Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


2 Comments

Soul Friend, Old Friend, Fur Friend, Three Years On

The ancient Celts kept in touch with their Creator by touching creation. All of nature breathed in and breathed out –the very breath of God  — and all the world was soaked in the Spirit. The Celtic Creator dwelt in ancient trees and streams and holy wells.

Immersed in their pagan past, Celtic Christians called their God, “Lord of the Elements”. Christian monasteries sprang up on druid holy grounds —  in the midst of oak groves and sacred springs.

The Celts had a quiet care for all living things. And the saints had a particular affinity for all creatures great and small. St. Kevin sheltered a black bird’s nest in his outstretched arms. St. Ciarain befriended a boar who cleared his land. And St. Columba’s white horse wept at his master’s death.

And then there is the story of St Mungo and the Hound, as told by Robert Van de Weyer in “Celtic Fire”.

“Mungo knew that God was calling him to found a new monastery amongst his tribesman to bear witness to the love of Christ. So he set out from home in search of a suitable place.”

“Soon a wild hound appeared and began to lead him. The hound took him over steep mountains, into deep valleys, and through dark forests. Each night Mungo and the hound lay down next to one another; and before they fell asleep they talked to each other, Mungo speaking in words, and the hound replying with barks and growls”

“Together they arrived at a beautiful lush valley, with a clear blue river running through it. And around the valley they could see little columns of smoke with many people living there The hound stopped near the river bank, and began scratching the ground with his feet, tearing up tufts of grass. Mungo fell to his knees in prayer asking God if this was truly the place to build the monastery.”

“Kissed by a robin on the cheek, welcomed by the birds Mungo knew this was the place. The hound went off to collect branches, and the bird brought leaves and grass, and soon Mungo had built himself a hut.”

“Then the hound came up to Mungo and growled loudly, bowing its head asking Mungo for a blessing. So Mungo laid his hand on his head and prayed for God’s guidance on it. The hound went off and in the following days and months and sent others to join Mungo. And the brothers came to found this new place. And the robin and the hound helped each brother to build himself a hut”.

“And the community grew, the local people came wanting to see their new neighbors. Mungo and his brothers gladly welcomed the sick into the community, nursing them back to health, and shared their simple food with hungry travellers. And soon the monastery was renowned for its generosity and kindness to all in need. And many people embraced the gospel which inspired that unassuming love.”

Mungo’s monastery was founded where now Glasgow Cathedral stands. Founded by three brothers: the monk, the robin, and the hound.

You may think this a fairy story, a whimsical tale of long ago and far away, Maybe a Disney feature with cartoon creatures. I am not sure that history will witness to its truth.

Bailey

Bailey Peacock 2000 – 2015

But I can. I can because of a certain hound of renown whose name was Bailey.

A decade ago, divorced and alone, I sold my little bungalow and set out to find a new home of my very own — and Bailey led the way. Bailey was Jacob’s, my youngest son’s dog, Part retriever, part shepherd, he was not much of either. But he was as gentle and companionable as the day is long. And stupid, yes stupid. He barely knew his name.

 

All three of my children have come and gone, come and gone, come and gone. But Bailey always stayed and never went. So I am the one who walked him, and fed him, and took care of him. And he has been my solitary roommate this decade long.

And like all roommates Bailey and I did not always get along. This roommate peed on my carpet, stole underwear out of the hamper, chewed up paper towels, drooled all over the couch, and ransacked the trash. We had our arguments and I admit losing my temper and calling him awful names. He would hide under the dining room table and come out when the coast was clear. Sweet dog that he was he never held it against me.

In my condo community Bailey took me walking several times a day. And the older he got, he took me walking several, several times a day. It was Bailey who introduced me to my neighbors: the three girls down stairs with first their French poodle and now a German Shepherd; the lady next door with the persnickety cats; the great big jock with the tiny little Yorkie; and the lady right below me who never learned Bailey’s name. But now I know theirs — all because of Bailey.

Bailey was not much of a watchdog. There was never a stranger, a delivery person, or a postman, or a friend at my door that he did not think was his friend too. I believe even a robber would have found Bailey to be his true and helpful friend, — following him all around the house while he robbed me blind. But Bailey did have a protective streak in him from time to time. When a certain male friend would visit, Bailey always jumped up on the couch between us. I am not sure what he thought he was protecting me from, but protect me he did.

