Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


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Over the River and through the Woods – Redux

The surgeon carved the turkey. Though Dr. Peacock preferred a scalpel to an electric knife, on Thanksgiving the electric knife would do just fine. And fine was what everything had to be. Not just fine — but refined. My father insisted on orange zest in the cranberry sauce, oysters in the stuffing, and lemon peel in his espresso. My manic-depressive mother somehow managed to oblige and laid the table with Lenox, Waterford, and Irish linen.

And on that fourth Thursday of November, each of us little Peacocks had to be perfect. Or at least appear to be perfect — family portrait perfect. My brothers, all in suits and ties. My sisters and I in smocked dresses and patent leather shoes. Hair curled and tied back with a bow. All of us — beaming in black and white and frozen in a silver frame. Perfectly pretending that we were perfectly fine.

So perfectly not so.

There was always yelling before and after and even during the meal. The turkey was overdone. The stuffing was dry. The relish was runny. The sweet potatoes bland. The pumpkin pies burnt. The kids misbehaving. The relatives rude. Everything half ass and nothing quite up to snuff – for Dr. Peacock.

Happy Thanksgiving – at 5408 24th Avenue.

Over the river, and through the woods, to sanity’s house we go.

I swore that when I grew up, Thanksgiving would be calm, cool, and collected. At the tender age of seventeen, I married into such a family – par excellence — the Clark family. Their lives seemed so blessedly routine – so blissfully quiet. I married the boy next door – yes, the boy next door. No more chaos. No more dysfunction. No more crazy Thanksgivings.   At least so I imperfectly thought.

But the Clark routine turned to rigidity. And their quiet became passive aggressive. And my father-in –law, an alcoholic just like my mom. Their traditions seemed more traditional but they were just straight jackets of a different kind.

And still year after year, over the river, and through the woods insanely to their house we would go. We would go with all three of our kids in tow….Until one blessed year, when Jacob threw up.

Rolling down George Washington Parkway, our Subaru Station Wagon was packed to the gills. All three kids were bundled up and buckled up in the back seat: Zach with his comic book; Colleen with her Barbie; Jacob with his pacifier. All was right with the world until Jacob erupted all over his brother and sister. Projectile vomited everywhere.

Thanks be to God.

It was just about the best Thanksgiving we ever had.

We turned around and went back home. After hosing down the car and the kids, we made dinner from whatever food we found in the refrigerator and some random canned goods in our cabinets. We ate dinner in our pajamas while we watched “Ernest Saves Christmas” (a classic!) on TV.

The kids dozed off in their sleeping bags on the living room floor. And William and I had a little glass of wine before turning into bed.

Over the river, and through the woods, to sanity’s house we go.

Now one of my favorite movies is “Home for the Holidays” – with Holly Hunter, Robert Downey, Jr. and some other really good actors whose names I don’t remember. The characters — all grown — return to their childhood home for Thanksgiving and some dysfunctional living: The neurotic sister. The gay brother. The rebellious teenager. The single mom. The uptight in-laws. The alcoholic dad. The codependent mom. They all get together for a hellacious holiday.

It’s not exactly “A Wonderful Life” but it is wonderful and I recommended it  to a friend. Appalled after seeing it, she asked me how I could possibly like this movie. The family was so terrible, she said. Just terrible people, she said. These are my people, I said.

And these may be your people too: a bipolar brother; a schizophrenic sister; an obsessive compulsive cousin; grandiose grandchildren; traumatized spouses; paranoid partners; manic relations.

And some of your people may be hard to break bread with. It’s a blessing if you do. It’s okay if you can’t. And it may be a blessing if you don’t. Being bipolar myself – being crazy myself – I understand there is only so much crazy any one of us can handle — especially at Thanksgiving.

So for sanity’s sake, this year, sadly I won’t be having turkey with some delusional and dysfunctional loved ones of mine. It’s time to celebrate the ties that bind and not the crazy making rituals of yesteryear. Maybe next year will be different. Maybe not. We’ll have to see.

