Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


Getting Little

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

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

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

Sentimental and sweet, safe and sound.

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

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

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

Teach me, little one, how to love you.

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

julie-vivas-baby-correct

From Julie Vivas’ “The Nativity”

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

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

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

 

Pete paused for a little quiet introspection.

You really like it, Dad?”

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

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

(The Christian Century, December 1998)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love, you know is born at Christmas.

Love is why God gets little at Christmas.

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

JoaniSign


Here We Go (an Advent) Caroling!

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

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

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

Christmas-Carols-1960-billboard-650

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

newborn babies and loved ones dying;

terrible twos and aging parents;

lost jobs and new occupations;

weddings and partings;

hard knocks and soft landings;

rejection and reception;

retreat and renewal;

reunion and return;

delight and despair;

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

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

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

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

Party hardy Christmas;

Down Home Country Christmas;

Christmas Around the World;

and in a bluer season:

The Smooth Sounds of Christmas.

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

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

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

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

Maybe you could make your own?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carols “round the spinet” with Clair Elser.

Serenaded by “Amici” (Ryan and friends!)

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

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

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

RSVP here to let us know that you are coming!

So make a joyful and genuine Christmas Carol noise!

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

JoaniSign


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Wilderness in the Key of C

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

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

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

Christmas-Carols-1960-billboard-650

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These words of Second Isaiah encapsulated  in Advent hymn #67, from the ’82 Hymnal, can make a good measure of the the music we play – to make our souls merry – this holiday season. As do the words of the psalmist, as well:

I will listen to what the Lord God is saying, for he is speaking peace to his people. Ps 85:8

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

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

newborn babies and loved ones dying;

terrible twos and aging parents;

lost jobs and new occupations;

weddings and divorces;

retreat and renewal;

reunion and return;

delight and despair;

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

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

For a decade running now, two of my children, Zach and Colleen have produced an annual Christmas album. It is not your usual holiday fare. It started out just silly and fun but has turned into a sibling bonding ritual they return to each year. (Zach now being 35 and Colleen 33.)

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

Party hardy Christmas;

Down Home Country Christmas;

Christmas All Around the World;

and in a bluer season:

The Smooth Sounds of Christmas.

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

Each of them is a cacophony of voices, crying out in the wilderness – a way to tune into Jesus in the manger once again. A way to tune into the crazy Second Coming of God.

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

So what have you got on that iPod of yours? What have you got on Spotify?

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

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

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

So make a joyful and genuine Christmas Carol noise!

Lift up your voice with strength…

Lift it up and do not fear.

For here comes our God.

JoaniSign

 


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The Waiting Game

santalineatelevators

Impatience, thy name was Dr. Peacock.

When I was growing up, my father, a busy and successful surgeon, did not like to wait. He would not take us anywhere he anticipated crowds or lines. He would never go to a restaurant without a reservation. When we went to the movies, we went at odd times, arriving late, sitting in the back and leaving early. Native Washingtonians, we never visited the White House or the Washington Monument. We never went to the Cherry Blossom Festival or the lighting of the National Christmas Tree.

.“Too many tourists,” my dad would say. “Too much God damned trouble to wait in those god forsaken lines.”

 No time to be patient, beloved, no time to be patient..

Now most us, including myself, much like my dad, count waiting as a colossal waste of time. And via the bazillion apps on our iPhones, iPads, and MACs, we need only navigate the net to have an instant Christmas.

Point, click and shop till you drop.

UPS and Federal Express or a guy on a Segue from Amazon Prime will deliver to your doorstop a complete Christmas, from soup to nuts: the tree, the trimmings, the trappings, the presents and all the wrappings. Cyber-Monday, Cyber-Everyday eliminates the wait and takes us far from the maddening crowds.

Awesome Sauce! Right? Convenient for lives and calendars crammed with business appointments, committee meetings, carpools, school concerts errands and chores. This is something close to a f*ing miracle! Successful people know that time is money — more precious than money.

Waiting is for chumps, for the clueless, for losers.

Waiting is for crazy people, waiting on the end of the world – with a specific date and time in mind for Jesus to return: survivalists stockpiling food, water, and toilet paper. Only wacky Millennialists wait on the impossible. Only wacky people wait on the mountain top for the space ship to come pick them up, beam them aboard, and fly them off to who knows where. Waiting on doomsday. Waiting for the end to come.

Two thousand years ago, the people of the church of St. Paul’s in Rome were busy waiting. They were keeping Advent, getting ready for something like a Christmas. Waiting, not for Santa, but for the Son of Man to return. He would come in glory and majesty, riding on the clouds in the company of angels. (Eat your heart out, Rudolph!)

Jesus promised he would be back. He said he would be back. So they kept vigil and they waited and they watched the skies and they yearned and they longed and they pined.

But no one came.

Be patient, beloved, be patient.

