Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


Pregnant with Possibility

Once upon an Advent, I became an Anglican. Year’s end of 1984, to be exact.

Raised Roman Catholic and having spent my early adulthood agnostic, my ex-husband William and I followed breadcrumbs back to church. Not back so much really as forward. Instead of returning to the pews of our youth, we accepted an invitation to attend Immanuel on-the-Hill. (Yes, the other Emmanuel, directly across the street from Virginia Seminary.) Zach, my firstborn son was just three and Colleen was not quite six months.

These little children led us to knock on the door of a church – a door we had not darkened for ages. The liturgy was strangely familiar – like a favorite old song but to a different tune. And — singing this new song was a vested woman at the altar! And we got to drink the wine, as well as, eat the bread. What a revelation this was!

Literally, leaving church on my very first Episcopal Sunday, the rector had a proposition for me.

Would you like to join the worship planning committee?

Not just volunteer to read or be an usher, but to be a lay partner along with the priest planning the services of the coming season?

Having grown up in a tradition, where women were only allowed behind the altar if they had a vacuum cleaner, I was gob smacked! Floored!

Of course, I would love to! Yes!

And I do confess, this committee work helped fulfill a lifelong fantasy of mine – to be cast as Mary in the Christmas concert. The fantasy of every little Roman Catholic girl  (and every little Protestant  girl, too, I imagine!)

The Nativity, Julie Vivas

And alas, it came to pass for me this Advent of 1984. Recently pregnant and obviously not a virgin, at long last I had snagged the part of the BVM. Not quite as embarrassing as liturgical dance, in lieu of a sermon, I starred in a three-part liturgical drama:

Mary! Pregnant with God!

Three parts. Three trimesters.

Advent 1. Surprised. Uncertain. Shaky. Nauseous. Scared.

Advent 2.  Blooming. Stretching. Aching. Hoping.

Advent 3. Heavy. Swollen. Sleepless. Bursting.

I burst into the Magnificat.

It was Advent in the Eighties, and I wore Blessed Mother blue.

This is the blue season. The hangings are blue. The candles on the Advent wreath, except one, are blue. The darkness of these blue winter days yearns for the light. 

And on Advent 4, we have walked almost all the way to Bethlehem. Walked beside a pregnant, unwed peasant girl.

“…she was found to be with child… Her husband Joseph…planned to dismiss her quietly… But an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit… She will bear a son and you are to call him Jesus…after the prophet Isaiah who said, ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and they shall name him Emmanuel – which means ‘God with us.’”

Now this 1st century story is a hard sell in the 21st. Such an illustrious and exceptional birth was a common motif for the likes of emperors-turned-gods in the ancient world. And I confess to you, it has always been a conundrum to this Christian.

But Anglicans are unafraid to ask such questions.

Twenty-eight years ago, I crossed the street from my home parish Immanuel on-the-Hill to pursue a quest that has landed me in the pulpit this Sunday and many before. And the very first sermon I ever preached in homiletics class was on Advent 4, Matthew 1:18-25, the virgin birth.

And it went something like this; I quote myself below.

“Hail Mary, never virgin, the Lord is with thee.”

“A little bit shocking? But I did get your attention, right?”

“And what I mean by Hail Mary, never virgin, in the poetic sense, is that when it comes to God, Mary is anything but a virgin. She is vulnerable, bewildered and yet open to this pregnant impossibility. Conceiving within herself all that is divine, all that is holy.”

“Don’t get hung up on the biology, my fellow seekers. Focus on the theology. The meaning behind the mystery. Focus on the good news that the Word of God was made flesh and dwelt among us.”

“Just as true in 1991, as it was in Year One.”

“How do we conceive this Word of Love within us? How do we hear it, speak it, shout it from the rooftops, live it?”

“Like Joseph, what dream of God do we dream?”

“Like Mary, what does our pregnant soul proclaim?”

After a dramatic and pregnant pause, I returned to my seat. I was pretty sure I had flunked my first sermon, but I got an A minus or maybe a B plus — I can’t quite remember.

