Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


40 Days, a Muslim in Lent: 2019

In the aftermath of the tragic shooting and loss of 50 lives (the youngest victim being just three years old) at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, I have revised and brought up to date this post from Lent 2017.

Four Fridays, I observed midday prayers with my Muslim brothers and sisters.

Late January 2017, EEC  reached out to MAS and they reached back. That is, my parish Emmanuel Episcopal Church (post the initial infamous travel ban) reached out in friendship to the Muslim American Society Community Center.

I called their office and left a  message:

“We are with you. May we come to Friday prayers? We want to stand with you and support you as a mutual sign of our faith in God.”

Merehan Elhady (Mimi), the Outreach Director, called me right back. Little did I know, their mosque and school had been threatened with violence, with arson, and heinously, even threatened with the kidnapping of their children. That first Friday we shared prayers, the Fairfax County Chief of Police also came to speak to the Muslim community about safety and security.

At the end of the talk, I turned to our hosts. “We are with you,” was all that I could manage to say.

“You are courageous to come,” they told us.

“Heavens no! All we did was show up.  You are a blessing to us and we will be back.”

Half a dozen of us,  each week, observed prayers at MAS. And our Muslim brothers and sisters became like friends: Thoraia, Mimi, and Aseel. Now on a first name basis, each Friday, we would greet one another with hugs.

I’d cover my hair haphazardly with a scarf. I’d leave my shoes in the cubbies outside the worship space. I’d take a seat on the floor. The first two weeks, I sat behind the women. The next two weeks, we sat side by side.

Like we Episcopalians in the pews, together we’d listen to the preacher share a message of love and compassion. And a bit like Episcopal aerobics, we would also bow, kneel, fold our hands over our hearts in prayer, and three times touch our foreheads to the floor.

The chanted Arabic was haunting and beautiful. Though I did not understand a word, the prayers resonated with my soul and their meaning hewed closely to our own.

Muslims prepare for prayer with the cleansing of hands and feet and face, as they turn their thoughts to God. Just as in the BCP we pray:

“Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid; Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

At the mosque, at midday prayers, the worshippers raise their hands and proclaim the greatness of the Lord: “Allahu Akbar.”

And at church, for five Sundays in Lent, we begin with the summary of the law:

“Jesus said, ‘The first commandment is this: Hear O Israel! The Lord our God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:29-31

And this heart of the Gospel echoes in the heart of the Qur’an:

“Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds, the Beneficent, the Merciful; Master of the Day of Judgment. You alone do we worship and from you alone do we seek aid. Show us the Straight Way, the way upon those you have bestowed your grace not of those who have earned your wrath and gone astray.” Qur’an 1: 2-6

This kind of faith strengthens my faith. These prayers redouble mine. Like Najashi, a Christian king of Ethiopia, proclaimed: the difference between their faith and mine is as thin as a line in the sand.

So?

No, I am not converting to Islam.  Jesus is the Eternal Word and the Human Face of God for me — and always will be.

But for those forty days in Lent of 2017, I endeavored to be a Muslim – of the Christian kind.

Five times a day, I would try to pray my Anglican rosary with my Roman Catholic prayers. Kneeling. Standing. Sitting. Walking. Daybreak. Midday. Afternoon. Sunset. Night.

Through Muslim eyes, I tried to draw closer to Jesus. Isa, he is called in the Qur’an. Named and proclaimed as: Messiah. Messenger.  Prophet. Parable.  Word. Witness. Sign. Spirit. Servant.  All that is missing is ‘Lord’.

A bibliophile, I also read a bunch of books, of course.

Holy books: the Gospels, the Surah.

A history book of  faith: “Islam: a Short Introduction” by Karen Armstrong.

And the story of a Sufi Muslim writer and novelist, Mazhar Mallouhi: “A Pilgrim of Christ on the Muslim Road” by P.G. Chandler.

And in January of 2018, many here at Emmanuel, will remember that our friends from the mosque joined us. They joined us in the pews and Merehan, expecting her fourth little boy, shared MAS’s gratitude for the support shown by their Christian friends. The Parish Hall that morning bustled with folks of all ages at the “Get to Know Your Muslim Neighbor” open house.

