Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


Jesus wept.

Listen here.

A Homily for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

March 29, 2020

One of my favorite books is Gospel.  No, not the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John but a big, rambling 800-page novel by Wilton Barnhardt.  Gospel is the story of an eccentric hardboiled Chicago Irish professor and his nubile graduate student assistant, as they travel the world: Europe, Africa, the Middle East, the Americas, in search of a fifth gospel, a lost gospel.

This lost gospel turns out to be the testament of Matthias. Matthias is the thirteenth apostle. Remember, the one who was chosen by a roll of the dice in the book of Acts.  Judas’ replacement. Matthias, you see, was not in that Upper Room with the other disciples when Jesus mysteriously appeared. Having not been on the resurrection scene, Matthias can barely wrap his head around what resurrection means.  He struggles daily with unbelief.  Matthias’ fictional gospel recounts his quest, the story of an old man, who seeks to find his fellow remaining disciples in their autumn years. 

Do they still believe? Do they still have faith in that wild, incredulous story? Do they still believe, after all this time, that life can come out of death?  

There are rumors, Matthias in the novel tells us. Persistent rumors that the body of their Lord had actually been stolen, and secreted away. The rumors haunt Matthias. He urgently wants to dispel them. So, he searches out the shady underground that traffics in relics.

Matthias pays the underworld guide a bag of silver, to be taken to what is claimed to be — Jesus’ hideaway tomb. The guide “brought me to the door of the chamber,” he says, “where the relic of Our Lord was supposed to be hidden.  But here, brothers and sisters, you shall find it strange, but I refused to go forward. The guide beckoned me to follow but I stood frozen in my path!  He approached what looked like the remains of a body and began to unwrap the dirty linen, but I demanded that he stop, and I fled up the stairs. I ran from the very truth I sought.”

Resurrection faith is hard to hold onto. It is hard to maintain. Like this doubting Matthias, can we really believe that life can come from death? That grief might be redeemed by joy?

Graveyards are haunting and holy places. They speak of sacrifice and loss, grief and sorrow. But also, gratitude, a rush of love for those who have gone before us.  A place of peace and rest. Memorials to hope.

We are in a grieving time, a very anxious time.   Social distancing is paramount. It is what we are called to do. It is our critical ministry of love to carry out for one another. Our ministry of love for our community and country. Our ministry of love to do what we can to contain the spread of the corona virus.

But Covid-19, at least for the time being, has been the death of our daily routines. We grieve the loss of being in church together, the loss of coffee with a friend, the loss of play dates, the loss of after school sports and sitting in the bleachers at baseball games. We grieve the loss of going to the office, happy hour after work with friends. We grieve the loss of touch and human warmth.

We grieve the cost to those most vulnerable: to those with no sick leave or insurance, to the Uber and Lyft drivers, to service and gig-workers, to the hungry and the homeless, to the immigrants, refugees, and the undocumented, to families with no childcare, and children without classrooms and without school meals.

We grieve the loss of lives already taken by the virus and for those who have lost a loved one when they cannot be by their side.

How do we stay connected to one another and to those who need us, in this upside down Covid-19 world?

Well, Jesus has something to tell us today.

Let’s listen to the story of Jesus today in the Gospel of John. The story of   Jesus creating life out of death: the raising of Lazarus. Now, I have always had trouble with the Jesus, John portrays in this story.  Jesus comes across a little aloof, a little cold and indifferent to the death of his friend. Waiting to employ his miraculous powers for maximum affect. To instill rock solid belief in doubting believers. It’s very likely the people of John’s community, late in the first century, two generations after Jesus, had trouble holding on to their resurrection faith. So, the evangelist John, and John alone, tells the story of the raising of Lazarus.

Now certain scholars believe that John simply made this story up. Made it up out of bits and pieces from the other gospels.

This cocky and confident Christ sounds more like the preaching of John than the Jesus I know and love. But read it again. The story’s core rings true. It is in the end, a story of a grieving friend whose faith was put to the test.

Hearing of his friend’s illness, a very busy Jesus, over scheduled, overburdened and preoccupied with his mission, is not overly concerned for Lazarus. Jesus believes he has the benefit of time but Jesus was wrong.

