Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


40 Days, a Muslim in Lent: 2019

In the aftermath of the tragic shooting and loss of 50 lives (the youngest victim being just three years old) at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, I have revised and brought up to date this post from Lent 2017.

Four Fridays, I observed midday prayers with my Muslim brothers and sisters.

Late January 2017, EEC  reached out to MAS and they reached back. That is, my parish Emmanuel Episcopal Church (post the initial infamous travel ban) reached out in friendship to the Muslim American Society Community Center.

I called their office and left a  message:

“We are with you. May we come to Friday prayers? We want to stand with you and support you as a mutual sign of our faith in God.”

Merehan Elhady (Mimi), the Outreach Director, called me right back. Little did I know, their mosque and school had been threatened with violence, with arson, and heinously, even threatened with the kidnapping of their children. That first Friday we shared prayers, the Fairfax County Chief of Police also came to speak to the Muslim community about safety and security.

At the end of the talk, I turned to our hosts. “We are with you,” was all that I could manage to say.

“You are courageous to come,” they told us.

“Heavens no! All we did was show up.  You are a blessing to us and we will be back.”

Half a dozen of us,  each week, observed prayers at MAS. And our Muslim brothers and sisters became like friends: Thoraia, Mimi, and Aseel. Now on a first name basis, each Friday, we would greet one another with hugs.

I’d cover my hair haphazardly with a scarf. I’d leave my shoes in the cubbies outside the worship space. I’d take a seat on the floor. The first two weeks, I sat behind the women. The next two weeks, we sat side by side.

Like we Episcopalians in the pews, together we’d listen to the preacher share a message of love and compassion. And a bit like Episcopal aerobics, we would also bow, kneel, fold our hands over our hearts in prayer, and three times touch our foreheads to the floor.

The chanted Arabic was haunting and beautiful. Though I did not understand a word, the prayers resonated with my soul and their meaning hewed closely to our own.

Muslims prepare for prayer with the cleansing of hands and feet and face, as they turn their thoughts to God. Just as in the BCP we pray:

“Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid; Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

At the mosque, at midday prayers, the worshippers raise their hands and proclaim the greatness of the Lord: “Allahu Akbar.”

And at church, for five Sundays in Lent, we begin with the summary of the law:

“Jesus said, ‘The first commandment is this: Hear O Israel! The Lord our God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:29-31

And this heart of the Gospel echoes in the heart of the Qur’an:

“Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds, the Beneficent, the Merciful; Master of the Day of Judgment. You alone do we worship and from you alone do we seek aid. Show us the Straight Way, the way upon those you have bestowed your grace not of those who have earned your wrath and gone astray.” Qur’an 1: 2-6

This kind of faith strengthens my faith. These prayers redouble mine. Like Najashi, a Christian king of Ethiopia, proclaimed: the difference between their faith and mine is as thin as a line in the sand.

So?

No, I am not converting to Islam.  Jesus is the Eternal Word and the Human Face of God for me — and always will be.

But for those forty days in Lent of 2017, I endeavored to be a Muslim – of the Christian kind.

Five times a day, I would try to pray my Anglican rosary with my Roman Catholic prayers. Kneeling. Standing. Sitting. Walking. Daybreak. Midday. Afternoon. Sunset. Night.

Through Muslim eyes, I tried to draw closer to Jesus. Isa, he is called in the Qur’an. Named and proclaimed as: Messiah. Messenger.  Prophet. Parable.  Word. Witness. Sign. Spirit. Servant.  All that is missing is ‘Lord’.

A bibliophile, I also read a bunch of books, of course.

Holy books: the Gospels, the Surah.

A history book of  faith: “Islam: a Short Introduction” by Karen Armstrong.

And the story of a Sufi Muslim writer and novelist, Mazhar Mallouhi: “A Pilgrim of Christ on the Muslim Road” by P.G. Chandler.

And in January of 2018, many here at Emmanuel, will remember that our friends from the mosque joined us. They joined us in the pews and Merehan, expecting her fourth little boy, shared MAS’s gratitude for the support shown by their Christian friends. The Parish Hall that morning bustled with folks of all ages at the “Get to Know Your Muslim Neighbor” open house.

As time has passed our visits have lapsed. MAS undertook a major renovation of their worship, school and meeting space. Staff have turned over and by my neglect, we have lost touch. And I am very sorry for that.

And now in the tragic aftermath of the hateful and violent events in New Zealand, it is more than time for us to rejoin in friendship.

It is time again, isn’t it, just to show up. To stand behind and beside our Muslim neighbors to let them know that they are not alone.

To observe Friday prayers 1:15 PM at MAS again.

To serve the refugees in our community together again.

To renew our conversation to learn from one another as people of faith.

Being in the love your neighbor business, I will do my best to make this happen. And I encourage any and all who would like to join me on this path.

Because the difference between us and them is as thin as a line in the sand.


More Manure, More Fruit.