As time has passed our visits have lapsed. MAS undertook a major renovation of their worship, school and meeting space. Staff have turned over and by my neglect, we have lost touch. And I am very sorry for that.

And now in the tragic aftermath of the hateful and violent events in New Zealand, it is more than time for us to rejoin in friendship.

It is time again, isn’t it, just to show up. To stand behind and beside our Muslim neighbors to let them know that they are not alone.

To observe Friday prayers 1:15 PM at MAS again.

To serve the refugees in our community together again.

To renew our conversation to learn from one another as people of faith.

Being in the love your neighbor business, I will do my best to make this happen. And I encourage any and all who would like to join me on this path.

Because the difference between us and them is as thin as a line in the sand.


Broken Toys, Childhood Nightmares & Grownup Dreams

I have never put much stock in dreams. I am not into Freudian analysis of a bygone age. Aren’t dreams just the random firing of brain waves in your sleep? Your brain showing midnight movies to lull you through the night? And we don’t recall most of these fleeting REM sleep snapshots, right?

So, what’s in a dream?

Well, I grew up in what many would have called a dream house. My dad was a doctor, the Chief of Surgery at Greater Southeast in D.C. My mom, a stay at home mom. We had the nicest furniture and the nicest cars.  We wore the nicest clothes and ate the nicest food.  We had household “help”: Nan and her daughter Cornelia cleaned our house and did our laundry. Cora came once a week just to iron. And Sonny, (really Mr. Simpson) stripped and polished our hardwood floors. Floors that were covered with Karistan carpets.

But inside 5408 24thAvenue, the fairytale fractured. There were six of us kids, just nine years apart from the oldest to the youngest. And there was a ton of chaos within our walls. Not just the Brady Bunch kind of chaos. What I would not have given for the Brady Bunch kind.

My mom was a stay at a home – but not what you would call available. Either manic or dark, my mom tried to drink away her bipolar moods. She was either sky high shopping till she dropped or in her bed days on end behind the bedroom door. Delightfully, I remember her once spending $1000 on Hallmark Halloween things. But, I remember just as well, my father screaming obscenities at her as he flushed her valium down the loo.

My mom was a bipolar alcoholic housewife. My dad a raging workaholic who was hardly ever at home.

God bless them, my Grandmother Cady who lived with us, cooked and cleaned and got us off to school. And my barely elder sister often read to us and put us to bed. But this was not supposed to be their job – especially not my sister’s — just four years older than me.

A bit of a nightmare, if you are a little kid. So, middle child me did my best to hide, to be ever so good, not make a fuss. It was safer that way.

 A brown nose in parochial school, I would stay after class to clean the nuns’ quarters, so I would not have to go home to all the yelling and screaming and name calling.  I was ten years old.

And I had dreams. Recurring dreams. All set in my growing up home.  I will tell you about one.

In my house we had a basement laundry room which sported a double washer & dryer set. Huge, it was equipped with multiple clothes baskets and ironing boards. There was a “toy shelf” built into a back wall.  Stacked with puzzles with missing pieces, board games without all the cards, baby dolls missing an eye or without any clothes, these broken toys belonged both to all of us or to no one at all. 

I dreamed of snowdrifts of laundry piled high in that basement. And just like snow, I dreamed that I tunneled through it to build igloo forts.  But while hidden in the snowy mounds, somehow, my mom scoops me up with a load and tosses me into the dryer. Tumbling and screaming, “Please, let me out. Please, let me out.” But no one could hear.

Growing up, I dreamt it again and again. Not really a dream but a nightmare and a metaphor for more.

And once upon a time, in 1972, this middle child herself became great with child –  totally smashing and fracturing my family’s fairytale façade. Such a scary house of cards.

And I got myself out of that house. I got the child in my belly outside of that house. And through an adoption agency I found in the Yellow Pages, I found her a house that I thought was safe and happy and secure and good. Where she could grow up and live happily ever after.

I thought and believed at seventeen that by placing her, that I had saved her. And in 1972, it was the best I could do.

And I have never really told this to anyone before, but after her birth I began to have dreams — recurring dreams of a baby in a basket. A baby I lost. A baby I could not find. A baby crying for me. A toddler lost at the mall. A child left at the playground. And it was all my fault. 

Nightmares, really. Nightmares which I wish I had confessed long ago.

