Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


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.


The Unreachable, Incorrigible, but Ultimately Teachable People of God

With the threat of Babylon breathing down his people’s back, the prophet Jeremiah comes out swinging:

For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children; they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil and they do no good.

Yes, he really says stupid children. Hitting them over the head with a two-by-four to get their attention.

And the poet, who penned the 14thPsalm, is no less upset:

The fool said in his heart, “There is no God.” All are corrupt and commit abominable acts; there is none that does any good. Everyone has proven faithless, all alike turned bad, there is none that is good, not one.

Yes, there is none that does any good; the writer writes twice for good measure.

So much for the words of the prophet. So much for the wisdom of the psalms.

It seems we are all incorrigible, unreachable and unteachable fools.

Welcome back to Sunday School!

Once upon a time, there came the earthly Jesus to reach and teach the lost: that rowdy crowd of tax collectors and sinners who listened at his feet. And as he often does, Jesus tells a parable to help them understand. The double parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin. While, all the while, the powers-that-be grumble and grouse behind his back. 

And after he was dead and gone and risen from the tomb, the job of reaching these lost sheep – fell to his followers.  In the synagogues, in peoples’ homes, in the marketplaces, the disciples told the stories of Jesus. And Jesus’ words spread by word of mouth from parent to child, from village to village, and town to town.

But before the stories were forgotten, Jesus’ disciples decided we better write this stuff down! So, a generation after Jesus, the writers we call Matthew, Mark, Luke and John penned their four versions of the Gospel (a brand-new word that meant Good News).

But even before the Gospels, there was the apostle Paul.  A lost sheep of God, he writes to Timothy.

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

His letters reach and teach the earliest Christians of the ancient world.

And kind of like seminary, it took three years in the Catechumenate to become a full-fledged Christian – before you could be baptized on Easter Eve.

And if you could not read – the mosaics on the walls, holy icons on wood, the stained glass in the church windows — would be your teachers. Art and faith have long been intertwined in the catholic (lower case “c”) tradition.

Centuries on, we fast forward to the Protestant Reformations (plural) in the West.  With the invention of the printing press, scripture was translated into native tongues. Catechisms came to be. And hymns were published, set to pub tunes and drinking songs. Brand new ways to reach God’s lost sheep.

So, please be seated!  (A phrase not heard in church before!)

Another revolutionary breakthrough was the invention of pews. Yes, pews! Now, you could sit to hear the Word of God preached in your own language. Now you could stay after the service to learn a thing or two — the 16th  Century version of a Sunday morning forum.

The root word of Protestant is protest. It was an affirmation that faith had become a personal quest. Catechisms of all kinds were compiled to answer Christians’ questions.

When I was in high school, I did protest too much! Encouraged by my Jesuit educated father to question absolutely everything, I was discouraged from asking questions in religion class at Immaculata Prep. Sister Mary Clare told me in no uncertain words to stop. And I quote:

“Joani, you have to stop asking questions. You are confusing the other girls. And this is why: You are intellectually gifted but spiritually retarded.”

Yes, a direct quote!

My questions led me away from my childhood faith. While quite ironically, these same questions gained me early admission to Catholic U. There I became a philosophy major where I could ask all the questions I wanted — the answers be damned. 

And I did not darken the door of a church again for a very long time.

Until, as the story goes, I was led by a little child, or really two. Good friends of ours invited our little family; my ex, our toddler and baby to attend Advent services at Immanuel-on-the-Hill.

(Yes, the other Immanuel is my home parish!)

A few weeks in, the rector asked me, “Would you like to teach Sunday School?” 

“No”, I said, “that would be crazy! I am just figuring this new church thing out for myself.”

“No experience necessary!” the rector says, “You can do it!”

“Alright.” I reluctantly reply.

So, I enrolled my three-year-old and myself in the preschool class.  It was pretty loosie-goosey. There was no set curriculum. So, I used the only children’s bible that I knew: the stories of Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel. The tales of two good and faithful friends. Little parables of comfort, encouragement, joy and forgiveness. With lots of pictures and simple text.

But as my children grew, so did my Sunday School repertoire. I began to read the Bible (the actual Bible) seriously for the first time in my life. No pictures, complicated texts and compelling stories of all kinds.

