Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


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Creator of the Stars of Night

Once upon a time, a generation or two ago, before we landed on the moon, Cape Kennedy was Cape Canaveral – home to NASA – the National Air and Space Administration  (if you need me to spell it out:-)).

When I was a kid, periodically we got to swap out our spelling books for something far more exciting. Sister Inez Patricia would wheel a little black and white TV into the classroom — 1960’s technology at its finest. Sister would fiddle with the horizontal and vertical controls – and the rabbit ears (remember those!) to get the picture just right.

Our little third grade eyes would be glued to screen as we listened to the countdown on the launch pad. 10, 9, 8, 7,6,5,4,3,2,1,0. BLASTOFF!

Off blasted John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth. Off blasted Apollo mission after Apollo mission until that incredible day when Neil Armstrong set his boots down on the surface of the moon.

One small step for man. One giant step for mankind.

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 And on those same little TV screens in 1966, Star Trek premiered. Captain Kirk, First Officer Spock and crew set out on their five-year mission to “go boldly (and in technicolor) where no man had gone before.” The Star Trek crew blew our collective imaginations as they traveled through interstellar space. Galactically romping around the Milky Way of the millions and billions of stars.

The stars declare his glory, the vault of heaven springs

Mute witness of the Master’s hand in all created things.

And through the silence of space, their soundless music rings.

(para. Psalm 19, T. Dudley Smith)

When was the last time you gazed up at the stars?

Sadly, stargazing is nearly impossible under the artificial light pollution of our urban skies. But maybe you have gotten a chance to steal a glance on a starry-starry night. Maybe out in the country or up in the mountains. Maybe at Shrine Mont.

On this Feast of the Trinity, I invite you to turn your eyes to the skies  – heavenward. And behold the handiwork of the Holy One, the Creator of the stars of night. That we may discover – or possibly even recover – the experience of what it feels like “to be born from above.”

Alan Lightman, an astrophysicist, in his book Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine tells the story of how he took out his little skiff onto the water in the dead of night. He writes:

 I turned off my running lights…I turned off my engine. I lay down in the boat and looked up. A very dark night sky seen from the ocean is a mystical experience. After a few minutes, my world dissolved into the star-littered sky. The boat disappeared. My body disappeared. And I found myself falling into infinity…I felt an overwhelming connection to the stars, as if I were part of them. And the vast expanse of time….from the time before I was born and into the far distant future after I will die – seemed compressed to a dot…I felt a merging with something far larger than myself, a great and eternal unity,  a hint of something absolute.

 Something, someone we Christians call God, Creator of all that is seen and unseen – the divine first person of the Three Person  and singular God. The God we confess week after week in the Nicene Creed.

In Lent of 2014, I took up a rather unorthodox spiritual discipline. Rather than walking the Way of the Cross, I went in search of my Creator, the ground of my being.  I am not much of a contemplative. I don’t have the discipline to read the Daily Office. And being an extrovert, I am allergic to silent retreats. But as a bibliophile, I am all about living into the Great Commandment: to love the Lord our God, with all my heart, all my soul, and all my strength….but especially with all my MIND.

So instead of cracking open a Bible, I cracked open the Book of Creation – with more than a little help from a little trinity of astro-evangelists: Michio Kaku, Brian Greene, and Neil de Grasse Tyson.

I read Kaku’s Einstein’s Cosmos: How Einstein’s Vision Transformed Our Understanding of Space and Time. Along with my daily prayers, I made daily online visits to Brian Greene’s World Science U – and got sixty-second -plain-English answers to my questions about the mysteries of the universe. And on the Lord’s Day, I would tune into PBS for a liturgical hour — to watch an episode of Cosmos: A Space Time Odyssey.

I am not sure how much I actually learned science wise. I would ceratinly need to study up if I had to take an exam. But this little discipline definitely deepened my awe and expanded my sense of wonder in God’s universe (or it multiverse?)

Much like my awe and wonder were expanded all those years ago by John Glenn, and Neil Armstrong and Captain Kirk.

And this Trinity Sunday precedes Memorial Day Monday.

So, it seems to me to be both a right and a good thing to remember with gratitude those cosmic pioneers – who risked their lives to explore our solar system and the mysteries of space. For all the astronauts whose rigor and training, intelligence and dedication were given for a higher purpose.  And especially for the fallen heroes of American space flight: the 1967 crew of Apollo I, the astronauts of the  Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986, the 2003 explorers on the  Space Shuttle Columbia.

 Let’s give thanks to God for all brave and bold enough to shoot for the stars, fly to the moon, and maybe even travel to Mars. Let’s give thanks to God for the gift of wonder and awe and joy in all the Creator’s works. And most especially let us praise the beloved Name  of the First and Foremost Person of the Holy and Undivided Trinity.

The stars declare his glory.

JoaniSign


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The (Christmas) Tree of Knowledge

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Me and my tree, Bishop Payne Library, 2015.

I built a Christmas tree out of books.

