Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


Getting Little

Some Christmas pageants have plastic baby dolls stand in for Jesus. But the liveliest of Christmas pageants have a real live baby!  (If their parents will allow them to be so tortured!)

And when that live Baby Jesus makes his dramatic debut – all eyes are on the little tiny fellow. You can hear a pin drop as the holy family goes up to Bethlehem and climbs the altar stairs. Heads turn and hearts melt as all eyes are on the miniature messiah. Propped up in Mary’s lap a little bitty baby, who cannot walk, who cannot talk, cries at night, and messes in his pants.

Tame and tender, the grandeur of God is reduced to a babe in arms. The Madonna and Child are everywhere this season in paper, and plastic, and plaster — fronting Christmas cards and frozen in nativity scenes.

Sentimental and sweet, safe and sound.

Round yon virgin, mother and child, holy infant so tender and mild.

Have you ever smelled a newborn baby? Have you ever stuck your nose in their neck? There is no other scent like it: a scent of the holy, a whiff of the divine, the aroma of life itself.

And if you have, you know then and there that you are hooked. Your ears tune in to decipher their every whimper, their every gurgle and cry.

Teach me, little one, how to love you.

This helpless little person wins over your heart and takes over your world – a subversive little savior.

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From Julie Vivas’ “The Nativity”

It’s been said that Christmas is for such as these. And why not? On Christmas Day, God came into the world a screaming, scrawny infant, small and insignificant. Just as we all did once upon a time.

Twenty years ago, I read the story of a little fellow, a six year old named Pete. Pete ripped open his presents and pulled out a dapper new bathrobe. His dad admiring it said,

“Wow! That’s an awesome bathrobe. I wish I had one just like it.”

 

Pete paused for a little quiet introspection.

You really like it, Dad?”

“Yes, Pete. It’s the coolest bathrobe I have ever seen.”

“Well, Dad,” says Pete. “You can have it. You can wear it when you get little.”

(The Christian Century, December 1998)

Jesus says  quite plainly “unless you turn and become as a little child, you cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Now to be sure, he’s not suggesting we literally regress to cooing and babbling, pablum and Pampers.

But Jesus emphasizes a very special quality of life, which he himself chose.

Like a child, God himself was born to be needy. God himself was not ashamed to be helpless, hungry, lonely, and small.

God gets little on our account, choosing to be born poor in a simple town to an ordinary girl. It is almost too great a mystery and yet it makes perfect sense.

This little Messiah is God on the move: moving from the powerful to the powerless, from success to failure, from the strong to the weak, from the high to the low.

And if we let him in, this Little One in, he can creep through our cracks, tend to what is broken, sweep away some tears, lighten a few burdens, brighten our nights.

Try to make a little room in your inner-self and invite the Little One in.  Listen, if you can to his still small voice. The voice that whispers tidings of peace.

This season, the subversive little savior might just break open your soul.

Love, you know is born at Christmas.

Love is why God gets little at Christmas.

And for love, may we, this Christmas,  get little too.

JoaniSign


Here We Go (an Advent) Caroling!

While the church is a bit fussy about music in Advent, I confess to being obsessed with the mall muzak of the holiday season.

Ever since I was a little kid, Jingle Bells has brought me joy; O Come, All Ye Faithful has given me comfort. The chaos of my childhood home not withstanding.

loved to sing — though Sister Inez Patricia kicked me out of the Glee Club for belting out Joy to the World off key.  I cajoled my piano teacher Mrs. Wertz into letting me practice Christmas carols year round. And I have a vague memory of actually gathering a sibling and maybe my grandmother (who would humor this child) “round the spinet” for a carol or two.

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No matter how dark my December days, these little embers of memory never fail to warm my Advent soul.

But not to over do it! Psychologists warn us that overdosing on Christmas music is not good for your mental health. Especially, if you start tuning in the first of November, when Target has put up all of their Christmas stuff – post Halloween. The Twelve Days of Christmas will definitely drive you crazy, when you still have fifty five days to go!

But this first Sunday of Advent, I think we are safe.  All things in moderation, my dad used to say.

Comfort, comfort ye my people, speak ye peace thus saith our God;

Comfort those who sit in darkness mourning ‘neath their sorrows’ load;

Speak ye peace to Jerusalem of the peace that waits for them;

Tell her that her sins I cover, and her warfare now is over.

