Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


Of the Father’s Love Begotten

My father, God rest his soul, was a healer.

I was in awe of him.

Brilliant, like Dr. Salk who conquered polio. Handsome as Dr. Kildare. A doctor-of-fine-arts, Salvador Dali etchings hung on his walls. A master-of-music, Mozart played on his turntable. A gourmands, he insisted on lemon peel with his espresso. A voracious reader, his book shelves were packed with classics, art books, and avant-garde novels. He was a tinkerer and a gardener who grew roses in our backyard and built short wave radios in our basement.

He was also more than a bit like Felix Unger. Everything had to be spit and polished and squeaky clean. My dad was exceedingly dapper in his tweed sport coats and wing tip shoes. On his bathroom mirror, he pasted a label: “You, handsome devil you!” And he regularly boasted of acing his surgical boards.

Modest, he was not but he was (mostly but not always) marvelous in my eyes.

And when I was a child, I would pull wondrous instruments out of his little black doctor’s bag – the same things he would use to prod and poke us if we claimed we were too sick to go to school. The stethoscope to listen to your chest. Tongue depressors to look down your throat. The little flashlight to peer into your ears. The little hammer to hit your knees.  Invariably he would pronounce us well, prescribe two aspirin and send us off to school.

(No wonder, I won the perfect attendance ribbon – more ears than I can count.)

And my father was our family’s avid protector – from dangers outward and visible. A surgeon conscious of all kinds of calamity, he took unusual measures to keep his family safe.

Long before seat belts were standard in American cars, my dad had “safety belts” installed in ours. If you were not belted in, he would take the Lord’s name in vain, pull over to the side of the road and go nowhere until everyone was buckled up.

Long before smoke detectors, he installed fire alarms in our house and we quite literally had fire drills.

In a time when only banks were wired for burglary, so was our suburban bungalow.

Our house had no ashtrays. Smoking was forbidden. Saving us both from fire and  lung cancer.

Firearms – even BB guns — could not get through our front door. My dad, the surgeon had stitched up and lost too many young men on his operating table in Southeast D.C.

He wouldn’t even let us twirl sparklers on the Fourth of July – in case we might burn our little hands (or his!)

Does this remind you of your father? Or a grandfather? Or a step father – who stepped up when your own wasn’t there? Or a godfather – who guarded you under his wings?

Who loves you so much, that they would want to catch you before you fall – “lest you dash your foot upon a stone”?

Fathers, of course.

But even the best of fathers cannot save us from ourselves.

We fall, we scrape our knees, we crash the family car. We make bad choices, ingest things we shouldn’t, and head down the wrong path. We fail, we drop out of school, get in trouble with the law. Selfish and self – centered, we don’t realize the havoc we create in other’s lives. Quick to blame others but not ourselves.

Nor can the best of fathers save us from the slings and arrows of this mortal coil.

Life itself is a risky business. The world is a dangerous place.

Every day, when we head out the front door -– we assume that we will return safe when the day is done.

We assume that everyone will stop at red lights.

We assume our food is safe and our water free of lead.

We assume that everyone will follow “the rules” – whatever the rules may be.

And that the bad guys are all behind bars.

We take for granted those who serve to protect us,

who like a father (be they male or female),

keep us safe and secure.

Bad things are always supposed to happen somewhere else.

But here in our own backyard, in Charlottesville, in Virginia Beach, on Simpson Field, hate and violence have invaded Virginia, too.

Heavenly Father, the Lord God Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, does not deliver us from evil.  At least not in the way, we hope him too.

To swoop down from heaven. To rescue us. To save us.

But as Christians, we believe in a God, a Heavenly Father, quite ironically, who did not bother to save his own Son. 

There is no Deus ex Machina. There is no miraculous divine intervention.

But there is redemption.

This Sunday, Trinity Sunday, on the eve of the summer solstice, I chose a Christmas carol for our sequence hymn. Not a widely known one – Of the Father’s Love Begotten. The words of the text are more than a thousand years old.

Of the Father’s love begotten,

Ere the worlds began to be,

He is Alpha and Omega,

He the source, the ending he,

Of the things that are, that have been,

And that future years shall see,

Evermore and evermore!

Now shepherds, angels and wise men are easier to imagine than John’s glory and grace.  These pretty words are a paraphrase of John’s prologue: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was made flesh.

