Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


A Foretaste of Heaven

A Homily for Maundy Thursday

April 9, 2020

Mr. Kevin Newell, VTS Seminarian

Emmanuel on High, Alexandria, VA

Listen here.

As we gather in our homes to reexperience the last supper, and to honor the mandate Jesus gave us to love one another as he has loved us, my mind returns to another last supper, and another friend on the edge of death. 

When she learned she was dying, my friend Mary Kay rearranged her life dramatically. She was retired, and volunteered at our student parish, and so had often had me and other students from church over to her house for a weekly dinner. We would eat and drink, chat and sing and laugh, and when the doctors told her she would die within the year, she sat down with a few of us and said, “Things are going to have to change, now that I’m sick. We can no longer have dinner at my house once a week. We will have to have dinner at my house much more often than that.” Our weekly dinner became nightly dinners, and she baked bread and pies and grilled pork chops and made stews and taught us all her favorite recipes. 

We all agreed that Mary Kay was a saintly woman, but she said her lack of tact (or “prudence” as she put it) would keep her from going straight to heaven. With every snarky comment she would catch herself and say, “I guess that puts me at the back of the line in Purgatory.” She said it so often that to this day, when my friends and I catch each other thinking aloud some unkind thought we shout with delight, “Back of the line!”

The guest list got smaller as her energy flagged. She stopped dressing and wore her pajamas and a house coat to the table, wheeling along her oxygen tank. We were bringing dinner to her, now; gone were the days she had the energy to cook. 

It was during her last Holy Week that Mary Kay asked the whole crew over for one last hurrah. By that point she wasn’t leaving her bed, and so she threw a levée, as the French aristocracy had once done. We all sat there, crowded onto her death bed, drinking martinis and telling old stories and laughing with her, and listening to her laugh. She had a tiny glass of wine—against doctor’s orders—and told us it was an act that would send her to the “back of the line,” and she promised she would wait there for all of us, saving us a place. 

Mary Kay acted out of the norm from the moment she realized she was dying. She didn’t shut everyone out so that she could die in peace. She acted not with worldly scarcity but with heavenly abundance, inviting everyone to her table so that she could die in peace. She was able to look past her fear so that she might embrace us all again and again and again. What might we have lost without her stubborn choice of life, despite the reality of death? Because of her, we all grew. We learned how much better we could live, and how much better we could die. 

I don’t really believe that Mary Kay is saving a spot for me in the long line of Purgatory. I believe she is saving for me—for all of us—a seat at the heavenly banquet, of which the meals in her home—the meals in our own homes tonight—are but a taste. 

Amen.


Linger Among the Alleluias

Dear Lord,

Let me linger among the alleluias,

at least for a little while.

It is Easter Tuesday and I am much hungover from Holy Week.

I am a very sleepy preacher.

Bells are still ringing.

Choirs are still singing.

And I am still sneezing.

Allergic to pink flowers you know.

Bundles (and bundles) of bulletin pages fall to the floor,

swept up and recycled.

A cacophony of alleluias collect in my soul.

I covet them there.

“Alleluia” by Thomas Cooper Gotch (1854-1931)

But tears still fall for prodigal children lonely and lost.

And tears still fall for love that may not live to see the light of day.

Little liquid pools of lonely, I do confess well up,

as I celebrate the resurrection day.

Lord, let me wander among the alleluias,

searching for the living among the dead,

where your body still lies torn.

Interceding for lives lost,

in the mosques of New Zealand,

in a synagogue of the City of Brotherly Love,

in the Easter Sunday churches of Sri Lanka.

Weeping for the fallen in foreign wars.

Aching for the fallen in our own backyards.

Breathe life into all those hateful empty places.

Breathe life into the darkest space that haunts the human heart.

Stumble Jesus — please — from your empty tomb.

Lord, let me find you among the alleluias,

living with the people on the streets,

lurking behind the most unlikely faces,

tripping up the hypocrites who take your name in vain,

my myopic self included.

Holy One, please,

catch me in my petty sinfulness,

my self centered ungraciousness.

Remind me still that I am a child of God,

grateful to be a laborer in your vineyard,

grateful to be a celebrant of these holy days.

Lord, let me live among the alleluias,

where the “green blade riseth,”

where the “strife is o’er,”

where the stone is ever rolled away.

Each and every day I pray, feed me this Risen Bread,

that I may become that which I eat.

Healing holy visceral tissue to mend this broken world.

