Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


Emmanuel Virtual Easter Hymn Sing! Alleluia!

A Musical Message from The Music Director & Seminarian

Emmanuel Friends,

In an effort to continue worshipping together, I would like you to be a part of the Emmanuel Virtual Easter Hymn Sing!  If you are unfamiliar with the idea of a virtual choir, check out Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir on YouTube. Eric Whitacre wanted to combine over 1000 voices from all over the world singing one of his choral compositions.  

In the same way, we want you to lend your voice to our virtual congregation and sing the attached two Easter hymns: Hymn of Promise and Alleluia, Alleluia, Give Thanks to the Risen Lord.

The music, notes and words, is attached here for you to download.

Here you can listen to mp3 tracks for both.

Hymn of Promise.
Alleluia, Give Thanks to the Risen Lord.

Using your computer and headphones to listen to the mp3 tracks and your smartphone to record, make a video of you singing along with the tracks.  Make sure that if you record with your phone, turn the phone sideways, so it is “landscape.” The headphones are the most important part, so that we can really capture your singing.  Don’t worry though, our seminarian Pete is a master at video editing and has promised to edit, so that everyone sounds beautiful! Just like our altar guild members arrange flowers, Pete and I will work to arrange voices!  I will also be sending the video to our fantastic team of professional cantors and to our fabulous choir members. Some voices will be at the front, as the flowers that adorn our altar, and other voices will support and add color, so never fear, just like on a Sunday morning our voices will blend beautifully!  

You can upload your performance to Pete’s dropbox at the link here.

Or cut and paste this link:

If you cannot figure out the dropbox, please send your tracks to pete.e.nunnally@gmail.com by Palm Sunday, April 5, so that they can be included in the final product!  We will release the beautiful hymns on Easter weekend, so everyone can enjoy!  

If you have questions, please email Ryan at musicdirector@emmanuelonhigh.org.

NOTE: U&U blog followers, this is an exclusively Emmanuel Episcopal Church project. Wishing you a happy Easter, wherever you are in these challenging times.


There Was a Man Born Blind

A Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Lent

The Rev. Charles C. McCoart, Jr.

March 22, 2020

Listen here.

There Was A Man Born Blind

Hi everyone, thank you for tuning into today’s sermon.  

These certainly are wild and ever changing times and we at Emmanuel are doing our level best to adapt with the changing news and happenings all around us – all in a spirit of flexibility, joy and anticipation.  Working hard to stay in the present moment and not get hijacked into fear or hysteria.  We also recognize at this time that thousands of people have been negatively impacted by corona virus, some even have died and our hearts and prayers go out to all of them.  

I’m recording this message on Friday afternoon, so by the time we send it to you on Saturday, to listen to on Sunday, some of my homily may seem a bit out of touch with whatever our country is dealing with on Sunday.  It’s an ever changing landscape; please forgive me if these recorded words limp just a little behind life in real-time.  Thank you for your patience as we as a faith community try to navigate our way through this season of life WITH you.

Since this is homily / or sermon time, I’m mindful to not get hijacked into making announcements; but rather to offer some thoughts on the Gospel you just read from John.

In our Gospel lesson today there was a blind man in town––a man who was born blind––and Jesus gave him sight.  

I’ll just let that sentience sort of hang in our collective consciences for a few seconds.

There was a blind man in town––a man who was born blind––and Jesus gave him sight. 

We could say that Jesus restored his sight, but the man had never had any sight to restore.  He had been born blind.  Jesus created sight from nothing, just as God created the world from nothing––and then Jesus gave that newly created sight to the blind man.

You would think that everyone would have been happy, but they weren’t.  It was the sabbath, and sabbath law forbade working on the sabbath.  As ridiculous as it sounds to our modern ears, the Pharisees – the religious leaders of the day – believed that healing was work – so that no one should heal another person on the sabbath.  This was over 2000 years ago, so we need to understand this was a culture deeply rooted in tradition and tradition meant everything to folks in their community.  For some reason healing was considered work – and if you worked on the sabbath then you broke a law and breaking a law meant you had sinned.  As far as they were concerned, Jesus-the-Healer was a clear and present danger to the established order.

So the Pharisees tried to get the blind man––the one whom Jesus had healed––to acknowledge that Jesus was a sinner.  You would think that the formerly-blind man could resist that easily––but it wasn’t easy. The blind man had been a beggar all his life––begging was all he knew.  He was going to need help to get established––and these Pharisees were movers and shakers––they could make you or break you.

But the man didn’t waver under their questioning.  When the Pharisees asked the man what he thought of Jesus, he said, “He [Jesus] is a prophet” (v. 17). 

