasional breeze. Water gushing from a hose. Kids kicking soccer balls in the yard next door.

Tune into the sound of your breath. The rhythm of your beating heart.

Thank God for the life that surrounds you.

Thank God for the life within you.

And for twenty-four hours, let the world spin without you. 

Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.


Confessions of a Not-So-Dangerous Bipolar Soul

I am not a mental health professional, nor do I play one on TV.

But I am openly and optimally bipolar. A mental health evangelist, I share first person stories on Unorthodox & Unhinged to create awareness, dispel stereotypes and encourage healing. You can quote statistics until you are blue in the face and make no difference. Stories, on the other hand, bring to life the challenge of living with a challenging brain.

The tragic events of just the last ten days raise important mental health issues, of course.

Bipolar Disorder is a medical diagnosis. You can find it in the DSM-V, the fifth version of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual published by the American Psychiatric Association. Approximately 1% of the population walks around with a bipolar brain. Likely I inherited mine; it is how my brain is wired. (Thanks, mom!)

Hate, on the other hand, is a sickness of the soul. It is an emotion 100% of us are capable of. No one is born hateful. Hate is learned behavior. Hate festers and grows like weeds in gardens where we least expect it. Left untended, hate crowds all that is good.

A disturbed mind fueled by hate is a potentially lethal combination. A combination that becomes all the more probable when that person is armed and loaded. A probability, we all pray does not become reality. But reality it is.

I write not just from a bipolar point of view but as a mom and a grandmother, as an Episcopal priest and a struggling minister of the gospel.

In these dark days, I will tell you my personal story, not that you may agree with me nor to tell you what to think. My hope is that my story will encourage you to share yours. I believe that our stories may align, intersect and connect more than we might think. Our stories can help us connect at a deeper level.

So, as you may likely know —

I am no Second Amendment Sister. I am a Million Mom Marcher from way back when. No toy guns were allowed at my house. Only water pistols and Super- Soakers. My kids were crack shots — gunning down dandelions and blowing away begonias in the backyard. No BB guns, not even cap guns crossed our threshold. At least until….

The dawn of Nintendo 64. One showed up under the tree on a Christmas morn with Zach’s name on it. I think Santa put it there. If Santa put it there, it was a really big deal. Mom and dad wrapped up books and board games. Santa gave you stuff that knocked your socks off.

So welcome Mario and Wario (his evil twin.) Welcome Kirby and Donkey Kong. Welcome Huey, Dewey, and Louie.  Lots of fun and games. Lots of jumping over walls, catching stars, and grabbing gold coins. Lots of keys and magic codes to climb from level to level. Zach played for hours on end while his little brother watched in wonder — hoping against hope to take control of that controller. Just two and half years old,  Jacob picked it up and has yet to put it down at the age of thirty-one.

Jacob mastered Mario. He crushed Kirby. He tackled Tetris. He whooped Wario. And “bang, bang, bang,” — arcade style — he bagged hundreds of ducks. The first “stick that made thunder” had made it into our house.

As Jacob matured so did the ratings on his video games. I never really censored the games he played but I would lean over the screen to see just how much blood and guts were on display. “Is that a peace and love game?” I would invariably ask him. “It’s just mummies, mom. It’s just zombies.” So, I bought him “Civilization”, peaceful and educational. “How’s that going, Jacob?”Great, mom! Gandhi just conquered Genghis Khan!”

Jacob has grown up to be quite the indie gamer. And you will find no gentler or loving soul than Jacob. He founded Gaming in Public. On a Kickstarter project, he raised $20,000 for a Hobbit-Inspired game called Super Dwarf Madness.

Super Dwarf Madness is not exactly about peace and love. But it is not all that far removed from Elmer Fudd and his blunderbuss or Yosemite Sam and his six-shooter. “Sticks that make thunder” cartoon style.

Yosemite Sam was “the roughest, toughest, fastest gun-slinger west of the Pecos!” but he couldn’t hit the side of a barn. And every Saturday morning, Bugs Bunny got away with nary a scratch. It was a kinder and gentler time. Remember Sheriff Andy Taylor? No gun. Remember Deputy Barney Fife? One gun and no bullets except the one in his pocket.

