Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


Love is a Verb.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I see the moon and the moon sees me.

The moon sees the one that I want to see.

God bless the moon and God bless me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Christ was lifted from the earth,

His arms stretched out above,

Through every culture, every birth,

To draw an answering love,

Still east and west his love extends,

And always, near and far,

He calls and claims us as his friends,

And loves us as we are,

And loves us as we are.

— Brian Wren


Fortify, a 40-Day Mixtape for Lent

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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


Rattling Beads & Grounding Souls

I found God at the end of a rosary.

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

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

My First Communion extraordinaire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That little white plastic rosary was my lifeline, tethering me to my only hope – a God I feared but did not know. The God, I hoped to God, who would save us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many, many years later, while in the ordination process, the rosary once again was my answer to prayer.

Going through rounds of interviews with the Commission on Ministry, one particularly annoying interrogator  relentlessly kept pressing me:

“Tell me about your prayer life.”

“Well, I use a rosary.” I told her.

“Tell me more”, she said.

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

“Tell me more”, she said.

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

“Tell me more”, she said.

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

“Tell me more”, she said.

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

“Tell me more”, she said.

(By this time, I am having not so holy thoughts, and am ready to strangle this interrogator. Where is that rosary?)

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

“Tell me more”, she said.

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

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

When I was ordained, my friend, Nancy, gave me a present: a rosary with weathered glass beads and a tiny crucifix. Repaired with picture wire, it was obviously beloved, old and worn. It had belonged to her aunt, whom she loved, and it was blessed with a lifetime of prayer, a lifetime of sleepless nights, a lifetime of Our Fathers, Hail Mary’s, and Glory be’s.

There is no better present that I could have received, this little lifeline to the Body of my God, this little lifeline to the Body of Her world, this little lifeline to the Body of Her Son, this little lifeline to the Bodies of all whom I love.

I found God at the end of a rosary.

How about you?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fly_me_to_the_moon_wallpaper_by_lama_art-d39xeq4

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

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

Death is the greatest of equalizers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JoaniSign

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


The Prophet Martin: A Polished Arrow in God's Quiver

I am a child of the sixties, an aging hippy. So, it will come as no surprise to many of you that I have been a bleeding-heart liberal from my earliest days. A badge of honor that has also sometimes blinded me along the way to the voices and viewpoints of others. Stereotypically, I was a teenager in rebellion against my tastefully conservative mom and dad. A “straight A” student, I rebelled in more subversive ways.  I skipped school to protest the Vietnam war.  I served — in name only — on the staff of an underground newspaper that never actually published even a single issue. (Sister Mary Clare really clobbered me for that one!)  Never a jock, I won awards with my words, my adolescent purple prose.  I earned my high school letter at debates and speech contests. In one stellar outing, I gave a speech supporting birth control in the voice of a not yet fertilized egg. And from my secure, segregated suburban life, I railed against racism. I remember but one line from my blue-ribbon speech that took me to the city finals: “The blood of the black man is on my lily-white hands.”

I loved the talk but I myself did not always walk the walk.

Thirty years later, this preacher woman was sitting at her desk on a Friday afternoon when. an elderly African American gentleman paid me a call.  His concern and complaint. took me totally by surprise.

He wanted to know if our choir had participated in the Martin Luther King Day Choir Festival. Proudly I told him yes. that indeed both of our choirs had sung that day in honor of the slain civil rights leader. MLK, Jr., I told him, was a saint in the Episcopal Church whose feast day is April the 4th.

Well, this gentleman was a contemporary of Dr. King and said for certain that he knew there were finer preachers whose names he rattled off. And worse than that did I know, he said, that Martin Luther King had been tom-catting around Atlanta. He and his wife claimed to know of the Rev. King’s illicit comings and goings.  And then he blamed bleeding heart liberals like me for canonizing this flawed leader.

Martin, he said, talked the talk. but he certainly did not always walk the walk.

Indeed, all of these years later many have measured the weight of Dr. King’s life differently. He has been accused of many failings including communism and plagiarism. Younger African-Americans have criticized his passivity.  And biographers have lingered over his personal life.

Sister Joan Chittister tells it well:

“The truth of the matter is that Martin Luther King Jr.  was Martin Luther King Jr. till the day he died. Organizer, preacher, prophet, father, husband, cheater, lover and leader.  He struggled with anger and depression and excess all his life.  And like the rest of us in our own struggles, he never totally conquered any of them.”

Prophets you see are not always perfect. Seldom are they saints and even once sainted remain sinners.

But prophets speak God’s truth.

“King was an unlikely leader, black in a white country, a preacher who led a political struggle, the son and grandson of ministers who held a privileged place in the black community.  Proud of his family and home, he learned young that he lived on the wrong side of town.  He lost his two best friends in the first grade because their mother would not let them play with a ‘colored’ boy.  When he was twelve, a society matron in a downtown department store called him the n-word and slapped him across the face. The sting of it stayed with him for the rest of his life.  He was with his father when a shoe salesman refused to wait on them unless they moved to the back room of the store. It was the first time he had seen his daddy so angry and he remembered his response.  ‘I don’t care how long I have to live with this system. I am never going to accept it.  I’ll oppose it till the day I die.’”