This is not as crazy as it sounds. I work (at least part of the time) in a library.

Deeply rooted in theological knowledge, I built my tree out of old National Union Catalogues, Anchor Bible Commentaries, and dusty volumes of Luther’s Works. A novel here, a dictionary there, a little liturgics, a little pastoral care, some lights, and voila – a veritable tree of wisdom!

It took about 300 books. Hardbacks work best. And literally every branch of the tree sprouted from someone else’s library: read, marked, inwardly digested, discarded from or donated to Bishop Payne Library.

When clergy retire, downsize, or go to their greater glory, their books often are bequeathed to the seminary. Sorting through boxes of old musty books might seem like a pain in the ass, but for me it is a rare privilege. It is a labor of love.

As I pull books out of boxes, it’s like pulling up a chair in the pastor’s study. Running my fingers across the spines, I inventory their interests and note their passions. Counting the volumes, I calculate the year of their graduation and the years of their career.  Dating the collection, I witness their ministry both rise and fall.

It is deeply personal.

Handling the books one by one, sometimes a little something will fall out: a letter, a photograph, a Christmas card — a little intimate window into the mind of another.

A library speaks volumes on the state of one’s soul.

So what does my library say about me?

My library occupies every room in my house – except the bathrooms! Even my hallways are lined with bookshelves. (I have a Kindle too, but that really doesn’t count.)

Just this past week, my daughter Colleen asked me to choose my seven favorite books. She said to take pictures of the spines and send them to her. It has something to do with my Christmas present, I think, but I am not allowed to ask.:)

How can I possibly choose just seven? And OMG how long is this going to take? Well, somehow the Spirit moved and within fifteen minutes, I had selected them all.

Seven books are listed below. Each one represents approximately a seventh of my brain: its moods, its appetites; its insatiable curiosities.

So here we go.

The Book of Common Prayer

You saw this one coming, right? Lex orendi, lex credendi. We pray what we believe. For 500 years, these prayers have been shared  across both time and space. Even when I believe in nothing, I continue to pray.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

I read this childhood classic in college.  There I fell in love with John Tenniel’s inky drawings and Lewis Carroll’s marvelous play on words. It became something of an obsession, which became my “Alice collection”. Visit my house and you will see, it obsesses me still.

An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness

A no brainer (pun intended!) This is Kay Redfield Jamison’s eloquent and elegiac story of her own bipolar life – both personal and professional. She is my manic-depressive hero.

Carmina Gadelica

Literally translated, it means Gaelic Songs. This is Alexander Carmichael’s 19th century compendium of Celtic charms, prayers, and invocations. A civil servant, he collected them in the Outer Hebrides while auditing books. Divine music to soothe my pagan soul.

Joan of Arc, a History

Helen Castor’s masterful book tells the tale of the Maid of Orleans – my saintly namesake, Joan. Like her, I do confess that I have heard voices from time to time.

A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books

My nerdiest passion is reading books about books. There is nothing more delicious and decadent than reading a book about books – this one in particular. Be still my heart, Nicholas Basbanes!

 Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution

In the beginning was the Big Bang. In the beginning was the Word. Science is this theology student’s final frontier. Thanks to great translators, like Neil deGrasse Tyson, reading science has become my Lectio Divina.

Seven is a very revelatory number. Seven little books to reveal my soul.  Possibly they say more than could be said in ten years of therapy – bibliographically speaking!

(Thank you, Colleen!)

This little spiritual exercise  has been healing, hopeful, fruitful and fun — all very good things at this time of the year.

So go ahead and choose your seven!

Select seven books that speak your mind and sing to your soul. Mix them and match them. Run your fingers along their spines, recall their pages, and hold them close. Take them and build a little tree of wisdom – a Christmas tree of knowledge.

Inhale their aroma as incense rising to the heavens.

And may The Word that resides in the words of your seven — bless you seventy-times-seven  this Holy Yuletide!

JoaniSign


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Hoovering and Hovering in the Vacuum of Space

A prescription for depression.

A prescription for depression.

Whenever I hauled the upright Hoover out of the hall closet, my children would invariably ask: Who’s coming over? Who is coming over that warrants hoovering up all this dust? Now unfortunately we did not just clean up for anybody and my children knew that when they heard the vacuum someone pretty damn important was coming over. And any of you who have ever seen my office or my car, will understand that cleanliness has never been my strong suit nor was it my children’s. In order to make room for company, we had to clear out the clutter… the pile of newspapers… the books… the magazines.. junk mail from the kitchen table… the dishes out of the sink… the Legos from the floor… And then once we had relocated the carpet… we would haul out the Hoover.

There is a painted slate with pride of place in my kitchen that says: “My house was clean last week. Sorry you missed it!” When my children were little, I blamed the clutter and the chaos on them. When my children were grown and gone, I confess the mess was mine and mine alone. It was not the vacuum in the hall closet’s fault, but a vacuum was involved, a vacuum that invariably tugged at my soul.   The tug was subtle, almost imperceptible and quite incremental. But it was definitely a downward tug– a tug to a slightly darker place.