And the seminary did not kick me out.

And for twenty-five years, “Emmanuel, God with us” is the gospel I still imperfectly preach. And I am so grateful these past five years to have been able to preach it here at Emmanuel on High. Again, on Advent 4, on Matthew 1:18-25, on the virgin birth.

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord. And my spirit rejoices in God my savior.


“God Keeps No One Waiting Unless It Is Good for Them.”

Impatience, thy name was Dr. Peacock.

When I was growing up, my father, a busy and successful surgeon, did not like to wait. He would not take us anywhere he anticipated crowds or lines. He would never go to a restaurant without a reservation. When we went to the movies, we went at odd times, arriving late, sitting in the back and leaving early. Native Washingtonians, we never visited the White House or the Washington Monument. We never went to the Cherry Blossom Festival or the lighting of the National Christmas Tree.

.“Too many tourists,” my dad would say. “Too much God damned trouble to wait in those god forsaken lines.”

No time to be patient, beloved, no time to be patient.

Waiting for Santa, Circa 1960

Now most us, including myself, much like my dad, count waiting as a colossal waste of time. And via the bazillion apps on our iPhones, iPads, and MACs, we need only navigate the net to have an instant Christmas.

Point, click and shop till you drop.

UPS and Federal Express or a guy on a Segue or an Amazon.dot.com drone will deliver to your doorstop a complete Christmas, from soup to nuts: the tree, the trimmings, the trappings, the presents and all the wrappings. Cyber-Monday, Cyber-Everyday eliminates the wait and takes us far from the maddening crowds.

Awesome Sauce! Right? Convenient for lives and calendars crammed with business appointments, committee meetings, carpools, school concerts, errands and chores. This is something close to a f*ing miracle! Successful people know that time is money — more precious than money.

Waiting is for chumps, for the clueless, for losers.

Waiting is for crazy people, waiting on the end of the world – with a specific date and time in mind for Jesus to return: survivalists stockpiling food, water, and toilet paper. Only wacky Millennialists (No, not Millennials, Millennialists!) wait on the impossible. Only wacky people wait on the mountain top for the space ship to come pick them up, beam them aboard, and fly them off to who knows where. Waiting on doomsday. Waiting for the end to come.

Two thousand years ago, the people of the church of St. Paul’s in Rome were busy waiting. They were keeping Advent, getting ready for something like a Christmas. Waiting, not for Santa, but for the Son of Man to return. He would come in glory and majesty, riding on the clouds in the company of angels. (Eat your heart out, Rudolph!)

Jesus promised he would be back. He said he would be back. So they kept vigil and they waited and they watched the skies and they yearned and they longed and they pined.

But no one came.

Be patient, beloved, be patient.

Now, patience is a virtue and sometimes the wait is worthwhile. Sometimes hanging in there is indeed worth it.  After all, what is grape juice compared to a fine wine? What are Cliff Notes compared to the plot twists of your favorite book? What is a cheap and tawdry affair compared to a life long love?

Waiting cultivates desire, illuminates our need and heightens our expectations. And in the end, waiting sharpens our pain, as well as, our joy.

The people of Saint Paul’s in Rome were not just idly waiting. They weren’t just biding their time for something better to come along. They were waiting for a taste of heaven. They were waiting on eternity.

Something like a Christmas came and something like a Christmas went, year after year, generation after generation. And the folks at Saint Paul’s began to feel a little silly, a little self-conscious. And these folks, they grew plain sick and tired of waiting. And Christians everywhere, it seemed, lost the will to wait.

When Jesus did not come riding in on the clouds, like a shining knight on a white horse, as he was long expected to, we just gave up on waiting.

It’s naïve, a childish thing, beyond belief.

So instead, we now wait just four weeks for the baby in the manger.

We wait just four weeks for the Jesus who has already come.

And yet, anyone who has been through the nine months of pregnancy, or lived with someone who has, knows that birthing a baby is much more than a waiting game.

