Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


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The Liturgist’s Dilemma: Translating Tragedy into Prayer

When asked what I do for a living, I no longer answer “clergy” or “Episcopal priest.” Frankly, lots of people just don’t know what to do with that. Stereotypes abound: that clergy only work on Sunday, that we are not allowed to drink, that you should not curse around us.

And because of stereotypes in the media, many assume Christian equates to fundamentalist or evangelical or conservative. When in all honesty, I am none of these things.

So, instead I tell people I am in the hope business. I am in the love your neighbor and reconciliation business.

 I was ordained to preach and to teach and to be a pastor.   And I make my living with words: healing, honest, provocative, faithful, hopeful, joyful, sorrowful, humorous, beautiful, life giving and insightful words. A professional wordsmith, I am both a writer and a storyteller.

I am also blessed to be the parish liturgist at Emmanuel on High. What the heck is a liturgist?  Well, it is something I never thought I would grow up to be, I am a big picture person, you see. And meaningful liturgy is found in the details and details have never been my best thing.  But now sweating the details of liturgy is my labor of love.

In an Excel spreadsheet, I map out Sunday services across the seasons, six months at a time. At Emmanuel, we cycle though the depth and breadth of every option the Book of Common Prayer has to offer.

And where the BCP allows the liturgy to flex, we flex.  Because meaningful liturgy is faithful not just to God.  Faithful liturgy speaks to the people in the pews. Faithful liturgy weaves together both the past week’s sorrow and joy into the Sunday prayers.

I am a translator of sorts. I have the sad but necessary job of translating tragedy into prayer. It is a ministry that means the world to me – quite literally.

And tragically, of course, there is no shortage of tragedy. Every week I scribble in colored pen the changes to the Prayers of People — keeping our intercessions in sync with the world as best I can – before the bulletin hits the presses on Friday.

Prayers after hurricanes: Harvey, Maria, Florence and Michael.

Prayers after mass shootings: Pulse nightclub, Parkland Stoneman Douglas High School, Las Vegas Route 91 Music Festival.

Prayers after Charlottesville.

Prayers after the Simpson Field tragedy, right down the street, in the very place where our very own children play baseball.

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And then, there was this week:

Word of Life, your words matter and so do ours. If we speak in the tongues of mortals but have not love our words ring hollow.  Words of love sow love. Hateful words sow hate. Out of hate, 14 pipe bombs were mailed to former presidents, Democratic leaders who have served our nation and a news organization. Out of hate, a gunman violated a house of worship on the Jewish sabbath, killing many and injuring more. We have no words but words of grief, sorrow, and contrition. Word of Life, grant us both the inspiration and the courage to speak words of justice, hope, healing and peace. The light of God’s Word shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

 My Alexandria, Virginia church basks in the backyard of the Nation’s Capital, Washington, D.C. Mindful of the political views of the people in our pews, I work very hard crafting prayers to hew close to the truth but also not to offend. I do pretty well most of the time but sometimes I miss the mark.

Worshipful tight rope walking.

Truth, however, trumps good manners.

Prayer you know is not about changing God’s mind to help us out. Prayer is about God changing our minds to get up off our knees and do the good that God would have us do.

Phillips Brooks, the 19thcentury Bishop from Boston and rector of Trinity, Copley Square, famously said: The purpose of preaching is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.

 Both pastoral and the prophetic.

And I am responsible for my words – especially my words from the pulpit.  And as I wrote above, I do so believe: Word of Life, your words matter and so do ours. If we speak in the tongues of mortals but have not love our words ring hollow.  Words of love sow love. Hateful words sow hate.

On Sunday, preacher and people, together wrestle with angels. Sermons, at their best, help us think, help us remember, help us dream, help us to believe —  that which truly matters most.

Above all, I try at least to leave people with a little hope before they head out the doors and go back to their daily lives.

Getting my turn in the pulpit is a privilege. My turn to lift up the priesthood of every single person praying in our pews.

But imagine, if instead of praising the Leaves of Love: Refugee Family Fundraiser, I instilled fear of foreigners and immigrants.

Imagine, if instead of promoting Carpenters Shelter breakfasts and dinners, I railed about withholding help from our needy neighbors.

What if, instead of encouraging us all to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being, I insisted that we prioritize ourselves, the people who look like us and talk like us and think like us.

Well, I might get fired. Indeed, I should get fired.

And my pulpit is not a bully one.

It is election season and midterms are upon us. And lots of powerful political types are both using and abusing their bully pulpits.

Preaching xenophobic, homophobic, vitriolic, hateful, racist, vile rhetoric.

Words matter. Words of love sow love. Hateful words sow hate.

And believe it or not, we are baptized to vote. To vote out of love for our fellow human beings — not solely out of self-interest.

Whether for Republicans or Democrats or Libertarians or Green Partiers or Independents (or Others I am not aware of),  we Christians are  to vote for the greater good.

So, on Tuesday say a little prayer before you cast your ballot.  Let’s all do the best we can to vote the bums out and the good guys in!

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!