Hark, the voice of one that crieth in the desert far and near,

calling us to new repentance,  since the kingdom now is here.

These words from Second Isaiah (which inspired the Advent hymn) make a good measure of the the music we play – to make our souls merry – this holiday season. As does this verse from Psalm 25.

All the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness. Ps 25:9 

Our lives in this world – no matter how charmed our circumstances – are but a walk in the wilderness. A wonderful walk. A dazzling and challenging walk.

And maybe this year has been wilder or weirder or more bewildering or even more wondrous than those past. With…

newborn babies and loved ones dying;

terrible twos and aging parents;

lost jobs and new occupations;

weddings and partings;

hard knocks and soft landings;

rejection and reception;

retreat and renewal;

reunion and return;

delight and despair;

whether any of it be private, personal, or shared.

Having a Holly, Jolly (and hopeful) Christmas is a complicated thing.

For a dozen years running now, two of my children, Zach and Colleen have produced an annual Christmas album. It is not your usual holiday fare. It started out just silly and fun but has turned into a sibling bonding ritual they return to each year. (Zach now being 36 and Colleen 34.)

And each album has a different theme – that captures the mood and the meaning of that particular Christmas:

Party hardy Christmas;

Down Home Country Christmas;

Christmas Around the World;

and in a bluer season:

The Smooth Sounds of Christmas.

And this being the twelfth season, the 12 Days of Christmas, of course, a retrospective.

The tracks they choose are outlandish, surprising, delightful, poignant, moody, and sad.

Each is a cacophony of voices, crying out in the wilderness – a way to tune into the Greatest Story Ever Told. A way to tune into the crazy Second Coming of God.

(Though I am pretty sure they would not describe it that way! Ha!)

Maybe you could make your own?

As a spiritual exercise, why not put together your own Messiah playlist: whether it be Handel, Bing Crosby, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Prince, the Anonymous Four, Gregorian chant, or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Instead of a Christmas letter, you can share your playlists and attach it to an e-Christmas card.

My own which I, so creatively labeled: Christmas, Christmas, Christmas🙂  shuffles over 200 carols in the privacy of my car (or my living room.)  Where I can sing along – lustily and with abandon – which I recommend most highly!

And besides the car or the shower, where else can you make a joyful Christmas noise?

Well, at Cocktails, Mocktails & Carols, of course!

This Saturday, December 8th, Emmanuel on Russell Road is THE place to be!

A grownup evening of seasonal cocktails and brews, “mocktail” alternatives; hot cocoa & cider.

Carols “round the spinet” with Clair Elser.

Serenaded by “Amici” (Ryan and friends!)

Wear your CRAZIEST Christmas sweater! (There will be prizes!)

Bring warm NEW winter things (hats, gloves, scarves, socks – all sizes) for Carpenter’s Shelter!

Childcare provided for little ones! Please, indicate ages and how many. 

RSVP here to let us know that you are coming!

So make a joyful and genuine Christmas Carol noise!

And let the whole world know (without a doubt) that all the paths of Christ to come are love, faithfulness and peace.

JoaniSign


The Last Can Be First: The (Almost) Billion Step Program

First off I will tell you that I was last both times. And both times I survived.

A few Novembers ago, I went trailblazing with an Alexandria Meetup Group. We embarked from Fort Ethan Allen Park. The hike was described as of moderate difficulty, with a few water crossings, and rock scrambles, and elevation changes. It promised a scenic overlook of the Potomac River. Only five and a half miles in just under two hours.

Piece of cake.

I almost died.

At an early water crossing I slipped on a rock and fell flat on my face into the stream. I hit my head and bruised my left shin. I was soaked head to toe. My shoes and socks were sopping wet. It was 35 degrees. My lips turned blue. To avoid hypothermia, I stripped down to my skivvies in front of fifty of my new best friends. A handsome stranger lent me his dry coat and warm gloves.

I should have turned back. But…

It seemed there was just one dangerously steep hill to descend and then I would be back on solid ground. A transgendered park ranger held my hand all the way down. (I would love to thank her but I forgot to get her name.) I thought the worst was over.

I was wrong.

It turns out “rocks” meant “boulders” and “scrambling” meant “scaling” and a “few” meant “way the hell too many”. The hills turned into cliffs, breathtaking, death dealing cliffs.

I prayed for a helicopter.

