Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


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The Third Peacock

Middle child of six siblings, this third Peacock often got lost in the crowd.

Girl. Boy. Girl. Boy. Girl. Boy. Our six birthdays, from the oldest to the youngest, spanned just nine years.  No wonder my mom could barely keep us straight.

Maureen. Tim. Joani. Bernie. Clare. Joseph. She would rattle through our names till she found the one that fit.

It’s me, mom. It’s Joani. Remember me?

And with six kids in the suburbs, it was no wonder that my mom made use of all the help that she could get. My Grandma Cady, my mom’s mom, would cook, make lunches, and help get us off to school. My dad was a doctor, a surgeon, so we could afford to hire help. Cornelia cleaned, Cora did the ironing, and Sonny, Cornelia’s brother did all the heavy lifting.

Outwardly, we all appeared neat and tidy, organized and orderly. But that was so not the case. My mom’s bipolar disorder, along with my dad’s addiction to work, wreaked havoc on our home.

But we six kids, whether because of our circumstances – or in spite of them — compounded the chaos tenfold.

There was a lot of yelling, screaming and name calling. Middle child, I learned to keep my head down. Middle child, a translator at the bargaining table, I tried to keep the peace.

As much, as any little kid could.

the third peacock book cover

And there was more than just a little competition. Who has to do the dishes.  Who gets to sit up front in the car. Who gets first crack at the Oreos – when my mom got home from the store.

Our birth order was also our pecking order — but often in reverse. My grade school idea of fairness was quite literal. I remember sneaking down the stairs, on Christmas Eve, after everyone had gone to bed, and counting the packages under the tree. Invariably, Baby Brother Joseph always got the most.

Always.

Joseph, was the most beloved, it seemed. Too little for household chores. Too adorable to be held accountable. He could always hide behind my mother’s skirts.

Or so it seemed to me.

Who wouldn’t want to murder their little brother? Or throw him into a pit? Or sell him off for twenty pieces of silver?

This is the story of Joseph. Not my baby brother Joseph. But Joseph of Genesis. Joseph, one of the great novellas of Hebrew Scripture. Joseph, the youngest and most favored son of Jacob. The one who got the awesome coat.  Baby brother Joseph, who did not endear himself to his siblings.

An angst filled family story of biblical proportions.

Joseph was seventeen years of – shepherding the flock with his brothers. Joseph, the apple of Jacob’s eye, put his brothers in a bad light. He ratted them out for some unnamed offense. And Jacob rewards him for betraying his brothers — with that amazing technicolor dream coat. The child of his old age, he loved Joseph best of all.

His brothers hated him for it. They could not even spare him a peaceable word.

Jacob sends Joseph out to find where his brothers are keeping the sheep. Before the distance is closed between them, the siblings conspire to do their little brother in.

Here comes the dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into a pit.

We’ll tell dad a wild animal devoured him.

No, the eldest counters. Let’s just steal his coat, go with the pit and not kill him.

It being a waterless pit, this was Joseph’s brothers’ singular kindness.

Callously, they sit down to eat – while up comes a wandering band of Ishmaelites – nomads and merchants on their way to Egypt.

This inspires in Judah, another of the brothers, a very profitable idea.

Let’s sell him to the highest bidder!

So, they pull him out of the pit and hand him over for twenty pieces of silver.

 Joseph, the youngest, the interpreter of dreams, quite ironically is put in the middle. His protective father behind him – ahead, his brothers plotting his demise.

They could all use a little family therapy, don’t you think?

So, could we all.

Our families of origin. Our communities of choice. Our workplaces. Our psychic spaces. Our social circles and political cul-de-sacs. We all tend to hang out with our own tribe. The folks who look like us and think like us and agree with us.

All could use a little family therapy.

Yahweh does not rescue Joseph from the pit – at least not in the swoop down from heaven – Deus ex machina — way. Instead, God, quite providentially, leaves his children –- including us — to our own devices. The devices, God has equipped us with. By our wits, by our skills, by our gifts — to work out this family squabble on our own.

To literally appeal to our better angels.

Three weeks ago, July 21st, the Washington Post reporter, Colby Itkowitz wrote:

On a Wednesday evening, Donna Murphy joined about 30 people in a nondescript basement…for a Better Angels’ “skills workshop” to learn the fundamentals of how to have difficult conversations, to bring Democrats and Republicans together for a three day Better Angels dialogue.

