Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


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The Littlest of Prophets

It will come as no surprise to many of you that I have been a bleeding-heart liberal from my earliest days. A teenage rebellion, I am sure against my tastefully conservative Republican mom and dad. A straight A student, I rebelled in hippy dippy ways.  I skipped school to protest the Vietnam war.  I served — in name only — on the staff of an underground newspaper that never actually published a  single issue. (Sister Mary Clare really clobbered me for that one!)  Never a jock, I won awards with my words, my adolescent purple prose.  I earned my high school letter at debates and speech contests. In one stellar outing, I gave a speech supporting birth control in the voice of a not yet fertilized egg. And from my secure, segregated suburban life, I railed against racism. I remember but one line from my blue-ribbon speech that took me to the city finals:  “The blood of the black man is on our lily-white hands.”

  I loved the talk but I myself did not always walk the walk.

Thirty years later, this preacher woman was sitting at her desk on a Friday afternoon when. an elderly African American gentleman paid me a call.  His concern and complaint. took me totally by surprise.

He wanted to know if our choir had participated in the Martin Luther King Day Choir Festival. Proudly I told him yes. that indeed both of our choirs had sung that day in honor of the slain civil rights leader. Well. this gentleman was a contemporary of Dr. King and said for certain that he knew there were finer preachers whose names he rattled off. And worse than that did I know, he said, that Martin Luther King had been Tom-catting around Atlanta. He and his wife claimed to know of the Rev. King’s illicit comings and goings.  And then he blamed bleeding heart liberals like me for canonizing this flawed leader.

Martin, he said, talked the talk. but he certainly did not always walk the walk.

Indeed, all of these years later many have measured the weight of Dr. King’s life differently. He has been accused of many failings including communism and plagiarism. Younger African-Americans have criticized his passivity.  And biographers have lingered over his personal life.

Sister Joan Chittister tells it well:

“The truth of the matter is that Martin Luther King Jr.  was Martin Luther King Jr. till the day he died. Organizer, preacher, prophet, father, husband, cheater, lover and leader.  He struggled with anger and depression and sexual excess all his life.  And like the rest of us in our own struggles, he never totally conquered any of them.”

Prophets you see are not always perfect. Seldom are they saints and even once sainted remain sinners.

But prophets speak truth. God’s truth.

Martin Luther King Jr as a boy“King was an unlikely leader, black in a white country, a preacher who led a political struggle, the son and grandson of ministers who held a privileged place in the black community.  Proud of his family and home, he learned young that he lived in ‘nigger-town’.  He lost his two best friends in the first grade because their mother would not let them play with a ‘colored’ boy.  When he was twelve, a society matron in a down town department store called him a nigger and slapped him across the face. The sting of it stayed with him for the rest of his life.  He was with his father when a shoe salesman refused to wait on them unless they moved to the back room of the store. It was the first time he had seen his daddy so angry and he remembered his response.  ‘I don’t care how long I have to live with this system. I am never going to accept it.  I’ll oppose it till the day I die.’”

 Again, and again the message was hard to ignore.  And Martin began to get the message. Speak Lord for your servant is listening.

“And so, like his Daddy, he grew up to be pastor of a major black congregation in Montgomery, Alabama. It was 1955 and Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat on the bus. And for the first time, King stepped out his privileged pulpit and truly became a prophet.  The first night of the bus boycott he addressed thousands who had gathered for a mass meeting. And he addressed them with the truth, with Gospel truth.”

“’Our method will be that of persuasion, not coercion. Love must be our regulating ideal.  Once again, we must hear the words of Jesus echoing across the centuries: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, and pray for them that despitefully use you.’ If we fail to do this, our protest will end up as meaningless drama on the stage of history, and its memory will be shrouded with the ugly garments of shame.  In spite of the mistreatment we have confronted, we must not become bitter, and end up hating our white brothers and sisters. Let no one pull you so low as to make you hate them.’”