So then the Pharisees questioned the man’s parents.  You would think that the parents would have supported Jesus; but they too were afraid that the Pharisees would throw them out of the synagogue.  It’s hard for us to imagine how devastating that would be.  To be thrown out of the synagogue would have been like being run out of town on a rail.  Faced with such a prospect, the parents said, “Our son is of age.  Ask him.” (v. 23).

So the Pharisees tried to persuade the formerly-blind man that Jesus was a sinner, but the formerly blind man said this:

He said:

“I don’t know if he is a sinner.  One thing I do know,that though I was blind,now I can see” (v. 25). When they continued to press him, he said, “If (Jesus) were not from God, he could do nothing.” (v. 33).

So the Pharisees drove the blind man out.  Did they just run him off, or did they throw him out of the synagogue?  We don’t know, the Gospel writer doesn’t tell us.  But the man was undaunted.  When later he met Jesus again, he said to Jesus, “Lord, I believe.” (v. 38).

I can’t tell you how impressed I am with that man.  He was born blind and spent a lifetime begging alongside the road––but when the going got tough, he proved even tougher.  He BECAME a man of faith when Jesus healed him, and he STAYED a man of faith when powerful people started threatening him. 

This week ahead, let’s all keep our collective eyes open for the blessings, large or small, that God sends our way.  These blessings might be something tremendous, like being told a medical situation you are dealing with is moving in the right direction.  Or maybe the blessings will be more subtle, like re-discovering an old friend.

In the days since I have been working more from home than working in the office, I have spent much of my time calling the more senior members of our parish, as well as those who are medically frail.  I can’t tell you how many wonderful conversations I have had – and might not have had – were it not for this virus.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t love the virus; but I am choosing to do what I can given the circumstances we are dealing with.

I’d like to share with you a little journey I was on a couple of weeks ago … a journey all in my head and my heart.  I was dealing with a particularly tricky situation where two people I dearly love are at odds with each other.  I won’t say a word about either of them.  This is a story about me, not them.

After dealing with this situation for a very long time, things sort of came to a[nother] boiling-over point.  After a long day of working with these really good folks I finally went home and eventually made my way to bed, and of course I could not sleep.  I tossed and turned for what seemed like a very long time.  I prayed, but I was still stuck in my obsession with this issue.  I had been trying to remember the words of The Serenity Prayer and the words kept getting all mixed up in my head.  After a while I finally got up and out of bed, and went back downstairs to my kitchen table where my computer sits.  Max following right behind me.

I Googled:  Serenity Prayer.  And there it was.  All crystal clear and not all jumbled up.  And then I noticed, I’d forgotten the prayer is longer than most people actually pray.  We all know this part:

The Serenity Prayer

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change … courage to change the things I can … and wisdom to know the difference.

But, catch this:  there’s more:

Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as the pathway to peace.  Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it.  Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His will.  That I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with Him forever in the next. 

Amen.

Amen! 

When I was in bed and all stuck and obsessed with what I was dealing with … I was literally blind.  I could not find the words.  I could not see myself through it.  As soon as I found the right words for me to pray, I could see.

As soon as God reminded me that I needed to accept the things I cannot change, and the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference, a calm came over me.  I prayed those words over and over and over again like a mantra and it worked.

The anxiety left me, I relaxed enough to eventually fall asleep.  I gave it to God.  I gave it all to God.  As a control freak I have to be reminded over and over again that there just are some things I cannot control.  Sometimes there are things I cannot change.

I’ll keep working on the things I can change and pray for the courage to do so.

But some things I need to give to God.  I need to trust that God has things way more under control than I ever will.

Thank you God for that prayer.

Please check out the rest of it though.  Linger with these words.  Do not deprive yourself of the rest of the words, the less(er) known part.

I need to live one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as the pathway to peace.  Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it.  Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His will.  That I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with Him forever in the next. 

Amen.

Amen!

We can’t control corona virus.  There are some things I cannot change.

But I can change the way I respond.  I can socially distance myself.  I can call folks I know and love and check in on them.  I can learn new technology tricks as Joani drags me into the 21st century.

I have to trust God will have the wisdom to help me to SEE the difference.

Lord God, please help me to SEE.  To not be blind to all of the ways you are loving and working in this world all around us right now.

Lord God, during these turbulent times, help us all to SEE.

Amen.

Amen!

Please keep me in your prayers and know that you are in mine as well.

Peace, friends,

Chuck


Jesus wept.

Listen here.