The theologian, Barbara Brown Taylor says (and I paraphrase), “For one person the word is ‘compassion’.  For another its ‘justice’.  For someone else the word is ‘generosity’.  For another it is ‘patience’.  Just words that in reality, sadly are seldom seen.  The moment, however, that we act upon them — these words of ‘Our Father who art in heaven’ – take on flesh and bone.

Our Father, who art in heaven,

can bring out the father in all of us,

to reach out and care for one another,

to watch over and protect one another,

to love our neighbors as ourselves,

whoever our neighbors might be,

one little fatherly word at a time.

Happy Trinitarian Father’s Day 2019!


Fireworks!!

Once upon a time, the very first fireworks were concocted in a cooking pot: cooked up by a Chinese cook in her kitchen. At least, so the legend goes. Apparently the combustible ingredients were right there in her spice cabinet: saltpeter, charcoal, sulfur and a dash of who knows what. A happy and dangerous accident, the recipe erupted pyrotechnically.

Stuff this stuff into bamboo sticks, throw them on the fire, and “POOF! BANG! BOOM!”, fireworks are born.

Great for warding off evil spirits.

Grand for celebrations of state occasions.

Glittering demonstrations of prowess and power (our current POTUS not withstanding.)

Picture a Tudor king’s wedding day, the coronation of a Scottish king, pyrotechnic displays at Czar Peter’s palace, and bright illuminations at Versailles,” a Wikipedia article suggests.

And this 4th of July, Roman Candles stand ready to light up our skies.  Stand up and sing with me the poetry Francis Scott Key scribbled  after the Battle of Fort McHenry, 1814:

O say can you see,

By the dawn’s early light,

What so proudly we hailed,

As the twilight’s last gleaming?

Whose broad stripes and bright stars,

Through the perilous fight,

O’er the ramparts we watched,

Were so gallantly streaming.

And the rocket’s red glare,

The bombs bursting in air,

Gave proof through the night

That our flag was still there.

 And it was on the eve of that very first 4th, that John Adams, our second president presciently described how future Americans would celebrate the day.

“…with pomp and parade, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of the continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.

 In other words —  fireworks!

Many-a-time, downtown on the Mall by the Reflecting Pool, in my hometown of Washington, D.C. I have seen those fireworks fly.

In the bicentennial days of my marriage, there was no holier day than Independence Day: the most romantic day of the year.

We’d pack a picnic of peanut butter sandwiches, cookies, and fruit, and a six-pack of clearly illegal beer. We’d stuff our duffle bag with baseball hats, books, and bug spray: all for the marvelous day.

We’d head out early on metro, crowded into subway cars with the tourists – all vying for prime locations and the very best views.

We’d stake out our claim by the Reflecting Pool and spread our old cotton quilt on the ground. We’d plop ourselves down and stretch out under the setting sun, waiting for the blanket of dark to come.

We’d read to each other from Herman Hesse and tune into WHFS. We’d talk and talk and talk and then just be quiet: that lovely intimate quiet wrapped in each other’s arms:

Fireworks — of a different kind.

Now forty-seven years on, we have gone our separate ways. Sixteen years now, he has had his life by the sea. Sixteen years now, my Alexandria life is my own. And that is how it is supposed to be. The happiest place for me in my 64 years. And yet it is so strange, that my ex-husband is a stranger to me.

I harbor no resentment and I wish him well. It has been ancient of days since I have missed the man.

But what I do miss and what I hope to find are those fireworks of the intimate kind: the easy conversation; the comfortable silence; bright bursts of passion: a meeting of the minds. “POOF! BANG! BOOM!”

On a blanket,

On the mall,

On the 4th of July.

Fireworks!


Pentecost & Pride: June 9th @Emmanuel!

This year the Feast of Pentecost and Pride month overlap. Pentecost celebrates the gift of understanding. Disciples from all over the ancient world opened their ears to hear and to listen to their brothers and sisters whose language and culture were not their own.

Pride Month celebrates the diversity of voices in the LGBTQ community. It is a time to hear and open our ears and to give thanks for all of our gay, lesbian and transgender sisters and brothers. Pentecost and Pride together celebrate our common humanity and love of neighbor.