So “thank we all, our God” for the people not at our Thanksgiving tables this Thursday. Thank God, that God loves them even when we cannot. Thank God, God loves us even when we cannot bring ourselves to do the same. Thank God, God commands us to love even our crazy making selves . Yes — ourselves. Even on Thanksgiving.

Over the river, and through the woods, to sanity’s house we go.

JoaniSign


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Hallowed

Leaves turn color. Yellow, red, orange, brown.  Dry, they fly and fall from the sky.  Carpeting the ground, like parchment, they crackle under foot. You can hear them. You can smell them –  the mustiness of the earth.

 Hist whist little goblin. Hist whist little ghostling.

It is that time of year again. As night falls, the veil between the worlds is torn. Spirits freely move between heaven and earth, between this world and the next. Lanterns are lit  and treats set out to guide home the wayward souls.  On this, O Hallowed Eve – the day we call Halloween.

 All Hallows’ Eve, even more than All Saints Day was a high holy day at my house.  It was just about the only holiday, as a clergy person, that I did not have to work. My children, specifically my son Zach, each year would transform our front porch into a haunted space. With paint and props, spidery cob webs, gooey pumpkin slime, fake blood and guts and plastic body parts.  One year the porch became Dr. Frankenstein’s workshop. Another year (my favorite),the porch became Hotel 666, where you checked in but could never check out.

all_hallows__eve_by_lhox-d5hoe82

Trick or Treaters flocked to our front door with their paper sacks and plastic pumpkins.  And we always gave out the good stuff. No Dumdums lollipops but chocolate. Especially chocolate! All Hallows Eve. Ah Holy Day.

And then, the next day, and the one after that, were holy, as well. All Saints Day, November 1st. All Souls Day, November 2nd.  Growing up Catholic, the communion of saints enveloped my childhood. Christened in the name of Saint Joan, I was doubly sainted once confirmed. I chose Saint Veronica for her musical, four-syllable name.

And on All Saints Day, after church, it was my family’s tradition to visit Cedar Hill Cemetery, a holy place planted with Peacocks for generations.  My mom would bring grass clippers and flowers to tidy up our grandparents’ graves.  My siblings and I would play between the headstones – racing down the hill to the pond where we fed the ducks.  And before we got back into the car, we’d say a little prayer for all of those souls who had gone before.

And we little Catholics, we clutched our holy cards close to our chests. Other kids collected baseball cards; we collected holy cards — the MVP’s of the heavenly host.  In these holy persons, the worlds collided: heaven and earth got all tangled up.

We were, after all, standing in a cemetery. One must die to reach the other side.

The snippet from Revelation, which pictures the great multitude from every from every tribe and nation, from all races and language, is often read at funerals.  The day we die is also the day we rise – our resurrection day. And if a saint, our saint’s day, too. My Book of Common Prayer is scribbled with the names of those I have buried these last 23 years.

I am the resurrection and I am the life says the Lord, whoever has faith in me shall have life.  And as for me I know that my Redeemer lives and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.  After my waking, he will raise me up, and in my body, I shall see God.  I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him who is my friend and not a stranger.

And according to the Book of Revelation, we all get a chance to sit  at the  foot of the throne.

Amen, blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power be to our King forever and ever! Amen.

And how in heaven, do we possibly end up here?  A miracle?  A healing?  An exorcism?

In the Catholic scheme of things, to merit a halo, not only do you have to be a pillar of virtue in life — you also must be a miracle worker in death.  In the Episcopal Church, it’s different. Organized like bicameral Congress, the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies,  meet every three years. Candidates are nominated for their virtue, for their resemblance to Christ. Then we vote. Yes, vote.   If elected, the new saints gets a date on the liturgical calendar. A lesser feast, so to speak.

And really good news, saints don’t have to be saints all of the time. Every saint is also always a sinner. So, some Anglican saints might surprise you. There are the usual suspects, of course. The Mary’s, the martyrs, the apostles.

But also, including the likes of:

Johannes Sebastian Bach, composer of sacred music.

Charles Wesley, 18th century  writer of 6,000 hymns.