Now many a woman has wished for an Instagram/Polaroid pregnancy but it just doesn’t work that way. At first, there is the anxiety. Is the stick pink or blue? Is that a plus or minus sign? Once you know for sure, the room begins to spin and you regularly lose your lunch. And while you struggle to keep down saltines, this new little life feeds on you body and soul. You grow large and full of life, as does your heart grow and groan with love and angst. And by nine months’ end you feel a little bit like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

No part of you, no crevice of your womb is left unfilled. Over a trinity of trimesters, expectation heightens. And all those who keep watch and wait hover around you. “When is it coming? When are you due?” Some even touch and grab onto your belly as if it were their very own. (Please, always ask first!)

Who is this little one coming, who has turned you inside out?

Who is this little one coming, who will turn the world upside down?

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of its roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.”

“He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth…”

“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion, and the fatling together,

and a little child shall lead them.”   — Isaiah 11:1-10

Just like the people, two millennia ago, we are waiting on this little scrap of eternity, a little taste of heaven.

How do we tread this waiting-way? Well, here at Emmanuel, we have a little home grown devotional, Waiting Rooms: Poetry, Scripture & Icons for Advent. I am also leading a conversational class, God of the Cosmos & God in the Cradle on the four Sunday mornings of Advent at 9:15 AM between the services. Cocktails, Mocktails & Carols, Saturday December 7th, 7:00 – 9:00 PM joyfully previews the birth of the child. And Contemplative Christmas: A Taize Service of Evening Prayer, December 15th at 6:00 PM quietly anticipates the light of the coming Christ.

In this pregnant season of Advent, let us pray, that the Spirit breathe life into our weary souls; that Christ’s light penetrate these dark days of December.

And let us pray, beloved, that with patience, once again,

Christ be born — flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone into this broken, beat up, and wonderful world.

Come, Lord Jesus, come.

JoaniSign

“God keeps no one waiting unless it is good for them.” Oswald Chambers


All Hallows’

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

Hist whist little goblin. Hist whist little ghostling.

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

All Hallows’ Eve, even more than All Saints Day was a high holy day at my house.  It was just about the only holiday, as a clergy person, that I did not have to work. My children, specifically my son Zach, each year would transform our front porch into a haunted space — with paint and props, cob webs and pumpkin slime, fake blood and plastic body parts.  

One year the porch became Dr. Frankenstein’s workshop. Another year (my favorite), the porch became Hotel 666, where you checked in but could never check out!

all_hallows__eve_by_lhox-d5hoe82

Trick-or-Treaters flocked to our front door with their paper sacks and plastic pumpkins.  And we always gave out the good stuff; not Dumdums lollipops. Yuck, no! But chocolate. Especially chocolate!

All Hallows’ Eve. Ah, Holy Day.

And then, the next day, and the one after that, were also holy. All Saints Day, November 1st. All Souls Day, November 2nd. Growing up Catholic, holy souls enveloped my childhood. Christened for Saint Joan, I was doubly sainted once confirmed. For my “confirmation name” I chose Veronica — for her four melodious syllables.

And on All Souls Day, after church, my family would visit Cedar Hill Cemetery, a holy place, planted with Peacocks over many generations.

 While my siblings and I played among the headstones, my mom clipped the grass and left flowers at our grandparents’ graves. Afterward we would race down the hill to the pond and toss breadcrumbs to the ducks.  

And before we got back into the car, we’d say a little prayer for all of those who had gone before. All those saints and souls, both great and small. For all these holy persons, in whom heaven and earth got all tangled up.

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

The day we die is also the day we rise. And if a saint, it is our saint’s day, too.

In the margins of my Book of Common Prayer, in pencil, are the scribbled names of many souls whom I have laid to rest these past 25 years.

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

And the One whose name is above every name, counts us among the guests of heaven.

Most of us are saintly in a lowercase “s” kind of way. But this Sunday, November 3rd, we celebrate the Feast of All Saints, saints with a capital “S.”

So, how do we earn one of those? Who gets to wear an official halo and how?

Well, in the Roman Catholic scheme of things, to be canonized, not only do you have to be a pillar of virtue in life — you also have to be a miracle worker in death. 

