Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


An Unorthodox Easter: The Gospel According to Gary

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 And he collected some of the unpublished ones as well – the ones that never made it into the newspapers.

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

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

From the Lost Gospel of Gary Larson

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

This is my kind of Jesus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is my salvation and continues to be.

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

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

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

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!


40 Days, a Muslim in Lent: 2019

In the aftermath of the tragic shooting and loss of 50 lives (the youngest victim being just three years old) at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, I have revised and brought up to date this post from Lent 2017.

Four Fridays, I observed midday prayers with my Muslim brothers and sisters.

Late January 2017, EEC  reached out to MAS and they reached back. That is, my parish Emmanuel Episcopal Church (post the initial infamous travel ban) reached out in friendship to the Muslim American Society Community Center.

I called their office and left a  message:

“We are with you. May we come to Friday prayers? We want to stand with you and support you as a mutual sign of our faith in God.”

Merehan Elhady (Mimi), the Outreach Director, called me right back. Little did I know, their mosque and school had been threatened with violence, with arson, and heinously, even threatened with the kidnapping of their children. That first Friday we shared prayers, the Fairfax County Chief of Police also came to speak to the Muslim community about safety and security.

At the end of the talk, I turned to our hosts. “We are with you,” was all that I could manage to say.

“You are courageous to come,” they told us.

“Heavens no! All we did was show up.  You are a blessing to us and we will be back.”

Half a dozen of us,  each week, observed prayers at MAS. And our Muslim brothers and sisters became like friends: Thoraia, Mimi, and Aseel. Now on a first name basis, each Friday, we would greet one another with hugs.

I’d cover my hair haphazardly with a scarf. I’d leave my shoes in the cubbies outside the worship space. I’d take a seat on the floor. The first two weeks, I sat behind the women. The next two weeks, we sat side by side.

Like we Episcopalians in the pews, together we’d listen to the preacher share a message of love and compassion. And a bit like Episcopal aerobics, we would also bow, kneel, fold our hands over our hearts in prayer, and three times touch our foreheads to the floor.

The chanted Arabic was haunting and beautiful. Though I did not understand a word, the prayers resonated with my soul and their meaning hewed closely to our own.

Muslims prepare for prayer with the cleansing of hands and feet and face, as they turn their thoughts to God. Just as in the BCP we pray:

“Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid; Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

At the mosque, at midday prayers, the worshippers raise their hands and proclaim the greatness of the Lord: “Allahu Akbar.”

And at church, for five Sundays in Lent, we begin with the summary of the law:

“Jesus said, ‘The first commandment is this: Hear O Israel! The Lord our God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:29-31

And this heart of the Gospel echoes in the heart of the Qur’an:

“Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds, the Beneficent, the Merciful; Master of the Day of Judgment. You alone do we worship and from you alone do we seek aid. Show us the Straight Way, the way upon those you have bestowed your grace not of those who have earned your wrath and gone astray.” Qur’an 1: 2-6

This kind of faith strengthens my faith. These prayers redouble mine. Like Najashi, a Christian king of Ethiopia, proclaimed: the difference between their faith and mine is as thin as a line in the sand.

So?

No, I am not converting to Islam.  Jesus is the Eternal Word and the Human Face of God for me — and always will be.

But for those forty days in Lent of 2017, I endeavored to be a Muslim – of the Christian kind.

Five times a day, I would try to pray my Anglican rosary with my Roman Catholic prayers. Kneeling. Standing. Sitting. Walking. Daybreak. Midday. Afternoon. Sunset. Night.

Through Muslim eyes, I tried to draw closer to Jesus. Isa, he is called in the Qur’an. Named and proclaimed as: Messiah. Messenger.  Prophet. Parable.  Word. Witness. Sign. Spirit. Servant.  All that is missing is ‘Lord’.

A bibliophile, I also read a bunch of books, of course.

Holy books: the Gospels, the Surah.