And I had a strange and lovely attachment to this dog for 15 years. But he was just a dog, right? And now Bailey is gone.

102 people years-old Bailey could barely hear and barely see and barely walk and barely get up and down the stairs anymore. Sweet dog, all my children over the 2014 holidays got to spend time with him. And we all talked about how it was getting to be “Bailey’s time”.  And then January 16th, 2015 Bailey’s time came.

And I knew it would be sad and knew I would shed a few tears and I thought I would get through it just fine — collect myself, climb back in the car and head back home. Just a dog right?

Sitting on the blanket with Bailey as he drifted into his last deep sleep, I cried like a baby. Stroking his fur and holding his paw, I kept repeating, “All dogs go to heaven. All dogs go to heaven.”

I sobbed on the way home. I sobbed with two of my three of my children on the phone. And though Bailey rarely barked, my house was strangely quiet today. When I woke up this morning I had a dull empty feeling in the pit of my stomach that wouldn’t go away.

I lost the soul friend I never knew I had.

Anam is the Gaelic word for soul. Cara is the Gaelic word for friend. Bailey was my Anam Cara. In the Celtic Church an Anam Cara was a confessor, a confidante and a spiritual companion. With such a soul friend you can share your inmost self, mind, and heart. Everyone needs a soul friend who knows you and understands you just as you are – and loves you anyway. John O’Donohue says that where we are understood — we are home.

Many of us may have an Anam Cara of whom we are not aware. Blinded by busyness we do not see the soul friend standing right in front of us. And it is only in their absence that we ache for and recognize the blessing of their presence.

And now I know dear Bailey, that you were my Anam Cara. Now I know, sweet, sweet dog you were a soul friend to me.

All dogs go to heaven.

Soli Deo Gratias

JoaniSign


4 Comments

The Littlest of Prophets

It will come as no surprise to many of you that I have been a bleeding-heart liberal from my earliest days. A teenage rebellion, I am sure against my tastefully conservative Republican mom and dad. A straight A student, I rebelled in hippy dippy ways.  I skipped school to protest the Vietnam war.  I served — in name only — on the staff of an underground newspaper that never actually published a  single issue. (Sister Mary Clare really clobbered me for that one!)  Never a jock, I won awards with my words, my adolescent purple prose.  I earned my high school letter at debates and speech contests. In one stellar outing, I gave a speech supporting birth control in the voice of a not yet fertilized egg. And from my secure, segregated suburban life, I railed against racism. I remember but one line from my blue-ribbon speech that took me to the city finals:  “The blood of the black man is on our lily-white hands.”

  I loved the talk but I myself did not always walk the walk.

Thirty years later, this preacher woman was sitting at her desk on a Friday afternoon when. an elderly African American gentleman paid me a call.  His concern and complaint. took me totally by surprise.

He wanted to know if our choir had participated in the Martin Luther King Day Choir Festival. Proudly I told him yes. that indeed both of our choirs had sung that day in honor of the slain civil rights leader. Well. this gentleman was a contemporary of Dr. King and said for certain that he knew there were finer preachers whose names he rattled off. And worse than that did I know, he said, that Martin Luther King had been Tom-catting around Atlanta. He and his wife claimed to know of the Rev. King’s illicit comings and goings.  And then he blamed bleeding heart liberals like me for canonizing this flawed leader.

Martin, he said, talked the talk. but he certainly did not always walk the walk.

Indeed, all of these years later many have measured the weight of Dr. King’s life differently. He has been accused of many failings including communism and plagiarism. Younger African-Americans have criticized his passivity.  And biographers have lingered over his personal life.

Sister Joan Chittister tells it well:

“The truth of the matter is that Martin Luther King Jr.  was Martin Luther King Jr. till the day he died. Organizer, preacher, prophet, father, husband, cheater, lover and leader.  He struggled with anger and depression and sexual excess all his life.  And like the rest of us in our own struggles, he never totally conquered any of them.”

Prophets you see are not always perfect. Seldom are they saints and even once sainted remain sinners.

But prophets speak truth. God’s truth.

