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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More than food…

Jesus and his friends were lacking in social graces – according to the table manners and table piety of their day.  And for this — certain Pharisees called him on the carpet. “I can’t believe it! He did not wash his hands. There is dirt underneath his fingernails!”

My mother, my grandmother and her mother before her would have sided with the Pharisees.  Jesus, didn’t your mama teach you to wash your hands before you eat? Apparently, Jesus did not listen very well to his elders. And yet he knew that people come to the table for more than food.

The Pharisees are not alone in being fussy about table manners.

Christians are no exception. Growing up, we observed a rhythm of fasting and feasting.  On Friday, we would eat no meat.  On special days we would fast from all meals until sundown.  Every Sunday we would fast at least an hour before Mass and receiving communion.  Our small sacrifices were to remind us of Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice. Ordinary reminders of the extraordinary God.

The good sisters at Holy Family were scrupulous in this regard.  The nuns who had lunch time duty sniffed out each lunch bag and box to make sure it was kosher. I will never forget a Friday when I was in the first grade — just six years old. My mom had packed a bologna sandwich. A BOLOGNA SANDWICH!  Possibly a mortal sin, my immortal soul was in danger. And so, my lunch was confiscated.  A note was sent home chastising my parents’ lax regard for the Friday fast.

The sisters had reminded us of the rules. They laid down the law, but they had forgotten that we come to the table for more than food.

Christians are notorious for fighting over meals and especially notorious for fighting over God’s table.  Is it an altar? Or a table?  Should we kneel, or do we stand?  What do we wear? White or black or rich brocade?  Should we use wine, or do we use grape juice?  Christians of many stripes and colors want to believe that their version of the Lord’s supper is THE version of the Lord’s Supper.

Family traditions are destined to clash at the dinner table.

Take the story of Raney and Charles, characters in a Clyde Edgerton novel.   Raney and Charles are newlyweds.  They live in North Carolina.  Raney is a Free Will Baptist.  Charles is an Episcopalian.  One Saturday night over okra and fried chicken, they discuss where they will attend church the next morning.  Charles hopes that Raney will attend the Eucharist with him at the Episcopal Church in town.

“I don’t think I could go to an Episcopal Church, ” Raney says.

“Why not?” counters Charles.

“They’re against some of the things we believe in the most. They serve real wine at the Lord’s Supper and they have priests.  Don’t they?”

“Well, yes”

“Well, I don’t especially approve of the way priests drink.” Raney complains.

Charles reminds Raney that Jesus himself drank.

Raney scoffs, “I don’t think so.”

“Well, he turned water into wine at the wedding feast.”

“Yes,” Raney concedes, “but it wasn’t wine it was grape juice. If Jesus turned water into wine on the spot it had to be grape juice because it didn’t have time to ferment.”

There was a pause at this point in their conversation.

“If Jesus could make wine” says Charles, he could easily make it fermented as not, couldn’t he? Why should Jesus mess around with half a miracle?

Full stop. Continue.

“I’ve been going to the Bethel Free Will Baptist Church for twenty-four years now and the preachers there have been studying the Bible for all their lives and they say its grape juice.  All together they have probably studied the Bible for over a hundred years.  I’m not going to sit in my kitchen and go against that.”

So, like Raney and Charles, we squabble over the magic words. We argue about  how the table is set.  We quibble over the menu and the guest list.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  These table traditions of Jews and Christians, Catholics and Protestants are to be honored. The Pharisees preaching of the kosher (kashrut) laws was not intended to be picayune.

The Jews have a wonderful word: “mitzvah”.   A “mitzvah” is a grateful gesture to God even in the most mundane of circumstances: as you prepare the evening meal, as you wash your dishes, as you bathe the baby, as you tuck your children into bed.

Daily food was holy food. God sat down at each table and shared in each meal.  But the Pharisees in Mark’s Gospel had forgotten this.  They had forgotten that we come to the table for more than food.

Jesus, a marginal Jew, knew this, of course.

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Have you ever attended a Passover Seder, a real one with a real Jewish family?  The holy story of the Exodus is woven around a simple family meal.  There are candles, special dishes and plates, symbolic foods and sumptuous courses.  The Haggadah, the prayer book, is passed from hand to hand.  Everyone has a part to play -– even the children.

“Why is this night so special?” the youngest asks.

The bitter herbs, the haroset, the lamb, the matzoh, and the wine make the rounds of the table.  Each course is blessed with the telling of the story.

And this is just as true at Emmanuel’s holy table.   I know that a hundred years ago, or so, the church purchased it.  And I know that twenty some years ago, a vestry committee approved the rearrangement of the nave. And I know that the Altar Guild lovingly laid out the linen and the silver this Sunday — just as they have done hundreds and hundreds of Sundays.

But this table does not belong to Emmanuel.  It does not belong to us.  It belongs to God.

God decides who is welcome and God excludes no one. Technically only the baptized receive communion but that’s a church rule, a rule that God overrules.  There is no checking your baptismal certificate at the altar rail.

At a nursing home service, the residents lean forward in their wheel chairs – regardless of whatever faith they came from. At baptisms, Jewish godparents are just as much a part of the family as the Christian ones. At a post 9/11 Eucharist, I remember a Muslim woman reaching out her hands in hope. On Christmas and Easter, when the church overflows, everyone is served.

We come for solace and for strength.

We come for pardon and for renewal.

We come in hope.

All God’s children come to the table for more than food.

JoaniSign