Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


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Hallowed

Leaves turn color. Yellow, red, orange, brown.  Dry, they fly and fall from the sky.  Carpeting the ground, like parchment, they crackle under foot. You can hear them. You can smell them –  the mustiness of the earth.

 Hist whist little goblin. Hist whist little ghostling.

It is that time of year again. As night falls, the veil between the worlds is torn. Spirits freely move between heaven and earth, between this world and the next. Lanterns are lit  and treats set out to guide home the wayward souls.  On this, O Hallowed Eve – the day we call Halloween.

 All Hallows’ Eve, even more than All Saints Day was a high holy day at my house.  It was just about the only holiday, as a clergy person, that I did not have to work. My children, specifically my son Zach, each year would transform our front porch into a haunted space. With paint and props, spidery cob webs, gooey pumpkin slime, fake blood and guts and plastic body parts.  One year the porch became Dr. Frankenstein’s workshop. Another year (my favorite),the porch became Hotel 666, where you checked in but could never check out.

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Trick or Treaters flocked to our front door with their paper sacks and plastic pumpkins.  And we always gave out the good stuff. No Dumdums lollipops but chocolate. Especially chocolate! All Hallows Eve. Ah Holy Day.

And then, the next day, and the one after that, were holy, as well. All Saints Day, November 1st. All Souls Day, November 2nd.  Growing up Catholic, the communion of saints enveloped my childhood. Christened in the name of Saint Joan, I was doubly sainted once confirmed. I chose Saint Veronica for her musical, four-syllable name.

And on All Saints Day, after church, it was my family’s tradition to visit Cedar Hill Cemetery, a holy place planted with Peacocks for generations.  My mom would bring grass clippers and flowers to tidy up our grandparents’ graves.  My siblings and I would play between the headstones – racing down the hill to the pond where we fed the ducks.  And before we got back into the car, we’d say a little prayer for all of those souls who had gone before.

And we little Catholics, we clutched our holy cards close to our chests. Other kids collected baseball cards; we collected holy cards — the MVP’s of the heavenly host.  In these holy persons, the worlds collided: heaven and earth got all tangled up.

We were, after all, standing in a cemetery. One must die to reach the other side.

The snippet from Revelation, which pictures the great multitude from every from every tribe and nation, from all races and language, is often read at funerals.  The day we die is also the day we rise – our resurrection day. And if a saint, our saint’s day, too. My Book of Common Prayer is scribbled with the names of those I have buried these last 23 years.

I am the resurrection and I am the life says the Lord, whoever has faith in me shall have life.  And as for me I know that my Redeemer lives and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.  After my waking, he will raise me up, and in my body, I shall see God.  I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him who is my friend and not a stranger.

And according to the Book of Revelation, we all get a chance to sit  at the  foot of the throne.

Amen, blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power be to our King forever and ever! Amen.

And how in heaven, do we possibly end up here?  A miracle?  A healing?  An exorcism?

In the Catholic scheme of things, to merit a halo, not only do you have to be a pillar of virtue in life — you also must be a miracle worker in death.  In the Episcopal Church, it’s different. Organized like bicameral Congress, the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies,  meet every three years. Candidates are nominated for their virtue, for their resemblance to Christ. Then we vote. Yes, vote.   If elected, the new saints gets a date on the liturgical calendar. A lesser feast, so to speak.

And really good news, saints don’t have to be saints all of the time. Every saint is also always a sinner. So, some Anglican saints might surprise you. There are the usual suspects, of course. The Mary’s, the martyrs, the apostles.

But also, including the likes of:

Johannes Sebastian Bach, composer of sacred music.

Charles Wesley, 18th century  writer of 6,000 hymns.

Florence Nightingale, 19th century nurse and social reformer.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, abolitionist and suffragette.

Thomas Gallaudet, teacher and advocate for the deaf.

Blessed be all those, whose lives shine  — with the light of the beatitudes.

And blessed be who for you?  Of those who have gone before?

Browse the obituaries. Stroll through a cemetery. Scour your memory. Read biography. Read history. In whose footsteps, do you pray to follow?  On whose shoulders, do you hope to stand? Who else might join that great procession — when the saints go marching in?

When the saints go marching in.

JoaniSign


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Six Feet Under

One of my favorite books is Gospel. No, not Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, this “Gospel” is a big rambling 800 page novel by Wilton Barnhardt. Gospel is the story of an eccentric, hardboiled Chicago Irish professor and his nubile graduate student assistant., as they careen and comb all over the world — through Europe, Africa, the Middle East and America — in search of a fifth gospel long lost to time and history.