For my parish, a congregation of the Diocese of Virginia in the Episcopal Church of the good old U.S.A., theologically this celebration has been a long time in the making. Generations of Episcopalians have wrestled with a variety of angels over the years and now wholeheartedly endorse the full inclusion of gay persons in the life of church: in the pews, in leadership, in ordination and in marriage.

June 9th, Emmanuel will celebrate Pentecost & Pride in prayer and song, in scripture and sacrament at both the 8:00 AM and 10:30 AM services.

Following the rector’s homily, the congregation will lift up in prayer the LGBTQ community with these words:

Litany of Inclusion

O wildly inclusive God, you love all that you have created, and with you we celebrate the diversity of your creation. Throughout history with your people, you have reminded us that those whom the world has unjustly seen as the least are cherished as the greatest in your eyes. We ask that you give us the grace to uplift our LGBTQ sisters and brothers as they live authentically in the world. Teach us to honor and appreciate their gifts and help us to create a world in which all who are equal in the eyes of God are also equal under the law: loved, accepted and celebrated. We remember especially members of the LGBTQ community who have been marginalized in our churches and victimized by hate. We ask this in the name of the Holy One, in whose image all are created.

Celebrant Blessed be God, who loves all creation!
People God’s love has no exceptions, Alleluia!

Celebrant We are the body of Christ! Justice seeking, bread breaking, hymn singing, risk taking
People The Body of Christ!

Celebrant Baptized by one Spirit, we are members of one body.
People Many and varied in culture, gender, age, class and ability, we are members of Christ’s Body.

Celebrant None of us can say to another, “I have no need of you.”
People For only together can we find wholeness.

Celebrant None of us can say to another, “I will not care for you.”
People For we are connected like muscle and bone. If one suffers, we all suffer. If one rejoices, we all rejoice!

Celebrant Come in, all are welcome. Come with your longings, your questions, and your fears.
People Come with your dreams of a better day, one with dignity and safety for all!

Celebrant Thanks be to God who in Christ has made us one!

Amen!

Join us this Sunday, June 9th at Emmanuel Episcopal Church 1608 Russell Road Alexandria, VA. 8:00 AM early service or 10:30 AM with music. All are welcome! Hope to see you there!



DIY: A to-do list for what-to-do when the world falls apart (sort of.)

Recently I got hit by a tsunami. I thought I might drown. Good news! I did not. Though I am still getting knocked over by stray waves, I am getting my land-legs back. And I am getting back up to my usual hypomanic magnificent speed. Down but never out. God be praised!

The nature of my personal tsunami does not matter. It needs no explanation. We all know what it feels like when the earth beneath our feet disappears. To lose all control. To gasp for air. To struggle to find a port in the storm.

Navigator, navigator, please tell me what to do. And the navigator said, Look within yourself and see. Your creator created you with all that you need. Pick up pen and paper. Write it down and make a list!

So I did and this is mine. A work in progress, not totally done.

A to-do-list for what-to-do when the world falls apart (sort of.)

  1. Sing in the shower at the top of your lungs.
  2. Dress up weekdays in your Sunday best.
  3. Call your loved ones.
  4. Eat dinner with friends.
  5. Write a snail-mail letter or two.
  6. Rattle some rosary beads.
  7. Go to church.
  8. Write a sermon or two.
  9. Ride your bicycle.
  10. Jump in the pool.
  11. Get your hair cut; polish your nails.
  12. Put a peacock feather behind your ear.
  13. Tell some stories.
  14. Perform on stage.
  15. Check in at the office.
  16. Volunteer.
  17. Pass on those fabulous frocks that no longer fit.
  18. Buy some more. (Hello, Anthropologie!)
  19. Weed your books and color code your shelves.
  20. Reorganize your underwear drawer.
  21. Sort through your socks.
  22. Vacay on a staycation.
  23. Get out of town.
  24. Clean that oven which you hardly ever use. (Baking soda and vinegar!)
  25. Deep clean your toaster. (Shake upside down for 10 minutes. Wash the crumbs down the drain!)
  26. Declutter your kitchen counters from all that kitsch.
  27. Alphabetize your spices.
  28. Retire dusty photos and frame a few more.
  29. Remove sticky tape from stainless steel fridge. (Equal parts vinegar/ dish soap!)
  30. Rearrange the art on the door.
  31. Shred all that stuff that needs to be shredded.
  32. Shampoo your clean hair.
  33. Pop that short story (to yet another publisher) into the mail.
  34. Rehab your (35-year-old) daughter’s doll house.
  35. Scrub the miniature floors.
  36. Wash the tiny clothes.
  37. Play with your cats.
  38. Read some trash.
  39. Binge watch whatever you want.
  40. Eat some chocolate cake.
  41. Shed the shame.
  42. Refrain from blame.
  43. Talk about it.
  44. Cry about it.
  45. Laugh about it.
  46. Go to therapy — as much as you can afford!
  47. Hand out $20 bills to homeless folks.
  48. Donate to your favorite lost cause.
  49. Be god-damned grateful for your 23,145 days on earth!
  50. Dance like no one is looking and shout for joy!