 “’If you will protest courageously with dignity and Christian love, when the history books are written the historians will have to pause and say. There lived a great people, a black people, who injected meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization’.” (A Passion for Life, Joan Chittister)

He talked the talk and he himself led the walk. And yes, he stumbled and he fell along the way.  But the prophet Martin prophesied so that his black brothers and sisters. so that our brothers and sisters,  might taste justice, might taste the freedom of this Promised and Privileged Land.

Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening.

Now most of us, if we got the call to be such a prophet would hang up. Biblically speaking, prophets are not particularly attractive folk. They tend to push the envelope of society’s conventions and expectations. Frederick Buechner says that, Elisha would have been called cruel, for turning bears loose on boys who taunted him.  Jeremiah would be called crazy for literally eating the scroll on which sweetly written was the word of God. Amos would be called a carpetbagger. for berating his southern neighbors to justice with a northern accent.

Prophecy is not very desirable work, Buechner says. Telling the emperor, he has no clothes is a thankless job. After his fairy tale like call to become a prophet, Samuel delivers some pretty bad news to his father in God. Eli, God is going to bring down your house. These were not sweet nothings, but some very nasty news that God was whispering in Samuel’s ears.

And the prophecy business is dangerous work. With God hiding in the shadows, Buechner continues, people are likely to shoot the messenger.  Jeremiah was thrown into a cistern.  Isaiah was rumored to be sawed in half. And Martin was stabbed, attacked, and his home bombed many times. And then cut down by an assassin’s bullet in April of 1968. Just thirty-nine years old.  Prophets pay a price that most of us do not have the guts to pay for ourselves.

But….

But God whispers in our ears just the same. Niggling, annoying words, taunting us to rise up out of our lazy beds. To witness and to speak up for our brothers and sisters marginalized now, even as we speak.  We live in challenging times – in a time where neo-Nazism and white supremacism are on the rise. We live in a time when hate crimes against our Muslim brothers and sisters shamefully increase. We live in a time, where we barely know how to speak to people across the political divide. We live in a time when the privileged cross the street to avoid the poor by the side of the road.

My Christian brothers and sisters, in God’s eyes, this will not stand. Let’s dredge up the strength to reach down, way down, deep down and find the courage and the compassion to be a prophet – even if it be the littlest of prophets. Like Samuel, here now in 2018.

And so aptly let us pray the Collect of this Day:

Almighty God, by the voice of your prophets, you have led your people out of slavery and into freedom; Grant that your Church, following the example of the prophet Martin, may resist oppression in the name of your love; and may secure for all your children the blessed liberty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

JoaniSign


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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.

all_hallows__eve_by_lhox-d5hoe82

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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The Household Hints of Martha and Mary (as translated by Joan Louise)

Good Housekeeping: Covering the Domestic Arts

Good Housekeeping: Covering the Domestic Arts

I have always been a Mary and not much of a Martha. This is not so much a matter of theology as it is a matter of biology. As a babe barely out of my mother’s womb, I preferred the library to the laundry room. As a toddler my favorite toys were blocks and rocks – in that order – not pots and pans. As a grade schooler, the household chore I excelled at most was getting out of household chores. In high school, rather than dust the bookshelves I would just sit down and read the books. My mom’s favorite magazines  were Family Circle and The Lady’s Home Journal. I preferred  my dad’s Scientific American and Journal of the American Medical Association. (Not that I could understand either, but I liked the pictures!) The domestic arts are just not part of my DNA. And now all grown up  — my house and my home —  will never quite qualify for that “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval”.

Good Housekeeping of course has been the magazine of choice for homemakers since it was first published in 1885. Recently while plowing through boxes of books, I discovered two vintage issues: October 1953 and March 1957. Each is nearly 300 pages and a bargain at 35 cents. The contents are packed tight with domestic delights. Featured articles include: “Hostess with the Mostest”; “Mother is a Lady”; “Man Talk”; and the “How Did We Ever Get Along without Cellophane Tape?” Each issue has thirteen categories covering every conceivable domestic discipline: Fashion; Needlework and Sewing; Medicine and Health; Bureau and Chemical Laboratory (Don’t ask! I don’t know!); Textile Laboratory; Decorating and Building; Beauty; Teenagers; Children’s Corner; Food; Appliance and Home Care; and Automobiles. Apparently the 1950’s iconic mom could change a tire just as expertly as she could change  a diaper.