Martin Luther King Jr as a boy“King was an unlikely leader, black in a white country, a preacher who led a political struggle, the son and grandson of ministers who held a privileged place in the black community.  Proud of his family and home, he learned young that he lived in ‘nigger-town’.  He lost his two best friends in the first grade because their mother would not let them play with a ‘colored’ boy.  When he was twelve, a society matron in a down town department store called him a nigger and slapped him across the face. The sting of it stayed with him for the rest of his life.  He was with his father when a shoe salesman refused to wait on them unless they moved to the back room of the store. It was the first time he had seen his daddy so angry and he remembered his response.  ‘I don’t care how long I have to live with this system. I am never going to accept it.  I’ll oppose it till the day I die.’”

 Again, and again the message was hard to ignore.  And Martin began to get the message. Speak Lord for your servant is listening.

“And so, like his Daddy, he grew up to be pastor of a major black congregation in Montgomery, Alabama. It was 1955 and Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat on the bus. And for the first time, King stepped out his privileged pulpit and truly became a prophet.  The first night of the bus boycott he addressed thousands who had gathered for a mass meeting. And he addressed them with the truth, with Gospel truth.”

“’Our method will be that of persuasion, not coercion. Love must be our regulating ideal.  Once again, we must hear the words of Jesus echoing across the centuries: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, and pray for them that despitefully use you.’ If we fail to do this, our protest will end up as meaningless drama on the stage of history, and its memory will be shrouded with the ugly garments of shame.  In spite of the mistreatment we have confronted, we must not become bitter, and end up hating our white brothers and sisters. Let no one pull you so low as to make you hate them.’”

 “’If you will protest courageously with dignity and Christian love, when the history books are written the historians will have to pause and say. There lived a great people, a black people, who injected meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization’.” (A Passion for Life, Joan Chittister)

He talked the talk and he himself led the walk. And yes, he stumbled and he fell along the way.  But the prophet Martin prophesied so that his black brothers and sisters. so that our brothers and sisters,  might taste justice, might taste the freedom of this Promised and Privileged Land.

Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening.

Now most of us, if we got the call to be such a prophet would hang up. Biblically speaking, prophets are not particularly attractive folk. They tend to push the envelope of society’s conventions and expectations. Frederick Buechner says that, Elisha would have been called cruel, for turning bears loose on boys who taunted him.  Jeremiah would be called crazy for literally eating the scroll on which sweetly written was the word of God. Amos would be called a carpetbagger. for berating his southern neighbors to justice with a northern accent.

Prophecy is not very desirable work, Buechner says. Telling the emperor, he has no clothes is a thankless job. After his fairy tale like call to become a prophet, Samuel delivers some pretty bad news to his father in God. Eli, God is going to bring down your house. These were not sweet nothings, but some very nasty news that God was whispering in Samuel’s ears.

And the prophecy business is dangerous work. With God hiding in the shadows, Buechner continues, people are likely to shoot the messenger.  Jeremiah was thrown into a cistern.  Isaiah was rumored to be sawed in half. And Martin was stabbed, attacked, and his home bombed many times. And then cut down by an assassin’s bullet in April of 1968. Just thirty-nine years old.  Prophets pay a price that most of us do not have the guts to pay for ourselves.

But….

But God whispers in our ears just the same. Niggling, annoying words, taunting us to rise up out of our lazy beds. To witness and to speak up for our brothers and sisters marginalized now, even as we speak.  We live in challenging times – in a time where neo-Nazism and white supremacism are on the rise. We live in a time when hate crimes against our Muslim brothers and sisters shamefully increase. We live in a time, where we barely know how to speak to people across the political divide. We live in a time when the privileged cross the street to avoid the poor by the side of the road.

My Christian brothers and sisters, in God’s eyes, this will not stand. Let’s dredge up the strength to reach down, way down, deep down and find the courage and the compassion to be a prophet – even if it be the littlest of prophets. Like Samuel, here now in 2018.