Reunited with my first daughter, with hindsight I have learned so much. I thought I had escaped my nightmare so, she could live a dream. And while she is happy, healthy and whole – happily married and a great mom of three, I have learned from her about the complicated and deeply felt conflicts of adult adoptees. Being cut off from half of who you are, an adoptee’s life is not always an easy road. It has lifelong repercussions for mental health, relationships and work. 

As it does also for first moms like me.

I have no time machine. I wish I did but I do not and I cannot undo what I did decades ago. But I believe in redemption in the here and now. As her first mom, I am just as much her forever family as her adoptive mom. Different, of course, but physically and viscerally connected from the start. She is my first daughter. Her children are my grandchildren. My children are her siblings. My brothers are her uncles. My second cousins are her third. And I hope and pray we will never separate again.

It is not a fairytale. But it is a f*ing gift.

For me this is not an either/or proposition, it’s my celebration of both/and.

So, to heal the past and create a different kind of future, I am reading books and going to conferences and taking a deep dive on my therapist’s couch. I have signed up with Saving Our Sisters – a family preservation group and I have volunteered to be a “Sister on the Ground.” 

Click here and take a look if you would like to find out more about what they do.

 “We are such stuff as dreams are made of…” Shakespeare said. I choose now to dream better dreams, loftier dreams, dreams filled with possibility and hope. The nightmares be damned.


More Manure, More Fruit.

Many years ago, on the Great Vigil of Easter at Immanuel Church on-the-Hill, two of my four children were baptized. Zach was three and a half and Colleen was just eighteen months. It was a grand and chaotic occasion as friends and relatives gathered late that Sunday evening. The Paschal Fire blazed in a Weber Grille on the steps of the church. The people processed in behind the single flame, behind the deacon chanting the Exultet.  Inside the church was pitch black. Zach tripped over a kneeler, bumped his head on the back of a pew and screamed bloody murder. As the lights came up, we dried his tears. Somehow the service continued with readings and prayers and responses and finally the baptism itself. 

”Zach, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever,” said the priest as he smeared oil on Zach’s forehead.

Christ’s own forever.

 With these words ringing in his ears, Zach turned to us, his mom and dad, with terror in his eyes. Christ? Christ? Who’s Christ? I don’t want to go home with Christ. I want to go home with you!

After all, home is where the heart is? Right? Home is where our duty lies. Right?  Don’t we all have obligations? My family expects things of me, always has. Each time I set foot outside my parent’s home, my father would remind me: Remember you are a Peacock! To be a Peacock meant reading good books, using good manners, conserving electricity, graduating from college, dressing in good taste, voting Republican, and keeping family secrets.  I cannot tell you on how many counts I have failed my father’s expectations (God rest his soul!) 

My life, like yours, I’m sure has taken various twists and turns with jobs and family, hopes and dreams. Ultimately our lives are measured by the mercy of God, but in the meantime, it seems we are eternally beholden to our parents, our spouses, our partners, our children. Family first, right??

Caught between the first and the fifth commandments – I am the Lord, your God. There are no other gods but Me and Honor your father and your mother, we might feel betwixt and between. What does faith demand? What does family require?

How many of us went to the wrong school, took the wrong job or married the wrong person — at least as far as our family was concerned? How many of us dared to be an artist instead of an accountant? An organic farmer instead of a hedge fund manager?  Who among us did not grow up to become the doctor, the lawyer or the Indian Chief?  Did not become the one everyone expected us to be? 

When did you realize that maybe you had fallen far from the tree? 

When did you know, when did you become aware that Someone Else had a claim on your life? When did you get the inkling that while uniquely your own your life might not be entirely your own?  

This is the Christian version of an inconvenient truth. It is the uncomfortable truth that Saint Augustine desperately tried to avoid. In his “Confessions”, the first autobiography ever written, Augustine shares his own tug-of-war tale between God and family.

Augustine’s upwardly mobile parents had grand plans for their bright baby boy. He would be instructed in the Christian faith but not actually become a Christian — not just yet. His mother, Monica wanted him to get through the terrible teens first; let those raging hormones subside. Then he would go to university, master rhetoric, become a lawyer. Not yet ready to marry, he would take a concubine with whom he later fathered a son.