Happily in the Episcopal Church, it’s different. Modeled on the United States Congress, we have both a House of Bishops and a House of Deputies,  who gather every three years at Convention. The Standing Liturgical Commission (Episcopalians love committees!) nominate candidates for their resemblance to Christ. Then the members of both houses vote. Yes, vote!   If elected, the new saint gets a date on the liturgical calendar. A lesser feast, so to speak.

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

But also, including the likes of:

Johannes Sebastian Bach, maestro of sacred music.

Charles Wesley, composer of 6,000 hymns.

Florence Nightingale, nurse and social reformer.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, abolitionist and feminist.

Thomas Gallaudet, teacher and advocate for the deaf.

Blessed be all those who have gone before us, whose lives have shone with the light of Christ.

Be they a lowercase saint or a capital one.

May we also be counted in their number.

When the saints go marching in.

JoaniSign


The Middle Way or “Why can’t we all just get along?

Middle child, born and bred, my DNA has directed, no, better said; my DNA has dictated my lifelong passion for peace-making.

Having grown up in a cacophonous household, ripe with arguments, petty and small, I would try to negotiate family conflicts. As an act of self-preservation mostly, I was a kid, after all.

Like a United Nations foreign language interpreter, I tried to translate for both sides of the opposing parties:

Maureeen/Tim/Joani/Bernie/Clare/Joseph is not upset because you wanted to borrow their toothbrush/toys/clothes/gadgets. S/he’s upset because you didn’t ask. Maureen/Tim/Joani/Bernie/Clare/Joseph is upset because you didn’t say ‘please’.

And pretty-please, I would pray, that this little conflict would go away.

It is no wonder, that when I grew up, I found a “middle way”, my spiritual home in the Episcopal Church.

Photo by Liesl Testwuide

The Middle Way, the Via Media, is not the mushy meaningless way. It is not the path of least resistance. It is the uniquely Anglican tradition that affirms both our catholic roots and our commitment to reform. Standing on the shoulders of saints, we look to the past for guidance and to the future with hope.

The Episcopal tradition bridges many a divide. Recognizing our neighbors, to our left and to our right, we worship together in the pews. And during these times that so try our Christian souls (to borrow a phrase from Thomas Paine), Anglicanism embraces myriad ways to be faithful.

Remember the late Rodney King’s 1992 rallying cry? In the aftermath of the LA riots, sparked by his own racially charged and violent arrest, he implored the crowds:

“People, I just want to say to you, can we all just get along…I mean, we’re all stuck here for a while. Let’s try to work it out. Let’s try to beat it.”

To work our conflict out, not to ignore it. Though many of us, myself included, would prefer for all this contentionness to just melt away.

But, we can work it out (to borrow a lyric from the Beatles!) The Book of Common Prayer invites us to do the same. On page 304, the Baptismal Covenant draws a map of the Middle Way.

“Will you seek and serve all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”

“I will, with God’s help.”

“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

“I will, with God’s help.”

Way easier said than done! How can we “walk this talk” in an everyday way? How can we translate these churchy words into a conversation at our kitchen tables?

Well, a Dutch startup has devised one creative way. Not a religious resource, but a human one, the company has come up with a very good idea.

And just in time for the holidays, which will be here before we know it. Lots of in-laws and outlaws coming into town! Loved ones we disagree with and who disagree with us!

Small talk can only get us so far, as we dance around our differences. Gingerly, we try to avoid the pitfalls and stepping on landmines, right? How do we start a conversation, and not a fight?

Well, you can play Vertellis’ game: Tell Me More.There are multiple versions, for relationships, families, coworkers. And now, there is a holiday edition!

A step above Trivial Pursuit, the game “involves thought-provoking questions that invite everyone to share fun memories, inspiring goals, and meaningful stories. It results in deeper conversation that makes everyone feel more connected. It draws people closer.”

In a no-phone-zone, you can “drop the rocks” and listen to everyone around the table in a more open-hearted way. Conversation is a key, science tells us, to the “happiness factor.” We humans are highly social creatures, after all, seeking meaning wherever we go.