Dumbfounded and unbelieving, Jesus returns to Bethany. As he approaches the grave of his friend, he breaks down and cries. 

 Jesus wept.

Overwhelmed by grief, I imagine Jesus berating himself with Mary and Martha’s questions: O my God, Lazarus, why was I not here to comfort you?  Why did I not come sooner?  Maybe I could have made a miracle.  Maybe I could have healed you.

In tears, Jesus cries out. Father!  Hear me! Please, bring Lazarus back. Come out Lazarus. Come out.

And this is probably heresy, but I believe that when Lazarus stumbled out of the tomb that day, that no one was more surprised than Jesus. Just in time, before Jesus heads into Jerusalem, just before he climbs the hill at Calvary, Jesus felt and saw, that yes, God can and God does and God will call life out of death. God will roll away that stone.

And so, for us, just as well, we get a glimpse of Easter before Easter. A foretaste of hope, of life restored. Resurrected, yes but not the same. Some the same, but also different.

So, the things we grieve the loss of, the loss of so many daily connections, inspires us to find new creative ways to stay connected as the Body of Christ. And we are just beginning to figure this out as a community of faith.

What does pastoral care look like? Keeping it as personal as possible with phone calls, handwritten notes in the mail, and FaceTime. A “zoom” visit into your living room. “Zoom” visits to a bedside or a hospital room. Even from a distance, we can “lay on hands” of love. Don’t hesitate to reach out to Chuck or I, the contact info is in your “electronic bulletin.”

And if we weren’t before, we are all pastors now, pastors to one another. Your voice, your face on the other end of the line, your handwritten note can bring untold comfort and brighten someone’s day.

And spiritual formation? Well, we are all wrestling with angels now. In times like these, we look to our faith for strength and solace. So for families with children, “EEC Sunday school at Home” materials are included here, in your electronic bulletin. And for grownups? Consider “zooming” bible study, a book group, a “virtual Popcorn Theology. Maybe “zooming” God and Donuts gatherings, too? And if you would like to have a one-on-one conversation we can do “Rabbi by Appointment” via Zoom. Email me and I would be more than happy to set that up.

What does Outreach look like? This is both the most challenging and incredibly important. The financial repercussions of Covid-19 are enormous. Untold numbers of Americans (possibly even yourself) have been furloughed and have lost their jobs. On this front, the Outreach Ministry Team is coordinating with its many direct service ministries: bag lunches; shelter meals, etc. And online you can donate to Emmanuel’s Leaves of Love fundraiser for Refugee Ministry. You can donate to ALIVE, Carpenter’s Shelter, Meals on Wheels, and other organizations serving “the least of these” in our communities.

We are building this plane together as we go.

And as for worship, here we are together online, your “Associate for Liturgy & Hilarity,” is ever so grateful and happy to report.

God bless technology and the internet. God bless Google and Youtube. God bless Constant Contact and WordPress. God bless Voice Memos and Zoom. God bless smart phones, tablets, laptops and desktops, too. On Sundays (or anytime) with “Emmanuel at Home” on our screens, we can still gather, hear the sounds of sacred music, read the scriptures, listen to a homily like this one, keep up our pledge, so that the church can keep being the church in this very needful time. Engage your kids with “Emmanuel Sunday School at Home.”  And via Zoom, we will gather at 11:30 AM, in the ‘virtual parish hall for ‘“Emmanuel at Home Coffee Hour.”  

Chuck and I will both be there. I hope you will be there too. 

And stay tuned, Holy Week: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter, new creative versions of all, will also be coming to your inbox. Even in this upside down time, we will still be singing and shouting, “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

Stay well, Emmanuel, stay well & keep the faith.

NOTE: If you receive this via email have trouble listening to homily, click on the “URL:https:….” at the bottom of email to go the U&U website.


Bellyaching Laughter (video included)!

Oh my goodness, so much animosity in the world, so much anger. So many loud voices shouting past one another. So many people on edge, looking for a fight. So, so many of us convinced that we are absolutely right about EVERYTHING.

