Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


The Unreachable, Incorrigible, but Ultimately Teachable People of God

With the threat of Babylon breathing down his people’s back, the prophet Jeremiah comes out swinging:

For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children; they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil and they do no good.

Yes, he really says stupid children. Hitting them over the head with a two-by-four to get their attention.

And the poet, who penned the 14thPsalm, is no less upset:

The fool said in his heart, “There is no God.” All are corrupt and commit abominable acts; there is none that does any good. Everyone has proven faithless, all alike turned bad, there is none that is good, not one.

Yes, there is none that does any good; the writer writes twice for good measure.

So much for the words of the prophet. So much for the wisdom of the psalms.

It seems we are all incorrigible, unreachable and unteachable fools.

Welcome back to Sunday School!

Once upon a time, there came the earthly Jesus to reach and teach the lost: that rowdy crowd of tax collectors and sinners who listened at his feet. And as he often does, Jesus tells a parable to help them understand. The double parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin. While, all the while, the powers-that-be grumble and grouse behind his back. 

And after he was dead and gone and risen from the tomb, the job of reaching these lost sheep – fell to his followers.  In the synagogues, in peoples’ homes, in the marketplaces, the disciples told the stories of Jesus. And Jesus’ words spread by word of mouth from parent to child, from village to village, and town to town.

But before the stories were forgotten, Jesus’ disciples decided we better write this stuff down! So, a generation after Jesus, the writers we call Matthew, Mark, Luke and John penned their four versions of the Gospel (a brand-new word that meant Good News).

But even before the Gospels, there was the apostle Paul.  A lost sheep of God, he writes to Timothy.

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

His letters reach and teach the earliest Christians of the ancient world.

And kind of like seminary, it took three years in the Catechumenate to become a full-fledged Christian – before you could be baptized on Easter Eve.

And if you could not read – the mosaics on the walls, holy icons on wood, the stained glass in the church windows — would be your teachers. Art and faith have long been intertwined in the catholic (lower case “c”) tradition.

Centuries on, we fast forward to the Protestant Reformations (plural) in the West.  With the invention of the printing press, scripture was translated into native tongues. Catechisms came to be. And hymns were published, set to pub tunes and drinking songs. Brand new ways to reach God’s lost sheep.

So, please be seated!  (A phrase not heard in church before!)

Another revolutionary breakthrough was the invention of pews. Yes, pews! Now, you could sit to hear the Word of God preached in your own language. Now you could stay after the service to learn a thing or two — the 16th  Century version of a Sunday morning forum.

The root word of Protestant is protest. It was an affirmation that faith had become a personal quest. Catechisms of all kinds were compiled to answer Christians’ questions.

When I was in high school, I did protest too much! Encouraged by my Jesuit educated father to question absolutely everything, I was discouraged from asking questions in religion class at Immaculata Prep. Sister Mary Clare told me in no uncertain words to stop. And I quote:

“Joani, you have to stop asking questions. You are confusing the other girls. And this is why: You are intellectually gifted but spiritually retarded.”

Yes, a direct quote!

My questions led me away from my childhood faith. While quite ironically, these same questions gained me early admission to Catholic U. There I became a philosophy major where I could ask all the questions I wanted — the answers be damned. 

And I did not darken the door of a church again for a very long time.

Until, as the story goes, I was led by a little child, or really two. Good friends of ours invited our little family; my ex, our toddler and baby to attend Advent services at Immanuel-on-the-Hill.

(Yes, the other Immanuel is my home parish!)

A few weeks in, the rector asked me, “Would you like to teach Sunday School?” 

“No”, I said, “that would be crazy! I am just figuring this new church thing out for myself.”

“No experience necessary!” the rector says, “You can do it!”

“Alright.” I reluctantly reply.

So, I enrolled my three-year-old and myself in the preschool class.  It was pretty loosie-goosey. There was no set curriculum. So, I used the only children’s bible that I knew: the stories of Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel. The tales of two good and faithful friends. Little parables of comfort, encouragement, joy and forgiveness. With lots of pictures and simple text.

But as my children grew, so did my Sunday School repertoire. I began to read the Bible (the actual Bible) seriously for the first time in my life. No pictures, complicated texts and compelling stories of all kinds.

I was filled with wonder, yes. Wonder that took the form of questions. Lots of questions.

Blessedly I was at Immanuel on-the-Hill, an Episcopal community, that welcomed my questions. It was a fertile place for inquisitive souls. They actually had a thing called School for the Spirit.  In small groups we wrestled angels together, seeking after God.

And I got to this faithful place simply by signing up for Sunday School!

How has God sought you out? What person, place or thing led you here? Just how did you get to church, really?

Maybe following in the footsteps of your parents. Maybe a friend. A pastor from your past. The author of a book you could not put down.  A moving speaker. An encouraging teacher.   A camp counselor.  A youth group leader. Maybe even a Sunday school teacher.

Sunday, September 15th, Emmanuel will celebrate all of the above. Thanks to the awesome ministry of Toni Buranen, we will commission six-teams-of-four Sunday School teachers and a quartet of God & Donuts’ leaders. Prayers will rise, like incense to the skies, for this new year of learning. For all the inquisitive minds and inquiring hearts and for all their questions, we’ll ask God’s blessings upon them all.

And after church, there is an Open House. Take a tour of the classrooms. Meet the teachers. Register your young ones. And maybe even volunteer yourself to go on the quest.  No experience necessary!

(And remember, if I could do this once upon a time, surely so can you!)

Grownup questions, of course, are also welcome! Adult Spiritual Formation has forums and films  and plenty more exciting things planned for the coming year.

