Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


Sleeping Around (not what you think!) or Travels with Joani

I have never been one to rough it or to sleep under the stars in the great outdoors. Even as a Girl Scout I was allergic to camp. All grown up now, the most rustic I ever get is a Shrine Mont retreat – an Episcopal mountain village and old hotel in Orkney Springs. Complete with clean linens and private baths.

My clergy income does not allow for international travel or cross country road trips. But I do love to get out of town once in a while. And when I do, I love to book myself into a fancy boutique hotel.

A weekend’s stay just across the river in my beloved hometown of Washington, D.C.; or a few days in Mr. Jefferson’s Virginia City; or farther afield to Brooklyn, NY (home of my filmmaker son!).

By Uber, by car, by train.

Sleeping around in funky beautiful places is one of my favorite things to do. So let me recommend a few. All are fabulous and none are cheap so shop around for online deals.

So here we go, details shamelessly lifted from websites.

Places Where Joani Has Slept in Washington, D.C.!

The Intercontinental at the Wharf

On the SW waterfront overlooking the Potomac River, you can take the Water Taxi from Alexandria to the Wharf. There is a rooftop pool & bar and an Afro-Caribbean restaurant called Kith & Kin. Take a stroll on the waterside piers and promenades. Check out the books at Politics&Prose. Attend a performance at the Anthem or Union Stage.

The Line

Located in the Adams Morgan neighborhood, this unique hotel is housed in a 110 year-old historic church. Room numbers are posted on old hymn boards and recycled church pews line the corridors. The Line is the brainchild of local chefs, bartenders, artists and designers. It has a “full service” radio station in the lobby and three restaurants. Brothers & Sisters features “American classics with an Asian point of view.” Nearby is the Adams Morgan Community Center “an incubator space for artists and nonprofits..which hosts art shows, performances and workshops.”

Capitol Hill Hotel “…tucked away amidst charming brick row houses…and a short walk to the Capitol, Supreme Court, Library of Congress” (my happy place!) “and the Botanical Gardens.” It is across the street from the Capitol South Metro Stop and accessible on the Blue & Yellow lines. The rooms are appointed with “plush white bedding, eclectic furnishings and classic prints by American artists.” Nearby eateries on Pennsylvania Avenue include the Hawk ‘n Dove and the infamous Tune Inn. The East City Book Shop, a fabulous indie bookstore is a hop and a skip from the must-visit historic Eastern Market.

Places Joani Has Slept in Charlottesville, Virginia!

The Oakhurst Inn

“This Craftsman inspired Inn borders the University of Virginia…the classic rooms” are all housed in three historic bungalows. Instead of a lobby, the Oakhurst has four libraries: “Sit by the fire, peruse a book, help yourself to an espresso or Italian soda. Decorated with architectural curiosities. Have you ever seen a Russian gramophone?” The cafe features “fresh takes on southern classics” and the new Oakhurst Hall sports a salt water pool and Jazz Nights. Walk across the street to Mr. Jefferson’s University of Virginia (the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in the U.S.) or hop on the trolley to go shopping at the Downtown Mall.

The Boars Head Resort

Owned by the University of Virginia Foundation, the Boars Head is a country resort where the “borders between past and present, serenity and energy melt away.” Decorated with classic southern charm and equipped with modern amenities, this fabulous getaway includes nature trails, a racquet & fitness club, a spa (where I got a facial!) and three outdoor pools (one for adults only!). If you are brave (and I am not) you can book a ride on a hot air ballon. The Mill Room’s award winning chefs culinary delights are sourced from local farmers and vineyards. Literally catch your own fish (from the fish farm) for a delicious Trout Salad. Explore the “Monticello Wine Trail”. There are over 30 wineries in a 25 mile radius of Charlottesville!

Places Where Joani Has Stayed in Brooklyn, New York!