Augustine managed to get to Mass most Sundays but only for the first half. He would leave before communion. He kept putting his baptism off, kicking it like a can down the road. First, you see, his family wanted for him every success, every prize.

So, Augustine knelt and fervently and famously prayed – “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.  Lord, make me a Christian, but not yet.”  Let me stay home and be about my family’s business. First, Lord, let me honor my mother and my father (and reap the benefits thereof.)

Follow in the family footsteps or shake loose from the family tree? Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind OR Honor your father and your mother? Far from simple, right?

What seems like an either/or question is also a both/and proposition. What matters most is that the tree bears fruit.  And quite ironically the more the manure the more the fruit.

“Parable of the Fruitless Fig Tree” Alexey Pismenny

A man had a fig tree planted in its vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So, he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree and still I have found none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.

Jesus had no family home where he could lay his head. Even foxes have holes and birds have nests, but Jesus was essentially homeless. He did not go into the family carpentry business. His only security was in God and his only job was as a son in God’s risky business. Jesus headed God’s way, his own way to Calvary. An unorthodox life destined to bear much fruit.

The Way is the most ancient name for the Christian faith.  To follow Jesus on this Way, to become his disciple, we can’t just stay safe and secure at home. We need to get out and about. We need to be more than couch potato Christians. St. Augustine – with God’s help – left behind father and mother – wealth and status — and quite belatedly went down into the Baptismal waters. And he came up a Christian – far from perfect, conflicted and complex and complicated – sealed as Christ’s forever.

And what was true for Augustine is true for us.

Christ embraces this life — imperfect and unfinished, messy in every respect and piled up to the neck in manure.  Whether we are fully grown or newly born, it does not matter. We’re called to get up out of our pews, out of our comfort zones — to walk into those uncomfortable places. To walk into the places where we can see, seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves. Where we are called to strive for justice and peace among all people. Where we are required to respect of every human being. 

Every human being.

So where is that for you personally? Where might that be for us as a parish? Pastorally, prophetically?  Might it be in the things we are already doing? Or maybe in things we have yet to dream of.

Mis-steps are guaranteed along this Way, but let’s dream on anyway. Because with God’s help and with us holding each other up, we can walk this rocky and uneven path and walk like Jesus the way to Jerusalem.


Splash! Dash! Dunk!

I am no Hemingway…

But like the Old Man of his Pulitzer winning novel, I have long had a problematic relationship with large bodies of water.

Sea water and pool water.

As a child – by the sea, by the beautiful sea – my fair, freckled skin would fry to a crisp. Bright red and hot to the touch – it took just 15 minutes splashing around in the waves – until I was thoroughly cooked.

Slathered with Solarcaine I was waylaid on the sand.   To shield me from the sun, I had to wear my father’s t-shirt and my mother’s floppy hat – while my siblings boogie-boarded and had  a grand old time.

The sea was not my friend —  but neither was the neighborhood pool.

My older sister, Maureen, once she reached driving age, chauffeured us in a fish-tailed Plymouth station wagon to our swimming lessons.

I flunked.

I flunked swimming lessons three times.

Once.

Twice.

Thrice.

Terrified of heights, I never learned to dive. The best I managed to do was doggy paddle the length of the pool. By the time I finally passed, I was at least a head taller than all of the other pollywogs in my class.

Yes, I have long had a problematic relationship with water.

Water won. I lost.

So water and I made a deal.

“I’ll wear my swim suit, Water, but I will never get it wet.”

Be it by the pool or by the sea, I would find a comfortable chair, slather my fair and freckled skin with SPF 100, sit under an umbrella and read a book – or two – or three.

Slather, rinse, repeat.

And that is how  I thought it was going to be — for all eternity –with water and me…

Until.

Cross training for my first half marathon, I signed up for twice weekly water aerobics at the local rec center.

Now most people think water aerobics is just a bunch of old ladies splashing around in the pool.

Nothing is further from the truth.

Barbara, the instructor, worked us like a drill sergeant. The routine is demanding and never boring. Armed with noodles and styrofoam barbells, water shoes and swimming gloves:

Like frogs we skim  the surface.

Like divers we explore the depths.

Like cyclists we pedal the length, the breadth.