One issue has a ten page “Hotdog Cookbook”. The other has the “Wisconsin Reducing Diet” based on cheese.

But best of all are the ads – the advertisements for every household, cooking, cleaning and beauty item under the sun.

I wash 1400 pounds of laundry a year…but I’m proud of my pretty hands.” Jergen’s Lotion only 10 cents plus tax. (Transfigured just like new!)

“Only the Sunbeam toasts with Radiant Control…that gives the same UNIFORM TOAST….Bread lowers itself automatically…Toast raises itself silently.” (Resurrection Bread!)

“Palmolive Soap is 100% Mild to Guard that Schoolgirl Complexion Look!” (Baptized like a newborn babe!)

“Crisco ends pie crust failure… Use Crisco, it’s digestible!” (Baptism by ordeal!)

It is comforting to imagine June Cleaver — of Leave it to Beaver — in her shirt-waist dress, pearls and pumps — her house neat and tidy as a pin and nary a hair out of place. June Cleaver, the iconic reincarnation of St Martha of Bethany. Manic Martha, my mom’s patron saint.

Growing up at 5408 24th Avenue, we measured my mother’s madness in baskets of laundry, unmade beds and sinks full of dirty dishes. On the high side, our house was a House Beautiful. On the low side our home was definitely in need of repair. Raising a family of six kids in the suburbs with a workaholic doctor for a husband would make just about anybody crazy. But my mom — was biologically crazy — bipolar crazy. As my mom’s moods would swing and sway, she would vacuum less or she would vacuum more. As my mom’s moods would swing and sway, she would polish less or she would polish more. As my mom’s moods would swing and sway, she would cook less or she would cook more.

And this is how we kept score. Each moody morning we’d  monitor my mom like an incoming storm. Is she cloudy and dark or clear and bright? Was she up past midnight or did she sleep ‘til noon? Does she still have on her pajamas or is she dressed and pressed and ready to go? Is she making breakfast or do we have to make our own? Is she laughing and talking or is she irritable and sad?

It scared me as a child — not knowing what each day would bring. But it scared me even more that I might grow up to be her- manic-depressive Martha extraordinaire.

So I became a Mary — a  quite contrary one. My mom loved to cook. Not me. My mom loved to shop. Not me. My mom loved fashion. Not me. My mom loved to decorate. Not me. My mom loved to clean. Not me. My mom loved to collect stuff.  Not me. My mom loved to plant stuff. Not me. My mom was definitely a Martha. I was decidedly  a Mary.  Or at least so I thought. Until the day…

I was magically transformed into Martha Stewart on Speed. The magic potion was a decidedly delicious anti-depressant cocktail.  It’s counter-intuitive but chemically speaking these little pills can push the “max button” on the bipolar blender. Maximum speed. Maximum energy. Maximum ways to mix and match a million little things. So I stayed up nights hanging pictures on my walls, turning sheets into window treatments, and spice racks into towel racks. I created collages and decorated bulletin boards. I framed post cards; I potted plants; I arranged and rearranged knickknacks and whatnots. (I even dusted them!) I alphabetized my bookshelves and cleaned out my closets. I fluffed pillows already fluffed. I vacuumed floors already vacuumed. I even manically made my bed over and over. But I did not sleep in it, at least not very much. But oversleep in it I did  — once this my  house of cards came crashing down.