Now, patience is a virtue and sometimes the wait is worthwhile. Sometimes hanging in there is indeed worth it.  After all, what is grape juice compared to a fine wine? What are Cliff Notes compared to the plot twists of your favorite book? What is a cheap and tawdry affair compared to a life long love?

Waiting cultivates desire, illuminates our need and heightens our expectations. And in the end, waiting sharpens our pain, as well as, our joy.

The people of Saint Paul’s in Rome were not just idly waiting. They weren’t just biding their time for something better to come along. They were waiting for a taste of heaven. They were waiting on eternity.

Something like a Christmas came and something like a Christmas went, year after year, generation after generation. And the folks at Saint Paul’s began to feel a little silly, a little self-conscious. And these folks, they grew plain sick and tired of waiting. And Christians everywhere, it seemed, lost the will to wait.

When Jesus did not come riding in on the clouds, like a shining knight on a white horse, as he was long expected to, we just gave up on waiting.

It’s naïve, a childish thing, beyond belief.

So instead, we now wait just four weeks for the baby in the manger.

We wait just four weeks for the Jesus who has already come.

And yet, anyone who has been through the nine months of pregnancy, or lived with someone who has, knows that birthing a baby is much more than a waiting game.

Now many a woman has wished for an Instagram/Polaroid pregnancy but it just doesn’t work that way. At first, there is the anxiety. Is the stick pink or blue? Is that a plus or minus sign? Once you know for sure, the room begins to spin and you regularly lose your lunch. And while you struggle to keep down saltines, this new little life feeds on you body and soul. You grow large and full of life, as does your heart grow and groan with love and angst. And by nine months’ end you feel a little bit like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

No part of you, no crevice of your womb is left unfilled. Over a trinity of trimesters, expectation heightens. And all those who keep watch and wait hover around you. “When is it coming? When are you due?” Some even touch and grab onto your belly as if it were their very own. (Please, always ask first!)

Who is this little one coming, who has turned you inside out?

Who is this little one coming, who will turn the world upside down?

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of its roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.”

 “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth…”

 “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion, and the fatling together,

 and a little child shall lead them.”   — Isaiah 11:1-10

 Just like the people, two millennia ago, we are waiting on this little scrap of eternity, a little taste of heaven.

In this pregnant season of Advent, let us pray, that the Spirit’s seed be planted in our souls.

In this pregnant season of Advent, let us pray, that in the darkness of our hearts, this love take root.

And let us pray, beloved, that with patience, once again,

Christ be born — flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone into this broken, beat up, and battered world that cries out for the love  of God so loudly.

Come, Lord Jesus, come.

 

JoaniSign


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Mary’s Land

The Broken Heart of a Blessed Mother.

The Compassionate Heart of a Blessed Mother.

I grew up in Mary’s Land — both geographically and theologically. I grew up at Holy Family School, just across the Potomac, in Hillcrest Heights, Mary-land.

Now MARY (quite impossibly!) is what every little Catholic girl wants to be when she grows up. Well maybe not when she grows up but what every little Catholic girl wants to be in the Christmas pageant. Really — Mary is what every little Protestant girl wants to be in the Christmas pageant!

Alas, it did not come to pass for me until Advent 1983. Pregnant with my second child and obviously not a virgin, at long last I snagged the part of the BVM. Not quite as embarrassing as a liturgical dance, I starred in a three part liturgical drama: PREGNANT WITH GOD.

Three parts. Three trimesters.

Advent One. Surprised. Uncertain. Shaky. Nauseous. Scared.

Advent Two. Blooming. Stretching. Aching. Hoping.

Advent Three. Heavy. Swollen. Sleepless. Bursting.

I burst into the Magnificat!

It was the 80’s and I wore Blessed Mother blue.

Now for millennia, Mary has been draped in Blessed Mother blue — beatific Mary with the fat little haloed Baby Jesus in her lap. And in virtually every painting, in every icon, in every stained glass window, Mary, the Madonna, is also the Mater Dolorosa, Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrows.

“Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child…”

Advent is blue — a season both dark and light — and for four blue Sundays, we’ll walk the way to Bethlehem.

We’ll walk beside a pregnant, unwed teenager, named Mary.

A lowly handmaid of the Lord,

a voiceless woman,

a would-be outcaste,

a poor peasant,

pregnant with God.

This messed up world is waiting – waiting for the 2015th time — waiting for a Messiah to be born. And we don’t like waiting. We REALLY don’t like waiting. We want Christmas carols not Advent hymns – but you can’t fast forward pregnancy.

It takes nine dark months in Mary’s womb.

Nine months of backaches and sleepless nights.

Nine months growing larger and larger, groaning with child.

Nine months until the birth pangs begin.

Nine months for the kingdom to come.

Nine long months  to Bethlehem.

And once there — there’s no room at the inn. No room for the holy, helpless, homeless family. No room for the refugees.