Like bells in a belfry we swing both to and fro.

Like flying fish we shoot out of the water.

Like dancers we pivot and turn.

Like soldiers we march.

Like taskmasters we kick our butts.

Like yogis we stretch.

Like runners we run.

Like rowers we row ourselves ashore.

Like dolphins we submerge and rise again.

Water is buoyant – it bolsters my spirit and lifts my mood.

Water is a solvent – solving and dissolving my daily cares.

Water is a liquid –it pools my soul.

Water crashes in waves – washing over me and making me clean.

Water ebbs and flows  – its moods and mine obeying the moon.

Recently, a bit off my game, I have discovered my gym’s heated salt water pool. Miraculously I have managed to make it more days than not this new year. A self directed hour of flying, stretching, running and rowing. A self directed hour of renewal.

Water. Baptismal water.

Thank you, Lord God of the Universe, for the gift of water. Over it the Spirit moved at the dawn of creation. Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. In it Jesus was baptized by John in the River Jordan.

And in these baptismal waters — splash, dash, dunk — I  die and rise again.

P.S. Yes, this is an update of previous post!


64 is the New 46!

An alchemist am I.

In the medieval sense, an alchemist is a philosopher who takes what is base and spins it into gold. A scientist in pursuit of the elixir of life.

Yep, that’s me, fits me to a “t.” But alchemist also fits in the 21st century sense.

According to my EVO Planner, this is how my brain is wired.

Alchemists gravitate toward the abstract and theoretical. They prefer experimenting with their ideas in the real world, and develop a lot of their key ideas while interacting with other people. They are mostly focused on the future and the possibilities it holds.

Ah, music to my alchemist ears: focused on the future and all the possibilities it holds.

I am about to turn 64. Can you believe it? (Here is where you say, “No, you could not possibly be turning 64!”) And vanity has made me ever grateful for my mother’s genes – people have mistaken us both in our lifetimes for a bit younger than we actually are.

64 is two times 32, right? And if you ask me that is how I feel. Two rocking 32 year olds – with a peacock feather streak of color in my gray hair. (Thank you, Olivia at Salon de Zen.) I am not my mother’s or my grandmother’s Oldsmobile, so to speak.

And 64 for me is far larger than my 46. Not simply numerically but expansively. Sure, I am 17 years older but I am also, 17 years more evolved, 17 years more alive than I have ever been.

At 46 I actually faced some of my most difficult days. My marriage imploded. The church where I was rector crashed down around my ears. In my darkest of days, it actually hurt to open eyes and it seemed better perhaps if I no longer did.

But this darkness led me to light.

I took a two-week cruise on the good ship Dominion in 2003. I actually LOVED being on the psyche ward. It totally saved my life. And it set me on a 16 year trajectory of redefining and reclaiming, resurrecting and reimagining who I am.

With God’s help, of course, I am a person of faith. But also with more than a little help from friends and family and therapists and work.

And….

I am going to tell you the truth (not to sound conceited.) The biggest help to me was me. Me, myself, and I.

I have made a bazillion daily decisions over the last 6,0205 days. Each a little choice, each a small turn in the direction of my future and not my past. Step by step by step, the steps add up until a few small steps add up to one enormous leap. A leap into the fullness of my life.

And I am grateful for the sun that has come up everyday and thankful for every breath that I have been blessed to breathe – that have brought me happy and whole to this day.

So 64 is the new 46! And in no particular order, let me count the ways.