A history book of  faith: “Islam: a Short Introduction” by Karen Armstrong.

And the story of a Sufi Muslim writer and novelist, Mazhar Mallouhi: “A Pilgrim of Christ on the Muslim Road” by P.G. Chandler.

And in January of 2018, many here at Emmanuel, will remember that our friends from the mosque joined us. They joined us in the pews and Merehan, expecting her fourth little boy, shared MAS’s gratitude for the support shown by their Christian friends. The Parish Hall that morning bustled with folks of all ages at the “Get to Know Your Muslim Neighbor” open house.

As time has passed our visits have lapsed. MAS undertook a major renovation of their worship, school and meeting space. Staff have turned over and by my neglect, we have lost touch. And I am very sorry for that.

And now in the tragic aftermath of the hateful and violent events in New Zealand, it is more than time for us to rejoin in friendship.

It is time again, isn’t it, just to show up. To stand behind and beside our Muslim neighbors to let them know that they are not alone.

To observe Friday prayers 1:15 PM at MAS again.

To serve the refugees in our community together again.

To renew our conversation to learn from one another as people of faith.

Being in the love your neighbor business, I will do my best to make this happen. And I encourage any and all who would like to join me on this path.

Because the difference between us and them is as thin as a line in the sand.


More Manure, More Fruit.

Many years ago, on the Great Vigil of Easter at Immanuel Church on-the-Hill, two of my four children were baptized. Zach was three and a half and Colleen was just eighteen months. It was a grand and chaotic occasion as friends and relatives gathered late that Sunday evening. The Paschal Fire blazed in a Weber Grille on the steps of the church. The people processed in behind the single flame, behind the deacon chanting the Exultet.  Inside the church was pitch black. Zach tripped over a kneeler, bumped his head on the back of a pew and screamed bloody murder. As the lights came up, we dried his tears. Somehow the service continued with readings and prayers and responses and finally the baptism itself. 

”Zach, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever,” said the priest as he smeared oil on Zach’s forehead.

Christ’s own forever.

 With these words ringing in his ears, Zach turned to us, his mom and dad, with terror in his eyes. Christ? Christ? Who’s Christ? I don’t want to go home with Christ. I want to go home with you!

After all, home is where the heart is? Right? Home is where our duty lies. Right?  Don’t we all have obligations? My family expects things of me, always has. Each time I set foot outside my parent’s home, my father would remind me: Remember you are a Peacock! To be a Peacock meant reading good books, using good manners, conserving electricity, graduating from college, dressing in good taste, voting Republican, and keeping family secrets.  I cannot tell you on how many counts I have failed my father’s expectations (God rest his soul!) 

My life, like yours, I’m sure has taken various twists and turns with jobs and family, hopes and dreams. Ultimately our lives are measured by the mercy of God, but in the meantime, it seems we are eternally beholden to our parents, our spouses, our partners, our children. Family first, right??

Caught between the first and the fifth commandments – I am the Lord, your God. There are no other gods but Me and Honor your father and your mother, we might feel betwixt and between. What does faith demand? What does family require?

How many of us went to the wrong school, took the wrong job or married the wrong person — at least as far as our family was concerned? How many of us dared to be an artist instead of an accountant? An organic farmer instead of a hedge fund manager?  Who among us did not grow up to become the doctor, the lawyer or the Indian Chief?  Did not become the one everyone expected us to be? 

When did you realize that maybe you had fallen far from the tree? 

When did you know, when did you become aware that Someone Else had a claim on your life? When did you get the inkling that while uniquely your own your life might not be entirely your own?  

This is the Christian version of an inconvenient truth. It is the uncomfortable truth that Saint Augustine desperately tried to avoid. In his “Confessions”, the first autobiography ever written, Augustine shares his own tug-of-war tale between God and family.