The McCarren Hotel & Pool

Located in the Williamsburg neighborhood, on land stolen from Native Americans by the Dutch West India Company in 1638 and eventually bought up the wealthy Jonathan Williams who in 1802 named the town for himself, the McCarren describes itself as “edgy, artsy and epic.” It has a rooftop bar, Freille linens and “rainfall showers.” The Urban Vegan Kitchen serves “semi-sophisticated comfort food.” The Olympic sized pool across the street, open in the summer, is a place to mix and mingle with the locals. Williamsburg is a “hipster hotspot alive with music, art shows, food festivals and farmers’ markets.” Go for a tour and a by-the-token beer tasting at Brooklyn Brewery.

The Box House Hotel

“Once a doors and windows manufacturing facility, The Box House is now home to 130 spacious lofts with soaring ceilings and factory details. Located off the East River in Greenpoint, where streets are still named for 19th century farmers, the hotel is decorated with original artwork and nostalgic details.” (My Room has a Royal manual typewriter. Maybe I will write that book!) Balconies overlook the Brooklyn skyline. The Brooklyn Lantern downstairs is a yummy full service cafe and the hotel even has its own “neighborhood taxi” which will save you a few Uber-dollars.

Too fancy to leave behind any graffiti, I would love to scribble Joani slept here on these guest room walls. But alas, no. They would not welcome me back!

The photos are are all mine (except for the McCarren). Click on the links to explore more!

Happy travels!


Soul Cycling & The Blessing of the Bicycles

This post is about soul cycling but not of the studio kind. No, this post is about the kind of ride that stirs the soul to raise up hope in a crazy world. I am talking about the rides of our lives – be they literally from the seat of a bike – or literally by the seat of our pants — in whatever our vocation might be.

As an Episcopal priest, vocationally I celebrate the sacraments. As Associate for Liturgy & Hilarity at Emmanuel, in an Excel spreadsheet, I construct our weekly worship. Cycling (yes, pun intended) through the church’s seasons, I play liturgical Legos. With about a dozen moving parts, I piece together the service pulling from a variety of sanctioned sources.  The Book of Common Prayer, of course, but also the Book of Occasional Services, Enriching Our Worship, the Revised Common Lectionary, and the ELC A Sundays & Seasons prayers and petitions. Prayers and petitions which I intentionally edit each week to reflect the needs of this ever-challenging world.

This is my labor of love. At Emmanuel we use far more of the Book of Common Prayer than parishes who simply pick up the book. Episcopal worship is expansive, elastic and flexible. And here at Emmanuel, we flex as far as the rubrics will allow:

Rite III Youth Eucharist the first Sunday of six months.

The Blessing of the Animals in October.

A Contemplative Christmas in December.

A Celtic Eucharist in February.

Pentecost & Pride in June.

And the Blessing of the Bicycles to celebrate the summer solstice.

Last year we had 120 folks of all ages with their trikes and bikes. I brought and baptized my own new shiny red pseudo-Schwinn with the fat white tires. Though I confess, I have not ridden my bike much in the last year. Given my personal recent rocky road, I imagine, my body and soul would be much better off if I had.

I am really an avid pedestrian. To keep myself walking, I started this thing called Soul Strolling – an hour’s sojourn and conversation, one on one, a parishioner and me, walking local highways and byways and trails.

Muscles in motion, in the great outdoors, frees up your head and refreshes the spirit.

So, maybe I should start Pedaling with the Pastor to get me back on my bike. An hour’s ride with parishioner and priest, cycling together to some favorite watering hole or coffee shop. This great idea is not my idea. I stole it from Pastor Ken Dixon.  He beat me to it.

Pastor Ken Dixon, a Seventh Day Adventist minister, loved cycling but had not been on his bike in umpteen years. Moving from church to church and climate to climate, his bike gathered dust in his garage. He became a potato on his couch and gained weight to the point of being pre-diabetic. His VA doctor cut to the chase, “If you don’t do something about this, you’re going to die!” A come-to-Jesus moment, Pastor Dixon realized – for the sake of himself, his family and his parish – he had to get back on his bike.