Good Housekeeping”  is actually a great guidebook to the bipolar brain.  A great barometer indeed. In therapeutic language it’s called monitoring your “ADLs” – Activities of Daily Life. Laundry. Housework. Yard work. Grocery shopping. Walking the dog. Cooking. Cleaning. Running Errands. Taking out the trash. Making meals. Doing dishes. Scrubbing bathrooms. Mopping floors. Checking the mail. Paying bills. How well we attend to our daily chores attests to the state of our health and wholeness. Keeping house is literally about keeping healthy. When a loved one does way too little housekeeping or way too much, it’s time to be concerned. It’s time for a loving conversation to see what’s really going on. It may be time to talk with a counselor. Time to make an appointment with a psychiatrist. No, you are not crazy. It’s just the right thing to do.

Just the right amount of Mary and just the right amount of Martha — biblically speaking — keeps our houses in order. Just the right amount of Mary and just the right amount of Martha  brings peace and balance to addled brains –  bipolar and not.

If you don’t believe me, remember it is Jesus who says so. And Jesus said so  right there in Martha’s living room…while Martha fussed in the kitchen and  Mary listened at his feet. “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled by many things; one thing is needful; Mary has chosen the better part; and it will not be taken away….” Luke 10:38-41

Good Housekeeping, a blessing in disguise!

JoaniSign


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“Touched with Fire” or Burned at the Stake

Joan of Arc at Prayer Sir John Everett Millais

Joan of Arc at Prayer,Sir John Everett Millais

I believe in reincarnation. At least professionally I do. Career wise I have been reborn three times. My first incarnation was in the education field as a Montessori schoolteacher. My second incarnation was in the business world as a Systems Development Manager. And my third is an ecclesiastical calling as a parish priest. Three times seems to be a charm or maybe just good karma. I am now into my 21st year as a parish priest.

For those of you who may not know, the priestly vocation is one of the last generalist professions around. We are according to the Book of Common Prayer supposed to “share in the renewal of the world as pastor, priest and teacher.” Pretty heady stuff on a cosmic level. But down here on earth, we get to work with people of all ages and at every stage of the faith. We get to celebrate life’s greatest joys and to be present at life’s greatest sorrows. And we change hats. We change hats a lot. Pastor, priest and teacher are just three of them. There is also administrator, supervisor, coach, cheerleader, truth teller, tear dryer, master of ceremonies, volunteer coordinator, choreographer, confessor, bartender, party planner, mediator, crisis counselor, shepherd, building manager, parking lot attendant, babysitter, coffee maker, janitor, plumber, secretary, editor, publisher, facilitator, fundraiser, community organizer, preacher, chaplain, wedding coordinator, funeral director and bandleader. Give me a little more time and I can think of some more.

Bandleader is really the best metaphor for what a parish priest does. The priest doesn’t make the music, the parishioners do. But the priest makes damn sure the music gets made. And to be a good bandleader — with God’s help — you sometimes have to do a little bit  or a lot of all of the above.

On a day to day basis, this calling can be hellacious. But I can also honestly tell you it is never boring. Sundays come round and round but no two days are ever alike. And I get bored very easily.

So twenty-three years ago, as a Systems Development Manager, I called my staff into a meeting to announce my departure. But before I tell you about the meeting, let me tell you a little bit about my second profession. I worked for Freddie Mac in the IT department, back when IT meant mainframes and COBOL and Fortran and JCL (and no, I will not explain these terms, you can Google them). My team of a dozen programmers supported the financial systems of this Secondary Mortgage Giant. General Ledger. Budget. Payroll. And I was their bandleader — Joani who didn’t even balance her own checkbook.

So I called a meeting of my dozen disciples.  All of them nerdy, techie wizards. I told them how  gratified I was to have been their manager. I applauded all their hard work and thanked them for all they had taught me. But it was time for me to go. I would be leaving at the end of summer to start seminary in the fall. Most of my staff, knowing of my churchy involvement, congratulated me and wished me well. But Julie, the newest member of my staff was silent. Perplexed she paused for a moment. And then she asked me this question.

“Joani, do you hear voices?” A bit taken aback, I too paused and then I answered her. “No, Julie, I don’t hear voices. Do you?”