Now just across the river is my home state — Mary’s Land. Maryland is where our religious freedom was born. Persecuted by our own Mother Church, The Church of England – Catholics found refuge there in the 17th century. On these colonial shores they found a safe haven – a safe place to practice their faith and build their lives. In Mary’s Land they found a home.

And now Muslim refugees from terror, fleeing the terror of ISIS, crowd our TV screens and climb our FB feed. They clamor for attention, hoping against hope, there will be room in our inn. And their hopes are not founded in vain; their hopes are grounded in our history.

“Here at our sea-washed sunset gates shall stand

A Mighty Woman with a torch,

Whose flame

is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles,

From her beacon-hand

Glows worldwide welcome;

Her mild eyes command…

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

In Advent, we light this light, this lamp fire that makes the darkness bright, the Light of the World, who the prophet Jeremiah tells us is coming. This Branch of Jesse’s Tree shall execute justice in the land. He shall save his people and his people shall live in safety.

A prayer and a promise that all of God’s people, all of God’s children will find room in the inn.

So come walk this way. Walk this way to Bethlehem.

JoaniSign


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‘Tis the Season to be Blue — Blessed Mother Blue

The Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God.

The Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God.

Blue.

Blessed Mother blue.

Blessed Virgin Mary blue.

There is no sexier color in the Crayola Crayon box than Blessed Mother blue. That is, of course, if you are a little Catholic girl. And it’s Advent. Please, Baby Jesus, bless me with Blessed Mother Blue!

Now Mary (quite impossibly!) is very, very much what every little Catholic girl wants to be when she grows up. Well maybe not when she grows up, but what every little Catholic girl wants to be in the Christmas pageant. Damn, Mary is what every Protestant little girl wants to be in the Christmas pageant!

Drape me, Baby Jesus, in Blessed Mother blue.

Alas, it did not come to pass until Advent 1983. Pregnant with my second child and obviously not a virgin, at long last I had snagged the part of the BVM. Not quite as embarrassing as liturgical dance, I starred in a three part liturgical drama: PREGNANT WITH GOD.

Three parts, three trimesters.

Advent One. Surprised. Uncertain. Shaky. Nauseous. Scared.

Advent Two. Blooming. Stretching. Aching. Hoping.

Advent Three. Heavy. Swollen. Sleepless. Bursting with life.

“My soul proclaimed the greatness of The Lord!”

I burst into the Magnificat.

It was the 80’s. And I wore Blessed Mother blue.

Now, blue is also the color of a mood. Possibly a million times in a millennia or two, possibly a million artists have depicted the Madonna and Child. Beatific Mary with the fat, little, haloed, baby Jesus in her lap. And in every painting, in every icon, in every stained glass window, as beautiful as she may be, she is the Mater Dolorosa, our Lady of Perpetual Sorrows.

“Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child…”

Advent is the Blue season, a season of darkness and light.

At first light today it was dark, 6:30 am dark. The sun went down today at 4:54 pm. I got up in the dark. I drove home in the dark.   And in between, the sky was gray all day outside my window. And the days are getting shorter. Yes, shorter. Is it any wonder, as the holiday looms why you may be feeling so BLUE, so deep, dark, inky, indigo BLUE.

My mother, Mary Lou, was often Blessed Mother blue. So blue she could barely get out of bed. So blue she could barely lift her head. So SAD, so deeply sad, it was like the light had literally gone out of her eyes. No sign of light and life in November, meant an equally dark December. O mom, we’ll have a blue Christmas without you…

Since God created the night, God’s people have prayed for the return of the light. That’s why long before there ever was a Christmas there was the Winter Solstice. The Stone Age people who built Stonehenge knew all about it. The Neolithic people who built Newgrange knew all about it. The deepest, darkest day of the year, is the day the light returns. December 21st.

On December 21st, my church Emmanuel on High, is having a Comfort service, a Christmas Comfort Service. And the service begins with a song — a song by Mary Chapin Carpenter who clinically knows exactly what it’s like to really sing the blues.

Come darkness, come light
Come new star, shining bright
Come love to this world tonight
Alleluia

Come broken, come whole
Come wounded in your soul
Come anyway that you know
Alleluia

Come doubting, come sure
Come fearful to this door
Come see what love is for
Alleluia

Come running, come walking slow
Come weary on your broken road
Come see Him and shed your heavy load
Alleluia

There’s a humble stable and a light within
There’s an angel hovering and three wise men
Today a baby’s born in Bethlehem
Alleluia

Come darkness come light
Come new star burning bright
Come love to this world tonight
Alleluia

Come to the Comfort Service. Come for healing. Come for communion. Come for warmth and music.  Come for solace. Come for peace. Come for prayer. “Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. For my yoke is easy and my burden is Light.”

Come for the Light.

Sunday, December 21st, 5:00 pm.
Emmanuel on High
1608 Russell Road
Alexandria, VA.

JoaniSign