“I didn’t want to stand in front of my congregation and tell them to take care of their bodies when I am on the verge of dying!”

Dixon started cycling with half a dozen fellow Texas pastors. A few months in, he raised the stakes – sort of as a joke. “Let’s ride to the Adventist World Conference from Dallas to San Antonio!” What! No! Maybe! Incredibly quite a few said YES! “Seventeen riders from all different ages, races and places covered 350 miles in just five days.”

This pedal-powered mission strengthened more than just hearts and lungs. It broke down cultural barriers and bore fruit of a spiritual kind. Dixon’s idea had taken flight.

“Flight” by Yusuf Grillo

The Flight is an “oil on board” painting by artist Yusuf Grillo. “It depicts a young family in native Yoruba dress, seated on a bicycle. While the man pedals…the woman sits on the bicycle bar cradling a baby.”

“Grillo started the painting during the Nigerian Civil War, a very painful time in his country’s history. Many lives were lost and many more were maimed. The memory of his people fleeing the violence was seared into his psyche.”

“He likened the forced migration to the flight of the Holy Family – fleeing Israel for Egypt.” Not on the back of a camel or donkey but on a bicycle. An icon for refugees everywhere, it symbolizes the very human search for safety, security and peace.

On May 12, 2018 Alana Murphy set out an 88-day, 4,380-mile bike ride across the country. Along the way, she conducted 65 interviews with refugees in 15 cities including Philadelphia, Detroit and Kansas City.

Alana’s idea took flight from the seat of her bike. “My hope was to make these stories and experiences accessible…’Refugee’ has become an increasingly divisive word. I realize most people in the U.S. have not had the opportunity to hear the stories of these incredible people….I spent the majority of my time riding through rural areas where many are not supportive of immigrants…By spending time in their communities, I was able to listen to their fears and concerns and learn about a part of our country that is often overlooked and misunderstood.”

I looked into the Bible to find some wisdom about loving our neighbor on the open road. There are no scriptures that cite bicycles, of course. The closest I could get was the prophet Ezekiel:

As I watched the four creatures, I saw something that looked like a wheel on the ground…They were identical wheels, sparkling like diamonds in the sun. It looked like they were wheels within wheels, like a gyroscope… When the living creatures went, the wheels went; when the living creatures lifted off, the wheels lifted off. Wherever the spirit went, they went, the wheels sticking right with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was within the wheels.

Not about bikes, Ezekiel’s apocalyptic vision is about flight, the Israelites escaping from bondage in Babylon. It is about a freedom ride, a ride of a lifetime, and the return to the Promised Land.

A wild ride that we are all on. 

“More than anything,” Alana writes on beautiful crossing.com, “I find myself dreaming about the next time I get back on a bicycle…cycling all day under blue skies, climbing mountain passes despite hail and rain and sleeping on the side of the road snug in my tent. Feeling just you and your bicycle facing the open road is something incomparable.” Something miraculous. Something to inspire whatever comes next.

So, let’s all get back on our bikes – both metaphorical and real – and take flight.

Soul cycling can do the world a world of good – body, mind and soul.

Join us at Emmanuel on High, 1608 Russell Road, Alexandria VA for the Blessing of the Bicycles, June 30th at 10:30 AM. Hope to see you there!


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!


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.


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?


An Unorthodox Easter: The Gospel According to Gary

My son Zach from a very early age was a Far Side fan. You remember Far Side, of course — those twisted little windows into reality that appeared in the funny pages each Sunday. Gary Larson was the Svengali of subversive. Insect like people living in the suburbs, cows channel surfing on the couch, dogs dishing out wisdom, and the occasional person observing life’s absurdities. It was actually a little scary that Zach at age six without any parental explanation got it. And got it he did. Zach collected every compilation of Far Side Cartoons published. And he collected some of the unpublished ones as well – the ones that never made it into the newspapers.