These were the only guns my dad would allow in our house: celluloid guns; cartoon guns; sitcom guns; maybe a water pistol or two; maybe even a cap gun. But never, ever the real thing.

Guns were for my dad a very real and present moral dilemma. You see, my Rockefeller Republican father was Chief of Surgery at Greater Southeast Community Hospital in D.C.. A general surgeon, he took out gall bladders, repaired hernias, removed tumors. He loved his work. But extracting bullets from young men, my dad told us, he hated having to do.  He said that he had lost way too many young men on his operating table. Tragic and traumatic, so young and full of life, never to go home again. Never.

NEVER have a gun in the home, my father taught us. NEVER. Guns in the home were anathema to him.  In the heat of passion, it was best to err on the side of safety.

A lesson learned from my dad that I have taken to heart.

In my 64 years, I had never ever even seen a real gun – much less handled one, until a few years ago when I visited the home of a sharpshooting friend. Law abiding in every way, she only shoots tin cans and paper tigers. Proud of her sport, she took out her collection and introduced me to her “sticks that make thunder”. She taught me the difference between a rifle, a shotgun, a pistol, and a revolver. Patiently she explained cartridges, caliber, clips, millimeters and magazines. And she drove home the importance of safeties – the tiny little lever that keeps a gun from firing.

This tiny little lever between this life and the life to come — is called a safety.

Now there is a stereotype that people like me are not safe. Mall shooters and campus snipers are indeed disturbed and deranged. Of that, there is no doubt. But bipolar-me is no more likely to gun you down than anyone else. Regardless, the media often diagnoses the dangerous, as a soul likely off their meds. But it’s simply not true or at least very rarely true. Self-harm, rather than harming others, is much more likely with folks like me.

I have never had a plan to do away with myself. But I do know what it’s like to not want to wake up anymore. Depression can eat you alive just as surely as cancer can.

“Do you feel safe?”, the nurse at Dominion asked me. “No”, I replied. So, she took away my shoelaces and my belt and my cell phone. Dangerous weapons, I guess. First light every morning and last thing every night, we had to answer the same question: “Do you feel safe? Rate yourself on a scale from zero to ten.” Zero and you can go home. Ten – or anything close to ten – and you get to stay a little longer. To stay your hand from doing yourself in. To stay your hand from doing what cannot be undone.

Especially, if at home, you had a gun. God forbid, if I did. Thank God, I did not.

God has nothing specific to say about guns, of course. And biblically confusing, Yahweh vacillates about whether we should be beating those plowshares into swords or those swords into plowshares. But Jesus – he’s pretty clear on the subject. Clearer than Ghandi. Clearer than Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I say to all who can hear me: Love your foes, help those who hate you, praise those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. The one who punches your cheek, offer the other cheek…Love your foes and treat them well….  Be just and lenient as your Father. Be not a judge…Be not an executioner. Pardon and you will be pardoned”  Luke 6 (trans. Garry Wills)

This is not faithless passivity. This same Jesus, a very angry Jesus, turns over the Temple’s tables.  Not just a place of prayer, ‘the temple was the center of worship and music, the center of politics and society, a place of national celebration and mourning. It was the focal point of a nation and its way of life.” (N.T. Wright)

Righteous anger is the antithesis of hate. Angry for all the right reasons, Jesus threatens to tear the place down. Forty-six years it took to build, but Jesus says he will raise it again in just three days.

Not resurrected stones, but literally flesh and bone. Not a resurrected building but resurrected life.

In my tenure as Emmanuel’s Associate for Worship, we have prayed a prayer inspired by an America Magazine article written by Jesuit James Martin. We have had to pray it way too many times and I hope to God we never need pray it again, but sadly, I know we will.

Genuine prayer is more than pretty words. Prayer is the act of God stirring souls to rise up off our knees. Prayer is the daily doing of loving, speaking the truth in love, and the hard work of reconciliation. Real prayer makes a real difference.

So I pray this revised prayer once more.