A Homily for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

March 29, 2020

One of my favorite books is Gospel.  No, not the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John but 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 travel the world: Europe, Africa, the Middle East, the Americas, in search of a fifth gospel, a lost gospel.

This lost gospel turns out to be the testament of Matthias. Matthias is the thirteenth apostle. Remember, the one who was chosen by a roll of the dice in the book of Acts.  Judas’ replacement. Matthias, you see, was not in that Upper Room with the other disciples when Jesus mysteriously appeared. Having not been on the resurrection scene, Matthias can barely wrap his head around what resurrection means.  He struggles daily with unbelief.  Matthias’ fictional gospel recounts his quest, the story of an old man, who seeks to find his fellow remaining disciples in their autumn years. 

Do they still believe? Do they still have faith in that wild, incredulous story? Do they still believe, after all this time, that life can come out of death?  

There are rumors, Matthias in the novel tells us. Persistent rumors that the body of their Lord had actually been stolen, and secreted away. The rumors haunt Matthias. He urgently wants to dispel them. So, he searches out the shady underground that traffics in relics.

Matthias pays the underworld guide a bag of silver, to be taken to what is claimed to be — Jesus’ hideaway tomb. The guide “brought me to the door of the chamber,” he says, “where the 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 like the remains of a 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.”

Resurrection faith is hard to hold onto. It is hard to maintain. Like this doubting Matthias, can we really believe that life can come from death? That grief might be redeemed by joy?

Graveyards are haunting and holy places. They speak of sacrifice and loss, grief and sorrow. But also, gratitude, a rush of love for those who have gone before us.  A place of peace and rest. Memorials to hope.

We are in a grieving time, a very anxious time.   Social distancing is paramount. It is what we are called to do. It is our critical ministry of love to carry out for one another. Our ministry of love for our community and country. Our ministry of love to do what we can to contain the spread of the corona virus.

But Covid-19, at least for the time being, has been the death of our daily routines. We grieve the loss of being in church together, the loss of coffee with a friend, the loss of play dates, the loss of after school sports and sitting in the bleachers at baseball games. We grieve the loss of going to the office, happy hour after work with friends. We grieve the loss of touch and human warmth.

We grieve the cost to those most vulnerable: to those with no sick leave or insurance, to the Uber and Lyft drivers, to service and gig-workers, to the hungry and the homeless, to the immigrants, refugees, and the undocumented, to families with no childcare, and children without classrooms and without school meals.

We grieve the loss of lives already taken by the virus and for those who have lost a loved one when they cannot be by their side.

How do we stay connected to one another and to those who need us, in this upside down Covid-19 world?

Well, Jesus has something to tell us today.

Let’s listen to the story of Jesus today in the Gospel of John. The story of   Jesus creating life out of death: the raising of Lazarus. Now, I have always had trouble with the Jesus, John portrays in this story.  Jesus comes across a little aloof, a little cold and indifferent to the death of his friend. Waiting to employ his miraculous powers for maximum affect. To instill rock solid belief in doubting believers. It’s very likely the people of John’s community, late in the first century, two generations after Jesus, had trouble holding on to their resurrection faith. So, the evangelist John, and John alone, tells the story of the raising of Lazarus.

Now certain scholars believe that John simply made this story up. Made it up out of bits and pieces from the other gospels.

This cocky and confident Christ sounds more like the preaching of John than the Jesus I know and love. But read it again. The story’s core rings true. It is in the end, a story of a grieving friend whose faith was put to the test.

Hearing of his friend’s illness, a very busy Jesus, over scheduled, overburdened and preoccupied with his mission, is not overly concerned for Lazarus. Jesus believes he has the benefit of time but Jesus was wrong.

Dumbfounded and unbelieving, Jesus returns to Bethany. As he approaches the grave of his friend, he breaks down and cries. 

 Jesus wept.

Overwhelmed by grief, I imagine Jesus berating himself with Mary and Martha’s questions: O my God, Lazarus, why was I not here to comfort you?  Why did I not come sooner?  Maybe I could have made a miracle.  Maybe I could have healed you.

In tears, Jesus cries out. Father!  Hear me! Please, bring Lazarus back. Come out Lazarus. Come out.

And this is probably heresy, but I believe that when Lazarus stumbled out of the tomb that day, that no one was more surprised than Jesus. Just in time, before Jesus heads into Jerusalem, just before he climbs the hill at Calvary, Jesus felt and saw, that yes, God can and God does and God will call life out of death. God will roll away that stone.

And so, for us, just as well, we get a glimpse of Easter before Easter. A foretaste of hope, of life restored. Resurrected, yes but not the same. Some the same, but also different.