  1. Coffee.
  2. Colored pens.
  3. Shelves full of books.
  4. A closet full of dresses.
  5. Half a dozen pairs of walking shoes.
  6. A dog named Bailey.
  7. Two Tabbies: Cheshire & Charlie.
  8. Baptizing babies.
  9. Performing on stage.
  10. Six million rounds of the rosary.
  11. Walking in God’s great outdoors.
  12. Three half marathons.
  13. Three little pills I take each night.
  14. Three years with Sondra on the therapist’s couch.
  15. Ten years prior with Mary.
  16. Four rocking adult children: Rebecca, Zach, Colleen & Jacob.
  17. Four gospels to preach.
  18. An office to call my own.
  19. Colleagues who are more than colleagues.
  20. Coworkers who have become friends.
  21. Digital connectivity in cyberspace.
  22. Gathering folks in God’s name.
  23. Regular dips in the pool.
  24. Fire in my fireplace and pillows to rearrange.
  25. My soul sister, Mical.
  26. My soul brothers, Neal and Chuck.
  27. A little bit of chocolate every day.
  28. Canadian sister Maureen, big bro Tim & baby brother Joseph — age 58!(and maybe the other siblings, too.)
  29. Story District: Invisiblia, 2nd Tuesday & Top Shelf.
  30. Grandchildren: Bella, Jude & Meir; Zhen, Zakai & Zellie.
  31. Great-little-nieces: Virginia & Astrid.
  32. DNA, genetics, and ancestry.com.
  33. A writer’s life: 151 posts @ Unorthodox & Unhinged.
  34. A big red bike I barely ride.
  35. Being Associate for Liturgy & Hilarity at EEC.
  36. Pie (my favorite food group) at Killer ESP.
  37. A full refrigerator with food ready to eat.
  38. Christmas that lasts at least a month.
  39. Birthdays that last at least a week.
  40. Saturday Night Live on a Sunday afternoon.
  41. Cult related documentaries, articles and books (Think Wild, Wild Country and Going Clear.)
  42. Excursions to The Porches, the Oakhurst Inn, Mandarin Oriental and the Line.
  43. Sharing my hometown library, the largest library in the world: LOC.
  44. The rhythm and color of the liturgical year.
  45. Singing an off key soprano whenever I can.
  46. And coffee. Did I say coffee?

64 is the new 46!


Raising Hell for Heaven’s Sake

Phillips Brooks, Episcopal Bishop of Boston in the late 19thcentury, known for his inspiring oratory, famously quipped.

“You preach to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.”

If you didn’t quite catch that let me repeat it.

“You preach to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.”

And woe is me, woe are we.  Jesus, in his sermon from a level place on the plain, is inflicting pain on the rich as he raises up the poor, as he raises up the hungry.

Remember Jesus quoting Isaiah, in the synagogue? 

“I have come to preach good news to the poor, freedom to the captives, and sight to the blind.”

Now he preaches to the would-be disciples, to the people gathered there.

“Blessed are you who are poor…. Woe to you who are rich.”

“Blessed are you who are hungry…Woe to you who are full.”

This is not the smoothed over, tame version in Matthew,

“Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are those who hunger for righteousness.”

This is not Jesus meek and mild. This is Jesus radically wild. 

To be poor in the flesh, not just in the metaphorical spirit, is measurable, but not always visible. And though we may not acknowledge it, we walk past the poor every day. With those cardboard signs. With the paper cups jingling with coins. Pushing grocery carts or carrying backpacks with all their worldly goods.

Some of you may have tasted real poverty. Maybe many of you have skated close. In the recent 35-day government shutdown (and I pray to God there not be another), you may have inched closer. 

Government workers, reminiscent of the Great Depression, stood in bread lines. Having to choose between food or medicine. Heat or shelter. Back to work, people are still behind on their bills. And the contracted workers who clean the buildings and work in the cafeterias and mow the lawns, will never see a month’s worth of back wages. They are farther behind still.

The difference between being a home owner and becoming homeless is a just a lost paycheck or two or three – that includes about 80% of everybody in the United States.

Still most of us have never slept on the street or under a bridge.

When I was in seminary, I worked at Grace Church in Georgetown. It’s located on Wisconsin Avenue on the edge of the C&O Canal. Grace was founded in the 19thcentury by the hoity toity Christ Church up the road. They wanted a place for the riff raff to worship without disturbing their upper-class sensibilities. 

So, Grace was founded on the evangelical values of service to the poor. At Grace, they could find food and clothing and a place out of the cold – without cluttering up Christ Church’s pews.

This mission has long defined Grace. When I worked there, Grace was home to the Georgetown Ministry Center staffed by one and a half professional social workers. They worked with the homeless population who camped out in the church yard. To give them a mailing address for their disability checks. To get a shower, and clean clothes. To get help finding a job. For the mentally ill and diabetic, Grace was a place to get their meds. For those who struggled with substance abuse, Grace was the place for 12-step meetings.  Many of these homeless had also served our county in Vietnam and in the Gulf War.