Florence Nightingale, 19th century nurse and social reformer.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, abolitionist and suffragette.

Thomas Gallaudet, teacher and advocate for the deaf.

Blessed be all those, whose lives shine  — with the light of the beatitudes.

And blessed be who for you?  Of those who have gone before?

Browse the obituaries. Stroll through a cemetery. Scour your memory. Read biography. Read history. In whose footsteps, do you pray to follow?  On whose shoulders, do you hope to stand? Who else might join that great procession — when the saints go marching in?

When the saints go marching in.

JoaniSign


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A Most Taxing Life

April 15th.  Not everyone’s favorite day, right?

I am oblivious to things financial. I am not very good with money.  A little mania and my wallet oepns and empties quickly – so many lovely shiny things to put in my shopping basket!

In my 28 married years, while I was the primary breadwinner, I was not the primary bill payer. Bill paid the bills, managed our budget, and did our taxes. And I was grateful. You start talking interest rates, IRAs and annuities, and I glaze over. My eyes roll back in my head.

Mind you, I was glad to pay the taxes. For the fire fighters, and the police, and teachers, and snow removal, and street repairs. Render to Caeasar whatever it is I owe. Just don’t make me acutally have to do the math.

But when my divorce became final in 2003, that division of labor ceased. So, what was I to do?  Well, I am woman, of course.  Hear me roar. I can figure this out. And isn’t that what Turbo Tax is for?

So, I would fill in the blanks that popped up on the screen. And I would fudge the answers to the questions that I did not know. And I would pay to Uncle Sam whatever Turbo Tax told me to pay.

Turns out, that due to the vagaries of the tax code, regarding clergy,  I WAY, WAY over paid my taxes for at least five years. I had rendered unto Caesar, way more than the Internal Revenue’s fair share.

I got an accountant. I got some of it back.

Humbling as that experience was, being a preacher by profession, it got me to thinking: What do we owe Caesar? What do we owe God? This, of course, is the infamous trick question posed to Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 22.

‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?’ The Roman tax was levied annually on harvests and personal property, and was determeined by the census. Administered by Jewish authorities, it placed heavy burdens on the impoverished people of first century Palestine…and at least once, had provoked a rioutous protest led by Judas the Galielian.

 If Jesus answers ‘Yes’ to the question, he risks alienating the oppressed Jews of occupied Palestine. If he answers ‘No’, he risks being accused of rebellion against the empire.      (Richard Spalding, Feasting on the Word)

 Inspired, he does neither.

 They handed Jesus the coin used for the tax.

‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’

‘The emperor’s.’

‘Give therefore, to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.’

 On face value, it sounds like Jesus is neatly dividing our civic duties from the religious ones.

But as one scholar says, “Jesus is not tidying, he is testing.”  Rather than separate and parallel spheres of responsibility, the sacred turns the secular on its head.

The human face of God stands before them that day in the synagogue. This walking, talking, feeling, breathing and undivided God. This God on earth, just as he is in heaven, as above, so below.

The Pharisees and Herodians expected a partisan answer. A political answer. Instead Jesus gives a faithful one. Rising above politics, there is really nothing more radical than a life of faith – faithfully lived.

So what does Jesus have us render unto God?

Love.

And what does Jesus have us render unto neighbor?

Love.

And likewise, what does God ask us to render even unto ourselves?

Love.

Not loosey, goosey, sappy, sentimental love.  But beatitude love.

Blessed are the poor; Blessed are those who mourn;  Blessed are the peacemakers; Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice’s sake —  love. Render the love, preached from the Sermon on the Mount.

So. I wracked my brain trying  to come up with a story – an illustration to make this  gospel real. A lving, breathing illustration that could breathe some life into these ancient words.

And what I came up with is the story of my mother’s cousin, Charlie Liteky,  laid to rest just this past year at the age of 85.

On a recvent visit to my brother’s house, Tim retrieved from the bottom of  a box of family photos, a yellowed newspaper clipping. It told a story, I had long forgotten

1968, November 19th,  The Washington Post. “Chaplain Liteky receives Medal of Honor”  –  the headline reads. Printed along side is a photo of Lyndon Johnson pinning the medal to my second cousin’s chest.