So much anxiety, so much angst. Every day seemingly darker than our nights. Isolated and lonely, we retreat to our cul de sacs, our silos, our lonely little corners.

How do we climb out of this quagmire?

Well, maybe?

Raise your sights. Look up instead of down. Try to listen more than you talk. (I know, so hard.) Sit in a different pew. Join a different lunch table. Walk on the other side of the street or the “wrong side” of town.

And more than anything let us not take ourselves too seriously. We need to learn to laugh at ourselves. It’s both disarming and charming and you will be far better company to just about everybody — including yourself.

Yes, learn to laugh at yourself. I guarantee if you relax and just be who you are (and no one can do that better than you), you will discover your inner comedian. Nothing is better for the soul than laughter. Humor is absolutely one of God’s greatest gifts.

Seinfeld taught us that even “nothing” could be hysterical, right? Binge watch it. Or Parks & Recreation. Or The Office. Or the sitcom of your choosing. Or maybe Monty Python?

Share the laughter. Invite a friend, a neighbor, a cranky family member, or your suitor. There is no cheaper date than popcorn and a movie from the comfort of your couch.

Tell your own funny stories. The time you mistook your wife for your mother-in-law. The time you bombed at karaoke. The time you pretended to understand French so you wouldn’t offend the waiter.

Lean in and listen; gather around the campfire. Do you recognize yourself or someone you know in one another’s stories?

As a preacher, I often tell personal stories. And in my free time, I freelance as a storyteller, too. For the last five years, I have been part of this amazing organization in Washington, D.C.: Story District. Their mission is to bring as many incredibly crafted first person true stories to the stage. Told live, up close, and personal. (They have classes, too!)

Recently, I told a story with my daughter at Story District’s Top Shelf at the Lincoln Theatre. We were honored to be the “closers.” Our story guaranteed to leave the audience laughing.

Rolling in the aisles funny. Pee in your pants funny. Laughing your backside off funny: the tale of our mother-daughter trip to the Mile High City — where we availed ourselves of all that is legal there and the hysterical antics that followed.

Click here to watch our mother-daughter masterpiece!

Laughter is air and water and light and fire, all rolled into one. It’s healing and revealing. The very best medicine for weary souls.

God’s greatest gift to humankind, in these oh so trying times. Hands down.

Saint Sarah (Trinity Arts)


65: Five 13-Year-Olds Bottled into One!

I hear Sarah laughing and I cannot help but smile. Eavesdropping outside the tent, she listens in on what sounds like a joke. Well, it is a biblical joke, of sorts. Biblically Sarah is barren, ancient bad news for a woman. What’s a nonagenarian to do?

“After I have grown old…shall I have pleasure?”

Judging women for their literal lack of fertility sadly persists. That biological-clock-ticking thing. That your-eggs-are-maturing thing. But I prefer to think of Sarah’s story metaphorically.

Sarah is so full of life at ninety, her every fiber is tuned to laughter. 

Sarah’s life at ninety is so full of pleasure, her every fiber smiles.

Saint Sarah (Trinity Arts)
Saint Sarah (Trinity Arts)

So, this brings me to my birthday. No!!! I am NOT about to become a nonagenarian. But I now carry certain cards in my wallet that I did not have before. Cards from the government. You know what I mean.

Yesterday, checking out at Michaels, unsolicited the clerk gave me a senior discount. ME!! WHAT?? It was $11 so of course, I took it. Who is going to argue with that?

But in my bipolar brain, Joani and senior citizen do not compute. Old is an adjective best reserved for my elders, not for me. Yes, I have God’s gray highlights in my hair but — fun and feathered with a streak of peacock blue!

I do not deny my age. I am proud and deeply grateful for every accumulated 365 days that I have been given. Aging is expansive. It advances not in straight lines but in spirals. In two steps back, three steps forward. In liquid rings rippling outward. I just want to tell you, that in all honesty at sixty-five, I have never felt more alive. 

And I wish this for you. I wish this for everyone. I wish this for the whole wide world.

65 means packing an extra five minutes into every hour.

65 is just the right speed to go speeding down Interstate 95.