This lost gospel turns out to be the testament of Matthias. Matthias is the thirteenth apostle, Judas’ replacement, chosen by a roll of the dice in the book of Acts. The apostle Matthias had never seen the risen Lord. He struggles daily with his unbelief. These newfound chapters and verses tell how Matthias, in his old age, searches out the remaining apostles in their twilight years. Do they still believe? Do they still hope in that wild and wonderful story of Jesus, risen from the dead?

There are rumors — persistent rumors — that the body of their Lord had actually been stolen and secreted away. And these rumors haunt Matthias and he just has to know the truth. So he searches out the shady underground and the cities of the dead that traffic in relics.

The price is a bag of silver to be taken to the tomb. The guide “brought me to the door of the chamber,” Matthias says, “where the death relic of Our Lord was supposed to be hidden…But here, brothers and sisters, you shall find it strange. but I refused to go forward. The guide beckoned me to follow but I stood frozen in my path! He approached what looked to be an anointed body and began to unwrap the dirty linen… but I demanded that he stop and I fled up the stairs… I ran from the very truth I sought…. ”

“I ran from the truth I sought.”

Resurrection is hard to hold on to.

Maybe this is why graveyards and cemeteries haunt us so. These holy places speak of sacrifice and loss, grief and sorrow. Stones silently tell the stories of the lives buried beneath our feet: rows upon rows of soldiers at Arlington; the fading glory of government buried deep  at Congressional; my parents, their parents, cousins, neighbors, uncles and aunts, all planted at Cedar Hill – just across the Anacostia line.

And then there are the graveyards of our own making. Deaths of a different kind: the death of a marriage; the relinquishment of a child; the abandonment of dreams; the places in our hearts and heads where we surrender to the darkness.  We bury the pain of our trauma six feet under. With the belief, that there is no hope of resurrection there.

But — what about Lazarus?  Lazarus, called forth by Jesus, stinking and stumbling out of his tomb today?

Now I have always had trouble with the Jesus in the gospel of John. At first, callous and cold, he appears to be using his friend’s death, as an opportunity for a parlor game – a magic trick to impress the incredulous crowds. The unbelievers are likely the people in John’s own community. This is late in the first century and resurrection doubt was certainly creeping in. And so, the Gospel of John, and John alone, tells the story of the raising of Lazarus.

Now certain scholars believe that John simply made this story up out of bits and pieces from the other gospels. This triumphant Christ, cocky and confident of his own divinity, makes sense only with the resurrection in the rear view mirror. Maybe the story is just one of the “signs” John concocted to convince his congregation of the wildest story ever told.

But scrape these layers of stuff away and read it again. The core of this story rings true. It is in the end a story of a grieving friend –whose faith was put the test.

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“The Raising of Lazarus” by Van Gogh

Hearing of his friend’s illness, a very busy Jesus — over scheduled and overburdened. — preoccupied with his preaching mission –is not overly concerned for Lazarus. This illness does not lead to death. He’s just got the flu. He will get over it. He will be alright. But indeed death does steal Lazarus away. Dumbfounded and unbelieving, Jesus returns to Bethany and as he approaches the grave of his friend “Jesus wept.” He breaks down and cries. A man in tears, he openly grieves for his friend. And wracked with guilt, Jesus berates himself with Mary and Martha’s questions: O my God, why was I not here to comfort you? O my God, why did I not come sooner? Maybe there would have been a miracle that day and I could have healed you. And then desperately Jesus cries out. Father, hear me. Please, bring him back. Come out Lazarus. Come out.

And this is probably heresy, but I believe that when Lazarus stumbled out of the tomb that no one was more surprised than Jesus. You see, just before he heads into Jerusalem. Just before he has to climb the hill to Calvary, Jesus felt and saw, that yes, God can and God does and God will call death back to life. That God will unbind him and let him go.

And so for us as well, on this final Sunday of Lent, we get a glimpse of Easter. Yes, first Jesus, dead three days will rise again. And in this lies our hope, that God can and God will rescue us from the graveyard: the real ones and the ones we dig ourselves. Literally and metaphorically, not just in the by and by, but in the here and now, death shall lose its sting. And all of those stones, blocking the way to heaven,  might just be rolled away.

But first to Calvary… we all must go.

JoaniSign