Who wouldn’t want to create a little order out of Thanksgiving or Christmas chaos? Who wouldn’t want a little help to build a few bridges between young and old, right brain and left brain, traditionalist and trailblazer, introvert and extrovert, vegan and carnivore, Republican and Democrat.

So, I invite us all, Anglican or not, to walk this Middle Way, to seek and to serve and to listen to all the crazy people around our holiday tables. Praying that no matter how annoying, we may cherish them, as much as, we cherish our self-righteous selves!


The Getaway Car

Midlife crisis.

He had all the outward and visible signs. He started wearing a baseball cap to cover his balding head. In his late forties, he got a tattoo for the very first time. 

And he got a getaway car – the classic imported convertible kind. Even used, it was a car we could barely afford.

I should have paid closer attention.

One day, he jumped into that car and escaped — never to return. A getaway car indeed.

Please, do not feel sorry for me. I strongly believe that just as it takes two people to get married, likewise it takes the same two people to get divorced. It’s not a no fault situation. It’s more like there are plenty of faults to go around.

And for sixteen years, I have cherished my independent life, as he does his.

And because of this, I have come to more deeply understand that everyone, from time to time, needs a getaway car. Literal or figurative.

The Rules of the Road, The New York Times

The world keeps crashing down in ways both private and public.

Have you checked the weather?

The planet is warming, the seas are rising and as I write, there are a dozen storms brewing in the Atlantic and Pacific. Young people all over the world have gone on a Climate Strike.

Have you read the news?

No matter where you get your news (CNN, Fox, the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal), the news is bad. Especially that 24/7-news-cycle-news – horrible! I want to cover my ears and chant “lalalalalala” so none of  the nasty stuff can get through. At least, for a little while.

Overwhelmed by the world? Or work? Or family?  It might just be time to get your very own getaway car!

Getaways themselves come in different lengths and sizes. Short. Medium. Long. Forever.

As do the  problems we are trying to escape. Momentary. Temporary. Passing. Permanent.

Have you ever read Anne Tyler? She is one of my favorite writers. In her novel, Ladder of Years, she tells the story of Delia Grinstead. 

 Delia is forty years old, a doctor’s wife and daughter, and mother of three. She packs up her family for their annual trip to the shore. Bethany Beach is soothing relief from the blistering heat of Baltimore.

Family summer fun.

But this year, Delia finds the beach a burden.  Her family is just as demanding by the sea as they are back home. (Have you seen the satiric Onion’s headline? “Woman washes dishes in closer proximity to the ocean.” )

Delia’s domestic duties overwhelm her.  She feels trapped, resentful, ignored.

After unloading the car of all their luggage, making beds and stocking the fridge, Delia orchestrates the family trek to the beach. With all the clutter and all the stuff.  Beach chairs, blankets and boogie boards. Sunscreen and insect repellant. Plastic buckets and Turkish towels. 

They stake out their territory on the sand. When everyone seems settled, Delia in her swimsuit dons her husband’s robe, slips on her sandals, and walks into the sunset, not looking back. 

With a $500 traveler’s check in her pocket, Delia hitches a ride inland to Bay Borough, a town she has never laid eyes on before.  She buys a few necessities at the dime store and purchases a dress at a second-hand shop. She rents a room at a boarding house planning to stay just one night,  just to make a point.

But one-night stretches into a week and then a month and then a year. She gets a job, as a secretary.  Her new life is spare and sparse. Clean and uncluttered. Quiet and uncomplicated.  No possessions, no family, no fuss.

But before you know it the people of Bay Borough intrude into Delia’s routine.  The landlady at the boarding house, the single mom from across the street, the cashier at the Rick Rack Café.  Pretty soon acquaintances become friends and friends become like family. And Delia, alone on her bed with a book, begins to ache for that family she left behind. 

Maybe it’s time to get back in the getaway car and go home again.

Back to family. Back to work. Back to the real world. 

After a year, Delia did go back, and she was better for it. And so was her family that had taken her for granted.