65 is five 13-year-olds bottled into one.

And that seems a very good way, to sum up these years, in multiples of 13.

So, what was 13-year old Joani up to?

1968. Eighth-grade valedictorian. Winner of the “Best in English” Award. Punished by the good sisters for my subversive purple prose, a short story I wrote about a nun and a priest falling in love. Being the smartest girl in the class, aka a smart-ass, can get you into trouble.

Just as true today, as it was back then.

And what was Joani doing at 26?

1981. Literally pregnant, on the edge of parenthood, I taught a Montessori classroom full of little people. Spelling things out with moveable alphabets. Sizing things up with counting beads. Working out the world with puzzle maps. Buffing and polishing tarnished things. Creating a little order out of everyday mess. 

Housekeeping, just as important today, as it was back then. 

And at 39?

1994. Three years of seminary done and mother of three. Ordained a deacon. Ordained a priest. Like Sarah, I laughed and laughed and laughed when I saw Reverend in front of my name. Reverend and Joani don’t quite compute. But I got a job, just the same. Assistant Rector, responsible for education cradle to the grave. Preacher, teacher, passable pastor.

This never boring, impossible vocation, I love even more today than I did when I had just begun.

And at 52?

2007.  Just out of the wilderness. Dominion Hospital’s revolving door, I darken no more. Mania requires a little management. Discharged, I manage to get something like a job. Surreally, serving at what I call “Saint In Between”, I am back at seminary with a magic wand in my hand, inventorying books. I feel just about as low as I can go. But the wilderness is what you make of it. I become a book jockey at the front desk. I run a little used bookstore. I spend other people’s money on books. I am priest and pastor to struggling students, hearing their confessions, interpreting their dreams.

A ministry I still pursue, even more passionately out of the library, than I did when I was in.

And now at 65?

2020. Professional Priestess extraordinaire. Associate for Liturgy and Hilarity at Emmanuel-on- High. Avid Pedestrian, training to walk fourth half marathon in Antigua, (Yes, the exotic Caribbean Island of Antigua!)  Getting braces, well Invisalign really, so my teeth will last till I am 105. A Dazzling Docent every Thursday at the Library of Congress, the largest library in the world. An aging hippy mom to rocking adults. Something like a grandmother (“Jamma”) to rocking young ones, with a new little rocker on the way (Zelda Quinn coming in March!) Buzzing around on Bumble, courting a nerdy, smart, funny, and adorable new friend. 

“Now that I am old, shall I have pleasure?”

O my God, yes!! So grateful for these 65-365-days circling this world.  So grateful to the God who wove me together, bipolar brain and all. 

“Nothing is too wonderful for the Lord.”


Love is a Verb.

When I hear St Paul’s infamous passage 1st Corinthians 13, you know that “Love is patient, love is kind,” bit of wisdom, read a bazillion times at weddings, a bazillion song titles pop into my head. Half remembered lyrics of Beatles songs and Motown tunes. I recall the sounds of Diana Ross’s soul and the rocking out of Linda Ronstadt’s rock n’ roll.

So silently (or not so silently) sing along with me if you can!

“Love, love me do. You know I love you. So pleeeeeeeease, love me do.”

“You can’t hurry love, no you just have to wait. Love don’t come easy now. It’s a game of give and take.”

“Love is a rose but you better not pick it. Only grows when it’s on the vine. Handful of thorns and you know you’ve missed it. Lose your love when you say the word mine.”

And of course the classic: “Stop in the name of love before you break my heart. Think it over.”

We think this passage has only to do with weddings  — rented tuxedos, ugly bridesmaid dresses, unity candles — because that is where we have heard it so many, many times. These lovely platitudes about love don’t offend our secular sensibilities. 

“Love is patient, love is kind. Love is not envious or boastful or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, endures all things.”

There is no mention of God or Jesus – just LOVE.

There was lot of arguing going on in St Paul’s church at Corinth. A lot of backbiting and quarreling among the members. Brotherly love was in short supply. “Everything Paul says love is NOT, they were. Everything Paul says love is they were NOT.” (Feasting on the Word, L. Galloway)

(You’ve never known a church like that, right?)

