Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


Pregnant with Possibility

Once upon an Advent, I became an Anglican. Year’s end of 1984, to be exact.

Raised Roman Catholic and having spent my early adulthood agnostic, my ex-husband William and I followed breadcrumbs back to church. Not back so much really as forward. Instead of returning to the pews of our youth, we accepted an invitation to attend Immanuel on-the-Hill. (Yes, the other Emmanuel, directly across the street from Virginia Seminary.) Zach, my firstborn son was just three and Colleen was not quite six months

These little children led us to knock on the door of a church – a door we had not darkened for ages. The liturgy was strangely familiar – like a favorite old song but to a different tune. And — singing this new song was a vested woman at the altar! And we got to drink the wine, as well as, eat the bread. What a revelation this was!

Literally, leaving church on my very first Episcopal Sunday, the rector had a proposition for me. Would you like to join the worship planning committee?  Not just volunteer to read or be an usher, but to be a lay partner along with the priest planning the services of the coming season?  

Having grown up in a tradition, where women were only allowed behind the altar if they had a vacuum cleaner, I was gob smacked! Floored! 

Of course, I would love to! Yes!

And I do confess, this committee work helped fulfill a lifelong fantasy of mine – to be cast as Mary in the Christmas concert. The fantasy of every little Roman Catholic girl (and every little Protestant girl, too, I imagine!)

And alas, it came to pass for me this Advent of 1984. Recently pregnant and obviously not a virgin, at long last I had snagged the part of the BVM. Not quite as embarrassing as liturgical dance, in lieu of a sermon, I starred in a three-part liturgical drama: Mary! Pregnant with God!

Three parts. Three trimesters.

Advent 1. Surprised. Uncertain. Shaky. Nauseous. Scared.

Advent 2.  Blooming. Stretching. Aching. Hoping.

Advent 3. Heavy. Swollen. Sleepless. Bursting.

I burst into the Magnificat. 

It was Advent in the Eighties, and I wore Blessed Mother blue.

This is the blue season. The hangings are blue. The candles on the Advent wreath, except one, are blue. 

And maybe your mood is blue or the mood of those you love and care about is blue, too. And no matter where you get your news, you know too that this little blue marble on which we spin daily spins out of control: politically, environmentally, personally. Trying to have a holly jolly Christmas in this climate is a downright struggle.  In the darkness of these blue winter days, our world aches for light.

And on Advent 4, on the eve of the Christian solstice, we have walked almost all the way to Bethlehem. Walked beside a pregnant, unwed peasant girl – who artists for some reason have almost always draped in blue.

“…she was found to be with child… Her husband Joseph…planned to dismiss her quietly… But an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit… She will bear a son and you are to call him Jesus…after the prophet Isaiah who said, ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and they shall name him Emmanuel – which means ‘God with us.’”

Now this 1st century story is a hard sell in the 21st. And I confess to you, likewise it has always been a conundrum to this Christian.  Such an illustrious and exceptional birth was a common motif for the likes of emperors-turned-gods in the ancient world. 

There are twenty-four books in the New Testament and only two, Matthew and Luke, pay any attention to Jesus’ origins. Even John who preaches the Word made flesh, the same Word spoken at the dawn of creation, is totally uninterested in the how this came to be. 

But we Anglicans welcome wrestling with angels, unafraid to ask big questions of our faith.

Twenty-eight years ago, I crossed the street from my home parish Immanuel on-the-Hill to pursue a quest that has landed me in the pulpit this Sunday  at Emmanuel on High, and many Sundays before. And the very first sermon I ever preached in homiletics class was on Advent 4, Matthew 1:18-25, the virgin birth.

And it went something like this.

Hail Mary, never virgin, the Lord is with thee.

Shocked? Got your attention, right?

And what I mean by Hail Mary, never virginin the poetic sense, is that when it comes to God, Mary is anything but a virgin. Vulnerable, perplexed, she is remarkably open to the proposition of impossibly becoming pregnant with God. Conceiving within herself all that is divine, all that is holy. Pondering what all this could possibly mean in her heart (as the Lukan version tells us.)

Don’t get hung up on the biology, my fellow seekers. Focus on the theology. The meaning behind the mystery. Focus on the good news that the Word of God was made flesh and dwelt among us. Just as true in 1991, as it was in Year One.

How do we conceive of this Word of Love within us? How do we hear it, speak it, shout it from the rooftops, live it?

Like Joseph, what dream of God do we dream?

Like Mary, what does our pregnant soul proclaim?

After a pregnant pause, I returned to my seat. I was pretty sure I had flunked my first sermon, but I got an A – or maybe a B+ — I can’t quite remember. And the seminary did not kick me out.

And for twenty-five years, “Emmanuel, God with us” is the gospel I still imperfectly preach. And I am so grateful these past five years to have been able to preach it here at Emmanuel on High. Again, on Advent 4, on Matthew 1:18-25, on the virgin birth. 

I will not ask for another twenty-five, or boldly I just might. Look what God wrought with Sarah in her nineties and Elizabeth, as she was getting up in years. Ha! Every day is a gift. Every day no matter how bad or how awful or how wonderful is a holy day. Emmanuel, God with us, sticks by us in the ups and downs of our everyday – and in every way – ordinary lives.

So, Advent 4, let us all don Blessed Mother Blue, and sing along this version of Mary’s song, a song I know you have heard before.

Our souls magnify the Lord, and our spirits rejoice in God our redeemer, for God has looked with love on the lowliness of this earth. Generously, lavishly, the Lord blesses peoples of every generation. And in each and every human heart, God plants the seeds of all this is good. So that what was conceived in Mary, the Spirit of God this Christmas may also conceive in us: faith, hope and love. 

And the greatest of these is love, right?

Happy almost Merry Christmas!