 Better Angels began as a civics experiment in rural southwest Ohio several weeks after the election. With the emotions of the campaign still raw, a room of 21 strangers, ten who voted for Trump and 11 who voted for Clinton spent an entire weekend together talking.

 They listened. They debated. They vented. There were tense moments and emotional ones.

 After 13 hours of discussion, the participants did not change their views but left with a softened view of the other side.

 Better Angels went on a thirteen-city summer tour to promote this red-blue dialogue – to facilitate conversations across a deep political divide.

 The program is the brainchild of David Blankenhorn, a Republican, and onetime opponent of same sex marriage – who later changed his position after a friendship with a gay man changed his mind.

 The group takes its name from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, will swell the chorus of our Union, when again touched, as surely, they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

 Blankenhorn concludes:

 “One consistent message we’re getting is, there are strong disagreements, but we’re not as far apart as we thought we are. There is passion and disagreement…but the main takeaway is that this is good, this kind of talking with — rather than at or about – our political opponents is good for us and good for our country.”

 Some of these groups have decided to meet on a monthly basis. Some not. But meeting even once like this could be a really good idea, don’t you think?

A really good idea, we could put into practice here in Alexandria.

Maybe?

On behalf of Emmanuel, I have sent Mr. Blankenhorn an initial inquiry of how, as a parish, we might sponsor a Better Angels training weekend in our own backyard.

Just a possibility that could come to pass early next year.

A way to equip ourselves, as sisters and brothers, to speak and to listen to one another in love.

Let’s think about it. Talk about it. Pray about it.

The third Peacock, in me, wants to believe that we can work towards healing our tribal divides.

This middle child wants to believe that we can work towards putting aside our self-righteous needs always to be right.

Dear God, please, help us to both temper and to tame

the destructive side of our, all too human, sibling rivalries.

JoaniSign


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The Library of Congress Restoreth My Soul

WELCOME TO THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS!

I AM SOOOOOO EXCITED YOU ARE HERE!

I AM SOOOOOO EXCITED TO SHARE THIS LIBRARY WITH YOU!

Such begins my weekly spiel, as I lead visitors from all over the world on a tour of the Nation’s Library.

A bibliomaniac, I served seven years at Bishop Payne at VTS.  Last fall, I was simply OVER THE MOON when I got into the four-month docent immersion program at the Library of Congress.

In class, I got to sit at the feet of remarkable librarians – who curate remarkable collections from around the world. We got to go behind the scenes and behind closed doors. Into the stacks and into the reading rooms.

We got to touch – well not actually touch – but see up close – Thomas Edison’s pencil sketch of the telephone; Thomas Jefferson’s journal pages; Amelia Earhart’s flight logs.

WOW. Right? WOW.

Sort of like a liberal arts education in all things LOC, we heard from art historians, rare book collectors, doctors of the arts, architectural experts, scholars of the Gilded Age, and experts in the history of D.C.

The Jefferson building is  breathtaking: “Beauxes Artes” breathtaking. A boastful triumphant building completed in 1897, fifty American artists worked, painted, crafted, and sculpted its insides.  America flexed its cultural muscles at the close of the 19th century. The United States was as great a nation, as any in Europe. And a great nation – needs a great library.

library of congress compass rose floor

In the floor of the Great Hall is a multicolored marble Compass Rose — surrounded by the twelve signs of the zodiac in bronze. Parallel white marble staircases rise on either side – each carved with angelic looking figures – who are not angels at all but little boys.

Halfway up each staircase is a globe – nestled between two of the boys. To the left is Asia and Europe. To the right Africa, with a crocodile behind him and a Native American, hand raised  to his forehead.

Learning is universal, you see, and comes from all four corners of the universe. This library – the LARGEST library in the world – is America’s library – but it is not an American library – half the collection is in languages other than English – 470 and counting.

This is not some 21st century – cultural diversity tax collector waste of money thing. This is the raison d’etre of the place since the first library burned in the War of 1812.

In 1814 Thomas Jefferson offered his own books to Congress to restart the fledgling library — housed across the street in the Capitol.

Jefferson’s literary collection was one of the most extensive in the young United States. He cataloged his books according to memory, reason, and imagination: history, philosophy, and the arts. He had books in 16 languages including Arabic and Native American dialects. He had books about bee keeping, magic tricks, and Italian cooking. He had books about EVERYTHING.