So at the risk of perpetuating a stereotype, I am going to tell you a wedding story in order to sort this love passage out. Not a wedding story really but a newlywed story, a marriage story.

The humorist David Barry once opined: That in the beginning of a marriage newlyweds seem only to have eyes for one another. Two makes a couple and three, three makes a crowd. But anniversaries come and go. Five year, paper. Seven year, itch. Ten years, wood. Fourteen year, itch. And maybe by this time the couple’s favorite song has changed from “Love, love me do” to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Such was the story of Raney and Charles. ”Raney” is a Clyde Edgerton novel about the first two years, two months, and two days of the marriage between Raney, a free-will, small town, fundamentalist Baptist and Charles, a librarian and an Episcopalian, from the big city of Atlanta. Their mutual love of music, mountain music in particular, brought them together.

But after they set up household, their backgrounds backfired and began to drive them apart. Two different traditions, two very different families, their contrary ways of just plain looking at life, led to more arguing than love making. And Raney after two years, two months, and two days moves out.

Raney reports, “I started missing Charles. Little things in the morning when he gets all excited over the newspaper and starts shaking his head and mumbling to himself. Plus those pajamas I kid him about, with sailboat wheels all over them that look like Cheerios.”

“Yesterday,” she says, ”I left a note asking him if he’d sent in this month’s church money. He left me a note saying that he had. He also left a cassette tape. (Long before Ipods and Spotify!) And on the note, he said he wanted to come by and see me so we could talk about maybe seeing a psychiatrist, a marriage counselor. He said he misses me and is sorry for all that has happened and that so much had come between us.”

“I played the tape. It was Charles playing the banjo and singing:

I see the moon and the moon sees me.

The moon sees the one that I want to see.

God bless the moon and God bless me.

And God bless the one that I want to see.”

“It tore up my heart,” Raney says, “I played it twice more. It tore up my heart all three times. “

“I can understand hating Charles,” Raney says, “on the outside and loving him down in the core …but when you go through a bunch of arguments in a row…and short spell of hating the one you love….then you’ve got to figure it out….so that it won’t get worse and worse. I’m willing to try anything…even a marriage counselor. I figure a counselor might be able to explain to Charles…at least some of what HE has done wrong.”

Now loving one in abstentia is easy or at least saying so is easy. Words are cheap and time is precious. Loving someone up close and personal, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, under the same roof is just plain hard work. (Believe me, I know, I did it for 28 years.)

Married or not, real love is annoyingly inconvenient. Showing up in person — not just texting it in. Real love celebrates with you, cries with you, and runs to the drugstore for NyQuil when you are coughing up a lung. Real love sits in the front row cheering you on and applauding the loudest. Real love is there to catch you and enfold you, when you are depleted and dead on your feet. Real love remembers that you like onions and pepperoni on your pizza.

And for your lover, you will do likewise in return.

Real, “active, tough, resilient love.”  Not just a fluffy, flighty feeling – but a verb. That’s the agape kind of love that St Paul is talking about. Love not just for a spouse but for a significant other, for kith and kindred, partners and parents, neighbors and strangers, friends and even foes.

Love is a verb, a verb that the love of God makes possible within us all.

Made possible, not by an invisible God or a far away God but by an embraceable God, a passionate God, the Lover of All Souls.

When Christ was lifted from the earth,

His arms stretched out above,

Through every culture, every birth,

To draw an answering love,

Still east and west his love extends,

And always, near and far,

He calls and claims us as his friends,

And loves us as we are,

And loves us as we are.

— Brian Wren


Fortify, a 40-Day Mixtape for Lent

Lent is the purple penitential season. A forty day walk in the wilderness. It begins with a call to repentance and with a reminder of our mortality (Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21).  Along the way, we hear the stories of Nicodemus (John 3: 1-17) and the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4: 5-12). We bear witness to the healing of a blind man (John 9: 1-47) and the resurrection of Lazarus (John 11: 1-45). These forty days conclude with the drama of Holy Week and the climactic joy of Easter.