This Monday morning, I am going to hop into my little blue Hyundai and head out of town. I love my family. I love my work. I care about this crazy world. But I will be better at loving and caring about all of that, if I give Joani a little tender loving care. Three nights. Four days.  Bumping around a nearby historic town, exploring used bookstores, sunning by the pool, drinking Mr. Jefferson’s wine.

Friday, I promise to return. My money will run out, so I can pretty much guarantee it.

So friends, when is your next trip in your getaway car?


Grooving on Gratitude

Once upon a time, the eaves of my attic were stuffed to the gills with boxes. You know, those cardboard foot-locker kind of boxes you get at Home Depot or Lowes. And each box likewise was stuffed to the gills with children’s clothes. Tiny terry cloth onsies and  tiny t-shirts. Tiny turtlenecks, snow suits, and sweaters. Tiny OshKosh overalls.

 And once in a blue moon, I would sort through these tiny things looking for something to fit my youngest, so to speak.  But I held onto them way past when my youngest could possibly squeeze into them. I held onto them for a ridiculously long time supposedly for sentimental reasons.

Occasionally I would reluctantly part with a few things and pack them up for Goodwill.  It was so crazy, my kids only wore these things for a few months or a few weeks but I horded them as if I could freeze their childhoods in amber.

My children’s hand-me-downs kept no one warm, no one dry. And now, I look back and see how incredibly silly this was, how incredibly selfish it was.

We all have places where our possessions take possession of us. Let me share with you one of my all-time favorite short stories: T.C. Boyle’s Possessed by Possessions. It is the humorous tale of Julian and Marsha Laxner, two suburbanites with a great proclivity for things.

“At the Laxner’s, each new day brings deliveries. Today the UPS truck deposits an antique mahogany highboy. Julian shakes his head. There is no earthly way it will fit in the house; you can barely walk through the house. The storage shed? No, not there either. Every corner of the storage shed is crammed with Marsha’s collection of Brazilian farm tools. The pool house, maybe? No, that won’t do. The pool house is flooded with Marsha’s collection of early American whaling implements: bouys, ship furniture, and 112 antique oar clocks.”

“Put the highboy on the moon maybe or Saturn or better yet Pluto! Instead Julian instructs the delivery guy to put the highboy on the porch. On the porch with Marsha’s collection of 207 butter churns and 32 bentwood rockers. The two of them just manage to wedge the highboy through the doorway.”

“These things are choking them, strangling them, overwhelming their lives. The addition to the house was filled before it was built. The prefab storage sheds are stuffed. The closets are crammed. The livingroom is unlivable.”

“While Julian makes his excuses tthe UPS man, Marsha pulls into the driveway. Lashed onto the roof of their Land Rover is a great slab of furniture. ‘Julian,’ she calls, ‘look what I found!’”

Marsha and Julian need help, serious help. Maybe some tidying up with Marie Kondo? Maybe a professional organizer?  No, something stronger, something like a  higher power.

 Lord, set us free from all these things!

So, Marsha checks herself into the Imelda Marcos (famous for her 1,220  pairs of shoes!) Treatment Center. While Julian Twelve-Steps it and checks into the co-dependent hostel at Collectors’ Anonymous.

I imagine them confessing,

We admit that we are powerless over our possessions and that our lives have become unmanageable. And we believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.

Now the story of the Laxners is a funny one and an exaggerated one. But to some extent, I bet it is true of us all. (Certainly it is SO, SO true of me!)

We often pack our lives, our houses, and our calendars so full, we neglect our neighbor and the ones we love.  Ferociously, we hold onto all of our stuff as if our lives depended on it.   Hoping our fortune and our fortress might secure for us some kind of immortality. 

But where does all this stuff really come from? From where, from whom do all our blessings flow?

Karl Barrth “was fond of saying that the basic human response to God is not fear. The basic human response to God is gratitude. ‘What else can we say to what God gives us, but to stammer praise?’”

In the week ahead, I challenge you to take on a simple spiritual exercise: The Circle of Need.