Congress balked. We just want the law books, they said. But Jefferson argued that “There may not be a subject to which a member of Congress may not need to refer in the course of his work.” So, Congress bought his almost 7,000 books for almost $24,000.

And the LOC to this day, still collects this way. It is Thomas Jefferson on steroids.

And the library’s universal collection is universally available to anyone – not just members of Congress.

library of congress good government

Just above the doors to the Main Reading Room are a series of murals called “Good Government”.  A young boy with books tucked under his arms drops his ballot into a Grecian voting urn. Sound government rests on sound learning. Not just for elected servants but for EVERYBODY.

Because this land is your land, this land is my land.  Right? No matter where we came from. And we all came from somewhere else.

When I introduce myself to the LOC visitors, I boast about my native Washingtonian, as in D.C. creds.

I boast that when I was in high school, I used to do my homework at LOC. My family on the Peacock side goes back seven generations in the Nation’s Capital – back to the late 18th century. My mom was a (not very serious) member of the DAR. A Peacock, a 13year-old boy – Nathaniel Peacock arrived stowed away on a boat at Jamestown.

library of congress dome

But I am no more American than the most recent naturalized citizen – be they from Mexico, Syria, South Korea, Guatemala, Germany, or Yemen. They are just as American as you and me.

We are a nation defined by liberty and law — not by ethnicity, religion, or race. Right?

 Every week, the Library of Congress, restores my American soul. Its a place where politics are verboten – a secular temple that celebrates our highest American ideals.

We were constituted to be a radically welcoming nation, born both of the Enlightenment and  of ancient biblical values.

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed to me.  I lift my light beside the golden door.”

To welcome the stranger, to welcome the sojourner, to welcome the orphaned, the refugee: it’s the Judeo-Christian thing to do.

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

 First century Jewish and Christian hospitality is really different than how we think of hospitality. We ready the guest room for when friends and family visit. We don’t change the sheets for strangers. But that who really needs it. “Biblical hospitality is about welcoming the needy for the sake of their need.”

Strangers, immigrants, the homeless.

Jesus says, “Take that love for family, that love for country and kin, and extend it, extend it further and further still. Welcome in the stranger. Welcome in the one whose life you hardly understand. Not to change them but because they too are God’s children.” (Feasting on the Word, Lance Pape)

This Independence Day weekend, Jesus gives us a challenge.

As Christians. As Americans.

A challenge to our public discourse and policy. A personal challenge.  A challenge to our faith.

To practice this radical welcome of Jesus  – to see the sacred — in every encounter, in every exchange, in the face of friends, of course, but even more so in the face of those we count as foes, in the face of what seems foreign, in the face of the unknown.

A spiritual exercise:

To stretch those welcome muscles.  To stretch beyond our comfort level. To stretch until we feel the burn. It’s a good workout for the heart. It’s an even better workout for the soul.

Stretch your spirit, friends, stretch.

(And if you would like a tour of the Library of Congress just let me know!)

JoaniSign

 


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Our Father, Who Art Where?

My father, Dr. Peacock, God rest his soul, was a healer.

I was in awe of him.

Brilliant, like Dr. Salk who conquered polio; handsome as Dr. Kildare; a doctor of fine arts: Salvador Dali etchings hung on his walls; a master of music: Mozart spun on his turntable.  A gourmet, he insisted on lemon peel with his espresso and fresh oysters in the stuffing. A voracious reader of classics, art books, and avant-garde novels, his library runneth over.  He was a tinkerer and a gardener who  grew roses and azaleas in our back yard. In our basement, he built short wave radios and puttered at his workbench.

He was also more than a bit like Felix Unger. Everything had to be spit and polished and squeaky clean. Dr. Peacock was exceedingly dapper in his tweed sport coats and wing tip shoes. On his bathroom mirror. he pasted a label: “You, handsome devil you!” He bragged about getting 100% and acing his surgical boards.

Modest, he was not but he was marvelous in my eyes.

And when I was a child, I would pull wondrous instruments out of Dr. Peacock’s little black bag – the same things he would use to prod and poke us if we claimed we were too sick to go to school – the stethoscope to listen to your chest, tongue depressors to look down your throat, the little flashlight to peer into your ears, the little hammer to hit your knees.  Invariably he would pronounce us well, prescribe two aspirin and send us off to school.

(No wonder, I won the perfect attendance ribbon – many years running at Holy Family School.)