Lord God, in the wake of tragic gun violence in Virginia Beach; Gilroy, California; El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio: we ask you to embrace the souls of all the dead and to comfort and heal the wounded, to console family and friends and to strengthen the hands and hearts of first responders. In Christian charity, we pray for those who took these innocent lives. Cast out hatred from the human heart. Relieve the anguish of disturbed and troubled minds. Deliver us from demonizing and dehumanizing those different from ourselves.

We cry, Lord Christ, as you wept at the tomb of Lazarus. We are weary, Lord God, weary, as when an exhausted Jesus fell asleep in the boat after wrestling with the demons of his day. We are angry, God, angry at the corrupt powers of this world that prioritize principalities over people: angry, as was Jesus, when he upturned the tables in the temple. Grant us courage and strength to preserve and protect the lives of all God’s children. Turn our tears into compassion, our weariness into advocacy, our paralysis into acts of love.

 Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

For further reading:

More on mental health

More on video games


It takes a downright sinner to be a biblical saint.

The biblical book of Hebrews is not a letter. It was not written by Paul and it was not mailed to the Hebrews. Its origins are murkier, but its message is still on the mark. Think of it as a letter to the editor of the First Century’s Good News – a running commentary on testaments old and new. 

Hebrews sings a Song of the Saints of God, faithful and brave and true .It waxes poetic over the faithful deeds of our ancestors. One by one, salvation history’s star players strut on stage. The cast is dressed to impress. Cain and Abel. Abraham and Sarah. Isaac and Jacob. By faith there was Joseph and, of course, Moses, and the Israelites who crossed the Red Sea. Joshua and Rahab, at the Battle of Jericho. King David and King Solomon. A great cloud of witnesses.

Now Hebrews gives these saints a hero’s welcome. With God’s help “they conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fires, escaped the edge of the sword and put foreign armies to flight.” Makes your heart beat a little faster just thinking about it, right? 

These are just the highlights, of course, the dramatic climaxes. The anonymous author of Hebrews has left out all the dirty, messy parts. Those lie in pieces on the cutting room floor. Let’s listen to these stories again. And with a little help from Frederick Buechner, Presbyterian pastor and author, one of my faborite authors. Let’s see if we  can read between the lines. 

In the beginning, East of Eden there were Cain and Abel. Adam and Eve’s boys. God preferred Abel to Cain. God is apparently not a vegetarian and he preferred a juicy leg of lamb to a nice bowl of couscous. But God’s love was poured out to no end on the rebellious Cain. Cain in a fit of jealous rage did his brother in with a pitchfork. When God asked Cain where Abel was, Cain said ‘I don’t know’, which didn’t fool God for a second. But even so, God let Cain’s crime be his punishment.

 So, Cain the farmer took to wandering forever fearful of being found out. A fugitive, without a leg to stand on, he complains to God. ‘You know, God, whatever bandits find me along the road will kill me. You know they will.’  So, God, out of love, protected Cain. He vowed vengeance on anyone who would touch a hair on his head. The God of mercy marked the murderer as his own and Cain went and dwelt in the land East of Eden. (Buechner, Peculiar Treasures) 

And God was not ashamed to be his God. 

And then a multitude of generations later, there was Abraham, a righteous man of God. Who could be more faithful than Abraham? He packed up his home and family lock, stock and barrel and set out believing in some crazy land deal that Yahweh had promised. Imagine Abraham, a hundred years old and Sarah just shy of ninety, travelling by camel through the wilderness and she pregnant at that. Now these certainly have to be God’s saints. But that road to the Promised Land was long and difficult and when God wasn’t looking, Abraham took a few shortcuts. 

Low on food and supplies, Abraham took Sarah on a shopping spree into Egypt. He didn’t bring Sarah along just to push the shopping cart. He took her along as his cash flow card. You see Abraham passed off his wife as his sister, so Sarah could sleep with Pharaoh in exchange for a little food. Abraham, thinking himself quite clever repeated this disgraceful ruse with Abimelech. the King of Gerar. ‘Sure, you can sleep with her, she’s not my wife! She’s my sister, I tell you.’ 