As I said, this is a work in progress. Never ever really done — but I am feeling my soul restored — more and more — with each and every item I check off.

So, dear readers, when the tsunami hits and your world falls apart, take a look within and make a list.

Healing is a DIY project. God built into your body and soul all the tools that you will need.


Thirst Quenching Waters

In the beginning, the Spirit of God moved over the waters and the universe was born (13.5 billion years ago or so.) Alpha. Genesis. Birth. And here as scripture comes to an end, Christ pours us a bracing cup of living water. Omega. Revelation. Rebirth. As it was in the beginning, so it shall be in the end.

In the beginning, we all get our start in water: safely tucked inside the womb, cramped and cradled until it is time, until the contractions start and the water breaks. Out we come on a wave of living water, squirming and screaming full throttle into God’s crazy world.  A beautiful mess.

The rhythm of life begins and its pretty good. You eat. You sleep. People carry you around and sing to you, play peek-a-boo with you. Everything is just great until someone gives you that first bath. Have you ever given a baby their first bath? They wriggle and squirm. It is beyond their comprehension why you would subject them to this torture. Babies do not realize that there is dried milk behind their ears and dirt between their toes and they don’t care. But their parental units do care, and they are going to give that baby a bath because they know what is good for them.

A few years ago, I had the great pleasure of baptizing seven of God’s children on a single Sunday morning: one adult, four babies and two toddlers. There was a little three-year-old named Eric who was not too keen on this baptism thing. At the class the day before, Eric hung back not wanting to “play baptism” with me. Very cautious, very skeptical, very astute for a three-year-old. 

On Sunday morning, poor little guy reeled in agony as his mom lifted him up and leaned in over the font. He waved his metal truck wildly screaming NOOOOOOOOOO!!I ducked but managed to dribble a little water on his frantic forehead. 

Eric, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Eric, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. 

At this point, indignant little Eric is wiping his face with the little linen towel. I knelt down to half apologize. Sorry little guy. Baths aren’t always fun. But that was God’s love, the water of life, raining down on your head. 

Let everyone who is thirsty come. Let everyone who wishes, take this water of life as a gift.

Deep in the first century on the Island of Patmos a man named John (no, not the apostle John, a different John) wrote down his wild and wooly visions. Vivid fantastical pictures of his community’s struggle under the persecution of Rome. The visions are at times violent and terrifying, filled with beasts and dragons. Allegorical and symbolic, the powers of good battle the powers of evil. Neither really wins but hope literally springs eternal. The water of life soaks the soil sprouting seeds and drenching roots. Maybe there can be a new heaven and a new earth. Maybe life really can rise out of death.

20 centuries on, we live in an equally thirsty world. Peruse the news and lots of it is not so good. Division reigns. Tribalism rules. We seem endlessly locked in a struggle of us versus them. We cling to power rather than pursue the common good. Entrenched in our bubbles and bunkers, we demonize those who disagree with us, those who do not believe like us, and those who do not love, like us. Beasts and dragons, one and all, we cast them out. We fight a futile scorched earth offensive, where living water is hard to find.

Once upon a time, there was a little parish tucked on the side of a hill struggling on their own little Island of Patmos. The parish had a strong tradition of outreach to the community. Their neighbors were both poor and without a roof over their heads. So, they organized a soup kitchen and an overnight shelter. They hammered nails repairing houses and they sat bedside with the sick. But there was another thirst in the community — just as deep — hoping to be quenched. 