And my father was our family’s avid protector. A surgeon conscious of all kinds of calamity, he took extraordinary measures to keep his family safe.

our father norman rockwell painting

Long before seat belts were standard in American cars, my dad had “safety belts” installed in ours. If he discovered you were not wearing it, he would swear and pull over to the side of the road and go nowhere until we had buckled ourselves in.

Long before smoke detectors, my house had fire alarms and we quite literally had fire drills.

In a time when only banks were wired for burglary, so was our home in Hillcrest Heights.

In my house, we had no ashtrays. Smoking was forbidden– protecting us both from fire and from lung cancer.

Firearms – even BB guns — could not get through our front door. My dad, the surgeon had stitched up and lost too many young men on his operating table in Southeast D.C.

He wouldn’t even let us twirl sparklers on the Fourth of July – in case we might burn our little hands!

Does this remind you of your father? Or a grandfather? Or a step father – who stepped up when your own wasn’t there? Or a godfather – who guarded  you under his  wings?

Who loves you so much, that they would want to catch you before you fall – “lest you dash your foot upon a stone”?

Fathers, of course.

But even the best of fathers cannot save us from ourselves.

We fall, we scrape our knees, we crash the family car. We make bad choices, ingest things we shouldn’t, and head down the wrong path. We fail, we drop out of school, get in trouble with the law. Selfish and self – centered, we don’t realize the havoc we create in other’s lives. Quick to blame others but not ourselves.

Nor can even the best of fathers save us from the muck and the mire of this world.

Life itself is a risky business. The world is a dangerous place.

Every day, when we head out from home to work or school or wherever – we assume that we will return safe when the day is done.

We assume that everyone will stop at red lights.

We assume the food we eat is safe and the water we drink is free of lead.

We assume that everyone will follow “the rules” – whatever the rules may be.

And that the bad guys are all behind bars.

And we take for granted our safety and security and those who serve to protect us,

with a fatherly care (be they male or female).

We take for granted the safety and security in our own backyard.

Bad things happen in Manchester, London, Tehran, Aleppo,

And Lord almighty, even in Portland.

BUT…

Not in Del Ray with the “Kindness” signs in everyone’s yard.

Not here on the baseball field,

Not here in our own backyards.

But it did. On Wednesday, June 14th it did. And all of our assumptions were shattered.

Even the Heavenly Father, God almighty, maker of heaven and earth, was not able to deliver us, this neighborhood of Del Ray, this city of Alexandria from violence, from danger, from fear.

At least not in the way, we would like God to.

To swoop down from heaven and make this all go away. To rescue us. To save us.

But as Christians, we believe in a God, a Heavenly Father who did not save his own Son. We believe in a God who did not rescue his own Son from the Cross.

There is no Deus ex Machina. There is no miraculous divine intervention.

But there is redemption.

Because out of fear, God brings forth courage. Out of pain, healing. Out of death, life. Out of suffering, joy.

Our Father, who art in heaven,

can bring out the father in all of us,

to reach out and care for one another,

look over and protect one another,

to love our neighbors as ourselves,

whoever our neighbors might be.

So, let us pay, today, this week, this month, to discern a way to turn this tragic story upside down – to turn it into a redemption story. And borrowing the words attributed to St. Francis:

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not seek so much to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

JoaniSign


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By Any Other Name

At eight years old, I was an overtly and overly pious parochial school kid.

First in line for Friday confession, first in line for first Friday Mass. Holy cards falling out of my missal, I knew my Baltimore Catechism like the back of my hand.

Eight years old, I was destined to save souls.

Including little Ricky Berger’s soul. He was my friend who lived in the house behind mine. Ricky was a good kid. Fare and square in all his grade school dealings. Pretty good at kickball and quick to share his popsicle. He honored his father and his mother and he kept the Sabbath just about as good as any kid could.

Problem was, it was Saturday. Which everyone knew was the wrong day, it was supposed to be Sunday, of course. And God had ordained me to set little Ricky Berger right.

Stretched out on the lawn, sitting on the grass in his backyard, I looked him in the eye and told him:

Ricky, I am sorry, I really am but unless you are a Christian, unless you are a member of the ONE TRUE CHURCH, unless you believe in the holy name of JESUS, you are going to HELL.

 Yes, I did. That is what I said. So messed up, I know.

What a terrible friend I was.

Know it all, goody two shoes, go to the head of the class Joani – could not be more wrong. Secure in my faith, I used my religion to trash his. What kind of God was I taught to worship – that would condemn a little eight year old boy?