Many years ago, on the Great Vigil of Easter at Immanuel Church on-the-Hill, two of my four children were baptized. Zach was three and a half and Colleen was just eighteen months. It was a grand and chaotic occasion as friends and relatives gathered late that Sunday evening. The Paschal Fire blazed in a Weber Grille on the steps of the church. The people processed in behind the single flame, behind the deacon chanting the Exultet.  Inside the church was pitch black. Zach tripped over a kneeler, bumped his head on the back of a pew and screamed bloody murder. As the lights came up, we dried his tears. Somehow the service continued with readings and prayers and responses and finally the baptism itself. 

”Zach, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever,” said the priest as he smeared oil on Zach’s forehead.

Christ’s own forever.

 With these words ringing in his ears, Zach turned to us, his mom and dad, with terror in his eyes. Christ? Christ? Who’s Christ? I don’t want to go home with Christ. I want to go home with you!

After all, home is where the heart is? Right? Home is where our duty lies. Right?  Don’t we all have obligations? My family expects things of me, always has. Each time I set foot outside my parent’s home, my father would remind me: Remember you are a Peacock! To be a Peacock meant reading good books, using good manners, conserving electricity, graduating from college, dressing in good taste, voting Republican, and keeping family secrets.  I cannot tell you on how many counts I have failed my father’s expectations (God rest his soul!) 

My life, like yours, I’m sure has taken various twists and turns with jobs and family, hopes and dreams. Ultimately our lives are measured by the mercy of God, but in the meantime, it seems we are eternally beholden to our parents, our spouses, our partners, our children. Family first, right??

Caught between the first and the fifth commandments – I am the Lord, your God. There are no other gods but Me and Honor your father and your mother, we might feel betwixt and between. What does faith demand? What does family require?

How many of us went to the wrong school, took the wrong job or married the wrong person — at least as far as our family was concerned? How many of us dared to be an artist instead of an accountant? An organic farmer instead of a hedge fund manager?  Who among us did not grow up to become the doctor, the lawyer or the Indian Chief?  Did not become the one everyone expected us to be? 

When did you realize that maybe you had fallen far from the tree? 

When did you know, when did you become aware that Someone Else had a claim on your life? When did you get the inkling that while uniquely your own your life might not be entirely your own?  

This is the Christian version of an inconvenient truth. It is the uncomfortable truth that Saint Augustine desperately tried to avoid. In his “Confessions”, the first autobiography ever written, Augustine shares his own tug-of-war tale between God and family.

Augustine’s upwardly mobile parents had grand plans for their bright baby boy. He would be instructed in the Christian faith but not actually become a Christian — not just yet. His mother, Monica wanted him to get through the terrible teens first; let those raging hormones subside. Then he would go to university, master rhetoric, become a lawyer. Not yet ready to marry, he would take a concubine with whom he later fathered a son.

Augustine managed to get to Mass most Sundays but only for the first half. He would leave before communion. He kept putting his baptism off, kicking it like a can down the road. First, you see, his family wanted for him every success, every prize.

So, Augustine knelt and fervently and famously prayed – “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.  Lord, make me a Christian, but not yet.”  Let me stay home and be about my family’s business. First, Lord, let me honor my mother and my father (and reap the benefits thereof.)

Follow in the family footsteps or shake loose from the family tree? Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind OR Honor your father and your mother? Far from simple, right?

What seems like an either/or question is also a both/and proposition. What matters most is that the tree bears fruit.  And quite ironically the more the manure the more the fruit.

“Parable of the Fruitless Fig Tree” Alexey Pismenny

A man had a fig tree planted in its vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So, he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree and still I have found none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.

Jesus had no family home where he could lay his head. Even foxes have holes and birds have nests, but Jesus was essentially homeless. He did not go into the family carpentry business. His only security was in God and his only job was as a son in God’s risky business. Jesus headed God’s way, his own way to Calvary. An unorthodox life destined to bear much fruit.

The Way is the most ancient name for the Christian faith.  To follow Jesus on this Way, to become his disciple, we can’t just stay safe and secure at home. We need to get out and about. We need to be more than couch potato Christians. St. Augustine – with God’s help – left behind father and mother – wealth and status — and quite belatedly went down into the Baptismal waters. And he came up a Christian – far from perfect, conflicted and complex and complicated – sealed as Christ’s forever.

And what was true for Augustine is true for us.

Christ embraces this life — imperfect and unfinished, messy in every respect and piled up to the neck in manure.  Whether we are fully grown or newly born, it does not matter. We’re called to get up out of our pews, out of our comfort zones — to walk into those uncomfortable places. To walk into the places where we can see, seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves. Where we are called to strive for justice and peace among all people. Where we are required to respect of every human being. 

Every human being.

So where is that for you personally? Where might that be for us as a parish? Pastorally, prophetically?  Might it be in the things we are already doing? Or maybe in things we have yet to dream of.

Mis-steps are guaranteed along this Way, but let’s dream on anyway. Because with God’s help and with us holding each other up, we can walk this rocky and uneven path and walk like Jesus the way to Jerusalem.


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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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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.

the-raising-of-lazarus-after-rembrandt-1890

“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