How could I have forgotten about my mother’s cousin: an army captain, a Vietnam chaplain, a war hero, a Catholic priest who left the church, married a nun, and advocated for peace?

Leaving my brother’s house that day, I went home and Googled my cousin– and found out more – so much more.

I found a 2009 article, written by one of his comrades in arms, that helped me fill in the blanks.

“It’s 1967, with his battalion ambushed in a rice paddy, Chaplain Liteky gives last rites to the dead and dying, often walking upright and dodging bullets. He carries more than 20 wounded from the battlefield to safety.”

“There is so much blood, he’ll smell it to the day he dies.”

In 1968, the President rewarded him for his bravery and  pinnned the medal to his chest.

And fourteen years later, in 1986, he gives the medal back. “At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Charles Liteky becomes the first person in history to give up the Medal of Honor. Cameras click as he kneels before the black wall covered with the names of the dead.”

Liteky photo on capitol steps

And that same year,  he fasts on the Capitol steps. “Liteky is gaunt and burning with hunger. For six weeks, he and three other veterans have starved themselves protesting Reagan’s policies in South America. After 46 days, with one of them near death, they finally eat.”

In 2001, “inside a federal penitentiary…Charlie Liteky turns 70. It’s his second time in prison following protests outside Fort Benning where the U.S. trained Latin American officers accused of atrocities in their countries.”

“In 2003, in Baghdad, Charlie Liteky is there with other protesters for peace, bearing witness to what he calls an unjust and an unwise war.”

My cousin’s military comrade says, “Talk for Charlie was cheap. He had to do more than write a letter to Congress or a letter to the editor. He had to put his body on the line.”

 Not for the front-page headlines. Not for fifteen minutes of fame.

But to render unto Caesar, what he believed Caesar was due. And to render unto God, what he believed his God required of him.

An ex-priest, an ex-Catholic, a former chaplain, Charlie would have told you that he was  far from perfect. A lifelong witness to God’s truth, his mission had cost him his faith – in the traditional meaning of the word.

“But I have tried to live life to the truth as I see it at the time,” he said. “That’s a very costly thing; I’ve lost a lot. I’m an ex-lot of things. But what remains? I hope, integrity.”

His was a remarkable life. An unorthodox life. A life with which you might disagree. For the choices that he made. For the actions that he took. But in my personal experience,  I have known of no one’s life so embroiled in the struggle to be both faithful to his country and faithful to his God.  And wiling to pay the price for it.

Dear Readers, you likely know of many others. This faith stuff is so much easier said than done.

Literally dumbfounding. Gobsmacking dumbfounding.

So how do we  render unto Caesar, that which is Caesars? And to God, what is God’s?

By trusting in God’s love,  I believe, in God’s justice.  We can try wrestling some angels and tackling more than a few demons in this crazy and most taxing of worlds.

In the flesh. In faith. In love.

One day at a time.

JoaniSign

 


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Cleaning Out the Refrigerator

Nothing says pride like a refrigerator. Nothing boasts so boldly about our kids’ awesome accomplishments than does the family refrigerator.

Over the years, tacked onto my refrigerator door have been precious documents: a drawing Zach gave me for Mother’s Day, Colleen’s A Plus algebra test, Jacob’s third grade Ready Reader award.

And photos, of course. Even through their teens, their baby pictures, curling up at the edges, still graced the door: Zach on a riding horse, Colleen smiling beneath a thick fringe of bangs, Jacob buried in the sand at the beach.

And now, they are all grown up: 35, 33, and almost 30. And stuck with magnets to the stainless steel are Colleen’s Meals on Wheels business card, Jacob’s PAX East Indie Gaming Flyer, and a New York Times review of Zach’s latest film.

And this past year, my refrigerator has become WAY more complicated. Enriched in many ways – but definitely way more complicated. Reunited with Rebecca, my long-lost daughter, I now have four children instead of three. And she has three great children. And my youngest Jacob is now father to his partner’s adorable three young boys.