And so aptly let us pray the Collect of this Day:

Almighty God, by the voice of your prophets, you have led your people out of slavery and into freedom; Grant that your Church, following the example of the prophet Martin, may resist oppression in the name of your love; and may secure for all your children the blessed liberty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

JoaniSign


2 Comments

The Tide Washes Out; The Tide Washes In. 2017/2018

tide washing out in pictureSifting through the sands of this crazy-making, head-banging,  life-changing, heart-stomping year,  I turn once again to my annual exercise of cataloging its “ins and outs”.  So much to process personally, spiritually, politically, professionally! Yikes!  So after three hours of scribbling in my notebook, listening to Christmas carols on my couch, I present to you my hundredfold list —  in no particular order and without commentary.

2017 Out/ 2018 In

  1. 62/63
  2. 3 kids/4 kids
  3. Divine Intervention/Home for the Holidays
  4. Fabletics/AdoreMe
  5. Day on the couch/Day at the office
  6. Joni Mitchell/ Wailin’ Jennys
  7. Little Sister/Big Sister
  8. Not Ready to be a Cat Lady/Cat Lady
  9. TOMS/Rothy’s
  10. Egg Salad/Tuna Salad
  11. The Crown/Victoria
  12. Guardian Angels/Better Angels
  13. Muslim Ban/Love Your Muslim Neighbor
  14. Newspapers/Manuscripts
  15. HuffPost/Washington Post
  16. Author Once/Author Twice
  17. No TV/Fire TV
  18. Virginia/Vermont
  19. Organic/Oreos
  20. White Christmas/White Reindeer
  21. Peacemaker/Truth Teller
  22. Good Girl/Bad Ass
  23. DC Singles/Elite Singles
  24. St Patrick’s Day/St Valentine’s Day
  25. Celtic/Irish
  26. Library of the Seminary/Library of Congress
  27. Preacher/Poet
  28. Left turns/“Right Turn”
  29. DayQuil/NyQuil
  30. Mom/Biomom
  31. Liquid soap/Bar soap
  32. Resistance/Persistence
  33. Blinds/Shades
  34. Book of Mormon/Cats
  35. Shirley Jackson/Erik Larson
  36. Angie’s List/Emily’s List
  37. Safety pins/Clothes pins
  38. Laurel & Hardy/Cheshire & Charlie
  39. Facebook/Instagram
  40. Almond milk/Coconut creamer
  41. Vitamins/Probiotics
  42. Walking shoes/Saddle shoes
  43. Colored pencils/Colored pens
  44. History/Her Story
  45. Fleece/Wool
  46. Evening Prayer/Night Prayer
  47. Quaker Oats/Quaker Meetings
  48. Cincture & Alb/Cassock & Surplice
  49. Daydreaming/Critical thinking
  50. Advent/Christmas
  51. Snow Globes/Snow flurries
  52. Linoleum/Tile
  53. Keeping secrets/Spilling the beans
  54. Democrat/democratic
  55. Burt’s Bees/Bare Minerals
  56. Amazon.dot.com/East City Book Shop
  57. Digital/Paper
  58. Credit cards/HELOC
  59. Single/Available
  60. Communion/Reunion
  61. Survival/Revival
  62. Categories/Cat toys
  63. Trump Nation/Salvation
  64. Great kids/Grandkids
  65. Anthropologie/Anthropology
  66. Head space/Fireplace
  67. Scrambled eggs/Egg Nog
  68. Pill box/Litter box
  69. Granola/Muesli
  70. Luther Strange/Stranger Things
  71. Humidity/Humidifier
  72. Gilligan’s Island/Great Cranberry Island
  73. UPPER  CASE/lower case
  74. Walking Dead/Exquisite Corpse
  75. Russians/Russian Orthodox
  76. Laundry room/Kitchen
  77. Pier One/World Market
  78. Anonymous/Anonymous Four
  79. South Meadows/Huntley Meadows
  80. DVDS/Blu-Rays
  81. Semicolons/Ampersands
  82. Ruminating/Illuminating
  83. Life jackets/Life Savers
  84. The Bells of Saint Mary’s/The Bells of Dublin
  85. Trash/Treasure
  86. Nurture/Nature
  87. WD40/DNA
  88. Off ramps/On ramps
  89. Anarchist/Archivist
  90. Green apples/The Big Apple
  91. Scarlet Alabama/Purple Alabama
  92. Puzzles/Puppets
  93. Confession/Reconciliation
  94. 6:30/Half past six
  95. Tea lights/Votives
  96. Maternal Outlaw/Mother-in-law
  97. Peacock things/Peacock persons
  98. Bananagrams/Scrabble
  99. Celebrant/Priestess
  100. Pink Hatter/Madder Hatter

& forever the Unfiltered —  Unorthodox & Unhinged!