Again, and again the message was hard to ignore.  And Martin began to get the message. Speak Lord for your servant is listening.

“And so, like his Daddy, he grew up to be pastor of a major black congregation in Montgomery, Alabama. It was 1955 and Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat on the bus. And for the first time, King stepped out his privileged pulpit and truly became a prophet.  The first night of the bus boycott he addressed thousands who had gathered for a mass meeting. And he addressed them with the truth, with Gospel truth.”

“’Our method will be that of persuasion, not coercion. Love must be our regulating ideal.  Once again, we must hear the words of Jesus echoing across the centuries: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, and pray for them that despitefully use you.’ If we fail to do this, our protest will end up as meaningless drama on the stage of history, and its memory will be shrouded with the ugly garments of shame.  In spite of the mistreatment we have confronted, we must not become bitter, and end up hating our white brothers and sisters. Let no one pull you so low as to make you hate them.’”

 “’If you will protest courageously with dignity and Christian love, when the history books are written the historians will have to pause and say. There lived a great people, a black people, who injected meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization’.” (A Passion for Life, Joan Chittister)

He talked the talk and he himself led the walk. And yes, he stumbled, and he fell along the way.  But the prophet Martin prophesied so that his black brothers and sisters. so that our brothers and sisters, might taste justice, might taste the freedom of this Privileged Land.

The Lord called him before he was born to be a prophet, and hid him away, a polished arrow in God’s quiver, until it was time.

Now most of us, if we got the call to be such a prophet would hang up. Biblically speaking, prophets are not particularly attractive folk. They tend to push the envelope of society’s conventions and expectations. Frederick Buechner says that, Elisha would have been called cruel, for turning bears loose on boys who taunted him.  Jeremiah would be called crazy for literally eating the scroll on which sweetly written was the word of God. Amos would be called a carpetbagger. for berating his southern neighbors to justice with a northern accent.

Prophecy is not very desirable work. Telling the emperor, he has no clothes is a thankless task. Isaiah tells us “The Lord says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant…I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach the end of the earth. He said this to Isaiah as “one deeply despised, abhorred by the world, the slave of rulers.  And despite this or maybe even because of this, ‘Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the Lord who is faithful, who [had chosen him.]”

And the prophecy business is dangerous work. While God may have the prophet’s back, God does not show his face, and people are likely to shoot the messenger.  Jeremiah was thrown into a cistern.  Isaiah was rumored to be sawed in half. And Martin was stabbed, attacked, and his home bombed many times. And then cut down by an assassin’s bullet in April of 1968. Just thirty-nine years old.  Prophets pay a price that most of us dearly would not like to pay.

So, what about us? For what did God knit us together in our mother’s womb? In what small everyday way does call us to be prophets in our own day?

God whispers in ears. Not just into the ears of saints but into the ears of all of us. Niggling, annoying words, taunting us to rise up out of our lazy beds. To witness and to speak up for those struggling at the margins.

 We live in challenging times – in a time where white supremacism and antisemitism are on the rise. We live in a time when Houses of Worship are wracked by violence: a mosque in New Zealand, synagogues in Philadelphia and New York, a church in Texas. We live in a time where we are prone to demonize others different than ourselves. In a time, where we barely know how to speak to people across the political divide. 

In God’s eyes, our status quo will just not do. God is always calling us to more, not less; to turn towards love and life and away from disdain and indifference. May God grant us the strength to reach down, way down, deep down and find the courage, the compassion to speak a prophetic word.

And so aptly let us pray,

Almighty God, by the voice of your prophets, you have led your people out of slavery and into freedom; Grant that we, following the example of the prophet Martin, may resist oppression in the name of your love; and may secure for all your children equality and liberty, peace and justice, here on earth, and life abundant in the kingdom to come. Amen.


The Catalog(ue)

Nerdy, nerdy bibliophile, I picked up a delicious but definitely unneeded book while on docent duty at the Library of Congress. Tempting bookstore displays get me every time and this time it was a fascinating, plot-twisting history of the almighty Card Catalog(ue). (And just when did it become okay to drop the last two letters of this fabulous word?)

$35 for the library bound first edition of “The Card Catalog: Books, Cards and Literary Treasures.” A book, not authored by human hands, but by THE LIBRARY itself. Hmm, a bit pricey you might say.

I put it back and walked away but just for a little while — the duration of my two hour shift. But awesome-sauce, turns out it was on sale! So, I snagged it for just $24.99!

Much more than a coffee table book, it is the illustrated history of logging literary collections since the dawn of the written word. Stories with tantalizing text and pictures and paintings. The likes of,

Rolled scrolls, with tags dangling from their ends, at the Library at Alexandria.

Cuneiform clay tablets tallying up a Sumerian bill of sale.

Blank-sided French playing cards, one for each book plundered in the revolution.

Literary ledgers listing titles in the style of Voltaire: by memory, reason, and imagination.

And finally the House of Cards, I both miss and love, the Card Catalog(ue), itself — thanks to Mr. Dewey and Mr.Putnam (You know the former. Look up the latter!)