Pinned to my refrigerator is a greeting card that sums it all up: “I love my weird family.”

A refrigerator is a family’s most boastful appliance. Nothing preaches good news better than a refrigerator.

Clean out the Fridge Simpsons

And on Sunday, when we parade into the pews, that is what we want people to see: ‘our refrigerator best”. The service over, pressed and polished, we follow the scent of java and the cookie-crumb trail to the parish hall, where we boast of our good news. Our boy’s baseball team is in first place. My wife’s promotion. My son just got into the best college. My daughter tiptoed her way to fame at the ballet recital.  All the good stuff.

At coffee hour, we name and proclaim, each of those precious icons we have taped to the outside of our refrigerators.

God-forbid, however, we actually open that door. Open that door to see what lurks in the dark corners of our refrigerators. Moldy stuff. Rotten stuff. Unidentifiable stuff. Freezer-burned resentments. Ice cold anger. Frosty feelings of all kinds. To tell the truth, we’ve all got this nasty stuff in our refrigerators.

But the very last place we want to admit this – is church. Garrison Keillor says that the last place on earth we would ever want to air our dirty laundry is church.

Episcopalians have sometimes been not so nicely called the “frozen chosen.” It is not the Episcopal way to witness publicly to our weaknesses. When people are struggling the most, church can be the most uncomfortable place to be.

When a couple goes their separate ways. When a teenager comes home pregnant. When your nephew has been diagnosed with AIDS. When you lose your job. When you admit to a drinking problem. Church can be downright cold, an unforgiving place.

And Church History is filled with shaming and blaming. We no longer sew ‘scarlet letters’ on sinners’ garments, but we silently assign them in our thoughts. “Thank God”, we whisper in our prayers, “that we are not like them.”

Paul’s point today, in his Letter to the Romans, is we are all like them. We are “them.”

There is a tug of war going on about food, of all things. And judgment coming from both sides: the carnivores versus the vegetarians. Really, the Gentile versus the Jew, in this new thing called “church.”

Paul, humorously, does get in a bit of a dig about the vegetarians. They are welcomed as “the weak.” Jewish-Christians, apparently ordered vegetarian when eating out (or only ate the vegetables at a Gentile dinner party)– to avoid kosher conflicts.

But Christians sharing a table should not eat with one another for the purpose of quarreling over the food – or family traditions, or spiritual differences. Paul counsels his parishioners not to “lord” one’s traditions over the other.

Those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks. And those who abstain, also honor the Lord and give thanks to God.

 Neither is wrong. Both are right. The Lord of Love is “not a divider but a uniter.” (I think I have heard someone say this before!)

But unity is not the same thing as uniformity or even conformity. Healthy disagreement is a good thing. People of faith, family members, neighbors can thoughtfully disagree on all kinds of things. But our disagreements, hopefully, should not be a means to divide and conquer. Instead, our differences can open up windows into one another – to help us see and understand and heal.

Now there is not a soul anywhere who does not limp their way to the communion rail. We might look good, refrigerator good, but we all come to the table broken, cracked, and far from perfect. And if we were a bit more Evangelical, this would be the time for the altar call. And I would ask Ryan to fire up the organ and play “Just as I am.” Coming forward to the table, we would witness to our weakness. We would drop to our knees and confess our sins.

We Episcopalians do this “generally” together in the prayer that we share. But I’d like to end this little homily, with a confession of a different kind, a Celtic prayer.  One that helps us, personally to name and claim all of that nasty stuff in the back of our refrigerator.

Let us pray:

Jesus, forgive my sins.

Forgive the sins that I can remember and the sins I have forgotten.

Forgive the wrong actions I have committed and the right actions I have omitted.

Forgive the times I have been weak in the face of temptation,

and those when I have been stubborn in the face of correction.

Forgive the times when I have been proud of my own achievements,

and those when I have failed to boast of your works.

Forgive the harsh judgments I have made of others and the leniency I have shown to myself.

Forgive the lies I have told others and the truths I have avoided.

Forgive me the pain I have caused others and the indulgence I have shown to myself.