The apartments around the church were home to a host of Ethiopians, many of whom had fled the oppressive government of the late Haili Sallassi – and most of these Ethiopians were Christians. But adrift in Northern Virginia, they had no spiritual home, no literal House of God to call their own. So, the people of this little parish flung wide their doors and welcomed their neighbors in. They decided to share their worship space and birthed a new congregation: The Ethiopian Orthodox Incarnation, Noah’s Ark, Holy Mother Church. (Yes, that really was its name!)

On Saturday afternoons, this little Episcopal Church was transformed. Icons were propped up in every window. The priest swung the thurible; incense rose to the skies. A hundred praying people huddled in the pews. Living water flowed and Christ was worshipped anew.

So, Emmanuel, turn your eyes toward heaven. Look up into the ceiling of the sanctuary. The wooden scaffolding resembles the ribs of an upside-down ship. Now, we Episcopalians have nerdy words for everything and we call the sanctuary the nave. Literally a Latin naval word for ship – nave was an early icon of the church. Hop aboard the ark. The waves of life may be rough but Christ captains the boat.

This holy water sloshes and splashes over, above and around. Remember Matthew 25: I was thirsty, and you gave me drink? With every item dropped into the ALIVE Food Pantry basket, with every juice box packed into lunch bags for the homeless, with every cup of Saturday morning coffee poured at Carpenter’s Shelter; with every Sunday morning sip from the communion cup, Emmanuel’s water breaks, and Christ quenches a thirsty world.

Come, let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes, take the water of life as a gift.


Christening & Coloring Outside the Lines

Clergy love baptizing babies. It is our favorite thing under the sun to do. At Emmanuel over the past five years, umpteen new little people have been welcomed into the family of God. This coming Sunday we are welcoming two more!

Baptism in the Book of Common Prayer begins with these familiar words:

There is one Body and one Spirit; There is one hope in God’s call to us; One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism; one God and Father of all.

These words are ancient and deep and recognized by Anglicans all over the world. But the only thing required for a “valid” baptism, a baptism that will be recognized by the vast majority of Christians, is that when you pour the water over the baby’s head, you pour the water in the name of the Trinity.

While baptisms in the Episcopal Church are Sunday morning affairs, there are exceptions to the rule. Pastorally, the priest may make accommodations for unorthodox circumstances.

I have done baptisms in the great outdoors. I have twice baptized babies at home and once in the hospital. I even once baptized a nervous young groom who was about to be married at my kitchen table. Each has its own story.

These are the Christenings, as a liturgist, where I have colored outside the lines.

This summer I have the great joy of baptizing a new little family member. This little one will be baptized in her parents’ living room surrounded by family and friends. Family and friends who come from a variety of Christian traditions or no tradition at all.

Baptism is about welcome and inclusion, not who is in and who is out. There is room for EVERYBODY at God’s table. So for this occasion, I crafted the following liturgy — freely and wildly adapted from the United Church of Christ.

As an Episcopal priest, I can’t use this service on Sunday mornings but it’s a great baptism-on-the-go for those occasions outside of the traditions and trappings of church.

So, here you go!

Opening Hymn    Morning has broken (Everybody can sing the Cat Steven’s hymn!)

Introduction
Following the tradition of Jesus who welcomed children into his arms, we welcome NAME into the World.

Fully respecting the diversity of all gathered here, we affirm the love of God made known in him/her and the sacredness of the covenant shared between this child, his/her parents, grandparents, godparents, family and friends, to support him/her as she grows in hope and love.

Questions of the Parents/Family
Do you desire to have NAME baptized?  We do. 


Will you encourage NAME to learn from the wisdom of the prophets; doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with him/her God? We will.


Will you foster in NAME both a love of God and love of neighbor, that he/she may seek and serve the good in all people? We will.


Will you nurture his/her enquiring and discerning heart through all of the seasons of his/her life? We will.


Will you journey with him/her to discover all the wonders of God’s work found in Mother Earth? We will.

A Promise of Assent
Jesus calls us to welcome children into the full life of connection and community, opening our table and hearts to those most vulnerable, offering the wisdom of the ages to all who hunger for truth.

Do you, who witness and celebrate with NAME today
promise your love, support, and care?

We promise our love, support and care.

Affirmation of Faith

Do you believe in God
the Source, the fountain of life?
I believe in God.