While David Bird, the rector, was away for a month in the summer, I was left in charge. The Ministry Center had weekly meetings on the church steps to listen to the needs of the real poor people right in front of us. We listened to their concerns and complaints, suggestions and ideas.

There is the stereotype of the grateful poor, and these resourceful homeless men and women, did indeed thank us for our noblesse oblige. Appreciative for the basic needs of life: food, clothing, shelter. But I will never forget one particular meeting, where a gentleman stood up to dress us down.

“You know,” he said, “we feel very welcome here during the week, Monday through Friday.  But the most unwelcoming of days here is Sunday. On Sunday, we feel left out, locked out of this church. What are you afraid of? Open these god damned red doors!”

And so, we did, no thanks to me or to the social workers, but thanks to the homeless themselves. Give us this day our daily bread — for body and for soul.

They joined us in Bible Study. They joined us in the choir. Jay-Jay, a schizophrenic sang the most unusual and beautiful descants. They gathered in the circle with us for communion. And of course, they came to coffee hour, which at Grace was a holy meal and a sacrament unto itself. They joined us for caring for one another — on a level place.

They turned our comfortable places in our comfortable pews, upside down. And we were blessed by them so much more than they were blessed by us.

Here at Emmanuel, blessed are the poor, blessed are the hungry.

Carpenter’s Shelter Breakfast and Dinner.

The Alive Food Panty.

Bag Lunch Program for the Homeless.

Meals on Wheels.

Hunger Free Alexandria.

Our stomachs full, Emmanuel is very mindful of the empty stomachs in our own backyards. It costs us very little to toss that extra jar of peanut butter, box of cereal or can of tuna into our shopping carts. 

But Jesus today asks us for much more. Capital “M”, much more. Not just to feed the five thousand but to turn over the rocks and examine the nasty, negative forces that keep the poorest poor and the richest rich. Culturally. Economically. Concretely. Personally. 

Four hundred Americans at the top of the ladder own more than 150 million at the bottom combined.

Combined.

Why is that? What do we do with that? Locally. Globally. I don’t have any easy answers. I am asking for myself as much as for you. 

Blessed are the poor, plain and simple, says Jesus in the Sermon on the Plain.

The kingdom of God, here is not heaven in the great by-and-by, not that delayed gratification and reward for the grateful poor.

But the kingdom of God, in the words of Jesus, is this world, our cozy and comfortable world turned upside down.

A world where the words of the poor are gospel. Where the voices of the poor are heard.

So, for heaven’s sake, let’s consider how we can dig down, dig deeper, and let Jesus actually afflict us, more than just a little. Let the words of Jesus, dig into us, dig up and turn over our comfortable places in the market places. So, in turn we figure out how to comfort those truly afflicted, the poor and the poorest of the poor.

Let’s pray that we figure out what in heaven’s name we can actually do to turn this world upside down. 

What kind of hell are we going to raise — right here, right now – to bring about the kingdom of God?

Today, tomorrow what are you going to do?


Celtic Crazy: Boudicca, Brigid & Fidelma

Since way back in the AOL days, my email address has been “celticjlp”. I am more than a bit of a Celtophile.  

I have made four pilgrimages to the Emerald Isle. On all things Celtic, I have facilitated forums, I have led retreats and I have tutored a disciple or two. I am steeped, as steeped as I can be, in the history and spirituality of my chosen people.

And in all five of the churches I have served I have concocted and celebrated Celtic worship, orthodox and otherwise. I am Celtic to the core and have the tattoo to prove it — a little green shamrock on my left shoulder. (A Christmas gift from my children!)

Let me recount just a few of the things that connect me so deeply to my Celtic ancestors.

They worshipped the sun and the moon and the stars. They wove the sacred into their most ordinary of chores. They hallowed each and every very hour of each and every day with prayer. Their sanctuaries are the forests and the meadows and the cliffs. Holy spirits indwell their streams and inhabit their oak groves. Holy winds blow on their most remote islands and holy waves crash on their island’s shores. Every little blade of Celtic green grass practically shimmers with the divine. Well almost.

