Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


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The Liturgist’s Dilemma: Translating Tragedy into Prayer

When asked what I do for a living, I no longer answer “clergy” or “Episcopal priest.” Frankly, lots of people just don’t know what to do with that. Stereotypes abound: that clergy only work on Sunday, that we are not allowed to drink, that you should not curse around us.

And because of stereotypes in the media, many assume Christian equates to fundamentalist or evangelical or conservative. When in all honesty, I am none of these things.

So, instead I tell people I am in the hope business. I am in the love your neighbor and reconciliation business.

 I was ordained to preach and to teach and to be a pastor.   And I make my living with words: healing, honest, provocative, faithful, hopeful, joyful, sorrowful, humorous, beautiful, life giving and insightful words. A professional wordsmith, I am both a writer and a storyteller.

I am also blessed to be the parish liturgist at Emmanuel on High. What the heck is a liturgist?  Well, it is something I never thought I would grow up to be, I am a big picture person, you see. And meaningful liturgy is found in the details and details have never been my best thing.  But now sweating the details of liturgy is my labor of love.

In an Excel spreadsheet, I map out Sunday services across the seasons, six months at a time. At Emmanuel, we cycle though the depth and breadth of every option the Book of Common Prayer has to offer.

And where the BCP allows the liturgy to flex, we flex.  Because meaningful liturgy is faithful not just to God.  Faithful liturgy speaks to the people in the pews. Faithful liturgy weaves together both the past week’s sorrow and joy into the Sunday prayers.

I am a translator of sorts. I have the sad but necessary job of translating tragedy into prayer. It is a ministry that means the world to me – quite literally.

And tragically, of course, there is no shortage of tragedy. Every week I scribble in colored pen the changes to the Prayers of People — keeping our intercessions in sync with the world as best I can – before the bulletin hits the presses on Friday.

Prayers after hurricanes: Harvey, Maria, Florence and Michael.

Prayers after mass shootings: Pulse nightclub, Parkland Stoneman Douglas High School, Las Vegas Route 91 Music Festival.

Prayers after Charlottesville.

Prayers after the Simpson Field tragedy, right down the street, in the very place where our very own children play baseball.

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And then, there was this week:

Word of Life, your words matter and so do ours. If we speak in the tongues of mortals but have not love our words ring hollow.  Words of love sow love. Hateful words sow hate. Out of hate, 14 pipe bombs were mailed to former presidents, Democratic leaders who have served our nation and a news organization. Out of hate, a gunman violated a house of worship on the Jewish sabbath, killing many and injuring more. We have no words but words of grief, sorrow, and contrition. Word of Life, grant us both the inspiration and the courage to speak words of justice, hope, healing and peace. The light of God’s Word shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

 My Alexandria, Virginia church basks in the backyard of the Nation’s Capital, Washington, D.C. Mindful of the political views of the people in our pews, I work very hard crafting prayers to hew close to the truth but also not to offend. I do pretty well most of the time but sometimes I miss the mark.

Worshipful tight rope walking.

Truth, however, trumps good manners.

Prayer you know is not about changing God’s mind to help us out. Prayer is about God changing our minds to get up off our knees and do the good that God would have us do.

Phillips Brooks, the 19thcentury Bishop from Boston and rector of Trinity, Copley Square, famously said: The purpose of preaching is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.

 Both pastoral and the prophetic.

And I am responsible for my words – especially my words from the pulpit.  And as I wrote above, I do so believe: Word of Life, your words matter and so do ours. If we speak in the tongues of mortals but have not love our words ring hollow.  Words of love sow love. Hateful words sow hate.

On Sunday, preacher and people, together wrestle with angels. Sermons, at their best, help us think, help us remember, help us dream, help us to believe —  that which truly matters most.

Above all, I try at least to leave people with a little hope before they head out the doors and go back to their daily lives.

Getting my turn in the pulpit is a privilege. My turn to lift up the priesthood of every single person praying in our pews.

But imagine, if instead of praising the Leaves of Love: Refugee Family Fundraiser, I instilled fear of foreigners and immigrants.

Imagine, if instead of promoting Carpenters Shelter breakfasts and dinners, I railed about withholding help from our needy neighbors.

What if, instead of encouraging us all to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being, I insisted that we prioritize ourselves, the people who look like us and talk like us and think like us.