The Unreachable, Incorrigible, but Ultimately Teachable People of God

With the threat of Babylon breathing down his people’s back, the prophet Jeremiah comes out swinging:

For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children; they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil and they do no good.

Yes, he really says stupid children. Hitting them over the head with a two-by-four to get their attention.

And the poet, who penned the 14thPsalm, is no less upset:

The fool said in his heart, “There is no God.” All are corrupt and commit abominable acts; there is none that does any good. Everyone has proven faithless, all alike turned bad, there is none that is good, not one.

Yes, there is none that does any good; the writer writes twice for good measure.

So much for the words of the prophet. So much for the wisdom of the psalms.

It seems we are all incorrigible, unreachable and unteachable fools.

Welcome back to Sunday School!

Once upon a time, there came the earthly Jesus to reach and teach the lost: that rowdy crowd of tax collectors and sinners who listened at his feet. And as he often does, Jesus tells a parable to help them understand. The double parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin. While, all the while, the powers-that-be grumble and grouse behind his back. 

And after he was dead and gone and risen from the tomb, the job of reaching these lost sheep – fell to his followers.  In the synagogues, in peoples’ homes, in the marketplaces, the disciples told the stories of Jesus. And Jesus’ words spread by word of mouth from parent to child, from village to village, and town to town.

But before the stories were forgotten, Jesus’ disciples decided we better write this stuff down! So, a generation after Jesus, the writers we call Matthew, Mark, Luke and John penned their four versions of the Gospel (a brand-new word that meant Good News).

But even before the Gospels, there was the apostle Paul.  A lost sheep of God, he writes to Timothy.

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

His letters reach and teach the earliest Christians of the ancient world.

And kind of like seminary, it took three years in the Catechumenate to become a full-fledged Christian – before you could be baptized on Easter Eve.

And if you could not read – the mosaics on the walls, holy icons on wood, the stained glass in the church windows — would be your teachers. Art and faith have long been intertwined in the catholic (lower case “c”) tradition.

Centuries on, we fast forward to the Protestant Reformations (plural) in the West.  With the invention of the printing press, scripture was translated into native tongues. Catechisms came to be. And hymns were published, set to pub tunes and drinking songs. Brand new ways to reach God’s lost sheep.

So, please be seated!  (A phrase not heard in church before!)

Another revolutionary breakthrough was the invention of pews. Yes, pews! Now, you could sit to hear the Word of God preached in your own language. Now you could stay after the service to learn a thing or two — the 16th  Century version of a Sunday morning forum.

The root word of Protestant is protest. It was an affirmation that faith had become a personal quest. Catechisms of all kinds were compiled to answer Christians’ questions.

When I was in high school, I did protest too much! Encouraged by my Jesuit educated father to question absolutely everything, I was discouraged from asking questions in religion class at Immaculata Prep. Sister Mary Clare told me in no uncertain words to stop. And I quote:

“Joani, you have to stop asking questions. You are confusing the other girls. And this is why: You are intellectually gifted but spiritually retarded.”

Yes, a direct quote!

My questions led me away from my childhood faith. While quite ironically, these same questions gained me early admission to Catholic U. There I became a philosophy major where I could ask all the questions I wanted — the answers be damned. 

And I did not darken the door of a church again for a very long time.

Until, as the story goes, I was led by a little child, or really two. Good friends of ours invited our little family; my ex, our toddler and baby to attend Advent services at Immanuel-on-the-Hill.

(Yes, the other Immanuel is my home parish!)

A few weeks in, the rector asked me, “Would you like to teach Sunday School?” 

“No”, I said, “that would be crazy! I am just figuring this new church thing out for myself.”

“No experience necessary!” the rector says, “You can do it!”

“Alright.” I reluctantly reply.

So, I enrolled my three-year-old and myself in the preschool class.  It was pretty loosie-goosey. There was no set curriculum. So, I used the only children’s bible that I knew: the stories of Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel. The tales of two good and faithful friends. Little parables of comfort, encouragement, joy and forgiveness. With lots of pictures and simple text.

But as my children grew, so did my Sunday School repertoire. I began to read the Bible (the actual Bible) seriously for the first time in my life. No pictures, complicated texts and compelling stories of all kinds.

I was filled with wonder, yes. Wonder that took the form of questions. Lots of questions.

Blessedly I was at Immanuel on-the-Hill, an Episcopal community, that welcomed my questions. It was a fertile place for inquisitive souls. They actually had a thing called School for the Spirit.  In small groups we wrestled angels together, seeking after God.

And I got to this faithful place simply by signing up for Sunday School!

How has God sought you out? What person, place or thing led you here? Just how did you get to church, really?

Maybe following in the footsteps of your parents. Maybe a friend. A pastor from your past. The author of a book you could not put down.  A moving speaker. An encouraging teacher.   A camp counselor.  A youth group leader. Maybe even a Sunday school teacher.

Sunday, September 15th, Emmanuel will celebrate all of the above. Thanks to the awesome ministry of Toni Buranen, we will commission six-teams-of-four Sunday School teachers and a quartet of God & Donuts’ leaders. Prayers will rise, like incense to the skies, for this new year of learning. For all the inquisitive minds and inquiring hearts and for all their questions, we’ll ask God’s blessings upon them all.

And after church, there is an Open House. Take a tour of the classrooms. Meet the teachers. Register your young ones. And maybe even volunteer yourself to go on the quest.  No experience necessary!

(And remember, if I could do this once upon a time, surely so can you!)

Grownup questions, of course, are also welcome! Adult Spiritual Formation has forums and films  and plenty more exciting things planned for the coming year.

Stay tuned!

(And if you’re new to Emmanuel, we’d love to have you visit! Services are at 8:00 & 10:30 AM. We’re located in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, VA at 1608 Russell Road.)