 It’s a game I used to play with the Youth Group. You can play it figuratively or literally at home. (Literal is best.)

Here’s how it goes. Take a large garbage bag or a pillowcase and randomly select a few items from each room in your house. Once the bag is full, sit down with your family or your friends (or by yourself!), and take turns, one at a time drawing an item from the bag. (No peeking!) Each time ask yourself, 

Is this something I need? Or is this something I want?

If you need it, place it in The Circle of Need pile. If not, if it is something you just want, place it in the nice- to-have-but-unnecessary pile.

Play the game with gratitude. Play the game with prayer. With thanksgiving, consider God’s generosity as you consider the quantity of things in both of the piles. Be honest and fess up to where maybe the love-of-lovely things might have crossed over into a little bit of gluttony?

Listen to God and let go. Let go of some of this stuff and consider who else might be blessed by it. A friend, a family member, a neighbor or a stranger. End the game by packing up some of the stuff. Books for the local library second hand shelf. Toys for the childcare center. Clothes for Goodwill.  Canned goods for the food pantry.  Housewares for ALIVE. You get the idea.

A Christian’s life does not consist in an abundance of things but in an abundance of gratitude. 

The tenth leper in Luke’s gospel, is a Samaritan, unclean, an outcaste and a foreigner. Along with the other nine, Jesus has healed him. But it is more than that. Jesus brought him out of isolation and restored him to his family and friends. Jesus made him whole and this tenth leper is grateful for it. The tenth leper gets it, he gets the meaning of gratitude. He comes back to Jesus, falls at his feet, and simply  says, “Thank you.

And there is a bonus! Practicing gratitude is not just good for the soul. It reduces stress, boosts your immune system and amplifies hope – modern medicine affirms!

And finally, another of my favorite spiritual writers, Anne Lamott wisely advises to end each day with gratitude, one of the two most basic forms of prayer.

The first form is intercessory. In the morning, when we rise, let us pray, “Help me, help me, help me!” And at the end, let us utter a word of gratitude. Every night as we climb into bed, no matter how bad our day, let us say, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

Because every day is a day that the Lord has made. Every day is a holy day.

Thanks be to God!


Getting Your Head Examined & Exorcising Your Soul

My dad was not a brain surgeon but he was a very brainy history buff. He collected surgical implements of the medieval kind.

In his library, there was a tattered black suitcase on the shelf. Its mysterious contents under lock and key. I remember sneaking the key out of his desk — super curious to find out what was inside. And what I found scared the bejesus out of me.

The suitcase was a Civil War version of my dad’s little black bag. There were saws for sawing off legs. There were pliers for extracting bullets and yanking out teeth. And there was a hammer and a chisel for cracking open skulls.

A hammer and a chisel to tap into the brain.

Brain surgery is not just medieval, it is ancient. Archaeologically speaking, it is the oldest documentable surgical specialty — dating back nearly 10,000 years. 10,000 years – that’s Neolithic. Carefully cracked skulls have been found in Stone Age caves in France. 4000 year old bronze surgical tools have been dug up in Incan Peru. 5000 years ago the word “brain” was first recorded on Egyptian papyrus. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, penned several textbooks on the subject — 500 years before Christ was born.

We may think that such a primitive practice was purely for magical purposes. Not so. It was a medical practice wielded with remarkable success – on patients with epilepsy, head injuries, and even headaches. Some of those carefully cracked skulls, found in those caves, show clear evidence of recovery and healing.

And brain surgery was the cure of choice for those possessed by demons and deemed insane; for those who heard voices and raved like lunatics.

The clerical cure of surgical exorcism.

Guy of Pavia, 14th C.

In fact, Christian clerics – learned in Greek and Islamic literature – were the brain surgeons of the middle ages. Even though the study of anatomy was prohibited, no king would be without such a doctor in his court. No pope would be without such a physician in his conclave.

So where was the surgical exorcist when my mother needed one? There was no crucifix — there was no holy water in my father’s little black bag.

