Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


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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.

fly_me_to_the_moon_wallpaper_by_lama_art-d39xeq4

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!


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Soul Friend, Old Friend, Fur Friend, Three Years On

The ancient Celts kept in touch with their Creator by touching creation. All of nature breathed in and breathed out –the very breath of God  — and all the world was soaked in the Spirit. The Celtic Creator dwelt in ancient trees and streams and holy wells.

Immersed in their pagan past, Celtic Christians called their God, “Lord of the Elements”. Christian monasteries sprang up on druid holy grounds —  in the midst of oak groves and sacred springs.

The Celts had a quiet care for all living things. And the saints had a particular affinity for all creatures great and small. St. Kevin sheltered a black bird’s nest in his outstretched arms. St. Ciarain befriended a boar who cleared his land. And St. Columba’s white horse wept at his master’s death.

And then there is the story of St Mungo and the Hound, as told by Robert Van de Weyer in “Celtic Fire”.

“Mungo knew that God was calling him to found a new monastery amongst his tribesman to bear witness to the love of Christ. So he set out from home in search of a suitable place.”

“Soon a wild hound appeared and began to lead him. The hound took him over steep mountains, into deep valleys, and through dark forests. Each night Mungo and the hound lay down next to one another; and before they fell asleep they talked to each other, Mungo speaking in words, and the hound replying with barks and growls”

“Together they arrived at a beautiful lush valley, with a clear blue river running through it. And around the valley they could see little columns of smoke with many people living there The hound stopped near the river bank, and began scratching the ground with his feet, tearing up tufts of grass. Mungo fell to his knees in prayer asking God if this was truly the place to build the monastery.”

“Kissed by a robin on the cheek, welcomed by the birds Mungo knew this was the place. The hound went off to collect branches, and the bird brought leaves and grass, and soon Mungo had built himself a hut.”

“Then the hound came up to Mungo and growled loudly, bowing its head asking Mungo for a blessing. So Mungo laid his hand on his head and prayed for God’s guidance on it. The hound went off and in the following days and months and sent others to join Mungo. And the brothers came to found this new place. And the robin and the hound helped each brother to build himself a hut”.

“And the community grew, the local people came wanting to see their new neighbors. Mungo and his brothers gladly welcomed the sick into the community, nursing them back to health, and shared their simple food with hungry travellers. And soon the monastery was renowned for its generosity and kindness to all in need. And many people embraced the gospel which inspired that unassuming love.”

Mungo’s monastery was founded where now Glasgow Cathedral stands. Founded by three brothers: the monk, the robin, and the hound.

You may think this a fairy story, a whimsical tale of long ago and far away, Maybe a Disney feature with cartoon creatures. I am not sure that history will witness to its truth.

Bailey

Bailey Peacock 2000 – 2015

But I can. I can because of a certain hound of renown whose name was Bailey.

A decade ago, divorced and alone, I sold my little bungalow and set out to find a new home of my very own — and Bailey led the way. Bailey was Jacob’s, my youngest son’s dog, Part retriever, part shepherd, he was not much of either. But he was as gentle and companionable as the day is long. And stupid, yes stupid. He barely knew his name.

 

All three of my children have come and gone, come and gone, come and gone. But Bailey always stayed and never went. So I am the one who walked him, and fed him, and took care of him. And he has been my solitary roommate this decade long.

And like all roommates Bailey and I did not always get along. This roommate peed on my carpet, stole underwear out of the hamper, chewed up paper towels, drooled all over the couch, and ransacked the trash. We had our arguments and I admit losing my temper and calling him awful names. He would hide under the dining room table and come out when the coast was clear. Sweet dog that he was he never held it against me.

In my condo community Bailey took me walking several times a day. And the older he got, he took me walking several, several times a day. It was Bailey who introduced me to my neighbors: the three girls down stairs with first their French poodle and now a German Shepherd; the lady next door with the persnickety cats; the great big jock with the tiny little Yorkie; and the lady right below me who never learned Bailey’s name. But now I know theirs — all because of Bailey.

Bailey was not much of a watchdog. There was never a stranger, a delivery person, or a postman, or a friend at my door that he did not think was his friend too. I believe even a robber would have found Bailey to be his true and helpful friend, — following him all around the house while he robbed me blind. But Bailey did have a protective streak in him from time to time. When a certain male friend would visit, Bailey always jumped up on the couch between us. I am not sure what he thought he was protecting me from, but protect me he did.

And I had a strange and lovely attachment to this dog for 15 years. But he was just a dog, right? And now Bailey is gone.

102 people years-old Bailey could barely hear and barely see and barely walk and barely get up and down the stairs anymore. Sweet dog, all my children over the 2014 holidays got to spend time with him. And we all talked about how it was getting to be “Bailey’s time”.  And then January 16th, 2015 Bailey’s time came.

And I knew it would be sad and knew I would shed a few tears and I thought I would get through it just fine — collect myself, climb back in the car and head back home. Just a dog right?

Sitting on the blanket with Bailey as he drifted into his last deep sleep, I cried like a baby. Stroking his fur and holding his paw, I kept repeating, “All dogs go to heaven. All dogs go to heaven.”

I sobbed on the way home. I sobbed with two of my three of my children on the phone. And though Bailey rarely barked, my house was strangely quiet today. When I woke up this morning I had a dull empty feeling in the pit of my stomach that wouldn’t go away.

I lost the soul friend I never knew I had.

Anam is the Gaelic word for soul. Cara is the Gaelic word for friend. Bailey was my Anam Cara. In the Celtic Church an Anam Cara was a confessor, a confidante and a spiritual companion. With such a soul friend you can share your inmost self, mind, and heart. Everyone needs a soul friend who knows you and understands you just as you are – and loves you anyway. John O’Donohue says that where we are understood — we are home.

Many of us may have an Anam Cara of whom we are not aware. Blinded by busyness we do not see the soul friend standing right in front of us. And it is only in their absence that we ache for and recognize the blessing of their presence.

And now I know dear Bailey, that you were my Anam Cara. Now I know, sweet, sweet dog you were a soul friend to me.

All dogs go to heaven.

Soli Deo Gratias

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