I was filled with wonder, yes. Wonder that took the form of questions. Lots of questions.

Blessedly I was at Immanuel on-the-Hill, an Episcopal community, that welcomed my questions. It was a fertile place for inquisitive souls. They actually had a thing called School for the Spirit.  In small groups we wrestled angels together, seeking after God.

And I got to this faithful place simply by signing up for Sunday School!

How has God sought you out? What person, place or thing led you here? Just how did you get to church, really?

Maybe following in the footsteps of your parents. Maybe a friend. A pastor from your past. The author of a book you could not put down.  A moving speaker. An encouraging teacher.   A camp counselor.  A youth group leader. Maybe even a Sunday school teacher.

Sunday, September 15th, Emmanuel will celebrate all of the above. Thanks to the awesome ministry of Toni Buranen, we will commission six-teams-of-four Sunday School teachers and a quartet of God & Donuts’ leaders. Prayers will rise, like incense to the skies, for this new year of learning. For all the inquisitive minds and inquiring hearts and for all their questions, we’ll ask God’s blessings upon them all.

And after church, there is an Open House. Take a tour of the classrooms. Meet the teachers. Register your young ones. And maybe even volunteer yourself to go on the quest.  No experience necessary!

(And remember, if I could do this once upon a time, surely so can you!)

Grownup questions, of course, are also welcome! Adult Spiritual Formation has forums and films  and plenty more exciting things planned for the coming year.

Stay tuned!

(And if you’re new to Emmanuel, we’d love to have you visit! Services are at 8:00 & 10:30 AM. We’re located in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, VA at 1608 Russell Road.)


Heavenly Coffee, Heavenly Feast

When I was growing up, there was a pecking order at the Peacock house. It played out in different ways.  It would be sounded out every time my mom called for one of the six of us. She would recite a litany of our names from the oldest to the youngest: Maureen, Timmy, Joani, Bernie, Clare, Joseph. One of us was bound to show up. This pecking order was also on display at our dinner table — or should I say dinner tables

Each evening at dinner time, my parents ate in the dining room while my brothers and sisters and I were relegated to the kitchen.  My parents’ table was set with Lenox china and Waterford crystal. While the kids had Melmac Plastic and Flintstone Jelly Jars. Sometimes my parents even ate different food: Beef Wellington on their plates, fried chicken on ours.  We actually had to serve my parents their dinner first before we could sit down to eat ourselves. Even on vacation the ritual was observed. My parents would dine at a fancy restaurant and leave it to my older sister to schlep us to a cafeteria.

These table arrangements taught me a lot. I did not learn much about food, but I did learn to know my place.

Such is the story of Babette’s Feast, a 1987 film based on the 1950 short story by Isak Dinese and set in the 19th century. Maybe you have seen it.  It tells the tale of Phillipa and Martina, daughters of a protestant pastor in a little village in the north of Denmark. Their father’s strict religious discipline shaped not just their lives but the life of their community. There was not much joie de vivre going on in the little village.

A very possessive father, he prevents his daughters from marrying.  And even after his death, to honor him, the sisters feel bound to carry on his austere unhappy ways. 

One stormy night, a woman, a political refugee from Paris shows up on their doorstep. They, reluctantly take her in.  She is called Babette and she is very grateful for their hospitality. In exchange for food and lodging, Babette agrees to take care of the two aging sisters. She keeps her promise and cares for them for many years to come.

Then one day, a stroke of luck befalls Babette.  Every year since she has left, a Paris friend, has purchased a lottery ticket in her name.  Babette wins a small fortune and is beside herself with joy.  She decides to throw a feast for the sisters and the little village that took her in. The neighborhood buzzes with excitement but the sisters worry. Will Babette leave us when the feast is done?

Babette, in a frenzy prepares for a feast — the likes of which this little peasant village has never seen.

But the sisters and the locals have a dilemma on their hands.  According to their dear departed father, such a feast is sinful, gluttonous. Their religion is about fasting not feasting.  They don’t want to hurt Babette’s feelings, so they do accept her invitation to the feast.  But they intentionally decide that they will not enjoy it! Absurd, right?  (Party poopers, one and all.)