Not to over romanticize my chosen people, the Celts were a nomadic people who probably practiced human sacrifice. Not too often — but one human sacrifice is one too many. The Celts were a warrior people who liked to collect the skulls of those they conquered as trophies. They were a tribal people where both women and men exercised royal power. Yes, women in power. What’s not to like?

And this brings me to Boudica, the Celtic Warrior Queen.

Boudica, for those who do not know, was queen of the Iceni, a Celtic tribe of Britain in the 1st century of the Common Era. During the time of the Roman occupation, Boudica’s husband was able to keep his crown. Upon his death, however, the Romans rolled over the Iceni. They captured its people and confiscated their property. Boudica was flogged and her daughters raped.

No one would have blamed Boudica, if she gave into defeat and despair. But hell no, Boudica rescued her daughters, climbed into her chariot, and led the Iceni army in the charge against Rome. She put down the 9th Legion, destroyed the Roman capital and went on to conquer London, another stronghold of the occupiers.

There was bloodshed beyond measure and Boudica was eventually beaten back. It is said she took her own life to avoid capture. No one knows where Boudica is buried.

But all of Celtic Britain knows her story, every little boy and every little girl.

And so this brings me to  Brigid.

In the second half of the 5th century, there was Brigid, Bishop Brigid of Kildare.

Brigid is both the name of a Celtic goddess and the name of a saint. For the ancient Celts, Brigid is the three-faced goddess of poetry, metal work, and fire. And for Celtic Christians, Saint Brigid is the founder of the monastery at Kildare, the Church of the Oak. Kildare was a “double monastery” home to both religious men and women. And these Celtic Christian brothers and sisters were permitted to marry and raise children in service to the Lord.

And Brigid, the abbess of Kildare, Celtic history tells us was consecrated a Bishop. Carved into the stone altar rail at the Rock of Cashel, Bishop Brigid, crozier in hand, leads a procession of the twelve apostles.

The Roman Catholic  Church turned her crozier into a butter churn and demoted Brigid from Bishop to milkmaid. Hopefully and forever, the hierarchy thought they had  put in her rightful and inferior place.

Until there was Fildelma.

The real Brigid did not remain buried forever. She has been resurrected and reincarnated in the fictitious and fabulous Sister Fidelma. Fidelma is the creation of Celtic scholar turned mystery writer, pen-named Peter Tremayne.

Set in 7th century Ireland, the Sister Fidelma stories are a delicious combination of history and mystery. Fidelma is of royal blood, a princess of the Eoghanacht, educated to the level of dalaigh, an adovocate of the Brehon courts, just below judge. She is also a member of the monastery at Kildare, and married to Brother Eadulf. Yes, married to Brother Eadulf, a Saxon monk, who is Dr. Watson to her Sherlock Holmes. And by the time Fidelma and Eadulf  are solving their 20th murder or so they even have a baby.

Crack open one or two of these books and you will be hooked.  Tremayne gives them hokey Agatha Christie titles like “Absolution by Murder”, “Shroud for the Archbishop”, “Our Lady of Darkness” and “Whispers of the Dead”.

Who says women can’t have it all?

Boudica. Brigid. Fidelma. When feeling the need to slay a dragon or two – or just feeling a touch grandly grandiose — who better for my bipolar brain to channel than the spirits of these holy three, this Celtic and oh so feminist trinity. Boudica — queen, warrior, widow, mother and savior of her people. Brigid — goddess, abbess, priestess, bishop and saint. Fidelma — princess, sister, lawyer, detective and murder mystery solver. Their icons and statues grace my halls and walls. Their books and biographies fill my bookcases. I have embraced their stories and made them my own.

It may seem silly, but to tell you the God’s honest truth, I believe these three women are kin to me. And oh my this little trinity has given me the energy  to get my warrior on — from time to time.. And so I believe myself to be their sister – their soul sister. Joani, the soul sister of Boudica, Brigid and Fidelma. Crazy, huh?

Yes, Celtic crazy. And you can celebrate this craziness, too.

Come join me Sunday, February 3rd for a Celtic Eucharist at both 8:00 & 10:30 AM, a between the services forum on Women in The Celtic World at 9:15 AM, and an “Irish Coffee” Hour in the Parish Hall with an Irish Step performance by the Boyle School dancers! Emmanuel is the place: 1608 Russell Road Alexandria, VA.

Wear green!!