Augustine’s upwardly mobile parents had grand plans for their bright baby boy. He would be instructed in the Christian faith but not actually become a Christian — not just yet. His mother, Monica wanted him to get through the terrible teens first; let those raging hormones subside. Then he would go to university, master rhetoric, become a lawyer. Not yet ready to marry, he would take a concubine with whom he later fathered a son.

Augustine managed to get to Mass most Sundays but only for the first half. He would leave before communion. He kept putting his baptism off, kicking it like a can down the road. First, you see, his family wanted for him every success, every prize.

So, Augustine knelt and fervently and famously prayed – “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.  Lord, make me a Christian, but not yet.”  Let me stay home and be about my family’s business. First, Lord, let me honor my mother and my father (and reap the benefits thereof.)

Follow in the family footsteps or shake loose from the family tree? Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind OR Honor your father and your mother? Far from simple, right?

What seems like an either/or question is also a both/and proposition. What matters most is that the tree bears fruit.  And quite ironically the more the manure the more the fruit.

“Parable of the Fruitless Fig Tree” Alexey Pismenny

A man had a fig tree planted in its vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So, he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree and still I have found none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.

Jesus had no family home where he could lay his head. Even foxes have holes and birds have nests, but Jesus was essentially homeless. He did not go into the family carpentry business. His only security was in God and his only job was as a son in God’s risky business. Jesus headed God’s way, his own way to Calvary. An unorthodox life destined to bear much fruit.

The Way is the most ancient name for the Christian faith.  To follow Jesus on this Way, to become his disciple, we can’t just stay safe and secure at home. We need to get out and about. We need to be more than couch potato Christians. St. Augustine – with God’s help – left behind father and mother – wealth and status — and quite belatedly went down into the Baptismal waters. And he came up a Christian – far from perfect, conflicted and complex and complicated – sealed as Christ’s forever.

And what was true for Augustine is true for us.

Christ embraces this life — imperfect and unfinished, messy in every respect and piled up to the neck in manure.  Whether we are fully grown or newly born, it does not matter. We’re called to get up out of our pews, out of our comfort zones — to walk into those uncomfortable places. To walk into the places where we can see, seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves. Where we are called to strive for justice and peace among all people. Where we are required to respect of every human being. 

Every human being.

So where is that for you personally? Where might that be for us as a parish? Pastorally, prophetically?  Might it be in the things we are already doing? Or maybe in things we have yet to dream of.

Mis-steps are guaranteed along this Way, but let’s dream on anyway. Because with God’s help and with us holding each other up, we can walk this rocky and uneven path and walk like Jesus the way to Jerusalem.


Splash! Dash! Dunk!

I am no Hemingway…

But like the Old Man of his Pulitzer winning novel, I have long had a problematic relationship with large bodies of water.

Sea water and pool water.

As a child – by the sea, by the beautiful sea – my fair, freckled skin would fry to a crisp. Bright red and hot to the touch – it took just 15 minutes splashing around in the waves – until I was thoroughly cooked.

Slathered with Solarcaine I was waylaid on the sand.   To shield me from the sun, I had to wear my father’s t-shirt and my mother’s floppy hat – while my siblings boogie-boarded and had  a grand old time.

The sea was not my friend —  but neither was the neighborhood pool.

My older sister, Maureen, once she reached driving age, chauffeured us in a fish-tailed Plymouth station wagon to our swimming lessons.

I flunked.

I flunked swimming lessons three times.

Once.

Twice.

Thrice.

Terrified of heights, I never learned to dive. The best I managed to do was doggy paddle the length of the pool. By the time I finally passed, I was at least a head taller than all of the other pollywogs in my class.

Yes, I have long had a problematic relationship with water.

Water won. I lost.

So water and I made a deal.

“I’ll wear my swim suit, Water, but I will never get it wet.”

Be it by the pool or by the sea, I would find a comfortable chair, slather my fair and freckled skin with SPF 100, sit under an umbrella and read a book – or two – or three.