Ah, but Babette has worked her culinary magic. She was a chef in a former life before she sought refuge.  She knows how to throw a party. She spares nothing and cooks up some awesome food. Every single villager, from the highest to the lowliest, gets swept up in the excitement of it all.  Even the dour sisters cannot help but join in. Someone starts to sing a hymn. And then another someone says, 

The stars have moved closer tonight.”

But the sisters hang their heads. Surely Babette, with her fortune made, will be leaving them now.  “I cannot leave you” Babette declares “I don’t have a penny left. I spent it all on the feast.” 

After all the food is gone, after all the money is gone, the village is not poor. They are enriched by the little community communing round the table. 

In Luke’s Gospel, we find Jesus communing with some Pharisee friends on the Sabbath.  A scholar writes:  Jesus is certainly preoccupied with eating. Not only does he imply that some think he is a glutton and a drunkard (7:34); there are in Luke more references to eating, banquets, tables and reclining at tables than in any of the other Gospels. (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4)

At his friend’s table, in intimate gatherings, Jesus teaches, spins parables, and hangs out with a motley few. But for a wedding feast, Jesus needs a really big table where you pull out all of the leaves to extend it as far as it is able.  To make room for all that food and all those chairs and all of those unexpected guests – especially the uninvited ones.

Jesus’ table is where the last are welcome as the first. There is no seating chart. The have’s do not get better seats than the have-nots (though not for lack of trying!) There are no dueling dining rooms like there were at the Peacock house. Jesus’ table is a healing place where divisions cease. Divisions, between rich and poor; black and white; male and female; gay and straight; refugee and native born; maybe even Democrat and Republican!  

Sounds like a table only Jesus could set, right? A fantasy feast only possible when the kingdom comes. But the kingdom also comes to kitchen tables. 

Has the kingdom come to your house? 

Just how many of your grade schooler’s soccer friends, how many of your spouse’s random coworkers, how many of your college student’s roommates, how many of your in-laws’ outlaws, just how many more strangers can you squeeze in around your dining room table? I am not talking about Martha Stewart here — I am talking about biblical hospitality — the thankless kind! Ha!

And what about that larger table? The Lord’s Table. Here, every Sunday, we break bread and share the cup with those who are different than us, disagree with us, and who are new to us.  (Make no mistake, despite outward appearances, there is a lot of diversity sitting in Emmanuel’s pews.)

And what is true of communion, is certainly true for coffee hour. Or at least it should be!  

Coffee hour is not a church invention, it was a marketing scheme cooked up by coffee companies to sell more coffee. In the 1950’s, companies like Maxwell House and Chase & Sanborn gave away free coffee urns and free coffee samples to churches. Instead of just shaking the pastor’s hand as you headed out the door, you could linger after the service and get to know your neighbors. 

Coffee Hour (Capital “C”, Capital “H”) is a nearly universal Episcopal tradition.

With a little caffeine, coffee hour can help you climb out of your comfort zone. I bet dollars to donuts, there are people you share a pew with each week who maybe you have not ever really met.

Don’t be shy. Walk up to someone you have never talked to before and introduce yourself. Pour them a cup of coffee, have a conversation. Appreciate what you have in common. Respect any differences. Laugh at each other’s jokes.

Coffee Hour is a sacrament, you know, Holy Communion by another name. A place where everyone is welcome – whether you drink coffee, or not.

(And today at Coffee Hour, you can also purchase some Fair Trade Singing Rooster coffee to help support our partner parish, St. Croix in Leogane, Haiti.)

So, let’s toast the Great Feast of Jesus, and lift a cup-of-Joe in thanksgiving for everyone crowded around this crazy table. 

And in the words of Saint Brigid, let us also pray,

 I would like a great lake of the finest ale for the King of Kings. I should like a table of the choicest food for the family of heaven. Let the ale be made from the fruits of faith and the food from forgiving love. I should welcome the poor to my feast, for they are God’s children. I should welcome the sick to my feast, for they are God’s joy. Let the poor sit with Jesus at the highest place and the sick dance with the angelsGod bless the sick.  God bless the poor. God bless our human raceAll homes, O God, embrace.  Amen.