Lord, let us linger among the alleluias,

a resurrected people,

at least for a little while.



An Unorthodox Easter: The Gospel According to Gary

My son Zach from a very early age was a Far Side fan. You remember Far Side, of course — those twisted little windows into reality that appeared in the funny pages each Sunday. Gary Larson was the Svengali of subversive. Insect like people living in the suburbs, cows channel surfing on the couch, dogs dishing out wisdom, and the occasional person observing life’s absurdities. It was actually a little scary that Zach at age six without any parental explanation got it. And got it he did. Zach collected every compilation of Far Side Cartoons published. And he collected some of the unpublished ones as well – the ones that never made it into the newspapers.

For Zach, these were kind of like the “lost gospels of Gary Larson.” Sifting through them, I came across my most-favorite-by-far Far Side Cartoon of all time.

Etched in black in a white rectangle 3 ½ inches square, the scene is set. Jesus sits slumped over on a barstool. He cradles a cup of coffee in his hands, steam rising like incense. He has more than a five o’clock shadow. His clothes are rumpled and dirty. His hair is wild and uncombed. Behind him is an empty coffin, a stand-in for the empty tomb. The caption reads:  I wonder what time it is…I feel like I’ve been dead for three days.

From the Lost Gospel of Gary Larson

Irreverent right? Sacriligeous right? Heretical right? Hysterical right? I go mostly with hysterical because to me it is so hysterically true. What better Jesus to greet us on Easter morning than the Jesus who knows exactly what it is like to stumble and struggle in the darkness. What better news after walking through the hell of Holy Week — than to wake up surprised as anybody — to live and breathe again.

This is my kind of Jesus.

Heretic (of a kind), I am proudly so. Remember, this little blog is titled Unorthodox and Unhinged. And I come from a long line of the unhinged — who know all too well what it is like to stumble and fumble through the dark.

The darkness the world calls depression — definitely the down side of bipolar disorder.

Growing up we knew my mom was not like other moms. Reading my mother was like reading a weather report: cloudy and dark or bright and clear? When she was the latter my mother was the life of the party, a fabulous storyteller, she infamously shopped- ‘til-she-dropped. Back in the 70’s in a single shopping spree, my mom spent $1000 in a Hallmark Store! Birthday party favors, greeting cards, and Halloween decorations galore!

But more often, my mom took to her bed for days on end, and we dared not darken her door. To smooth out her moods my mother medicated herself with drink and abused prescription drugs. Add lithium to that cocktail and she was practically catatonic — seemingly beyond resurrection.

My mom came by this honestly, her mom before her, my Grandmother Cady, had taken to her bed for three long years. My grandmother had retreated into the tomb of her darkened room. And during these years, my mother had to drop out of school and become the mother who cooked and cleaned and grocery shopped for her father and older brother.

I understand much better now what triggered my mother’s illness.

And like my mother before me, I too fell down the bipolar rabbit hole — quite late at the age of 48. I will not bore you with the details but sixteen years ago, while I was rector-chief cook-and bottle-washer-24/7 at Holy Cross and going through a divorce, I crashed and burned. My days had become so dark I could barely get out of bed. And when out and about, I could barely wait to get back into that bed again at the end of the day.

After preaching every service, making every pastoral call, facilitating every forum, being at every Bible study, leading every vestry meeting, sitting in on every committee, negotiating every dispute, and even singing in my own choir – I was depleted, body, mind and soul. The parish found me wanting but I had nothing left to give. Absolutely nothing left. So I went home to numb the pain and prayed: Please God, do not make me go back there. Please God, I just want to go to sleep and not wake up.

Now these dark days seem like ancient history to me now, but never say never again. There is better living through loving relationships and chemistry and therapy and sound sleep and satisfying work and writing and storytelling and drunk-acrobat-cats and laughter and long walks and books, lots of books. This is how I crawled out from under and back to life — a little bit like Jesus in the Gospel according to Gary Larson.

This is my salvation and continues to be.

Jesus is the only savior who makes sense to me. Forsaken and lonely, lost and afraid, scruffy and dirty, tired and worn, this savior who loved so well and lost so much. This savior, who I believe, was just as fricking surprised on Easter morning — as you and me — that he was alive again.

Resurrected, I believe, to call us all out from the dank and darkness of our everyday tombs.

So my friends, a very happy Easter! Let us rejoice, with but one voice, for the God who’s been three days dead.

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!