Jesus, have pity on me and make me whole.

Amen.

JoaniSign

 


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May the Circle Be Unbroken

And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice unto thee.

 I confess to you that these are my very favorite Eucharistic words in the Book of Common Prayer. And I know they are seldom heard because they come from Rite One, in the prayer of consecration.  Very few parishes and fewer parishioners hear their priest recite these words much anymore. I cannot even tell you the last time I celebrated he Eucharist with Rite One. But these words resonate with me still, especially, because of the little church I served in seminary – the little church that broke all the Eucharistic rules.

At Grace Church in Georgetown, during communion, the entire community gathered around the altar with hearts all lifted up to the Lord. And the priest and people prayed: And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord ourselves, our souls, and bodies.  Together we blessed the bread and blessed the wine. Together we made Eucharist.

Now Grace is a small stone church nearly 200 years old. It was founded by the hoity-toity, for the riff-raff that worked on the C&O Canal and along the Potomac riverfront. The wealthy churches. Christ Church and St John’s did not want to suffer the discomfort of having the poor in the pews.  So, they charitably set up a church to segregate the poor. But little bitty Grace turned the hoity-toity upside down. You see Grace is in Georgetown but it’s really not of Georgetown. Its home to both street people and business people, artists and schizophrenics, a former prominent Pentagon spokesman and the proprietor of a porn shop across the street, professional families and homeless families.

And at Grace, when it was time to receive the holy host, time for the family to come to the table, the worshippers encircled the altar. They passed the plate from hand to hand. Each tore off a ragged piece of bread: The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven. Then around the circle the cup would go, tipped one-by-one to the worshippers’ lip. Sometimes dismembered crumbs would fall and float in a bloody pool of wine.

And from the circle, the prayers of these people rose like incense: for friends and family, for the stranger and the estranged, for the faceless and the nameless, for the broken and the battered, for the lonely and the lowly. They offered up their prayers for one and all.

And here we offer and present unto thee O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice unto thee…”

Now it is truly amazing and a little-known fact that the Bible freely and often quotes the Book of Common Prayer (SMILE). And these beautiful words from Rite One come directly from Paul’s letter to the Romans, Chapter Twelve, Verse One. The passage has much to say about communion — not about liturgical niceties — but what it means to be in communion, to be in the Body, flesh and bone.

I appeal to you brothers and sisters by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. We are one body and individually we are members of one another.

Now the communion circle at Grace was intimate but it was not cozy. The communion circle at Grace was indeed comforting but it was also discomforting.  The communion circle countered Georgetown’s culture.

You might be shoulder to shoulder with someone who had not taken a shower in weeks. You might be passing the peace with people who panhandled in the streets.  You might be drinking from the same cup as the unhinged guy, who talks to himself.

This circle at Grace was a sacred circle. But it resembled very little the circles of influence and affluence outside its doors.

And that is what church is supposed to be. To call us out of the world so that we might witness to the world. And Paul, the circle drawer, tells us how it can be done. Romans 12: 9-21 is a litany of 23 Christian commandments. Paul weaves them together like poetry –  into two paragraphs.  The first paragraph’s commands, hardly any Christian could disagree with: Let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good. Serve the Lord, rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer; contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

But in paragraph two, the going gets tougher.  Just to name a few:

Bless those who persecute you.  Bless those who put you down. Bless those who say you don’t matter, who say that you don’t measure up. Bless those who say you don’t belong.

Weep with those who weep.  Weep with those in the depths of depression. Weep with those who live in darkness. Weep with the desperate and the destitute.

Do not be haughty but associate with the lowly. Associate outside your home-owners association: with the homeless, with the addicted, with the mentally ill.

If your enemies are hungry, feed them. Not just your neighbors — YOUR ENEMIES – a soup kitchen for the terrorists along with the terrorized.  A soup kitchen not just for refugees but for tyrants.

may-the-circle-be-unbroken-jo-anne-gazo-mckim

Paul, the circle drawer, draws some pretty tough lines in the sand. His uncomfortable words are a call to discipleship, one that demands more than a little sacrifice. Not the easy Lenten stuff, like chocolate, but the really hard stuff.  Can I give up my pride, my selfishness? Can I give up my arrogance and my conceit?  Can I give up my defenses and my prejudices? What will I offer up? What will you offer up? What will we offer up, of ourselves, our souls and bodies, to build up the Body of Christ?