So, the things we grieve the loss of, the loss of so many daily connections, inspires us to find new creative ways to stay connected as the Body of Christ. And we are just beginning to figure this out as a community of faith.

What does pastoral care look like? Keeping it as personal as possible with phone calls, handwritten notes in the mail, and FaceTime. A “zoom” visit into your living room. “Zoom” visits to a bedside or a hospital room. Even from a distance, we can “lay on hands” of love. Don’t hesitate to reach out to Chuck or I, the contact info is in your “electronic bulletin.”

And if we weren’t before, we are all pastors now, pastors to one another. Your voice, your face on the other end of the line, your handwritten note can bring untold comfort and brighten someone’s day.

And spiritual formation? Well, we are all wrestling with angels now. In times like these, we look to our faith for strength and solace. So for families with children, “EEC Sunday school at Home” materials are included here, in your electronic bulletin. And for grownups? Consider “zooming” bible study, a book group, a “virtual Popcorn Theology. Maybe “zooming” God and Donuts gatherings, too? And if you would like to have a one-on-one conversation we can do “Rabbi by Appointment” via Zoom. Email me and I would be more than happy to set that up.

What does Outreach look like? This is both the most challenging and incredibly important. The financial repercussions of Covid-19 are enormous. Untold numbers of Americans (possibly even yourself) have been furloughed and have lost their jobs. On this front, the Outreach Ministry Team is coordinating with its many direct service ministries: bag lunches; shelter meals, etc. And online you can donate to Emmanuel’s Leaves of Love fundraiser for Refugee Ministry. You can donate to ALIVE, Carpenter’s Shelter, Meals on Wheels, and other organizations serving “the least of these” in our communities.

We are building this plane together as we go.

And as for worship, here we are together online, your “Associate for Liturgy & Hilarity,” is ever so grateful and happy to report.

God bless technology and the internet. God bless Google and Youtube. God bless Constant Contact and WordPress. God bless Voice Memos and Zoom. God bless smart phones, tablets, laptops and desktops, too. On Sundays (or anytime) with “Emmanuel at Home” on our screens, we can still gather, hear the sounds of sacred music, read the scriptures, listen to a homily like this one, keep up our pledge, so that the church can keep being the church in this very needful time. Engage your kids with “Emmanuel Sunday School at Home.”  And via Zoom, we will gather at 11:30 AM, in the ‘virtual parish hall for ‘“Emmanuel at Home Coffee Hour.”  

Chuck and I will both be there. I hope you will be there too. 

And stay tuned, Holy Week: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter, new creative versions of all, will also be coming to your inbox. Even in this upside down time, we will still be singing and shouting, “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

Stay well, Emmanuel, stay well & keep the faith.

NOTE: If you receive this via email have trouble listening to homily, click on the “URL:https:….” at the bottom of email to go the U&U website.


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

Listen here.

In times like these, when we feel the world reeling and careening out of control, prayer can help to keep us grounded. Rooted in our God, the ground of our being.

Prayer comes in a bazillion forms. Out loud. Silent. With the Book of Common Prayer in your lap or with no words at all. In meditation or shouting at God from the rooftops. There is no right or wrong way to pray.

So, consider now how you find God in prayer. And how God finds you.

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.

At a time of national crisis, both the same and different from the viral one we now find ourselves in, 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 tragic 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.

And collectively in our present moment, the impact of the outbreak of the corona virus is as deeply personal as it is communal. Anxiously and with great uncertainty, it’s ripple effects are profoundly felt. The ground beneath our feet feels as if it is giving way. How can we possibly stay grounded in such disruptive times?

Lots of ways, of course, think back to the toughest times you have been through. How did you do that? What helped you to heal? Where did you go for solace? And most importantly who walked beside you through it all?

Remind yourself that you did get through it. With God’s help and likely the help of many, you emerged on the other side, standing, ready to greet another day.

And I bet for many of you, at your darkest hour you found yourself on your knees in prayer.

Prayer itself can be an answer to prayer.

Long ago in ordination process, the rosary once again was my answer. Going through rounds of interviews with the Commission on Ministry, one very insistent interrogator relentlessly pressed me to answer her question:

“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.

“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, a dear friend 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 was blessed with a lifetime of prayer. Bead by bead, it got her though a lifetime of sleepless nights.

Sleepless nights just like ours.

Bead rattler or not, though we cannot kneel in the church together, let us gather our hearts and souls around as if we were. Be you an 8 o’clocker or a 10:30 worshiper, let us be in prayer for one another. In prayer for our neighbors. In prayer for the whole wild world.


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.

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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!