Well, I might get fired. Indeed, I should get fired.

And my pulpit is not a bully one.

It is election season and midterms are upon us. And lots of powerful political types are both using and abusing their bully pulpits.

Preaching xenophobic, homophobic, vitriolic, hateful, racist, vile rhetoric.

Words matter. Words of love sow love. Hateful words sow hate.

And believe it or not, we are baptized to vote. To vote out of love for our fellow human beings — not solely out of self-interest.

Whether for Republicans or Democrats or Libertarians or Green Partiers or Independents (or Others I am not aware of),  we Christians are  to vote for the greater good.

So, on Tuesday say a little prayer before you cast your ballot.  Let’s all do the best we can to vote the bums out and the good guys in!

JoaniSign


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The Avid Pedestrian Handbook

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ASICS size 7 1/2 in elegant black.

Over the last year and a half, I have logged 5,989,993 steps on my Fitbit.  That’s about 2,537 miles or 4,083  kilometers.  I also earned a bunch of badges to stitch onto my long lost Girl Scout sash, most recently one called Monarch Migration.

I am especially skilled at putting one foot in front of the other – on mostly paved surfaces. I nearly lost my life, discovering the hard way, that I am no hiker but a walker.

I am quite the avid pedestrian. I embrace it as a lifestyle. My wardrobe, my schedule, my reading, my writing, my socializing, my moods, and my prayer life all revolve around my walking.

Proper provisions for my daily constitutional are a must.

I carry a very compact backpack packed with enough stuff to keep me alive for a couple of days. More like keep me entertained for a couple days —  should I become stranded at some urban outpost.

Inventorying my bag (and without exaggeration) these are the essentials:

  • Wallet, sunglasses, keys, and chill pill box,
  • Colored pencils and sketchpad,
  • Colored pens and notebook,
  • Tissues and cucumber face wipes,
  • Throat lozenges and ginger mints,
  • Kindle or paperback book,
  • Checkbook and chargers,
  • Lip gloss and mascara,
  • Hand cream and sunscreen,
  • Kind Bars and water bottle,
  • Iphone

I am so prepared I put Boy Scouts to shame. Who knows? I may need to stop and sketch the next Mona Lisa. I may need to stop and write the Great American Novel.

And of course I have to look fabulous. I may meet some dark and handsome stranger along the way.

So yes, it is also critical to be properly outfitted.

In order to maximize walking opportunities I always take a change of clothes with me wherever I go. I either take my walking clothes to work or work clothes to change into after I walk. I don’t leave home without them.

Shoes are most important. Mine are size 7 ½ ASICS Nimbus. Proper socks are also a must – either Feetures or Belega. $12 a pair and worth every penny.

Sweats and jeans are way too heavy and slow you down. Running tights for freedom of movement, breathable high tech undershirt, lightweight, water repellant jacket, thin gloves, and a hat. Knit in winter, brimmed in summer.

You can shop at Target or Lululemon depending on your budget. Lululemon is pricey but their stuff wears like iron and lasts forever. This is a lifestyle choice remember.

The goal is to be as fleet of feet as possible.

And don’t forget to accessorize! A little jewelry is appropriate.

First and foremost is my Fitbit Flex.

I never take mine off (except to charge it of course!). I shower with it, sleep with it, grocery shop with it. It keeps me honest and motivated. It sends me weekly report cards in my email and gives me badges for a job well done – which greatly appeals to the third grader in me.

A wrist rosary and Tibetan prayer beads.

My two-decade wrist rosary is a souvenir a dear friend brought back from Assisi. The Tibetan prayer beads are from off the rack at Ten Thousand Villages. I pray with them as I walk. I pray with them on park benches. Both are great for sidewalk contemplation traipsing around God’s creation.

St. Christopher Necklace.

Yes, he is a totally bogus saint, a pious legend from the 13th century, but his name literally means “Christ carrier”. The medallion reminds me that when I am out and about that every driver, every cyclist, every pedestrian carries the sacred within them. Every single living, breathing thing is holy. So watch those traffic lights and look both ways before crossing the street.

NO earphones. NEVER.

The only soundtrack I want to hear is the sound of the streets. Oncoming cars, horns honking, birds singing, wind in the trees, street musicians playing, people talking, children playing. The sound and rhythm of my own footsteps on the pavement.