Slather, rinse, repeat.

And that is how  I thought it was going to be — for all eternity –with water and me…

Until.

Cross training for my first half marathon, I signed up for twice weekly water aerobics at the local rec center.

Now most people think water aerobics is just a bunch of old ladies splashing around in the pool.

Nothing is further from the truth.

Barbara, the instructor, worked us like a drill sergeant. The routine is demanding and never boring. Armed with noodles and styrofoam barbells, water shoes and swimming gloves:

Like frogs we skim  the surface.

Like divers we explore the depths.

Like cyclists we pedal the length, the breadth.

Like bells in a belfry we swing both to and fro.

Like flying fish we shoot out of the water.

Like dancers we pivot and turn.

Like soldiers we march.

Like taskmasters we kick our butts.

Like yogis we stretch.

Like runners we run.

Like rowers we row ourselves ashore.

Like dolphins we submerge and rise again.

Water is buoyant – it bolsters my spirit and lifts my mood.

Water is a solvent – solving and dissolving my daily cares.

Water is a liquid –it pools my soul.

Water crashes in waves – washing over me and making me clean.

Water ebbs and flows  – its moods and mine obeying the moon.

Recently, a bit off my game, I have discovered my gym’s heated salt water pool. Miraculously I have managed to make it more days than not this new year. A self directed hour of flying, stretching, running and rowing. A self directed hour of renewal.

Water. Baptismal water.

Thank you, Lord God of the Universe, for the gift of water. Over it the Spirit moved at the dawn of creation. Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. In it Jesus was baptized by John in the River Jordan.

And in these baptismal waters — splash, dash, dunk — I  die and rise again.

P.S. Yes, this is an update of previous post!


64 is the New 46!

An alchemist am I.

In the medieval sense, an alchemist is a philosopher who takes what is base and spins it into gold. A scientist in pursuit of the elixir of life.

Yep, that’s me, fits me to a “t.” But alchemist also fits in the 21st century sense.

According to my EVO Planner, this is how my brain is wired.

Alchemists gravitate toward the abstract and theoretical. They prefer experimenting with their ideas in the real world, and develop a lot of their key ideas while interacting with other people. They are mostly focused on the future and the possibilities it holds.

Ah, music to my alchemist ears: focused on the future and all the possibilities it holds.

I am about to turn 64. Can you believe it? (Here is where you say, “No, you could not possibly be turning 64!”) And vanity has made me ever grateful for my mother’s genes – people have mistaken us both in our lifetimes for a bit younger than we actually are.

64 is two times 32, right? And if you ask me that is how I feel. Two rocking 32 year olds – with a peacock feather streak of color in my gray hair. (Thank you, Olivia at Salon de Zen.) I am not my mother’s or my grandmother’s Oldsmobile, so to speak.

And 64 for me is far larger than my 46. Not simply numerically but expansively. Sure, I am 17 years older but I am also, 17 years more evolved, 17 years more alive than I have ever been.

At 46 I actually faced some of my most difficult days. My marriage imploded. The church where I was rector crashed down around my ears. In my darkest of days, it actually hurt to open eyes and it seemed better perhaps if I no longer did.

But this darkness led me to light.

I took a two-week cruise on the good ship Dominion in 2003. I actually LOVED being on the psyche ward. It totally saved my life. And it set me on a 16 year trajectory of redefining and reclaiming, resurrecting and reimagining who I am.

With God’s help, of course, I am a person of faith. But also with more than a little help from friends and family and therapists and work.

And….

I am going to tell you the truth (not to sound conceited.) The biggest help to me was me. Me, myself, and I.

I have made a bazillion daily decisions over the last 6,0205 days. Each a little choice, each a small turn in the direction of my future and not my past. Step by step by step, the steps add up until a few small steps add up to one enormous leap. A leap into the fullness of my life.