Now my namesake of course is Joan of Arc. In fact, a WWI poster of Joan of Arc hangs on the wall above my bed. Mounted on a white stallion, banner furling, sword drawn, Joan is beautifully decked out in shining armor. The poster boasts “Joan of Arc saved her country, so can you.” Well, Uncle Sam, eat your heart out. Who better to lead the charge than the Maid of Orleans. The Maid of Orleans who heard voices.

Joan heard voices — the voices of angels, the voices of saints, the voice of God. At least that is what she proclaimed. And these voices led her at the tender age of 17 to leave her tiny village. So Joan followed the voices all the way to the court of the defeated Dauphin. And there in King Charles’ court she proclaimed herself a soldier and the savior of his kingdom. The voices gave her the balls to demand an army and the king was so desperate he agreed. Led by voices, saintly and angelic, Joan did win a glorious battle or two. The glory quickly faded. Captured by the English, Joan was abandoned on the battlefield and crowned a heretic.  And we all know what happens to heretics. Burned at the stake.

Now the truth be told all of us hear voices. We all have voices in our heads prodding, reminding, encouraging, calming, chastising, urging — lots of voices clamoring for our attention. And it’s a spiritual matter, discerning these voices. Which ones should we pay attention to? Which ones are on our side? Which ones are making any sense? Discerning voices is something all of us do just about all of the time.

The only problem is when the voices seem not your own. Joan of Arc heard heavenly voices — St Margaret and St Catherine and the Archangel Michael. She said this is not me talking, I take my orders straight from God. And in the Middle Ages only crazy people heard voices. In the Middle Ages only the possessed heard voices. Crazy, possessed heretics were burned in the Middle Ages. So it was a very long time, centuries in fact, before a reluctant church placed a halo on Joan’s head. In fact,  Joan was added to “Holy Women, Holy Men” just six short years ago. It’s dangerous to tell people you hear voices.

But now twenty-three years on, I need to change my answer to Julie’s question from a “no” to a a qualified “yes”. Yes, I have heard voices not my own. Tuned into the universe, riding wave after wave of manic bliss I have been convinced that God has important things to tell me. There is no booming voice from heaven. It’s more like God and I are on the same page. Lit up inside — as if by fireflies –my fingers fly like lightning on my keyboard. The Creator of the Cosmos inspires my every word.

One summer I wrote twelve sermons in ten days. Brilliant. Profound. Quotable. Publishable. For twelve Saturdays, I pulled them out one at a time before climbing into the pulpit each Sunday. Some of them were damn good indeed. Some of them not so much.

The bipolar brain does not walk in straight lines. The bipolar brain at its manic best zigzags and spirals. This brain is like a blender on max combining the most unusual things in the most unusual ways. “Touched with fire” bipolar folks have quite a history of being marvelously creative. Kay Redfied Jamison’s fabulous book “Touched with Fire”  is a veritable who’s who of poets, sculptors, writers, painters, musicians, composers — all of a manic-depressive temperament. Where would all the art galleries and concert halls be if all this madness had been medicated away?

Emptier maybe but on second thought maybe not. Leave that blender on too long and the bipolar brain breaks. It splinters into a bazillion little pieces. Concentration shatters. You’re no longer sure just whose voices you’re hearing in your head. And whoever they are, they all seem to be clamoring for your attention. So instead of great art pouring out of your brain, out comes the ravings of a lunatic.

So yes, Julie, I have heard voices. Sometimes the voices are my own. Sometimes not. Sometimes maybe the voices of saints and angels. Sometimes maybe — I dare say — even the voice of God. The wisdom of course is learning to discern the difference.

This gift of discernment is by definition pharmaceutical and therapeutic. It is a gift best practiced at the psychiatrist office and on the therapist’s couch. It’s a gift best practiced with friends and family. It’s a gift best practiced each morning when you face yourself in the mirror. It’s a spiritual gift, given by the grace of God.

And for this gift, I am deeply grateful each and every day.

So friends, do you hear voices?

Pax vobiscum,

Joani