And so where do I go?

Depending on the weather and my moods, I change up my destination as much as possible. The best routes are both away from home and close to home — different and interesting but also doable. I rarely, if ever, walk in my own backyard.

But I do have favorites.

The Del Ray Loop

Starting at High St, down Russell Road to the train station, King Street to the river, and back again.  4.2 miles. Favorite stop: Killer ESP for latte and Hotrod Potato pie.

Old Town Riverfront

Starting at Jones Point Park beneath the Wilson Bridge, walk the Potomac riverfront through Old Town Alexandria up to Tide Lock Park, and back again. 4.5 miles. Favorite stop: Carluccio’s for coffee and scrambled eggs.

Huntley Meadows Park

Starting at the visitor center, several turns around the woodland and wetland boardwalk trails. 3.5 miles. Favorite stop: Observatory tower that overlooks beaver dams, wild geese, and cattails.

Roosevelt Island

Walking with my steady, Teddy is the best. Wetland and forest trails through this memorial wildlife preserve dedicated to our 26th President, father of the National Parks.  4 miles. Favorite stop: Photo op with the great man himself at center island.

Hometown, Downtown DC

Yes, I am a native Washingtonian. Subway to Metro Center at 12th and G streets. walk 10th Street to Pennsylvania Avenue, up to the Capitol, East Capitol Street to 8th, ending up at the Eastern Market, and back again.  4.6 miles. Favorite stop? So many to choose from: Ford’s Theater, Madame Tussaud’s, the National Archives, The Botanical Gardens, and be still my heart, The Library of Congress. (And coffee, or course, at a variety of cafes along the way.)

Walking has become my spiritual discipline, my philosophy of life.

Find a path and walk it. Investigate all the twists and turns. Do not be afraid. Change direction as needed. Pay attention. Listen to the rhythms of the street. Pause and talk to strangers you meet — entertaining angels along the way. Breathe the breath of life into your lungs — bus fumes and all.

And not to worry — it is perfectly okay to get lost.

In the life of an avid pedestrian, that’s what God, and therapy, and Google Maps are for.

So strap on your shoes, my friends, go outside, and take a walk.

JoaniSign

 


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Grounding Rounds & Rattling Beads

Rosary white plastic with hands

An authentic, white plastic First Communion rosary, circa 1962.

I found God at the end of a rosary,

a little, white, plastic rosary. This little rosary came with a little, white chapel veil, a little, white missal, all tucked into a little, white, patent leather pocketbook.

Tres chic, I wore it over the shoulder of my little, white, organza dress with the satin sash. My hair was curled and tastefully pulled back under my little, white, lace veil. And for the final touch of piety, I wove the little, white, plastic rosary around my fingers.

My First Communion extraordinaire.

Blessed with a second grader’s growth spurt, I was paired with Jimmy Simkewiez. Blonde hair, blue eyes, dimpled cheeks, his Ivory Soap, squeaky clean aura made me weak in the knees.

Together we went forth to receive the holy mysteries. We knelt and simultaneously stuck out our tongues. The priest placed the paper-thin wafers in our mouths – so sacred we were not permitted to touch.

My sweet Lord. My sweet Lord. My sweet Lord.

As the beads of the rosary slipped through my fingers, I discerned God, in the body of my seven year-old partner, so sacred and so holy, I was not allowed to touch.

And henceforth, at every first Friday Mass, at Holy Family School, preparing to receive the holy sacrament, we would make regular rounds of our rosaries.

One “Apostles’ Creed”. Ten “Our Father’s”. Fifty “Hail Mary’s”. Ten “Glory be’s” – and we were good to go!

Shoulder to shoulder, kneeling on vinyl covered kneelers, packed into the pews, I prayed and prayed – mostly unsuccessfully – to once again – discern the body of my God. But Jimmy Simkewiez, preoccupied with baseball, paid me no attention. It was not to be.

So my rounds of the rosary became nothing more than routine, the religious duty of a second grader – possibly keeping me out of endless and pointless years in purgatory. So I prayed those rounds — just in case.

And then came Friday, November 22, 1963. The third Friday and not the first, that fateful Friday, the good sisters hauled all eight grades into church.