And I am grateful for the sun that has come up everyday and thankful for every breath that I have been blessed to breathe – that have brought me happy and whole to this day.

So 64 is the new 46! And in no particular order, let me count the ways.

  1. Coffee.
  2. Colored pens.
  3. Shelves full of books.
  4. A closet full of dresses.
  5. Half a dozen pairs of walking shoes.
  6. A dog named Bailey.
  7. Two Tabbies: Cheshire & Charlie.
  8. Baptizing babies.
  9. Performing on stage.
  10. Six million rounds of the rosary.
  11. Walking in God’s great outdoors.
  12. Three half marathons.
  13. Three little pills I take each night.
  14. Three years with Sondra on the therapist’s couch.
  15. Ten years prior with Mary.
  16. Four rocking adult children: Rebecca, Zach, Colleen & Jacob.
  17. Four gospels to preach.
  18. An office to call my own.
  19. Colleagues who are more than colleagues.
  20. Coworkers who have become friends.
  21. Digital connectivity in cyberspace.
  22. Gathering folks in God’s name.
  23. Regular dips in the pool.
  24. Fire in my fireplace and pillows to rearrange.
  25. My soul sister, Mical.
  26. My soul brothers, Neal and Chuck.
  27. A little bit of chocolate every day.
  28. Canadian sister Maureen, big bro Tim & baby brother Joseph — age 58!(and maybe the other siblings, too.)
  29. Story District: Invisiblia, 2nd Tuesday & Top Shelf.
  30. Grandchildren: Bella, Jude & Meir; Zhen, Zakai & Zellie.
  31. Great-little-nieces: Virginia & Astrid.
  32. DNA, genetics, and ancestry.com.
  33. A writer’s life: 151 posts @ Unorthodox & Unhinged.
  34. A big red bike I barely ride.
  35. Being Associate for Liturgy & Hilarity at EEC.
  36. Pie (my favorite food group) at Killer ESP.
  37. A full refrigerator with food ready to eat.
  38. Christmas that lasts at least a month.
  39. Birthdays that last at least a week.
  40. Saturday Night Live on a Sunday afternoon.
  41. Cult related documentaries, articles and books (Think Wild, Wild Country and Going Clear.)
  42. Excursions to The Porches, the Oakhurst Inn, Mandarin Oriental and the Line.
  43. Sharing my hometown library, the largest library in the world: LOC.
  44. The rhythm and color of the liturgical year.
  45. Singing an off key soprano whenever I can.
  46. And coffee. Did I say coffee?

64 is the new 46!


Raising Hell for Heaven’s Sake

Phillips Brooks, Episcopal Bishop of Boston in the late 19thcentury, known for his inspiring oratory, famously quipped.

“You preach to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.”

If you didn’t quite catch that let me repeat it.

“You preach to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.”

And woe is me, woe are we.  Jesus, in his sermon from a level place on the plain, is inflicting pain on the rich as he raises up the poor, as he raises up the hungry.

Remember Jesus quoting Isaiah, in the synagogue? 

“I have come to preach good news to the poor, freedom to the captives, and sight to the blind.”

Now he preaches to the would-be disciples, to the people gathered there.

“Blessed are you who are poor…. Woe to you who are rich.”

“Blessed are you who are hungry…Woe to you who are full.”

This is not the smoothed over, tame version in Matthew,

“Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are those who hunger for righteousness.”

This is not Jesus meek and mild. This is Jesus radically wild. 

To be poor in the flesh, not just in the metaphorical spirit, is measurable, but not always visible. And though we may not acknowledge it, we walk past the poor every day. With those cardboard signs. With the paper cups jingling with coins. Pushing grocery carts or carrying backpacks with all their worldly goods.

Some of you may have tasted real poverty. Maybe many of you have skated close. In the recent 35-day government shutdown (and I pray to God there not be another), you may have inched closer. 