God-in-three-persons answered my prayer, namely three handsome (and sadly married) guys: Gordon, Joe, and Luke. One in front and two behind, they took turns literally holding my hand and guiding me each and every step of the way – “Put your foot here, grab a hold there”. If I looked down, I was a goner. Instead I looked to them. I listened to them.

Thanks be to Gordon, Joe, and Luke, I came in last. Exhilarated, shaking like a leaf and kissing the ground, I came in last.

But not for the last time.

Just one week later on Thanksgiving Eve, I finished the Real Girls RUN Half Marathon in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The race started in Crozet, a picturesque village in the horse country outside of Charlottesville. The field of 100 plus runners quickly outpaced me. I was blissfully left alone with my thoughts to walk the course: 13.1 miles of serious hills but no cliffs and no boulders!

(But hills, lots of hills!)

Piece of cake.

When I was finally in sight of the finish line, a fellow racer – who had long ago finished herself – cheered me on from her car window. “It’s my very first one,” I told her, “and I am coming in last!” She pulled over and walked with me the last half-mile. “You may be last” she said, “but you finished the hardest damn half marathon in in the state of Virginia. That’s a first!”

I recovered from the five-mile hike. I recovered from the 13.1-mile walk. But more importantly, in the process, I recovered myself. Not an overnight process for sure. But with every little step I took, I got a little bit of myself back – body and soul.

(And since I have completed two more half marathons and planning on the fourth!)

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Coming in last, Real Girls Run, Nov 23rd

Looking back, I see that I took thousands of steps long before I ever strapped on that first pair of size 7 ASICS. Steps that did not seem to matter. Steps that were daunting. Steps that were awkward. Steps that were clumsy. Steps that were steep. Steps that were halting. Steps that were scary.

Steps forward. Steps backward.

The Million Step Program.

The (Almost) Billion Step Program.

So far I have been in the program for fifteen years. I will be in it the rest of my life. It’s about lifelong recovery. Not recovery from bipolar disorder. I will never not be bipolar – nor would I ever want to be. The program I am in is about embracing the gift of my bipolar self.

To help quantify what it takes to get with the program and keep up with the program, I compiled a few statistics from just this last year. Holistically speaking, I’ve done pretty well.

  • 48 weekly visits to get my head examined (Thank you, Sondra!)
  • 4, once a quarter trips, to my psychiatrist (aka Mr. Rogers!)
  • 3 x 365 nightly vitamins for my brain
  • 24 hikes round Huntley Meadows
  • 52 walks on the river front
  • 104  tours (2 miles each) at the Library of Congress
  • 389 tunes “Folk Rocking Down the Highway” (Thank you, Spotify!)
  •  29 blog posts (so far)
  •  a baker’s dozen of sermons
  •  6 score (120) services planned
  • 2 times, twice over, on the Story District stage
  • 1,095 cups of coffee
  • 400 pieces of toast
  • 4 dozen books devoured
  • 1st book written
  • “2” much time on my couch
  • 5 new dresses and just as many shoes
  • 1/2 dozen new pairs of pajamas
  • a few sleepless nights
  • and maybe more than just a little mania

But…

I lost track of the calories. I lost track of the miles. I lost track of the steps.

But I am stepping up my game and getting it back: a new Fitbit, an actual scale, a stair stepper to step on, and resistance bands. Walking clothes and shoes always at the ready. Back in the pool for a little aerobics. Even a bike ride, now and then.

It took me a dozen of years of coming in last — to finally count myself as first. And what is true for me is surely true for us all.

There is no magic pill or miracle program or magic bipolar wand.

But — bipolar or whatever – you can recover yourself one step at time. Walking this way may seem ENDLESS. Yet every step may take you places you never thought you would go.  And on this road, miraculous people you are likely to meet.  Neighbors turn into friends; coworkers become companions; and strangers – wilderness guides along your way.

Like the  park ranger, like Gordon, Joe, and Luke, like the woman who walked with me that last half mile. God in all these persons witness to the truth.

The last can be first.

Just take it one step at a time.

