Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


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May the Circle Be Unbroken

And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice unto thee.

 I confess to you that these are my very favorite Eucharistic words in the Book of Common Prayer. And I know they are seldom heard because they come from Rite One, in the prayer of consecration.  Very few parishes and fewer parishioners hear their priest recite these words much anymore. I cannot even tell you the last time I celebrated he Eucharist with Rite One. But these words resonate with me still, especially, because of the little church I served in seminary – the little church that broke all the Eucharistic rules.

At Grace Church in Georgetown, during communion, the entire community gathered around the altar with hearts all lifted up to the Lord. And the priest and people prayed: And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord ourselves, our souls, and bodies.  Together we blessed the bread and blessed the wine. Together we made Eucharist.

Now Grace is a small stone church nearly 200 years old. It was founded by the hoity-toity, for the riff-raff that worked on the C&O Canal and along the Potomac riverfront. The wealthy churches. Christ Church and St John’s did not want to suffer the discomfort of having the poor in the pews.  So, they charitably set up a church to segregate the poor. But little bitty Grace turned the hoity-toity upside down. You see Grace is in Georgetown but it’s really not of Georgetown. Its home to both street people and business people, artists and schizophrenics, a former prominent Pentagon spokesman and the proprietor of a porn shop across the street, professional families and homeless families.

And at Grace, when it was time to receive the holy host, time for the family to come to the table, the worshippers encircled the altar. They passed the plate from hand to hand. Each tore off a ragged piece of bread: The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven. Then around the circle the cup would go, tipped one-by-one to the worshippers’ lip. Sometimes dismembered crumbs would fall and float in a bloody pool of wine.

And from the circle, the prayers of these people rose like incense: for friends and family, for the stranger and the estranged, for the faceless and the nameless, for the broken and the battered, for the lonely and the lowly. They offered up their prayers for one and all.

And here we offer and present unto thee O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice unto thee…”

Now it is truly amazing and a little-known fact that the Bible freely and often quotes the Book of Common Prayer (SMILE). And these beautiful words from Rite One come directly from Paul’s letter to the Romans, Chapter Twelve, Verse One. The passage has much to say about communion — not about liturgical niceties — but what it means to be in communion, to be in the Body, flesh and bone.

I appeal to you brothers and sisters by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. We are one body and individually we are members of one another.

Now the communion circle at Grace was intimate but it was not cozy. The communion circle at Grace was indeed comforting but it was also discomforting.  The communion circle countered Georgetown’s culture.

You might be shoulder to shoulder with someone who had not taken a shower in weeks. You might be passing the peace with people who panhandled in the streets.  You might be drinking from the same cup as the unhinged guy, who talks to himself.

This circle at Grace was a sacred circle. But it resembled very little the circles of influence and affluence outside its doors.

And that is what church is supposed to be. To call us out of the world so that we might witness to the world. And Paul, the circle drawer, tells us how it can be done. Romans 12: 9-21 is a litany of 23 Christian commandments. Paul weaves them together like poetry –  into two paragraphs.  The first paragraph’s commands, hardly any Christian could disagree with: Let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good. Serve the Lord, rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer; contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

But in paragraph two, the going gets tougher.  Just to name a few:

Bless those who persecute you.  Bless those who put you down. Bless those who say you don’t matter, who say that you don’t measure up. Bless those who say you don’t belong.

Weep with those who weep.  Weep with those in the depths of depression. Weep with those who live in darkness. Weep with the desperate and the destitute.

Do not be haughty but associate with the lowly. Associate outside your home-owners association: with the homeless, with the addicted, with the mentally ill.

If your enemies are hungry, feed them. Not just your neighbors — YOUR ENEMIES – a soup kitchen for the terrorists along with the terrorized.  A soup kitchen not just for refugees but for tyrants.

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Paul, the circle drawer, draws some pretty tough lines in the sand. His uncomfortable words are a call to discipleship, one that demands more than a little sacrifice. Not the easy Lenten stuff, like chocolate, but the really hard stuff.  Can I give up my pride, my selfishness? Can I give up my arrogance and my conceit?  Can I give up my defenses and my prejudices? What will I offer up? What will you offer up? What will we offer up, of ourselves, our souls and bodies, to build up the Body of Christ?

The church is not supposed to be a country club. It’s not supposed to be a gated community. The church is not a Meetup group, either. The Church – capital C –  are the followers of Jesus. And Jesus says: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Jesus gave it all up, once and for all, on a cross at Calvary. And as his followers, we got to  give up a part of ourselves, each and every day. Not to be martyrs. Not to suffer for suffering’s sake. But to give up more than a little, for the healing of the sacred circle, the circle of haughty and the lowly, friends and foe, comrades and enemies, the lonely and the lost, the tearful and the joyful: the gay and the straight, the Jew and the Gentile, the black and the white.

May this Circle be unbroken, bye and bye, Lord, bye and bye. There’s a better way awaiting, Lord, (with your help), if we but try, Lord, if we but try.

JoaniSign


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For 40 Days, a Muslim 4 Lent

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

A month ago, EEC  reached out to MAS and they reached back. That is, my parish Emmanuel Episcopal Church (post the infamous seven country travel ban), reached out in friendship to the Muslim American Society Community Center.

I called their office and left a  message:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The chanted Arabic is haunting and beautiful. Though I do not understand a word, the prayers resonate with my soul. Happily I discern and learn, their meaning hews closely to the words of our own.

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

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

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

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

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

And this heart of the Gospel, is echoed in the heart of the Qur’an:

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

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

So?

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

But for forty days this Lent, I will be a Muslim.

Five times a day, I will pray my Anglican rosary with my Roman Catholic prayers. Kneeling. Standing. Sitting. Walking. I will praise my God body and soul. Daybreak. Midday. Afternoon. Sunset. Night.

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

A bibliophile, I will do this by reading books, of course.

Holy books: the Gospels, the Surah.

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

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

And Friday prayers 1:15 PM at MAS, of course.(Check the schedule for other times!)

And Friday Stations of the Cross, 7:00 PM at EEC.

Join with me these 40 days of Lent, if you please.

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

JoaniSign