Do you believe in Christ
the Servant, embodied in Jesus of Nazareth?
I believe in Christ.

Do you believe in the Spirit
the Guide, the liberating wellspring of life?
I believe in the Spirit.

Prayer Over the Water & Baptism
We thank you, God, for the gift of creation made known to us in water and word.
Before the world had shape and form, your Spirit moved over the waters. Out of the waters of the deep, you formed the firmament and brought forth the earth to sustain all life.
In the time of Moses, your people Israel passed through the Red Sea waters from slavery to freedom and crossed the flowing Jordan to enter the promised land.
You have come to us through water in the stories of Jesus who was nurtured in the water of Mary’s womb, baptized by John in the water of the Jordan, and became living water to a woman at the Samaritan well. Jesus washed the feet of the disciples and sent them forth to baptize with water and spirit.
Bless by your Holy Spirit, gracious God, this water. With this living water, bless all refreshed, quenched and renewed here with the gift of new and resurrected life. Amen

By what name will this child be called?
NAME.

I baptize you NAME with faith in the living God,
Source, Servant and Guide.

May the Spirit be upon you,
child of God,
son/daughter of Love. Amen.

Prayer of Dedication
God of wonder, we give thanks for the open-hearted and generous spirit of all, parents, family and friends, who provide a safe harbor and a loving home where NAME may explore, learn, play and grow in to the full stature of your compassion and grace. Amen.

Celtic Blessing

May the road rise up to meet you NAME. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face; the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of her hand. Amen.

Freely and wildly adapted from the Baptism liturgy of the United Church of Christ and other sources.


The Parish Priest & the Manic Maid of Orleans

I believe in reincarnation. At least professionally I do. Career wise I have been reborn three times. My first incarnation was in the education field as a Montessori schoolteacher. My second incarnation was in the business world as a Systems Development Manager. And my third is an ecclesiastical calling as a parish priest. Three times seems to be a charm or maybe just good karma. I am now into my 25th year as a parish priest.

For those of you who may not know, the priestly vocation is one of the last generalist professions around. We are according to the Book of Common Prayer supposed to “share in the renewal of the world as pastor, priest and teacher.” Pretty heady stuff on a cosmic level. But down here on earth, we get to work with people of all ages and at every stage of the faith. We get to celebrate life’s greatest joys and to be present at life’s greatest sorrows. And we change hats. We change hats a lot. Pastor, priest and teacher are just three of them.

There is also administrator, supervisor, coach, cheerleader, truth teller, tear dryer, master of ceremonies, volunteer coordinator, choreographer, confessor, bartender, party planner, mediator, crisis counselor, shepherd, building manager, parking lot attendant, babysitter, coffee maker, janitor, plumber, secretary, editor, publisher, facilitator, fundraiser, community organizer, liturgist, preacher, chaplain, wedding coordinator, funeral director and bandleader.

Give me a little more time and I can think of some more.

Bandleader is really the best metaphor for what a parish priest does. The priest doesn’t make the music, the parishioners do. But the priest makes damn sure the music gets made. And to be a good bandleader — with God’s help — you sometimes have to do a little bit  or a lot of all of the above.

On a day to day basis, this calling can be head-spinning-hectic. But I can also honestly tell you it is never boring. Sundays come round and round but no two days are ever alike. And I get bored very easily.

So twenty-eight years ago, as a Systems Development Manager, I called my staff into a meeting to announce my departure. But before I tell you about the meeting, let me tell you a little bit about my second profession. I worked for Freddie Mac in the IT department, back when IT meant mainframes and COBOL and Fortran and JCL (and no, I will not explain these terms, you can Google them.) My team of a dozen programmers supported the financial systems of this Secondary Mortgage Giant. General Ledger. Budget. Payroll. And I was their bandleader — Joani who didn’t even balance her own checkbook.

So I called a meeting of my dozen disciples.  All of them nerdy, techie wizards. I told them how  gratified I was to have been their manager. I applauded all their hard work and thanked them for all they had taught me. But it was time for me to go. I would be leaving at the end of summer to start seminary in the fall. Most of my staff, knowing of my churchy involvement, congratulated me and wished me well. But Julie, the newest member of my staff was silent. Perplexed she paused for a moment. And then she asked me this question.