JoaniSign


With Apologies to Paul McCartney: When I’m 84

As I get older, hair going gray
Many years from now
Will I still be searching for my Valentine
Not counting birthdays but bottles of wine

Will I still stay out ‘til quarter to four
(Where are the keys to my condo door)
Will I still be free, will I still feel glee
When I’m eighty-four

The earth grows older too
And if the world but says the word
I will dance anew

I could be brilliant, penning a book
With tales I’ve never told
I would write away by the fireside
Weekday evenings go out with the tide

Dreaming the future, unearthing the past
No more of the universe can I ask
Will I still find God, will I still know God
When I’m eighty-four

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64 + 20 = 84 (Painting by nickel8 on DeviantArt)

Most every season for multiple reasons
My wardrobe still grows a drawer — or more.
(Who me, scrimp and save?) Credit card, debit card
Dropping money on stuff I crave

And on holidays, my head above the clouds
I stuff stockings for the lost and the found
Making magic for the grown and the grand
Not so little ones, two times three

So…

Send me an email, drop me a text
Spill your worldly news
I’ll try to respond with honest words
All that I think — in fading ink

Here are my answers, I’ve filled in the blanks.
Truth, forever more.
Yes, we’ll be free;  yes, we’ll feel glee
When we’re eighty-four

JoaniSign


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Mighty Widows, Grandma Peacock & Dorothy Day

My Grandmother Peacock found herself a widow at just 42 years of age. To support her two young boys, she worked as a bookkeeper at Skinker Brothers & Co. – way up on Connecticut Avenue. It was basically a full-service gas station with a mechanic on duty and tires for sale.

To make ends meet, Grandma Peacock also ran a boarding house, of sorts. She rented to a roommate, but family often too were non-paying guests.

And when I got my turn to board there,  it was absolute heaven to me.

I am one of six Peacock sisters and brothers. Grandma’s Anacostia row house was safe harbor – a refuge away from the scary house, in which we actually lived. Once a month or so, each  of us got a chance to go on the equivalent of a Club Med vacation — a weekend at Grandma’s — a chance to be an only child.

Grandma’s Anacostia home was a fairy tale castle. There was a bathroom with an enormous footed tub and a telephone closet on the first floor. There was a dining room AND a breakfast room. Downstairs was the best. There was an upright piano – painted bright red and a workshop with all kinds of gadgets and tools and little jars filled with all kinds of widgets and screws.

In my tea-totaling grandmother’s house there was a built- in bar with a brass rail and swizzle sticks.  The downstairs shower had four showerheads! (Who knows what went on down there in the Roaring Twenties?!)

When you stayed over at Grandma’s there was always plenty of food. She was no great cook — she was big on cornflakes and Cool Whip as condiments. You could fault her on her cooking — but never on her generosity.

On Saturday night we’d go to a film at National Geographic. On Sunday we would go to Saint Theresa’s for 8 o’clock Mass.

For ninety-six years Grandma Peacock (It seems disrespectful to call her Agnes — even now) made room — enormous room.

In the seventies, Grandma downsized and moved to an apartment. Still her welcome mat was always out.

In our rebellious years, we regularly showed up on her doorstep uninvited. She’d be ready to feed us in a heartbeat from whatever she might find in her fridge. We caused all kinds of trouble in our adolescence — which I will not embarrass myself with here.  No matter what we did, though, Grandma never turned us out.

I never heard her speak ill of anybody although I’m sure she did entertain some not so nice thoughts. At least in my hearing — she never let them out.

Grandma’s apartment was a shrine of Catholic kitsch: plastic statues of Mary and the Infant of Prague and pictures of the Pope back to John XXIII. Rosary beads draped over her bed post and an Ave Maria playing music box hung on her wall. It all meant something real to her.

Faith was not just just something she believed. Faith was something she did.

Grandma Peacock kept faith with us in so many ways — she was my salvation. For three short days I would be loved the way all God’s children should be loved — all the time.

She was a mighty widow, an icon of the poor woman in the parable of the Widow’s Mite.

Her generosity came out of her very meager means. Generous with us to a fault, Grandma Peacock was a skinflint when it came to herself. She wore the same wardrobe as long as I could remember. The towels in her bathroom were threadbare and scratchy. And she would eat the leftovers of the leftovers of everything until every little scrap was gone!

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So, who else comes to mind? Who else might you name or claim as a mighty widow – an icon of God’s grace?

A more famous one, you may have heard of is the Blessed Dorothy Day. She died more than thirty years ago, a remarkable single mother who hit her stride in the 1930’s during the Great Depression She was a radical journalist who launched a newspaper, The Catholic Worker, with just $57. The paper sold for just a penny a piece.