A very happy 2018 to you and yours!

 

JoaniSign

 


3 Comments

Wilderness in the Key of C

While the church is a bit fussy about music in Advent, I confess to being obsessed with the “mall muzak” of the holiday season.

Ever since I was a little kid, Jingle Bells has brought me joy; O Come, All Ye Faithful has given me comfort. The chaos of my childhood home not withstanding.

loved to sing — though Sister Inez Patricia kicked me out of the Glee Club for belting out Joy to the World off key. And with my piano teacher, Mrs. Wertz, I cajoled her into letting me work on Christmas carols the year round. And I have a vague memory of actually gathering a sibling and likely my grandmother (who would humor this child) “round the spinet” a time or two.

Christmas-Carols-1960-billboard-650

No matter how dark my December days, these little embers of memory never fail to warm my Advent soul.

But not to over do it! Psychologists warn us that overdosing on Christmas music is not good for your mental health. Especially, if you start tuning in the first of November, when Target has put up all of their Christmas stuff – post Halloween. The Twelve Days of Christmas will definitely drive you crazy, when you still have fifty five days to go!

But this second Sunday of Advent, I think we are safe.  “All things in moderation,” my dad used to say.

Comfort, comfort ye my people, speak ye peace thus saith our God;

Comfort those who sit in darkness mourning ‘neath their sorrows’ load;

Speak ye peace to Jerusalem of the peace that waits for them;

Tell her that her sins I cover, and her warfare now is over.

Hark, the voice of one that crieth in the desert far and near,

calling us to new repentance,  since the kingdom now is here.

These words of Second Isaiah encapsulated  in Advent hymn #67, from the ’82 Hymnal, can make a good measure of the the music we play – to make our souls merry – this holiday season. As do the words of the psalmist, as well:

I will listen to what the Lord God is saying, for he is speaking peace to his people. Ps 85:8

Our lives in this world – no matter how charmed our circumstances – are but a walk in the wilderness. A wonderful walk. A dazzling and challenging walk.

And maybe this year has been wilder or weirder or more bewildering or even more wondrous than those past. With…

newborn babies and loved ones dying;

terrible twos and aging parents;

lost jobs and new occupations;

weddings and divorces;

retreat and renewal;

reunion and return;

delight and despair;

whether any of it be private, personal, or shared.

Having a Holly, Jolly (and hopeful) Christmas is a complicated thing.

For a decade running now, two of my children, Zach and Colleen have produced an annual Christmas album. It is not your usual holiday fare. It started out just silly and fun but has turned into a sibling bonding ritual they return to each year. (Zach now being 35 and Colleen 33.)

And each album has a different theme – that captures the mood and the meaning of this Christmas:

Party hardy Christmas;

Down Home Country Christmas;

Christmas All Around the World;

and in a bluer season:

The Smooth Sounds of Christmas.

The tracks they choose are outlandish, surprising, delightful, poignant, moody, and sad.

Each of them is a cacophony of voices, crying out in the wilderness – a way to tune into Jesus in the manger once again. A way to tune into the crazy Second Coming of God.

(Though I am pretty sure they would not describe it that way! Ha!)

So what have you got on that iPod of yours? What have you got on Spotify?

As a spiritual exercise, why not put together your own “Messiah” playlist: whether it be Handel, Bing Crosby, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Prince, the Anonymous Four, Gregorian chant, or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Instead of a Christmas letter, you can share your playlists and attach it to an e-Christmas card.

My own which I, so creatively labeled: Christmas, Christmas, Christmas 🙂  shuffles over 200 carols in the privacy of my car (or my living room.)  Where I can sing along – lustily and with abandon – which I recommend most highly!

So make a joyful and genuine Christmas Carol noise!

Lift up your voice with strength…

Lift it up and do not fear.

For here comes our God.

JoaniSign

 


2 Comments

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


Leave a comment

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


1 Comment

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