So for a very long time, I hardly ever hauled out the Hoover. I didn’t really notice at first but I started sleeping a little later, staying in my pajamas a little longer, and going to bed a little earlier. Dishes would pile up in my sink and dirty laundry on my bedroom floor. My trashcans had to overflow before I would empty them. And my clothes rarely made it back into the closet. My mailbox got so clogged with letters and bills, both my creditors and the post office sent me threatening notices. And the dust that settled all over my house was so thick, I could write my name in it.

Remember that you are dust. And to dust you shall return.

And I thought I was okay. I really thought I was okay because I was getting by. But that is all I was doing – just getting by. I still got up, I still got dressed, I still got myself to work. But I would wait until the very last possible moment to go out the door. And once at work, I would leave at the earliest possible opportunity. Home again, home again, please, just let me go home again. Home again, home again, just to barely get by.

But I really believed I was okay. I was functioning and functional. I did not notice what others noticed. I did not notice that I was ill, really ill. I did not notice but my children did. My grown up children, Zach and Colleen and Jacob, noticed and they sat me down and told me so. They literally sat me down at my own dining room table — piled high with unanswered mail and cluttered with coffee cops.

And this is what they told me.

“Mom, we love you. Take a look around you. Things are falling apart. You are falling apart. You aren’t taking care of yourself and it scares us. We love you and we want you to be around for a long time. Please pay attention. Please take care of yourself.”

I tried not to cry. I tried to tell them I really was okay. But when they got up and left that day, I knew that they were right. I had been living in darkness, in a place that was empty and hollow and shallow and cold. I was living in that flat, flat space, in an empty hole in my soul, called depression.

This lack of insight, this lack of ability to recognize one’s own mental illness, psychiatrists call, anosognosia. It is different in kind from simple denial. You are not trying to hide from yourself what you know to be true. You truly do not see yourself as ill; you see no need for treatment; and you are virtually blind to the consequences of your illness on yourself and on those around you.

It is only in hindsight, distant hindsight, looking back over a decade that I can truly see how truly sick I was.

In the light I can see now, how dark, dark was that empty space. And I do not want to ever go back there. I work very hard so that I won’t have to go back there. But sometimes even while basking in the sun, that dark and empty space still tugs on my soul.

But cosmologically speaking, even empty space is not empty. It pops with subatomic particles, popping in and out of existence with quirky names like quarks, leptons, bosons, gluons, and muons. These include the now confirmed Higgs-Boson “God particle” that conveys mass and the yet unconfirmed graviton. Those quirky quarks are my favorites being “up, down, charmed, strange, top and bottom”. And, of course, let’s not forget the photons, the bearers of light.

The fabric of space hides itself in darkness. Dark velvety space is a fabric that matter bends and twists. Lit by the particles of light, the visible universe contains millions of billions of galaxies, each galaxy with millions of billions of stars, and untold millions of planets circling them. And here we are on this fragile earth, our little island home on the outer edge of the swirling and whirling Milky Way.

But much of what keeps the universe together cannot be seen. It resides in the darkness. Biblically speaking its as if God did not stop with “Let there be light” but also mysteriously added “Let there be dark”. Specifically according to that famous biblical scholar (not!), cosmologist, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, in his book, Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution, we learn that the universe is filled with both dark matter and dark energy.

Dark matter is the equivalent of gravitational super glue. Surrounding galaxies like a halo, dark matter keeps stars and planets in their courses over visible matter by a factor of six. What we cannot see binds stardust together. And we are all made of stardust, crafted and created from the stuff born in the belly of stars.

And at the same time, as Hubble discovered in 1923, the universe is expanding. It’s not only expanding, it is speeding up. Based on the Big Bang, and a bazillon other variables, cosmologists calculated the speed. But space is speedier. Literally space itself is expanding. More space is coming into existence, stretching the distance between already distant galaxies. And again,  what is visible in the universe cannot account for it. But because of Einstein’s equation E=mc2, the conversion of matter into energy based on the square of the speed of light, we know something is really out there, really making this happen. Cosmologists call it dark energy.

So creation happens as much in the dark as it does in the light. In fact, more so in the dark.

Think back to those dark and difficult places and spaces in your life. Think back to those dark nights of your soul. Consider the burdens you have carried, the heaviness you have borne, the singularity of your sorrow. Walking through the valley of the shadow of death, did you walk alone? Walking through the valley of the shadow of death, did you catch a glimmer of Light?

Space opens up inside you. Space opens up around you. Space expands in all directions and light makes all that is good visible again. The Light makes visible  — your life again. The Light of the Sprit breathes life — reviving your soul.

Some call the Light, God. I do — because in God the night and the day are both alike. In God the dark and the light are both necessary. On the mythic first day of the seven days of creation, God created light out of the dark. He called the dark, night, and the light, day. And he called them both good. Yes, good.

Yes. Good news. Good news for a bipolar soul.

JoaniSign