Does God have just one name?

Does God require only one kind of worship?

Each Sunday, I  stand before my congregation as an ordained minister, an Episcopal priest of 23 years. Leading worship of the Holy Three, the three person and undivided Trinity. All according to the Book of Common Prayer.

At Emmanuel, worship is my primary and passionate ministry, weekly weaving together the dozen or so moving parts of the liturgy into the bulletin for the people in the pews. Liturgy means “work of the people” and this is work I love.

Family at worship Srpague Pearce

“Family at Worship” Charles Sprague Pearce

And I have no doubt, no doubt at all, that we worship the Ultimate One, the One and Only Holy One, the one and only God.

But I have long struggled with my way or the highway theology.

Faith, by definition, is not the same thing as certitude. And Christianity is not a monopoly. If God’s truth can be contained, if you think you have captured God in a bottle – then that is some other genie in that bottle.

Are there not many ways up the mountain?

Does God not answer to a million names?

St Augustine wrote in the 4th Century:

Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.

Followed up by philosopher Blaise Paschal, who famously quipped that we are all souls created with a God shaped hole — that only the sacred can fill.

And Augustine and Paschal, both got it from Paul. In Sunday’s reading from Acts, Paul gets it.

Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship. I found among them an altar with an inscription: ‘to an unknown god.’

 What therefore you worship as unknown, I proclaim to you.

Paul gets it. He gets that God did not just drop out of the sky and appear out of nowhere when Jesus was born. God is timeless, more ancient than the stars, beyond the event horizon of the Big Bang, we might say.

Paul’s listeners are accustomed to the methods of Socrates, philosophically inclined and spiritually curious.

From one ancestor he made all the nations…and he allotted the times of their existence…so they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from any one of us.

Paul speaks their language and quotes their poets.

For in him we live and move and have our being. For we, too are his offspring.

 In him….

 Not in idols of clay or gold or silver. Not in idols of success or money or sex.

But in the creator of the cosmos, in the “ground of our being” whose language is love and whose name Paul proclaims as the one and only God.

In recent weeks, I have prayed shoulder to shoulder with our Muslim brothers and sisters. I have joined in the mystical worship of the Orthodox – surrounded by icons and drenched in incense. I have worshiped at St Mattress in the Springs and at the Church of the Holy Comforter. (Wink, wink. Nod, nod.) And last Sunday, I prayed and sang with the Unitarians at All Souls, my daughter’s church in DC.

God was and is and will be in all these places, by whatever name God be called.

The Jewish tradition says God’s name is so sacred that it cannot be said aloud – so they give him seven nicknames that can be lifted up by the faithful in their prayers.

Islam, says that God has 99 names, all beautiful.

Christians, not to be outdone: one source catalogued 900 biblical names for God.

What unites us is the One God who listens, the One God who loves us enough to lean in and care about our prayers.

God listens no less if we call him Allah, or Buddha, or Krishna, or Jesus.

Though we Christians are pretty sure it’s Jesus who is really listening.:)

And last week at All Souls UU, I discovered this hymn – which turns out to be in myriad hymnals: Presbyterian, UCC, Methodist, and even one of our own. But I had never heard it before.

 It’s called “Bring Many Names”, by Brian Wren and its six verses are very apropos for today. So I had it printed in the bulletin for you to keep and take home.

At 8:00 at Emmanuel, we will read it together as a concluding prayer. And at 10:30, with the music director’s  help, I am going to make the congregation sing!

Bring many names, beautiful and good,

Celebrate, in parable and story,

Holiness in glory, living, loving God,

Hail and Hosanna! Bring many names!

 

Strong mother God, working night and day,

Planning all the wonders of creation,

Setting each equation, genius at play:

Hail and Hosanna, strong mother God!

 

Warm father God, hugging every child,

Feeling all the strains of human living,

Caring and forgiving till we’re reconciled:

Hail and Hosanna, warm father God!

 

Old, aching God, gray with endless care,

Calmly piercing evil’s new disguises,

Glad of good surprises, wiser than despair;

Hail and Hosanna, old, aching God!

 

Young, growing God, eager and one the move,

Saying no to falsehood and unkindness,

Crying out for justice, giving all you have:

Hail and Hosanna, young growing God!

 

Great, living God, never fully known,

Joyful darkness far beyond our seeing,

Closer yet than breathing, everlasting home:

Hail and Hosanna, great, living God!