Jesus has set his face towards Jerusalem with a cross on his back. This very human and very holy Jesus has very human and imperfect disciples straggling behind – folks like us. The road to Calvary is filled with trepidation and hope, pain and healing, love and rejection, life and death. And then life again.


So, plug in your earbuds! Here is a 40-day, 40-tune mixtape for Lent – a playlist with an aging hippy vibe. The songs are both sacred and secular and cross multiple genres: folk, blues, rock, gospel, Celtic tunes and spirituals. Featured artists include the likes of the Byrds; Peter, Paul & Mary; Patty Griffin; the Wailin’ Jennys; Rhiannon Giddens; The Blind Boys of Alabama; and Birdtalker.

This seasonal devotional includes each day’s song listed with its performer and lyrics. You can  listen by following my playlist on Spotify, Fortify: A 40 Day Mixtape for Lent. You can follow on the app on your smartphone or listen by downloading Spotify onto your computer (if you don’t already have it!).


The booklet (which also includes YouTube performances) is also available by clicking here.


And if you worship at Emmanuel, paper copies will be available on the table at the back of the church.


Listen a day at a time. Shuffle the tunes. Binge listen if you like.


Sing to the Lord a new song, for God has done marvelous things. 


Rattling Beads & Grounding Souls

Listen here.

In times like these, when we feel the world reeling and careening out of control, prayer can help to keep us grounded. Rooted in our God, the ground of our being.

Prayer comes in a bazillion forms. Out loud. Silent. With the Book of Common Prayer in your lap or with no words at all. In meditation or shouting at God from the rooftops. There is no right or wrong way to pray.

So, consider now how you find God in prayer. And how God finds you.

I found God at the end of a rosary.

A little white plastic rosary. This little rosary came with a little white chapel veil, a little white missal, all tucked into a little white patent leather pocketbook.

Tres chic, I wore it over the shoulder of my little white organza dress with the satin sash. My hair was curled and tastefully pulled back under my little white lace veil. And for the final touch of piety, I wove the little white plastic rosary around my fingers.

My First Communion extraordinaire.

Blessed with a second grader’s growth spurt, I was paired with Jimmy Simkewiez. Blonde hair, blue eyes, dimpled cheeks, his Ivory Soap, squeaky clean aura made me weak in the knees.

Together we went forth to receive the holy mysteries. We knelt and simultaneously stuck out our tongues. The priest placed the paper-thin wafers in our mouths – so sacred we were not permitted to touch.

My sweet Lord. My sweet Lord. My sweet Lord.

As the beads of the rosary slipped through my fingers, I discerned God, in the body of my seven year-old partner, so sacred and so holy, I was not allowed to touch.

And henceforth, at every first Friday Mass, at Holy Family School, preparing to receive the holy sacrament, we would make regular rounds of our rosaries.

One “Apostles’ Creed”. Ten “Our Father’s”. Fifty “Hail Mary’s”. Ten “Glory be’s” – and we were good to go!

Shoulder to shoulder, kneeling on vinyl covered kneelers, packed into the pews, I prayed and prayed – mostly unsuccessfully – to once again – discern the body of my God. But Jimmy Simkewiez, preoccupied with baseball, paid me no attention. It was not to be.

So my rounds of the rosary became nothing more than routine, the religious duty of a second grader – possibly keeping me out of endless and pointless years in purgatory. So I prayed those rounds — just in case.

And then came Friday, November 22, 1963. The third Friday and not the first, that fateful Friday, the good sisters hauled all eight grades into church.

“ Take out your rosaries, children. Our president has been shot and is in grave danger. Let us pray, fervently that his life be saved and that our country be delivered from tragedy.”

You have to remember, that this was the time of bomb shelters, the Bay of Pigs, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. We each had a cardboard shoebox, a “survival kit”, packed with Spam, fruit cocktail, Hi-C and a can opener, stored in the school basement. We all had practiced “duck and cover” under our desks.

Only seven years old, I was certain that the world was coming to an end. And not knowing really what “fervent” meant, terrified, I prayed my rosary at the top of my lungs. OUR FATHER! HAIL MARY! GLORY BE! O Lord, O Lord, O Lord, can you hear us? Please, please, please, hear us and deliver us.