The church is not supposed to be a country club. It’s not supposed to be a gated community. The church is not a Meetup group, either. The Church – capital C –  are the followers of Jesus. And Jesus says: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Jesus gave it all up, once and for all, on a cross at Calvary. And as his followers, we got to  give up a part of ourselves, each and every day. Not to be martyrs. Not to suffer for suffering’s sake. But to give up more than a little, for the healing of the sacred circle, the circle of haughty and the lowly, friends and foe, comrades and enemies, the lonely and the lost, the tearful and the joyful: the gay and the straight, the Jew and the Gentile, the black and the white.

May this Circle be unbroken, bye and bye, Lord, bye and bye. There’s a better way awaiting, Lord, (with your help), if we but try, Lord, if we but try.

JoaniSign


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The Third Peacock

Middle child of six siblings, this third Peacock often got lost in the crowd.

Girl. Boy. Girl. Boy. Girl. Boy. Our six birthdays, from the oldest to the youngest, spanned just nine years.  No wonder my mom could barely keep us straight.

Maureen. Tim. Joani. Bernie. Clare. Joseph. She would rattle through our names till she found the one that fit.

It’s me, mom. It’s Joani. Remember me?

And with six kids in the suburbs, it was no wonder that my mom made use of all the help that she could get. My Grandma Cady, my mom’s mom, would cook, make lunches, and help get us off to school. My dad was a doctor, a surgeon, so we could afford to hire help. Cornelia cleaned, Cora did the ironing, and Sonny, Cornelia’s brother did all the heavy lifting.

Outwardly, we all appeared neat and tidy, organized and orderly. But that was so not the case. My mom’s bipolar disorder, along with my dad’s addiction to work, wreaked havoc on our home.

But we six kids, whether because of our circumstances – or in spite of them — compounded the chaos tenfold.

There was a lot of yelling, screaming and name calling. Middle child, I learned to keep my head down. Middle child, a translator at the bargaining table, I tried to keep the peace.

As much, as any little kid could.

the third peacock book cover

And there was more than just a little competition. Who has to do the dishes.  Who gets to sit up front in the car. Who gets first crack at the Oreos – when my mom got home from the store.

Our birth order was also our pecking order — but often in reverse. My grade school idea of fairness was quite literal. I remember sneaking down the stairs, on Christmas Eve, after everyone had gone to bed, and counting the packages under the tree. Invariably, Baby Brother Joseph always got the most.

Always.

Joseph, was the most beloved, it seemed. Too little for household chores. Too adorable to be held accountable. He could always hide behind my mother’s skirts.

Or so it seemed to me.

Who wouldn’t want to murder their little brother? Or throw him into a pit? Or sell him off for twenty pieces of silver?

This is the story of Joseph. Not my baby brother Joseph. But Joseph of Genesis. Joseph, one of the great novellas of Hebrew Scripture. Joseph, the youngest and most favored son of Jacob. The one who got the awesome coat.  Baby brother Joseph, who did not endear himself to his siblings.

An angst filled family story of biblical proportions.

Joseph was seventeen years of – shepherding the flock with his brothers. Joseph, the apple of Jacob’s eye, put his brothers in a bad light. He ratted them out for some unnamed offense. And Jacob rewards him for betraying his brothers — with that amazing technicolor dream coat. The child of his old age, he loved Joseph best of all.

His brothers hated him for it. They could not even spare him a peaceable word.

Jacob sends Joseph out to find where his brothers are keeping the sheep. Before the distance is closed between them, the siblings conspire to do their little brother in.

Here comes the dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into a pit.

We’ll tell dad a wild animal devoured him.

No, the eldest counters. Let’s just steal his coat, go with the pit and not kill him.

It being a waterless pit, this was Joseph’s brothers’ singular kindness.