“Joani, do you hear voices?” A bit taken aback, I too paused and then I answered her. “No, Julie, I don’t hear voices. Do you?”

Joan of Arc in the Cathedral at Reims

Now my namesake, of course, is Joan of Arc. In fact, a WWI poster of Joan of Arc hangs on the wall behind my desk in my Emmanuel office. Mounted on a white stallion, banner furling, sword drawn, Joan is beautifully decked out in shining armor. The poster boasts “Joan of Arc saved her country, so can you.” Well, Uncle Sam, eat your heart out. Who better to lead the charge than the Maid of Orleans.

The Maid of Orleans who heard voices.

Joan heard voices — the voices of angels, the voices of saints, the voice of God. At least that is what she proclaimed. And these voices led her at the tender age of 17 to leave her tiny village. So Joan followed the voices all the way to the court of the defeated Dauphin. And there in King Charles’ court she proclaimed herself a soldier and the savior of his kingdom. The voices gave her the balls to demand an army and the king was so desperate he agreed.

Led by voices, saintly and angelic, Joan did win a glorious battle or two. The glory quickly faded. Captured by the English, Joan was abandoned on the battlefield and crowned a heretic.  And we all know what happens to heretics.

Burned at the stake.

Now the truth be told all of us hear voices. We all have voices in our heads prodding, reminding, encouraging, calming, chastising, urging — lots of voices clamoring for our attention. And it’s a spiritual matter, discerning these voices. Which ones should we pay attention to? Which ones are on our side? Which ones are making any sense? Discerning voices is something all of us do just about all of the time.

The only problem is when the voices seem not your own. Joan of Arc heard heavenly voices — St Margaret and St Catherine and the Archangel Michael. She said this is not me talking, I take my orders straight from God. And in the Middle Ages only crazy people heard voices. In the Middle Ages only the possessed heard voices. Crazy, possessed heretics were burned in the Middle Ages.

So it was a very long time, centuries in fact, before a reluctant church placed a halo on Joan’s head. In fact,  Joan was added to Holy Women, Holy Men, the Episcopal calendar of saints, just a decade ago.

It’s dangerous to tell people you hear voices.

But now twenty-eight years on, I need to change my answer to Julie’s question from a “no” to a a qualified “yes”. Yes, I have heard voices not my own. Tuned into the universe, riding wave after wave of manic bliss I have been convinced that God has important things to tell me. There is no booming voice from heaven. It’s more like God and I are on the same page. Lit up inside — as if by fireflies –my fingers fly like lightning on my keyboard. The Creator of the Cosmos inspires my every word.

One summer I wrote twelve sermons in ten days. Brilliant. Profound. Quotable. Publishable. For twelve Saturdays, I pulled them out one at a time before climbing into the pulpit each Sunday. Some of them were damn good indeed. Some of them not so much.

The bipolar brain does not walk in straight lines. The bipolar brain, at its manic best, zigzags and spirals. This brain is like a blender on max combining the most unusual things in the most unusual ways. “Touched with fire” bipolar folks have quite a history of being marvelously creative. Kay Redfied Jamison’s fabulous book “Touched with Fire”  is a veritable who’s who of poets, sculptors, writers, painters, musicians, composers — all of a manic-depressive temperament.

Where would all the art galleries and concert halls be if all this madness had been medicated away?

Emptier maybe but on second thought maybe not. Leave that blender on too long and the bipolar brain breaks. It splinters into a bazillion little pieces. Concentration shatters. You’re no longer sure just whose voices you’re hearing in your head. And whoever they are, they all seem to be clamoring for your attention. So instead of great art pouring out of your brain, out comes the ravings of a lunatic.

So yes, Julie, I have heard voices. Sometimes the voices are my own. Sometimes not. Sometimes maybe the voices of saints and angels. Sometimes maybe — I dare say — even the voice of God. The wisdom of course is learning to discern the difference.

This gift of discernment is by definition pharmaceutical and therapeutic. It is a gift best practiced at the psychiatrist office and on the therapist’s couch. It’s a gift best practiced with friends and family. It’s a gift best practiced each morning when you face yourself in the mirror. It’s a spiritual gift, given by the grace of God.

And for this gift, I am deeply grateful each and every day.

So friends, do you hear voices?