At a time of national crisis, both the same and different from the viral one we now find ourselves in, that little white plastic rosary was my lifeline, tethering me to my only hope – a God I feared but did not know. The God, I hoped to God, who would save us.

Somewhere along the way of my Catholic school career – I put my rosary away. Or I misplaced it or I lost it. In any event I pretty much forgot it. Simultaneously, I pretty much forgot about God and was pretty sure also that God had forgotten about me too.

My rosary was relegated to history — buried deep in a drawer somewhere. My rosary seemed forever lost — until — insomnia resurrected my childhood ritual.

You don’t need a rosary to pray the rosary.

Those beads are imprinted on my brain and those prayers are embroidered forever into my memory. So instead of counting sheep, I started making the rounds of my rosary on my fingertips. Saying and not actually praying my childhood prayers, I would rattle just enough finger beads to lull me into sleep.

Until — I realized I was not alone. And Joani, who believed in nothing, started experiencing something or maybe even someone — of who or of what — I knew not a thing. All I knew is that this rosary connected me – concretely and deeply with some thing or someone cosmic. Crazy as it seemed at the time, the rosary grounded me in something or someone – most holy.

And on one terrible, terrible, indeed the most tragic day in the life of my family – the day my brother’s young wife and little boy – were killed in a car accident, reciting the rosary in my head, was all that kept my psyche from flying apart. Reciting the rosary in my head was the only thing that kept me tethered to the ground. Reciting the rosary grounded me — be it fleetingly – to the ground of my being.

And collectively in our present moment, the impact of the outbreak of the corona virus is as deeply personal as it is communal. Anxiously and with great uncertainty, it’s ripple effects are profoundly felt. The ground beneath our feet feels as if it is giving way. How can we possibly stay grounded in such disruptive times?

Lots of ways, of course, think back to the toughest times you have been through. How did you do that? What helped you to heal? Where did you go for solace? And most importantly who walked beside you through it all?

Remind yourself that you did get through it. With God’s help and likely the help of many, you emerged on the other side, standing, ready to greet another day.

And I bet for many of you, at your darkest hour you found yourself on your knees in prayer.

Prayer itself can be an answer to prayer.

Long ago in ordination process, the rosary once again was my answer. Going through rounds of interviews with the Commission on Ministry, one very insistent interrogator relentlessly pressed me to answer her question:

“Tell me about your prayer life.”

“Well, I use a rosary.” I told her.

“Tell me more.” she said.

“Well, it starts out as rote, but then the rhythm clicks in, and then the silent words of the prayers become like a mantra.”

“Tell me more.” she said.

“They are the same words, I learned as a child, recited like nursery rhymes really, but much, much deeper, so much deeper.”

“Tell me more.” she said.

“Holding onto the rosary is like tapping into something sacred. It tethers me to all that is holy: a deep well, an aching abyss, an emptiness that isn’t empty.”

“Tell me more”, she said.

“Our Fathers, Hail Mary’s, Glory be’s – I clutch the beads and I feel connected, contemplative, calm – not to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost per se – but to mystery, Mysterium Tremendum – for which there are no words.”

“Tell me more”, she said.

“Well, I keep one by my bedside, an Anglican one. I carry one in my pocket or sometimes I wear a very little one-decade Catholic one wound round my wrist. It’s tactile, it’s electric, it’s kinetic, an immediate and direct connection.”

“Tell me more”, she said.

“It’s literally connective tissue, connecting me to the Body of my God – Jesus, you might say.”

And at the name of Jesus, miraculously, at last she seemed satisfied. Either that or we simply ran out of time.

When I was ordained, a dear friend gave me a present: a rosary with weathered glass beads and a tiny crucifix. Repaired with picture wire, it was obviously beloved, old and worn. It was blessed with a lifetime of prayer. Bead by bead, it got her though a lifetime of sleepless nights.

Sleepless nights just like ours.

Bead rattler or not, though we cannot kneel in the church together, let us gather our hearts and souls around as if we were. Be you an 8 o’clocker or a 10:30 worshiper, let us be in prayer for one another. In prayer for our neighbors. In prayer for the whole wild world.