 

JoaniSign


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Dirt Therapy, the 3rd

 

Easter, this year, began for me at Christmas Tide.

Sunday evening, December 11th, my phone rang. It was my baby brother Joseph on the line. “Are you sitting down?” he asks me. “Joani, we have never talked about this. Do you remember in 1972 when you were pregnant and gave a child up for adoption?” Dumbfounded, I literally respond,  “Yes, Joseph, of course, I do.”Well, she found me,” he says. “Through a DNA test on Ancestry.com, she found me.

The birth of a child to a teenage mother is a familiar story at Christmas. But the family trauma that resulted from my personal story, I had long buried.  And these forty-five year old memories resurrected a trembling seventeen year old child.

The very next day, December 12th, scared to death, I called my newfound child.  It was the best Christmas present I have ever been given. Her name is Rebecca.

We have spent the past four months condensing more than four decades, and without going into the details, I am happy to declare that all is good, very good. And if you like, you can catch up here: Scarlet Letter, No MoreThe “Nua” Normal“Knock the Unicorn Off the Cloud”

And resurrection has brought reunion.

It is remarkable how deeply Rebecca and I resemble one another: our personalities, our intellectual curiosity, our spiritual bent, our sense of humor. Not only our way of speaking but what we say. People have confused my writing for hers and her writing for mine. It is uncanny. It is remarkable. Rebecca says that distance reinforced her DNA. It was a form of rebellion, she says.

I do like the sound of that, though I am not sure exactly what it means.

Needless to say, this has been an incredibly healing experience.

I tremble no more.

Sprouted from the same soil,  Rebecca and I, our selves, our souls, and our bodies are intertwined.

So this Easter is all the sweeter:

Now the green blade riseth!  indeed!

So it seems very apropos to post Dirt Therapy once again.

A post that includes an anecdote about Jacob, Rebecca’s newly discovered little brother and a snapshot of my mother, the grandmother Rebecca never knew.

So, here we go…

Once upon an Eastertide, a little boy came home singing the Pete Seeger song: “Inch by inch, row by row, Lord, please help my garden grow”. At school the little boy, along with his class, had planted bean seeds in jelly jars. Each day they tended their little glass gardens, checking the moist dark earth. Some of the children drowned their seeds with love. While others, their seeds withered from neglect. While others, theirs actually and miraculously sprouted and grew.

Tiny green shoots poked their heads into the fluorescent light. Slender green vines wound around the inside of the jars.

And then one day — the little boy proudly brought his home and set it down on the kitchen table. His mom asked, “Okay, my little sweet potato, what’s this?” And the little boy replied:

”That’s Jesus, mom. That’s Jesus in a jar.”

It wasn’t exactly “Now the green blade riseth” but it was sweet indeed. That sweet little boy was my son Jacob (now 29 years old!). Sadly the little Jesus vine did not survive very long — but don’t blame Jacob. Sadly, you see, plants often came home to my house to die.

Even though I quite ironically once worked at plant store called “Great Plants Alive” most of the plants that crossed my threshold sadly met an untimely death.

And back in the day when I still had a backyard, I was quite happy to just let Mother Earth be my gardener. So whatever grew — grew –and whatever withered – withered. My yard was a little city patch of green. And since I had no green thumb, this was my rule:

If it’s green let it grow.

My lawn was covered with crab grass, wild violets, clover, and dandelions. The fence was covered with tangled honeysuckle vines, ghetto pines, a struggling maple tree, and poison ivy. Plastic baseball bats and dead tennis balls dotted my lawn. A sad little wagon and outgrown bicycles littered the grass.

Occasionally I would attempt to tame this wilding place with my lawn mower and a weed whacker. But much more often, I would retreat and recline in a plastic chair on the patio to read a good book.

If it’s green let it grow.

My manic-depressive mom, Mary Lou was quite the gardener. While I have been blessed with her bipolar brain, God did not see to bestow upon me her green thumb. And hers was very green indeed.

When I was growing up, my mother could lash out like lightning just as easily as she could erupt in joy. Her highs and lows were beyond her control, tamed only by a regular shot of bourbon, a little lithium, and the occasional session with Dr. Freud. My beloved mom did the best she could.

And she did her very best in the garden.EA11B186-69B7-45E1-8E52-41A174207E9A

Mary Lou was totally at home in her rock garden. She relished her trips to the local greenhouses and she spared no expense at the nursery.