In her columns, she often wrote how Jesus would identify with the down and out:

It is cheering to remember that Jesus Christ wandered this earth with no home of his own. ‘The foxes have holes and the birds of the air their nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’  And when we consider our fly by night existence, our uncertainty, we remember that the disciples wandered through cornfields picking ears from the stalks wherewith to make their frugal meals.

Dorothy founded Houses of Hospitality for workers and the unemployed.  The very first Hospitality House was her very own apartment on East 15thSt in New York. From the Catholic Worker’s fledgling proceeds, she opened another: St Charles House in Greenwich Village. It had room for staff, workers, and guests: a meeting place, an office, a kitchen and a free clothing room.

Dorothy’s biographer writes:

The Worker way of life seemed to be one of permanent crisis, mostly because of daily collisions among troubled humans (like us all) living under the same roof: fights over food, injuries, sickness, breakdowns, drunkenness, clashing personalities, empty bank accounts, theft of other people’s stuff, fires, evictions….  A day without at least one crisis was rare.

(Doesn’t  this sound a bit familiar, maybe? Maybe like some of the houses in which you have lived?)

Dorothy Day challenged everyday Christians to set aside a Christ Room to welcome those in need.

Every house should have one.  It is you yourself who must perform the works of mercy not some agency. Maybe you can only give enough money for a meager meal or a cheap hotel. Or maybe you can literally take off a garment to warm some shivering person.  But we must act personally and make a personal sacrifice.

 The amount does not matter but generosity does.

Jesus sat down opposite the treasury and watched the crowd putting money in. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.

 Then Jesus called to his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’

 There are genuine mighty widows among us. We may know some. We may be one or want to be one – regardless of gender or marital status, regardless of means.

Might we inventory our bounty – whatever that might be?

Open up our hearts, pocketbooks, homes – to those who are not as mighty as we? The least of these, Jesus calls them in Matthew 25.

Hospitality —  not the Martha Stewart kind but this biblical kind — is messy and uncomfortable and often hard. But it also comes with real blessings, a genuine kind of riches not easy to find.

Mighty widows, you know,  might just be  — entertaining angels unawares.

JoaniSign


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The Liturgist’s Dilemma: Translating Tragedy into Prayer

When asked what I do for a living, I no longer answer “clergy” or “Episcopal priest.” Frankly, lots of people just don’t know what to do with that. Stereotypes abound: that clergy only work on Sunday, that we are not allowed to drink, that you should not curse around us.

And because of stereotypes in the media, many assume Christian equates to fundamentalist or evangelical or conservative. When in all honesty, I am none of these things.

So, instead I tell people I am in the hope business. I am in the love your neighbor and reconciliation business.

 I was ordained to preach and to teach and to be a pastor.   And I make my living with words: healing, honest, provocative, faithful, hopeful, joyful, sorrowful, humorous, beautiful, life giving and insightful words. A professional wordsmith, I am both a writer and a storyteller.

I am also blessed to be the parish liturgist at Emmanuel on High. What the heck is a liturgist?  Well, it is something I never thought I would grow up to be, I am a big picture person, you see. And meaningful liturgy is found in the details and details have never been my best thing.  But now sweating the details of liturgy is my labor of love.

In an Excel spreadsheet, I map out Sunday services across the seasons, six months at a time. At Emmanuel, we cycle though the depth and breadth of every option the Book of Common Prayer has to offer.

And where the BCP allows the liturgy to flex, we flex.  Because meaningful liturgy is faithful not just to God.  Faithful liturgy speaks to the people in the pews. Faithful liturgy weaves together both the past week’s sorrow and joy into the Sunday prayers.

I am a translator of sorts. I have the sad but necessary job of translating tragedy into prayer. It is a ministry that means the world to me – quite literally.

And tragically, of course, there is no shortage of tragedy. Every week I scribble in colored pen the changes to the Prayers of People — keeping our intercessions in sync with the world as best I can – before the bulletin hits the presses on Friday.

Prayers after hurricanes: Harvey, Maria, Florence and Michael.

Prayers after mass shootings: Pulse nightclub, Parkland Stoneman Douglas High School, Las Vegas Route 91 Music Festival.

Prayers after Charlottesville.

Prayers after the Simpson Field tragedy, right down the street, in the very place where our very own children play baseball.