Fly Me to the Moon & Let Me Sing Among the Stars

I remember Ash Wednesdays at my old parochial school, Holy Family. In the smoky incense-soaked church, Father So-and-So would smear our foreheads with ash. The rest of the school day, I would try mightily to preserve that charcoal smudge – hoping my bangs did not brush it away. I wanted to make certain that certain people would have a good view, important people like my parents, my friends’ parents, shopkeepers.

I had a reputation to uphold! What a holy little kid you are! A little saint deserving of a holy card! Particularly I would make sure that my Grandma Cady and my Grandma Peacock would get a good glimpse before I scrubbed it off of my face.

But I was just a kid and what did I really know about Ash Wednesday? It was just a children’s game to me: a dark and wonderful game the priest devised for us to play. Ring around the rosy, pocket full of posies. We all fall down.

The first day of Lent – Christians sing a dark and sad song. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Ash Wednesday is a stark reminder that life is short and fleeting, precious and precarious. This day reminds us that one day God will find us all in his morning paper – decked out on the obituary page.

Eight years old, thumbing through a family photo album, a yellowed newspaper clipping fell to my feet. Picking it up, it was a death-notice, the first I had ever read. It belonged to my Great-great-grandfather – Zachariah Hazel.

Zachariah had been a prominent Washington, D.C. businessman and architect the clipping effused. The story continued: Zachariah had helped to direct the completion of the Capitol building and the placement of the Freedom statue atop the dome. Whoa! What? What? What? Bursting with pride, I ran to my Grandma Peacock. “Wow, I did not know we were descended from someone so famous!’

Grandma Peacock wasted no time bursting my little eight-year old bubble. “No, Joani Baloney. Your Great-great-grandfather was nothing but a common laborer – and possibly a drunkard besides.” O well, apparently, he had written it himself. Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.

fly_me_to_the_moon_wallpaper_by_lama_art-d39xeq4

Open up your favorite digital newspaper and click on the obituary section. Every sooty cross marked upon our foreheads is a reminder of those who have gone before us – loved ones, fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, friends, lovers.

Bittersweet, I recall when just a few years ago, I strew my own mother’s stardust on the ground. While Frank Sinatra crooned “Fly Me to the Moon” on my Ipod, my siblings and I returned her to the elements from whence she came. At Cedar Hill Cemetery, we scattered mom atop the graves of her loved ones: my dad, her parents, her in-laws, her best friend. To stardust and to her savior, my mom returned.

Death is the greatest of equalizers.

Whether we get an inch in the paper or a full-page spread, before God we are all to a person one and the same. “We are all made of stardust. It sounds like a line in a poem …but every element on earth was formed in the heart of a star.”

Exploding out of a supernova comes the stuff of which the planets are molded. Bursting out of a supernova is the stuff of which our bodies are made. Divinely formed from spit and stardust — to stardust we shall return.

Both biblically and cosmically, we traverse through this life with feet of clay. As Lent looms, let’s take a little look in the mirror. Let’s get a little introspective, a little penitential. A little time to reflect, pray, and possibly compose our own obituary.

Not like the one my not so great, Great-Great-Grandfather Zachariah Hazel wrote for himself, but a literally honest-to-God one.

Get it all out there. Don’t skip over the nasty bits. Put it all in there, warts and all. Personal confession is sobering stuff indeed. A cliché, yes, but it is truly true that confession is good for the soul.

Because no matter how messy our obituaries, the truth of Christ crucified is greater still. God’s wounded hands hung the stars. God’s outstretched arms reach out in love. God brings order to our earthly chaos and renewal to our earthly souls.

Yes, good God, “You are immortal, the creator and maker of humankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth we shall return. For so did you ordain us when you created us, saying, ‘You are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ All of us go down to the dust, yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” Yes, good God, fly me to the moon and let me sing among the stars.

JoaniSign

NOTE: Wednesday, February 26th, my parish is hosting two Ash Wednesday services: one at noon and the other 7:30 PM: Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 1608 Russell Road, Alexandria, VA 22301. All are welcome!