The Library of Congress Card Catalog “closed” in 1980 yielding to the computer age. But it is still reverently kept in the alcoves of the Main Reading Room for historical and research purposes.

And what a story each card can tell.

Subject, title, and author, of course. But also particular and personal details of each physical book.

Measurements. Color. Cover. Texture. Time. Place.

Walt Whitmans’s “Leaves of Grass” 1884. 404 pages. Bound in orange cloth. Inscribed by the author. Tucked in with the poetry on a shelf in the office.

The Library of Congress card for Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

On the cusp of a new year and by the light of my Christmas tree, I take stock of my bookcases. Cases that line every room in my condo – save the kitchen and the bathrooms. And having acquired a castoff three-drawer card cabinet, I have the itch to catalog my books.

To catalog them into what could be called an actual library.

Once upon a time, they were organized by subject, two-books deep until I weeded them back into single rows. Recently my decorator daughter arranged them by the hue of their spines. Colorful, yes, but it makes them a little harder to find.

Libraries are temples of learning; books borrowed for a while with a card. But I’ve acquired the bulk of my books with a debit card. The only return-carts to return them to are my very own shelves.

Rather than copy Dewey or follow Putnam, I am inclined to come up with a cataloging system of my own.

The “So many books, so little time” cataloging system.

This is a great end-of-year occupation, don’t you think? Sifting through my library helps me sort out my head. Surveying my books inspires me to look both forward and back.

So, with no further ado, let me launch the SMBSLT, JLP (for me!) cataloging system!

JLP.BB: Books about Books.

JLP.RE: Reading about Eating.

JLP.BBF: Books that belonged to my father.

JLP.BFC: Books I didn’t finish in college.

JLP.MH: Mysterious history.

JLP.HM: Historical mystery.

JLP.CC: Cultic classics.

JLP.AI: Astrophysics for idiots.

JLP.SFS: Science fiction for scientists.

JLP.LC: Liturgical choreography.

JLP.SB: Select biography.

JLP.VGS: Victorian ghost stories.

JLP.CL: Celtic lore.

JLP.IUT: Impressive unread titles.

JLP.PT: Ponderous tomes.

JLP.OTW: Obligatory theological works.

JLP.LCA: Lewis Carroll, all of his books, especially the “Annotated Alice”.

JLP.CBI: Children’s books I cannot part with.

JLP.FFU: Fancy folios slid under the coffee table.

JLP.BBB: Books I’ve bought but have yet to read.

JLP.BIH: Books I hope to write someday.

JLP.BBVB: Banned books, the very best ones.

JLP.FAVES: And the faves, of course: Anne Tyler, Shirley Jackson and Herman Hesse.

I’ve got stacks of colored index cards and colored real life fountain pens. Going to do this old-school. (With a backup spreadsheet on my MAC,)

So, how about you? How about taking a little inventory of your literary tastes, a compilation of last year’s books you read, a measure of the stack beside your bed. Dust them, sort them, give them pride of place. Renew your library card. Put together a reading list of every kind: high brow and low brow, classics and pulp.

And explore between the covers of a book what the world, what the universe might have in store, chapter by chapter and page by page, and word by word. Every jot and tittle.

And so expand your soul and incite your mind.

Take flight.

So many books. So little time.


"Star, Star, Teach Us How to Shine, Shine!"

A year ago, 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 millennia 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?

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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 famously said.

I am a nerdy, nerdy fan of this 1990’s sci-fi series. Collectible action figures of Fox and Dana keep watch on my windowsill. I have a UFO Nativity ornament hanging on my tree. And one my very favorite Christmas presents this year is a book called The Real Science Behind the X-Files: Microbes, Meteorites, and Mutants by Anne Simon, Ph.D.. (Yes, an actual well-respected scientist wrote this book!)

If you are familiar with the show, you know that being an embarrassment to the FBI, Agent Mulder’s office is buried in the basement of the Hoover Building. Mulder is on a quacky quest to prove that in this universe, we are not alone.

But for Mulder this is also a deeply personal quest, to search for a child, a little sister who disappeared in the dead of night. Mulder turns his gaze skywards, hoping upon hope for his sister to return.

In episode after episode, partner Dana Scully, a trained medical doctor and UFO skeptic, does her damndest to keep grounded the pie-in-the-sky Mulder. While she quite ironically, as a person of faith, finds her North Star in science.

Through eleven seasons together, Mulder and Scully stumble and fumble their way toward the truth.

3D View of a Supernova’s “Heart”

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. Minds enlightened. Souls stirred. Limbs stretched. The Way before us clearer, brought into focus, a sage once said.

Like the Magi, now we fledgling Christians hopefully seek the same. To return to what matters most: life, love, compassion, justice.  Not just for you and me but for everybody. Not just for those with the loudest voices but for the voiceless.

We are called to follow these wise ones on the road less travelled. That other rocky and more difficult road. That road that more often than not, we are reluctant to travel.

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, losing time and losing sleep.

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

We’ll have to keep our eyes on the prize,

on peace on earth and goodwill for all.

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

Show us the Way of the Light Divine.

Show us a worldly way to redeem what truly matters.