Stay tuned!

(And if you’re new to Emmanuel, we’d love to have you visit! Services are at 8:00 & 10:30 AM. We’re located in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, VA at 1608 Russell Road.)


4 Comments

I fear and tremble…therefore I am…

Kierkegaard cartoon question

“The existential question & the Dane’s answer.”

I had a bad case of Kierkegaard in college.

My diagnosis was directly attributable to Sister Mary Clare, my high school principal at Immaculata Prep.

You see — from my Jesuit educated dad, I inherited an insatiable curiosity and an inquiring mind. Virtually all my sentences ended in question marks – especially in religion class.

“Transubstantiation makes no sense, Sister. Why would Jesus want us to eat him?”

“The atonement? Why does God kill his only son to save us? What kind of God is that?”

“Bad Catholics go to heaven? Loving Buddhists go to hell? What’s up with that?”

And the deepest and most disturbing question: “Why is French kissing a mortal sin?”

Called into the principal’s office, Sister Mary Clare sat me down to set me straight.

“Joani, you have to stop asking questions in religion class. You are confusing the other girls.”

“Joani, you are intellectually gifted but you are spiritually retarded.”

Yes, “spiritually retarded”. That’s a direct quote.

So I skipped my senior year at Immaculata to start Catholic University early as a philosophy major — a philosophy major who could ask all the f*ing questions she wanted.

I loved my three years at Catholic U. Historically we read the greatest thinkers of all times: ancient, medieval, modern, existentialist and more.

We didn’t read about philosophy, we read the philosophers themselves: Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Boethius, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, Hume, Heidegger, Hegel, Spinoza, Levinas, Wittgenstein, Sartre – and of course Kierkegaard. (Achoo!)

And because I left in my final year without finishing, I missed out on a generation or two of 20th century thinkers: Foucault, Derrida, etc.

But what I did not miss out on was a first class education. Philosophy not only exercises the brain and challenges the mind –philosophy is therapy for the soul.

I aced logic and excelled at metaphysics. I ached with existential angst. I entered Catholic U a parochial school girl and by the time I left I was a Platonic, Hegelian, Enlightened, phenomenological agnostic.

(What does this exactly mean? I don’t exactly know.)

I loved it and my grades proved it. I was invited by my professors to enter the prestigious School of Philosophy.

All of my professors were men. All of the School’s students were seminarians. Need I state the obvious? All men.

Even though I would have been the only woman –I declined. Because I would have been the only woman, I decided to stay behind in the more diverse and down to earth Department of Philosophy.

Women’s numbers in philosophy departments have dramatically improved since my college days – approximately 20% now in the US and higher the UK. But these are still low ball numbers compared to the numbers of women scholars in other halls of the humanities.

A book review in the July 17th issue of The Times Literary Supplement suggests the gender gap is not just a matter of bias – but women like myself – self-selecting out.

I studied philosophy to learn how to think clearly and creatively. I studied philosophy so I could ask Life’s most profound questions. I wanted to be in conversation with other seekers – in a community that mattered. I studied philosophy to expand my soul.

But philosophy – as does theology – gets carried away with itself for the sake of itself – tripping over technical jargon and getting lost in mind numbing minutia.

So lots of brilliant women just say “NO!”.

David Papineau’s TLS piece on “Women in Philosophy: What needs to change?” proposes that “pointlessness, pugilism, nitpicking, pin-dancing” are “all possibilities of why women avoid philosophy.”

 Hysterically he uses the example of professional snooker – a limited but very illuminating analogy.

“Even though women are eligible to compete as professionals, none is ranked in the top hundred. The six-times world champion, Steve Davis, has no doubt about the reason. It’s not that women are incapable of the highest levels of skill. It is rather that as a group they are disinclined to devote obsessive effort to ‘something that must be said is a complete waste of time – trying to put snooker balls into pockets with a pointed stick.’”

 “As Davis sees it, ‘practicing eight hours a day to get to world championship level’ ranks high among the ‘most stupid things to do with your life.’”

 In other words, women philosophers, might ask more truly meaningful questions – and then choose to explore them in life affirming ways – not wasting their time contemplating “how many angels dance on the head of a pin.”

After marriage and children, I meandered back to school and matriculated in philosophy once again – but this time with an interdisciplinary flair. My undergraduate thesis was on comparative Christology according to George William Friedrich Hegel, Carl Gustav Jung, and John A.T. Robinson.(Don’t you love all those names?)

I remember virtually nothing of what I wrote (the manuscript is lost to time, thanks be to God). I do remember though that it mattered a great deal to me at the time.

A matter of vital importance, I did the best I could to answer Christ’s question:

Who do you say that I am?

 “I” here is reflexive pronoun, plural and not just singular. For Christ and me. “I and Thou”.

I continue to ask this question as an Anglican, as a woman, a priest and a bipolar crazy person. I ask this question every day when I get I up and every night when I lay me down to sleep. I ask it every time I look in the mirror. I ask it every time I preach a sermon or teach a class.

“Who do you say that I am?”

It’s a very bipolar question – this philosophical and theological question. And better than 100 milligrams of Seroquel – it keeps me focused. Trying to answer it sharpens my mind. It clarifies my thoughts. It keeps me grounded and tethered to the ground – the “ground of my being”. It keeps me honest. It keeps me whole.

A dose of philosophy can be good therapy – exercise for the mind, medicine for the psyche, a balm for a fevered brain.

 And regardless of the answers – as a seminary professor once famously said — “learn to love the questions.”

Learn to lean into the questions.

It might just save your sanity.

It might just save your soul.

JoaniSign