Government workers, reminiscent of the Great Depression, stood in bread lines. Having to choose between food or medicine. Heat or shelter. Back to work, people are still behind on their bills. And the contracted workers who clean the buildings and work in the cafeterias and mow the lawns, will never see a month’s worth of back wages. They are farther behind still.

The difference between being a home owner and becoming homeless is a just a lost paycheck or two or three – that includes about 80% of everybody in the United States.

Still most of us have never slept on the street or under a bridge.

When I was in seminary, I worked at Grace Church in Georgetown. It’s located on Wisconsin Avenue on the edge of the C&O Canal. Grace was founded in the 19thcentury by the hoity toity Christ Church up the road. They wanted a place for the riff raff to worship without disturbing their upper-class sensibilities. 

So, Grace was founded on the evangelical values of service to the poor. At Grace, they could find food and clothing and a place out of the cold – without cluttering up Christ Church’s pews.

This mission has long defined Grace. When I worked there, Grace was home to the Georgetown Ministry Center staffed by one and a half professional social workers. They worked with the homeless population who camped out in the church yard. To give them a mailing address for their disability checks. To get a shower, and clean clothes. To get help finding a job. For the mentally ill and diabetic, Grace was a place to get their meds. For those who struggled with substance abuse, Grace was the place for 12-step meetings.  Many of these homeless had also served our county in Vietnam and in the Gulf War.

While David Bird, the rector, was away for a month in the summer, I was left in charge. The Ministry Center had weekly meetings on the church steps to listen to the needs of the real poor people right in front of us. We listened to their concerns and complaints, suggestions and ideas.

There is the stereotype of the grateful poor, and these resourceful homeless men and women, did indeed thank us for our noblesse oblige. Appreciative for the basic needs of life: food, clothing, shelter. But I will never forget one particular meeting, where a gentleman stood up to dress us down.

“You know,” he said, “we feel very welcome here during the week, Monday through Friday.  But the most unwelcoming of days here is Sunday. On Sunday, we feel left out, locked out of this church. What are you afraid of? Open these god damned red doors!”

And so, we did, no thanks to me or to the social workers, but thanks to the homeless themselves. Give us this day our daily bread — for body and for soul.

They joined us in Bible Study. They joined us in the choir. Jay-Jay, a schizophrenic sang the most unusual and beautiful descants. They gathered in the circle with us for communion. And of course, they came to coffee hour, which at Grace was a holy meal and a sacrament unto itself. They joined us for caring for one another — on a level place.

They turned our comfortable places in our comfortable pews, upside down. And we were blessed by them so much more than they were blessed by us.

Here at Emmanuel, blessed are the poor, blessed are the hungry.

Carpenter’s Shelter Breakfast and Dinner.

The Alive Food Panty.

Bag Lunch Program for the Homeless.

Meals on Wheels.

Hunger Free Alexandria.

Our stomachs full, Emmanuel is very mindful of the empty stomachs in our own backyards. It costs us very little to toss that extra jar of peanut butter, box of cereal or can of tuna into our shopping carts. 

But Jesus today asks us for much more. Capital “M”, much more. Not just to feed the five thousand but to turn over the rocks and examine the nasty, negative forces that keep the poorest poor and the richest rich. Culturally. Economically. Concretely. Personally. 

Four hundred Americans at the top of the ladder own more than 150 million at the bottom combined.

Combined.

Why is that? What do we do with that? Locally. Globally. I don’t have any easy answers. I am asking for myself as much as for you. 

Blessed are the poor, plain and simple, says Jesus in the Sermon on the Plain.

The kingdom of God, here is not heaven in the great by-and-by, not that delayed gratification and reward for the grateful poor.

But the kingdom of God, in the words of Jesus, is this world, our cozy and comfortable world turned upside down.

A world where the words of the poor are gospel. Where the voices of the poor are heard.