The back of the station wagon would be overloaded with peat moss and potting soil, flats of flowers, hydrangeas and azaleas, and a shrub or two — or three.

The lawn would be littered with empty plastic pots, as she dug down deep in the dirt planting geraniums, petunias, and marigolds. I have a snapshot of her doing just this. Her sun kissed skin is freckled and bronze; her auburn hair peaks out from her kerchief; and golden hoops dangle from her ears. Gorgeous.

Resplendent and radiant, digging in the dirt, all is right with her soul.

Digging in the dirt is therapy.

Sowing seeds is therapy.

Fertilizing the soil is therapy.

Watering the ground is therapy.

Gardening is therapy.

Dirt therapy.

Wordless, holistic, holy, hopeful, dirty therapy.

My mother’s daughter, namely me, no longer has a backyard. But I do have a little balcony. And each Eastertide I plant my little English garden in half a dozen clay pots. I am partial to bright colors: Shasta daises; hibiscus; and geraniums. I am partial to plants of the forgiving kind, the kind that forgive me if I don’t water them as often as I should.

A little Miracle Grow, a little sunshine, a little dirt, and all is right with my soul. At least for a little while.

In the beginning, the Creator walked in the cool of the wet garden at the time of the evening breeze. God made us out of the dirt of the garden. God made us out of the dirt of paradise.

And so in all the deaths we die — both large and small — we return to the Garden. We go down into the dirt like seeds forgotten and buried in the dark earth.

So as we are in the beginning, we are in the end. The Alpha is also the Omega.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary of Magdala, came to the garden and she saw that the stone was rolled away. And there stood the Gardener, the same Gardener who had walked at the time of the evening breeze. Mary did not know him until he called her by name. And then she knew. Here stands the very tiller, the very tender, the very lover of my soul.

Now the green blade riseth.

Dirt therapy.

JoaniSign


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Six Feet Under

One of my favorite books is Gospel. No, not Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, this “Gospel” is a big rambling 800 page novel by Wilton Barnhardt. Gospel is the story of an eccentric, hardboiled Chicago Irish professor and his nubile graduate student assistant., as they careen and comb all over the world — through Europe, Africa, the Middle East and America — in search of a fifth gospel long lost to time and history.

This lost gospel turns out to be the testament of Matthias. Matthias is the thirteenth apostle, Judas’ replacement, chosen by a roll of the dice in the book of Acts. The apostle Matthias had never seen the risen Lord. He struggles daily with his unbelief. These newfound chapters and verses tell how Matthias, in his old age, searches out the remaining apostles in their twilight years. Do they still believe? Do they still hope in that wild and wonderful story of Jesus, risen from the dead?

There are rumors — persistent rumors — that the body of their Lord had actually been stolen and secreted away. And these rumors haunt Matthias and he just has to know the truth. So he searches out the shady underground and the cities of the dead that traffic in relics.

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

“I ran from the truth I sought.”

Resurrection is hard to hold on to.

Maybe this is why graveyards and cemeteries haunt us so. These holy places speak of sacrifice and loss, grief and sorrow. Stones silently tell the stories of the lives buried beneath our feet: rows upon rows of soldiers at Arlington; the fading glory of government buried deep  at Congressional; my parents, their parents, cousins, neighbors, uncles and aunts, all planted at Cedar Hill – just across the Anacostia line.

And then there are the graveyards of our own making. Deaths of a different kind: the death of a marriage; the relinquishment of a child; the abandonment of dreams; the places in our hearts and heads where we surrender to the darkness.  We bury the pain of our trauma six feet under. With the belief, that there is no hope of resurrection there.

But — what about Lazarus?  Lazarus, called forth by Jesus, stinking and stumbling out of his tomb today?

Now I have always had trouble with the Jesus in the gospel of John. At first, callous and cold, he appears to be using his friend’s death, as an opportunity for a parlor game – a magic trick to impress the incredulous crowds. The unbelievers are likely the people in John’s own community. This is late in the first century and resurrection doubt was certainly creeping in. And so, the Gospel of John, and John alone, tells the story of the raising of Lazarus.

Now certain scholars believe that John simply made this story up out of bits and pieces from the other gospels. This triumphant Christ, cocky and confident of his own divinity, makes sense only with the resurrection in the rear view mirror. Maybe the story is just one of the “signs” John concocted to convince his congregation of the wildest story ever told.