Growing up, my mom was in and out of psych wards.  Her manic-depressive mind was a mystery apparently  no doctor could solve. Her darkness was deep and unrelenting. Her mania zany and out of control. Her behavior sometimes beyond belief. Her thoughts no longer her own.

Once she streaked in the woods behind our house. Free as a forest nymph, she ran wild until my dad wrapped her in a raincoat and brought her back inside. And once, during a hospital stay, my mom had a three way conversation with herself, invisible celebrities (specifically Regis and Cathy Lee) and me.

And during that same visit, she told me that God had opened up holes in her head  — so that the evil spirits in her skull could pass through.

 I did not know whether to laugh or to cry.

Her every circuit firing, her every neuron engaged, her every synapse snapping — my mom, like her mother before her, flew over the cuckoo’s nest.

And I was next.

Sometimes my thoughts also  have not been my thoughts.

In my most manic of days, I too have been so lit up inside – as if by a million fireflies – that I thought I could fly. Driving down the highway – ever so much faster than the legal speed – I truly believed that my car would lift up off the road — like a plane taking its leave of the runway. Down Interstate 95, I would fly over — not under — every overpass. Euphorically grinning from ear to ear. Oblivious to the risk.

I know what it’s like to have my brain so bedazzled with delight that fairies whispered in my ears. I believed I could actually glimpse their gossamer wings outside my window. Better to not tell anyone though. Not the psychiatrist. Not the therapist. They might shoo the fairies away.

I felt as if I had found a portal to another world – a world of things unseen. A magical place, a mystical place where the veil between the worlds was torn. And something godly was calling me to the other side.

Sugar plum fairies dancing in my head —  I never actually thought I was Joan of Arc. But like her, why could I not also hear voices?

Yahweh says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts.”

In my manic brilliance, I began to believe that maybe my thoughts were the thoughts of God. Swept up by angels — mania tastes delectably delicious. So exquisite. Surely this must be what heaven feels like. Right?

Who would want to medicate such mania away?

Now this happened to me once once upon a time a very long time ago — fifteen years ago to be exact. And it has not happened to me again. Not since I began to get my head examined. Once a quarter by my psychiatrist. And weekly – yes, weekly —by my LCSW. Thanks to them (and me, of course!) my bipolar brain buzzes at optimal speed.

My diagnosis is Bipolar Disorder with a cherry on top. With psychotic features. Seems pretty damned scary when you see it in black and white! But it isn’t really.

When our brains go awry, it manifests itself in our thoughts, our words and our deeds. Thoughts can be distracting or delightful. Creative or destructive. Inspiring or terrifying. Thoughts spinning out of control.

The outward and visible signs of such thinking can be alarming to those who do not understand. And when your own mind shatters into a million little shards — you become disturbing — even to yourself.

You lose your bearings.  You have no longitude or latitude. You are lost and adrift at sea. Your head goes dark — and you have need of something like a brain surgeon.

So, I take one little pill a day to keep the crazy at bay. It’s called Seroquel, an antipsychotic. It’s not the only thing that keeps me thinking straight but like a spoon full of sugar — it smooths the way. It makes my head less cloudy and my thinking more clear.  Seroquel, my little surgical, chemical exorcist.

So friends, consider this. Sometimes your thoughts may not be your thoughts. Sometimes your thoughts may be intrusive or obsessive. Maybe your head races. Maybe you hear voices that are not your own.

Know this. You are not alone.

One out of a hundred — of just about everyone — walks around with a bipolar brain similar to mine. 20% of just about everyone, at any one time, walks around with a mental health issue. (Though sadly only 40% get professional help.) There is help out there.

There are doctors of the mind —  of all kinds. Maybe you don’t need a brain surgeon. Much more likely, a board certified psychiatrist and a fully credentialed therapist will do. Maybe a little medication. A little blessing  – to keep you from flying — like this Peacock who flew over the cuckoo’s nest — once upon a time.

Get a referral from your pastor or your doctor. Check out community mental health resources like CSB of Alexandria. The National Alliance on Mental Illness is a also a treasure trove of resources.

It might just be time to get your head examined. It might just be time to exorcise your soul.