Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


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Joani’s Big Adventure or The Blessing of the Bikes

Six years old, I learned to ride a bike on a little red Schwinn. No training wheels. My dad said training wheels were for sissies. “It’s all about balance, Joani Baloney. You can do this.” He steadied me on the seat of the bike and instructed me how to steer and how to pedal. Like the whole thing was an intellectual exercise.  And then he let me go at the top of the hill of a little cul-de-sac. It was a little hill, but to a six-year-old, a very big hill.  I careened down. I crashed. Head on into a telephone pole. I cried.

Now this is not a method I recommend.  (A method my father also used to teach me how to drive a car  – with similar results.)

But I did learn how to ride that bike – and it was my first little taste of freedom. My first little experience with independence.

I rode my bike to school, to the pool, to the store, to piano lessons and softball practice.

Reach back and remember. When was your first bike ride? Who taught you? Where did you go? And along the way, who have you taught in return?

A virtually universal rite of passage for little American kids.

But as a mom, I have flat out failed in this regard. Three of my four children will tell you that they are scarred from the experience – or the lack of experience – of learning to ride a bike.

We lived at 212 East Windsor, a 1920’s bungalow right here in Del Ray, directly across the street from the fire station. This was quite exciting when my kids were little. When they would hear the sirens, they scrambled to the front porch to watch the fire fighters slide down the pole – and gaze in amazement as they raced off in the bright red fire trucks.

As a mom, this spectacle also terrified me. A bit of a safety fanatic, I imagined my bike and trike riding children getting run over by fire engines. The sirens screaming so loud, I feared I couldn’t hear my children’s screams. Extreme. Ridiculous. I know.

In an abundance of caution, I made the street in front of our house totally off limits. And by extension, all streets in our neighborhood – relegating my children to sidewalk transport only.

On foot, of course, but also on wheels: roller blades and skates, wagons and scooters, big wheels.

But never a bike.

And my grownup children have never let me forget how I handicapped their childhood.

Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.

So today is at least in part about making amends.

As the liturgist at Emmanuel, as a lark for a friend I was googling “new car safe driving prayers” when I came across the Blessing of the Bicycles. Several urban churches and even cathedrals have held annual Bike Blessings.

I forwarded the link to Chuck, the rector and my colleague, an avid cyclist. “Would you like to do this at Emmanuel?’

 “OF COURSE! LOVE THIS!” he fired back in all CAPS.

We concurred, June 24th, the first official Sunday in summer would be a great day to do it. And we decided to do it up right. Not just a five-minute perfunctory blessing after church. No, we would lean in for the entire service: scripture, hymns, prayers, remembrances.

We are breaking more than a few Book of Common Prayer rubrics. It’s easier, of course, to ask for forgiveness instead of permission. And for the liturgy police out there the early service at 8:00 AM on the 24thwill be entirely kosher.

But what better way to celebrate the summer solstice than to celebrate the spirit of all things bicycle.

As I watched the four creatures, I saw something that looked like a wheel on the ground…This is what the wheels looked like: They were identical wheels, sparkling like diamonds in the sun. It looked like they were wheels within wheels, like a gyroscope.

 They went in any of the four directions they faced, but straight not veering off. The rims were immense, circled with eyes. When the living creatures went, the wheels went; when the living creatures lifted off, the wheels lifted off. Wherever the spirit went, they went, the wheels sticking right with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.

 Now the prophet Ezekiel, in the 6thcentury BC, was not writing about bikes. They describe apocalyptic visions he had of the Israelites escaping captivity in Babylon. But their wild and vivid imagery suits our purposes for today – a vision of that wild ride, a vision of a spirited journey rising above the road.

Now I myself have not been on a bike in over thirty years. I am an avid pedestrian but not a cyclist.

So, for authenticity’s sake and to genuinely throw myself into the spirit of the occasion, I too had to get a bike. And actually ride it, of course.

I walked into Conte’s Bike Shop on King Street with the following criteria for my purchase:

  • I am not even sure if I still know how to ride a bike.
  • I will not be riding in traffic of any kind.
  • I am only going to ride on flat surfaces and seldom used bike paths.
  • I will not be doing any racing.

I picked out a red one with big fat white tires – an updated version of the Schwinn I had as a kid. And nearly identical to Peewee Herman’s in Peewee’s Big Adventure!

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 I have worked up to an hour’s ride, pedaling on the back streets of my neighborhood. And I have begun to experience a bit of all of those positive byproducts that bicycling brings.

It’s good for your mental and not just your physical health. It can lift your spirits when you are down and moderate your mood when you are manic. It’s very beneficial for the brain for ADHD and bipolar people like me.

Your lungs get stronger. You can breathe better. You can even enjoy a second breakfast if you bike to work.

Cycling can help you sleep better and it can even make you smarter! Boosting blood flow to your gray cells.

Without google maps telling you where to go, you develop a better sense of direction. Better to map your own way.

And cycling can widen your social circles and expand your world: Beyond friends and family, in clubs you can meet fellow cyclists of all kinds and in races for good causes, you can find kindred spirits along the way.

Biking is kinder to Mother Nature and a boon for the environment. No fossil fuels. No greenhouse gases.

And economical too. A car costs about 55 cents a kilometer to operate. A bike, only about a tenth of that. A little more than a nickel a kilometer. With a bike you might not need a second car.

And affordable bike sharing – in economically challenged locations – can help to provide low cost transportation – to work, to the store, to school – for the less affluent who need it the most.

And cycling is good for the soul. Connecting the rider not just to creation but to the Creator. It can get us out of our comfort zones and off the couch and put us in touch with communities we have never dreamed of.

And isn’t that what church is supposed to be all about?

Every ride can be a hymn of praise: for life, for health, for the sheer joy of pedaling down the road.

And while you ride, you can say a prayer for everyone you pass along the way: other riders, pedestrians, motorists and truck drivers too. Pray for safety and the security of all with whom we share the road.

So, let’s end this little blog post with a Celtic blessing:

May the road rise up to meet you;

May the wind be always at your back.

May the sun shine warm upon your face;

The rains fall soft upon your path;

And until we meet again,

May God hold you in the palm of his hand.

And come join us June 24th, 10:00 AM at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Virginia.  Click here for all the details on The Blessing of the Bikes!

JoaniSign

 


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Fly Me to the Moon

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.

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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 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 play among the stars.

JoaniSign

NOTE: Wednesday, February 14th, 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!


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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