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And then, there was this week:

Word of Life, your words matter and so do ours. If we speak in the tongues of mortals but have not love our words ring hollow.  Words of love sow love. Hateful words sow hate. Out of hate, 14 pipe bombs were mailed to former presidents, Democratic leaders who have served our nation and a news organization. Out of hate, a gunman violated a house of worship on the Jewish sabbath, killing many and injuring more. We have no words but words of grief, sorrow, and contrition. Word of Life, grant us both the inspiration and the courage to speak words of justice, hope, healing and peace. The light of God’s Word shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

 My Alexandria, Virginia church basks in the backyard of the Nation’s Capital, Washington, D.C. Mindful of the political views of the people in our pews, I work very hard crafting prayers to hew close to the truth but also not to offend. I do pretty well most of the time but sometimes I miss the mark.

Worshipful tight rope walking.

Truth, however, trumps good manners.

Prayer you know is not about changing God’s mind to help us out. Prayer is about God changing our minds to get up off our knees and do the good that God would have us do.

Phillips Brooks, the 19thcentury Bishop from Boston and rector of Trinity, Copley Square, famously said: The purpose of preaching is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.

 Both pastoral and the prophetic.

And I am responsible for my words – especially my words from the pulpit.  And as I wrote above, I do so believe: Word of Life, your words matter and so do ours. If we speak in the tongues of mortals but have not love our words ring hollow.  Words of love sow love. Hateful words sow hate.

On Sunday, preacher and people, together wrestle with angels. Sermons, at their best, help us think, help us remember, help us dream, help us to believe —  that which truly matters most.

Above all, I try at least to leave people with a little hope before they head out the doors and go back to their daily lives.

Getting my turn in the pulpit is a privilege. My turn to lift up the priesthood of every single person praying in our pews.

But imagine, if instead of praising the Leaves of Love: Refugee Family Fundraiser, I instilled fear of foreigners and immigrants.

Imagine, if instead of promoting Carpenters Shelter breakfasts and dinners, I railed about withholding help from our needy neighbors.

What if, instead of encouraging us all to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being, I insisted that we prioritize ourselves, the people who look like us and talk like us and think like us.

Well, I might get fired. Indeed, I should get fired.

And my pulpit is not a bully one.

It is election season and midterms are upon us. And lots of powerful political types are both using and abusing their bully pulpits.

Preaching xenophobic, homophobic, vitriolic, hateful, racist, vile rhetoric.

Words matter. Words of love sow love. Hateful words sow hate.

And believe it or not, we are baptized to vote. To vote out of love for our fellow human beings — not solely out of self-interest.

Whether for Republicans or Democrats or Libertarians or Green Partiers or Independents (or Others I am not aware of),  we Christians are  to vote for the greater good.

So, on Tuesday say a little prayer before you cast your ballot.  Let’s all do the best we can to vote the bums out and the good guys in!

JoaniSign


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The Haunting @ the House of the Redeemer

Boo!

I love a good ghost story, do you?

I especially love the ones with creaking floors and slamming doors, the ones that have to do with houses.

On yellow paper, Shirley Jackson typed  these mysterious words:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

 The Haunting of Hill House is an interior tale of both home and mind. A sinister combination.

But it’s just a tale, brief and droll, maybe a three-day read curled up on the couch.

Uncanny glimpses of fear are best enjoyed when no actual ghosts are likely to appear.

I do not (or did not) believe in ghosts until the fall of the last millennium.

Late October 1999, after five years at Saint Luke’s, I was given a three-month sabbatical. On one of my ninety days’ adventures, I ventured north to NYC to visit a friend: Lisa who was a classmate from my Montessori days.

Hotel rooms in NYC were (and are) quite pricey and out of my reach. But there is a little known clergy perk. Being an Episcopal priest, I booked a room at the House of the Redeemer. Not for religious or spiritual reasons but because it was cheap.

There were no vacancies that weekend or, so I was told.

We’ll be very busy that weekend with a big group of  important guests, but we can squeeze you into one very small room at the top of the stairs.

 Now the House of the Redeemer sits on 95thStreet on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. A 19th century Carnegie brownstone, the four-story home was donated in the 1930’s to the Episcopal Diocese of New York. Donated by a very, very rich family who shall remain unnamed.

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House of Redeemer lit up at night.

I took Amtrak to Penn Station and then a cab to the mansion. Checking in with the desk clerk at dusk, he tells me how to turn on the lights and unlock the doors. Apparently, weirdly, I am the only guest there.