“ Take out your rosaries, children. Our president has been shot and is in grave danger. Let us pray, fervently that his life be saved and that our country be delivered from tragedy.”

You have to remember, that this was the time of bomb shelters, the Bay of Pigs, and the Cuban Missle Crisis. We each had a cardboard shoebox, a “survival kit”, packed with Spam, fruit cocktail, Hi-C and a can opener, stored in the school basement. We all had practiced “duck and cover” under our desks.

Only eight years old, I was certain that the world was coming to an end. And not knowing really what “fervent” meant, terrified, I prayed my rosary at the top of my lungs. OUR FATHER! HAIL MARY! GLORY BE! O Lord, O Lord, O Lord, can you hear us? Please, please, please, hear us and deliver us.

That little, white, plastic rosary was my lifeline, tethering me to my only hope – a God I feared but did not know. The God, I hoped to God, who would save us.

Somewhere along the way of my Catholic school career – I put my rosary away. Or I misplaced it or I lost it. In any event I pretty much forgot it. Simultaneously, I pretty much forgot about God and was pretty sure also that God had forgotten about me too.

My rosary was relegated to history — buried deep in a drawer somewhere. My rosary seemed forever lost — until — insomnia resurrected my childhood ritual.

You don’t need a rosary to pray the rosary.

Those beads are imprinted on my brain and those prayers are embroidered forever into my memory. So instead of counting sheep, I started making the rounds of my rosary on my fingertips. Saying and not actually praying my childhood prayers, I would rattle just enough finger beads to lull me into sleep.

Until — I realized I was not alone. And Joani, who believed in nothing, started experiencing something or maybe even someone — of who or of what — I knew not a thing. All I knew is that this rosary connected me – concretely and deeply with some thing or someone cosmic. Crazy as it seemed at the time, the rosary grounded me in something or someone – most holy.

And on one terrible, terrible, indeed the most terrible day in the life of my family – the day my brother’s young wife and little boy – were killed in a car accident, reciting the rosary in my head, was all that kept my psyche from flying apart. Reciting the rosary in my head was the only thing that kept me tethered to the ground. Reciting the rosary grounded me — be it fleetingly – to the ground of my being.

Many, many years later, while in the ordination process, the rosary once again was my answer to prayer.

Going through rounds of interviews with the Commission on Ministry, one particularly annoying interrogator  relentlessly kept pressing me:

“Tell me about your prayer life.”

“Well, I use a rosary.” I told her.

“Tell me more”, she said.

“Well, it starts out as rote, but then the rhythm clicks in, and then the silent words of the prayers become like a mantra.”

“Tell me more”, she said.

“They are the same words, I learned as a child, recited like nursery rhymes really, but much, much deeper, so much deeper.”

“Tell me more”, she said.

“Holding onto the rosary is like tapping into something sacred. It tethers me to all that is holy: a deep well, an aching abyss, an emptiness that isn’t empty.”

“Tell me more”, she said.

“Our Fathers, Hail Mary’s, Glory be’s – I clutch the beads and I feel connected, contemplative, calm – not to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost per se – but to mystery, Mysterium Tremendum – for which there are no words.”

“Tell me more”, she said.

(By this time, I am having not so holy thoughts, and am ready to strangle this interrogator. Where is that rosary?)

“Well, I keep one by my bedside, an Anglican one. I carry one in my pocket or sometimes I wear a very little one-decade Catholic one wound round my wrist. It’s tactile, it’s electric, it’s kinetic, an immediate and direct connection.”

“Tell me more”, she said.

“It’s literally connective tissue, connecting me to the Body of my God – Jesus, you might say.”

And at the name of Jesus, miraculously, at last she seemed satisfied. Either that or we simply ran out of time.

When I was ordained, my friend, Nancy, gave me a present: a rosary with weathered glass beads and a tiny crucifix. Repaired with picture wire, it was obviously beloved, old and worn. It had belonged to her aunt, whom she loved, and it was blessed with a lifetime of prayer, a lifetime of sleepless nights, a lifetime of Our Fathers, Hail Mary’s, and Glory be’s.

There is no better present that I could have received, this little lifeline to the Body of my God, this little lifeline to the Body of Her world, this little lifeline to the Body of Her Son, this little lifeline to the Bodies of all whom I love.

I found God at the end of a rosary.

How about you?

JoaniSign