Abraham subjected Sarah to abuse to advance his career as father of a great nation. Fortunately, God looked after Sarah even when Abraham did not. The first king, God strikes dead and the second king, Yahweh scares the bejesus out of him in his dreams. Abraham. a far less than faithful husband is rescued by the most faithful of Fathers. (Buechner, Peculiar Treasures)

And God was not ashamed to be his God. 

Fast forward a generation or two and we find ourselves in Jericho. We all know about Joshua “who fit the battle of Jericho.” But you may not be acquainted with Rahab.

Scripture tells us that she was the real hero of the story. She was one of Jesus’ great-great grandmothers and a most unlikely hero. You see she was a woman in a man’s world. She was also a foreigner, a Canaanite, and not to be trusted. And worst of all she was a business woman, an inn keeper and a ‘lady of the night’. Nevertheless, she and Joshua became strange bedfellows. You see the King of Jericho found out there were some Jewish spies shacked up at Rahab’s place. So, the King gave her a call and told her that she had better turn those boys loose or he would close down her house of ill repute.

 ‘Now Sir, I do believe there were a couple of shepherds who fit those descriptions, but I took their money and kissed them goodbye a good half hour ago’. When Rahab got off the phone with the King, she ran up to the roof where she had stashed the spies. ‘Boys’, she said, ‘with Yahweh on your side, I do believe that Jericho is going to be a pushover. I only ask that when the walls come tumbling down, you leave my house standing’. And so, by the wiles and deceit of the ‘lady of the night’ Rahab, Yahweh secured the Promised Land.  (Buechner, Peculiar Treasures) 

And God was not ashamed to be her God. 

Eventually we know as the story goes, God raised up a king and no doubt the greatest of these was David.  He found David, a shepherd boy bringing up the rear of his flock behind his older brothers. God picked this scraggly little boy, the one with the flute and a slingshot in his pocket. David grew up to be a poet and a musician, a soldier and a story book king. He captured the hearts of his kingdom and he captured the city no one could capture — Jerusalem. All vainglory, he named it after himself — the City of David. And with a stroke of genius, he moved the Ark of the Covenant into town. This was kind of like having Yahweh himself move in next door. David brought the Ark into town with great fanfare — a parade of horns, harps, cymbals and psalms. And David himself marched at the front. And then without warning, he did the flashiest, tackies,t most flamboyant thing of all. David stripped down to his skivvies and danced in all his naked glory before the crowd – and before Michal his mortified wife. Well you know she just wanted to crawl under the floor.

 But Yahweh’s passion for his people caught fire in David. And David whirled and danced around the Ark in a blazing flame of glory. Well from that day on David went on the break the hearts of his people. His vanity, his deceit and lust got the better of him, but out of love – God claimed him anyway – and sat him on the throne. (Buechner, Peculiar Treasures) 

And God was not ashamed to be his God. 

God was not ashamed to be the God of Cain, to be the God of Abraham, to be the God of Rahab and the God of David. This does not mean they all got a pass or get-out-of-jail-free card. It does not mean that God blessed all that they did. Far from it, much of what they did made God weep, I am sure. And for it these biblical characters are just as accountable as you and me. 

 But God can do crazy wonderful things through the most unlikely people in the most unlikely times and places. And in fact, if you think about it, God created each and every one of us to be ourselves and no one else. Free to be our imperfect and sinful selves. By design we are all God has to work with in this world.

Yahweh loves us, yes, we know because scripture tells us this love story again and again. How else could this motley crew be a Chosen People?  A cloud of witnesses thick with murderers, liars, thieves, adulterers, and prostitutes. Love is the only explanation. Love is the only possible reason that God was not ashamed to be called their God. 

While we mortals may argue here on earth about who are the deserving poor or who has earned our mercy and who is worthy of our love, God does not. God takes a crazy leap of faith. God comes to live among us as Jesus, son of Mary. This Jesus ate with tax collectors and ladies of the night. He drank with dirty fishermen. A single man, he stayed in the home of Mary and Martha. He broke bread with the poor. He attracted the sick and sinners, alike. Jesus cast out their demons and healed their wounds. He gave them eyes to see with and legs to walk.