Callously, they sit down to eat – while up comes a wandering band of Ishmaelites – nomads and merchants on their way to Egypt.

This inspires in Judah, another of the brothers, a very profitable idea.

Let’s sell him to the highest bidder!

So, they pull him out of the pit and hand him over for twenty pieces of silver.

 Joseph, the youngest, the interpreter of dreams, quite ironically is put in the middle. His protective father behind him – ahead, his brothers plotting his demise.

They could all use a little family therapy, don’t you think?

So, could we all.

Our families of origin. Our communities of choice. Our workplaces. Our psychic spaces. Our social circles and political cul-de-sacs. We all tend to hang out with our own tribe. The folks who look like us and think like us and agree with us.

All could use a little family therapy.

Yahweh does not rescue Joseph from the pit – at least not in the swoop down from heaven – Deus ex machina — way. Instead, God, quite providentially, leaves his children –- including us — to our own devices. The devices, God has equipped us with. By our wits, by our skills, by our gifts — to work out this family squabble on our own.

To literally appeal to our better angels.

Three weeks ago, July 21st, the Washington Post reporter, Colby Itkowitz wrote:

On a Wednesday evening, Donna Murphy joined about 30 people in a nondescript basement…for a Better Angels’ “skills workshop” to learn the fundamentals of how to have difficult conversations, to bring Democrats and Republicans together for a three day Better Angels dialogue.

 Better Angels began as a civics experiment in rural southwest Ohio several weeks after the election. With the emotions of the campaign still raw, a room of 21 strangers, ten who voted for Trump and 11 who voted for Clinton spent an entire weekend together talking.

 They listened. They debated. They vented. There were tense moments and emotional ones.

 After 13 hours of discussion, the participants did not change their views but left with a softened view of the other side.

 Better Angels went on a thirteen-city summer tour to promote this red-blue dialogue – to facilitate conversations across a deep political divide.

 The program is the brainchild of David Blankenhorn, a Republican, and onetime opponent of same sex marriage – who later changed his position after a friendship with a gay man changed his mind.

 The group takes its name from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, will swell the chorus of our Union, when again touched, as surely, they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

 Blankenhorn concludes:

 “One consistent message we’re getting is, there are strong disagreements, but we’re not as far apart as we thought we are. There is passion and disagreement…but the main takeaway is that this is good, this kind of talking with — rather than at or about – our political opponents is good for us and good for our country.”

 Some of these groups have decided to meet on a monthly basis. Some not. But meeting even once like this could be a really good idea, don’t you think?

A really good idea, we could put into practice here in Alexandria.

Maybe?

On behalf of Emmanuel, I have sent Mr. Blankenhorn an initial inquiry of how, as a parish, we might sponsor a Better Angels training weekend in our own backyard.

Just a possibility that could come to pass early next year.

A way to equip ourselves, as sisters and brothers, to speak and to listen to one another in love.

Let’s think about it. Talk about it. Pray about it.

The third Peacock, in me, wants to believe that we can work towards healing our tribal divides.

This middle child wants to believe that we can work towards putting aside our self-righteous needs always to be right.

Dear God, please, help us to both temper and to tame

the destructive side of our, all too human, sibling rivalries.

JoaniSign


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 Who Am I Really? A “Rebecca on Reunion” Podcast

Here, in my firstborn daughter’s own voice,  is Rebecca telling the story of our reunion.   Who Am I Really? is a project of Damon Davis: a series of very personal podcasts about the life journey of an adoptee and their search for reunion. Rebecca’s is Episode 18:What I Gained Through Reunion Is Context.

Listening to Rebecca’s voice, I definitely hear Joani. And I hear my daughter Colleen’s voice, too. Maybe even my niece, Lauren’s, as well. Not just the timbre of our voices resonates but how we all string words together. We use the same verbal punctuation. It is uncanny.

And Rebecca’s description of reunion dovetails incredibly with biomom’s. No coordination involved. Just DNA. Incredibly delightful.

So take a listen to Rebecca and let her fill you in on Who She Really Is!