For Zach, these were kind of like the “lost gospels of Gary Larson.” Sifting through them, I came across my most-favorite-by-far Far Side Cartoon of all time.

Etched in black in a white rectangle 3 ½ inches square, the scene is set. Jesus sits slumped over on a barstool. He cradles a cup of coffee in his hands, steam rising like incense. He has more than a five o’clock shadow. His clothes are rumpled and dirty. His hair is wild and uncombed. Behind him is an empty coffin, a stand-in for the empty tomb. The caption reads:  I wonder what time it is…I feel like I’ve been dead for three days.

From the Lost Gospel of Gary Larson

Irreverent right? Sacriligeous right? Heretical right? Hysterical right? I go mostly with hysterical because to me it is so hysterically true. What better Jesus to greet us on Easter morning than the Jesus who knows exactly what it is like to stumble and struggle in the darkness. What better news after walking through the hell of Holy Week — than to wake up surprised as anybody — to live and breathe again.

This is my kind of Jesus.

Heretic (of a kind), I am proudly so. Remember, this little blog is titled Unorthodox and Unhinged. And I come from a long line of the unhinged — who know all too well what it is like to stumble and fumble through the dark.

The darkness the world calls depression — definitely the down side of bipolar disorder.

Growing up we knew my mom was not like other moms. Reading my mother was like reading a weather report: cloudy and dark or bright and clear? When she was the latter my mother was the life of the party, a fabulous storyteller, she infamously shopped- ‘til-she-dropped. Back in the 70’s in a single shopping spree, my mom spent $1000 in a Hallmark Store! Birthday party favors, greeting cards, and Halloween decorations galore!

But more often, my mom took to her bed for days on end, and we dared not darken her door. To smooth out her moods my mother medicated herself with drink and abused prescription drugs. Add lithium to that cocktail and she was practically catatonic — seemingly beyond resurrection.

My mom came by this honestly, her mom before her, my Grandmother Cady, had taken to her bed for three long years. My grandmother had retreated into the tomb of her darkened room. And during these years, my mother had to drop out of school and become the mother who cooked and cleaned and grocery shopped for her father and older brother.

I understand much better now what triggered my mother’s illness.

And like my mother before me, I too fell down the bipolar rabbit hole — quite late at the age of 48. I will not bore you with the details but sixteen years ago, while I was rector-chief cook-and bottle-washer-24/7 at Holy Cross and going through a divorce, I crashed and burned. My days had become so dark I could barely get out of bed. And when out and about, I could barely wait to get back into that bed again at the end of the day.

After preaching every service, making every pastoral call, facilitating every forum, being at every Bible study, leading every vestry meeting, sitting in on every committee, negotiating every dispute, and even singing in my own choir – I was depleted, body, mind and soul. The parish found me wanting but I had nothing left to give. Absolutely nothing left. So I went home to numb the pain and prayed: Please God, do not make me go back there. Please God, I just want to go to sleep and not wake up.

Now these dark days seem like ancient history to me now, but never say never again. There is better living through loving relationships and chemistry and therapy and sound sleep and satisfying work and writing and storytelling and drunk-acrobat-cats and laughter and long walks and books, lots of books. This is how I crawled out from under and back to life — a little bit like Jesus in the Gospel according to Gary Larson.

This is my salvation and continues to be.

Jesus is the only savior who makes sense to me. Forsaken and lonely, lost and afraid, scruffy and dirty, tired and worn, this savior who loved so well and lost so much. This savior, who I believe, was just as fricking surprised on Easter morning — as you and me — that he was alive again.

Resurrected, I believe, to call us all out from the dank and darkness of our everyday tombs.

So my friends, a very happy Easter! Let us rejoice, with but one voice, for the God who’s been three days dead.

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!