Rev. Peacock, your room is on the 4th floor at the top of the stairs. I’m sorry but you’ll have take up your own bag.

 No problem.

 But there was a problem. Just where are the stairs? Well, the stairs were non-contiguous. Like Alice in Wonderland, to find them I had to search for the right door on every floor. Stingy with the electricity, the house’s stairwells were dark. At each landing, I turned on the lights. As I climbed, I paused briefly to check out the rooms.

My hazy memory recalls something like this…

A parlour, a kitchen and a dining room on the first level. Bedrooms with shared baths on the second floor. A genuine medieval library on the third,  brought over from Europe during the First World War. Reconstructed book by book, the library even had one of those old-fashioned step ladders to climb the shelves.

Spooky, right?

And finally, on the fourth was my room. Quaintly appointed with a brass framed bed, hooked rugs on the floor, and an enormous old-fashioned footed tub.The first night passed quietly enough. I unpacked my things, climbed into my pajamas, read a bit of my book and turned out the lights.

The second day rising early, I turned on all the lights as I descended the stairs. Strolling the avenue, I park myself at a sidewalk cafe and drink gallons of espresso from demitasse-cups.   Late November, the days grow short as the night grew long. At sunset, I head back to my room to get ready for  dinner with Lisa, my Montessori friend.

But who turned out the lights? There were no other guests that I knew of, and the desk clerk had left the latch key under the mat. (And no, this old building did not have automatic light switches!)

I climbed out of my jeans and slipped on a dress. I pulled a hanger out of the closet to hang up my shirt. I closed the closet door.

And then it happened. The closet door opened and closed, opened and closed. Seemingly all by itself. Startled, I was sure there was a logical reason. I took hold of the doorknob and peered inside. A draft maybe? An uneven floor? I shut the door securely listening for the latch to catch.

And then it happened again. The closet door opened and closed, opened and closed. Seemingly, creepily all on its own. Turning on, once again, the turned-off-lights, I fled down the steps to meet Lisa on the street.

Over dinner, I told Lisa what I could barely believe. The closet opened and closed, opened and closed. There must be a simple explanation, right?  I confessed that it felt like someone, some invisible someone, did not want me to be in that room. I was unwelcomed there.

Would you like to spend your last night in New York at my place instead? Asked Lisa.

O my, yes, I replied.

Lisa came back with me to pack up my things and while we were there the closet door opened and closed, opened and closed.

 F-ing terrifying, we got the hell out of there. And the next day, via Amtrak, I headed back to Alexandria, to my un-haunted house.

Trying to make sense of it all, I relayed my story to a British friend, David Bird (also an Episcopal priest.)

I don’t believe in ghosts but let me tell you what happened to me in NYC!

 Now David recommended the House of the Redeemer. David, who on the down- low had incredulously confessed to me that he had exorcised a house.  (OMG! NO!)

Were you staying on the fourth floor? The room on the left at the top of the stairs? David asks.

 Yes, I was!  How, could you possibly know?

 The very rich owner of the mansion had a very unhappy son. A young son who ended his life — took his own life in that very same room.

 An invisible son who very likely did not want me to stay those three days: October 30th, October 31st, and November 1st.

All Souls Day. All Hallows Eve. All Saints Day.

Samhain, the Celtic Triduum, the time when the divide between this world and the other-world is paper thin.

The time of year that the living walk among the dead and the spirits of the dead walk among the living.

This is my true story, as true as I can tell it. And so, now I do believe in ghosts.

What kind of ghosts?

Fingerprints of lost family. Filmy impressions of lost friends. Faint voices etched in the memory. Glimpses of long-ago-lovers. Unsettled inhabitants of old houses  — still knocking about. Wandering spirits with nowhere to go.

So many ghosts trying to find their way home.

The creaking floors and slamming doors reflect the ghosts of our own making. The ghosts who haunt our interior space.

Every one of our souls could use a little exorcism from time to time.

I believe in these ghosts, I do. And maybe so do you.

Boo!

P.S. Join us for a “Ghostly Gathering” at  Emmanuel Episcopal Church located at 1608 Russell Road, Alexandria, VA. Saturday, October 27th at 7:00 p.m. Cocktails, nibbles, silent & live auction to benefit the Parish Foundation. Tickets $40 if you come in costume. And if not, its double the price! You can RSVP to me at the church office.