Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


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


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By Any Other Name

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

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

Eight years old, I was destined to save souls.

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

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

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

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

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

What a terrible friend I was.

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

Does God have just one name?

Does God require only one kind of worship?

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

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

Family at worship Srpague Pearce

“Family at Worship” Charles Sprague Pearce

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

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

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

Are there not many ways up the mountain?

Does God not answer to a million names?

St Augustine wrote in the 4th Century:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul speaks their language and quotes their poets.

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

 In him….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bring many names, beautiful and good,

Celebrate, in parable and story,

Holiness in glory, living, loving God,

Hail and Hosanna! Bring many names!

 

Strong mother God, working night and day,

Planning all the wonders of creation,

Setting each equation, genius at play:

Hail and Hosanna, strong mother God!

 

Warm father God, hugging every child,

Feeling all the strains of human living,

Caring and forgiving till we’re reconciled:

Hail and Hosanna, warm father God!

 

Old, aching God, gray with endless care,

Calmly piercing evil’s new disguises,

Glad of good surprises, wiser than despair;

Hail and Hosanna, old, aching God!

 

Young, growing God, eager and one the move,

Saying no to falsehood and unkindness,

Crying out for justice, giving all you have:

Hail and Hosanna, young growing God!

 

Great, living God, never fully known,

Joyful darkness far beyond our seeing,

Closer yet than breathing, everlasting home:

Hail and Hosanna, great, living God!

 

JoaniSign