But scrape these layers of stuff away and read it again. The core of this story rings true. It is in the end a story of a grieving friend –whose faith was put the test.

the-raising-of-lazarus-after-rembrandt-1890

“The Raising of Lazarus” by Van Gogh

Hearing of his friend’s illness, a very busy Jesus — over scheduled and overburdened. — preoccupied with his preaching mission –is not overly concerned for Lazarus. This illness does not lead to death. He’s just got the flu. He will get over it. He will be alright. But indeed death does steal Lazarus away. Dumbfounded and unbelieving, Jesus returns to Bethany and as he approaches the grave of his friend “Jesus wept.” He breaks down and cries. A man in tears, he openly grieves for his friend. And wracked with guilt, Jesus berates himself with Mary and Martha’s questions: O my God, why was I not here to comfort you? O my God, why did I not come sooner? Maybe there would have been a miracle that day and I could have healed you. And then desperately Jesus cries out. Father, hear me. Please, bring him back. Come out Lazarus. Come out.

And this is probably heresy, but I believe that when Lazarus stumbled out of the tomb that no one was more surprised than Jesus. You see, just before he heads into Jerusalem. Just before he has to climb the hill to Calvary, Jesus felt and saw, that yes, God can and God does and God will call death back to life. That God will unbind him and let him go.

And so for us as well, on this final Sunday of Lent, we get a glimpse of Easter. Yes, first Jesus, dead three days will rise again. And in this lies our hope, that God can and God will rescue us from the graveyard: the real ones and the ones we dig ourselves. Literally and metaphorically, not just in the by and by, but in the here and now, death shall lose its sting. And all of those stones, blocking the way to heaven,  might just be rolled away.

But first to Calvary… we all must go.

JoaniSign

 


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The “Nua” Normal

Pondering and prepping, I packed for my Saint Patrick’s Day weekend in Pownal, Vermont.

Anticipating reunion, I puzzled, Rebecca puzzled, and her children all puzzled over what to call me. 

Just who the hey am I when I step off that plane? Who am I when I reach Meeting House Farm?

Just Joani, I had decided beforehand. Well, “biomom” for Rebecca also rang true.

Colleen, my daughter and Rebecca, my new found daughter, have magnetically clicked, thick as thieves. Talking and texting , parsing and plotting they have already devised short hand code for the “new normal.”

SM – Shared mom

SWB – Sister without baggage

SD – Shared dad

That’s  all I am privy to, so far.

The usual labels and conventional titles do not capture who we are becoming for one another. Just yet. 

Just before Christmas, I had my resurrection experience with Rebecca. Once upon s time, unbeknownst  to her, ever so briefly, she was to me, baby girl Elizabeth. 

What, what, what do I call her now?

“Long lost offspring” seemed to work. I did not raise her as I did Colleen.

 But in our kinetic conversation, it became clearer who she is — my child. Carried in my belly and flesh of my flesh, deeply connected and woven together by DNA.

Yes, my beautiful child.

Rebecca texts Colleen the news of my evolving vocabulary.  Typing “child” with thumbs on tiny letters, autocorrect, spells out “chips”.

Chips! What a great name for Rebecca’s three to call me, these two decide. As in “chip off the old block”? As an acronym possibly, I propose: Crazy, Hysterical, Peacock, Super/Shared mom??

Fun, yes. I try it on but it does not quite fit. 

Before my arrival, Rebecca’s youngest, little Meir, blonde and pony tailed, asked his mom about me. But he struggled with just what to call me. “You know the NEW one,” he said.

Ah, “the new one”! I have entered into your lives as if from another world. Strange and foreign yet  at the same time remarkably familiar.

That’s exactly how it feels.

“Familiar” is a family word, you know.

So call me: Nouvelle? Nueva? Just to fancy it up a bit. But better yet, what is Irish for “the new one”? This branch of the family tree did not know they were rooted in Celtic soil.

Google says “Nua”

Honestly simple and perfectly apt. 

Together we are discovering this  “nua world”.

These last three days, this Peacock and the Dragons packed as much as we possibly could into a weekend: bookstore, library, Irish Step classes, MASS MOCA, birthday party, heated pool and hot tub, Apples to Apples, Sunday church, and beer and tacos “al pastor”. 

It was a trip of a trip with Matt and Rebecca, Bella, Jude, and Meir. Pasted already as collages into my Instagram scrapbook. Take a look here.






“The Nua normal” – just begun!