So, for heaven’s sake, let’s consider how we can dig down, dig deeper, and let Jesus actually afflict us, more than just a little. Let the words of Jesus, dig into us, dig up and turn over our comfortable places in the market places. So, in turn we figure out how to comfort those truly afflicted, the poor and the poorest of the poor.

Let’s pray that we figure out what in heaven’s name we can actually do to turn this world upside down. 

What kind of hell are we going to raise — right here, right now – to bring about the kingdom of God?

Today, tomorrow what are you going to do?


“Star, Star, teach us how to shine.”

I read in The Times that the skies lit up over New York City.

“There was a boom and a hum and smoke and the sky turned fluorescent blue.”

Twitter like mindedly lit up with eerie lights.

“It was spectacular”, a deputy inspector in the 114thPrecinct said. “You could see it a half mile away. You felt it in your chest, the explosions in the night sky turned electric blue.”

“The lights were so bright,” one witness observed, that “the dark night was bright as day.”

The 911 phone lines lit up, too. 

Was it an Unidentified Flying Object?

Was it an alien invasion?

A lost aurora borealis? 

Confused, 21stNew Yorkers flocked outside to figure out what was going on. What was the meaning of it all?

Turns out it was a celestial phenomenon that can be explained by physics: a discharge of supercharged photons into the night sky – from Con Edison. Literally an electrifying event.

Two millennium and two decades ago, the night sky likewise (sort of) lit up with cosmic confusion. 

Four times Matthew’s second chapter mentions “the star.” The star that beckoned to the Magi and by which the Three Kings traversed afar.

A star?  A supernova, maybe? A comet? Haley’s Comet flew by in 12 B.C.E., astronomers tell us. Possibly planets aligning? Planets are the wanderers in the dark inky sky, after all.

Or maybe it was just a fluorescing symbol that lights the way?

A tracking device, a traffic light, a GPS, a giant cosmic flashlight focusing down on the place where Jesus lay.

“The Truth is Out There,” the sage Fox Mulder of the X-Files so wisely said.

I am a nerdy, nerdy fan of this 1990’s sci-fi series. Agent Mulder’s office is buried in the basement of the Hoover Building – the embarrassment of the FBI. Mulder is on a quest. A scientific one yes, to prove that in this universe, we are not alone. But it’s a personal quest too, to search for a child, a little sister who disappeared in the dead of night. 

With his partner Scully by his side, Mulder turns his gaze to the cosmos, hoping upon hope for his sister to return.

Agent Scully, medical doctor and UFO skeptic, does her best to keep Mulder grounded. A person of faith, science is her true North Star.

Together they stumble and fumble their way forward to the truth.

The Way, interestingly enough,is the earliest name that followers of Jesus called themselves. 

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” (Isaiah 9:2 KJV)

They had found a way.

Flashes of light piercing through confusion, stagnation, delusion.

Like explosions going off in our heads and opening our eyes.

In headlines screaming things we’d rather not hear.

In images revealing things we’d rather not see.

In events unfolding we’d rather ignore.

Flashes of light in the darkness. 

Epiphanies.

Flashes of light melting into the night as fast as they appear.

Gone in the twinkling of eye. The truth hopefully internalized. Minds enlightened. Souls stirred. Limbs stretched. The Way before us clearer, brought into focus.

Like the Magi, now we fledgling Christians can try to rise up. To rise up and return to what matters most: life, love, compassion, justice.  Most likely by another road. A rocky and more difficult road, a road less travelled. A road we just know that we have to go down.  

Where we’ll have to do things, we don’t really want to do.

Where we’ll have to speak up and say things that aren’t easy to say.

Where we’ll have to let go of things that we would rather keep.

Where we’ll have to give of ourselves and our time losing precious sleep.

We’ll have to be less selfish and more self-aware.

We’ll have to keep our eyes uplifted to the sky.

“Star, star, teach us how to shine, shine.”

Teach us to follow the light divine.

Because truthfully, it is the only Way, the only way that truly matters.