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.


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!


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The Pentecostal Episcopalian

pentecost latin modern art

My Jesuit educated father, Dr. Peacock was big on comparative languages. Apparently up at Worcester, Mass at Holy Cross College when you learned one romance language you learned them all. So when any of my brothers or sisters dared approach the good doctor for a word’s definition or proper pronunciation— he would direct us to the dictionary collection on his library shelf. Then he would ask us:

“Quick, quick, quick, what is the same word in French, Spanish, Italian?”

Stumped by my dad’s linguistic brilliance, I barely managed to stutter at best some incomplete response.

So during my three years at Immaculata Preparatory School, I set out to prove myself equal to my dad — and just as gifted with the gift of tongues. I took three years of Latin with Sister Petra — Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars and Cicero’s De Re Publica — so fascinating to a teenager! I took three years of French — just enough to catch a third of the words in a foreign film playing at the Circle Theater.

And I took two years of Spanish. My most memorable phrase from high school Spanish class is, “Me aprietan mis zapatos.” – which means “My feet hurt.” or quite literally “My shoes are squeezing me”!

I leapfrogged over my last year of high school – to start Catholic University early (I do not have a high school diploma!) To help pay my rent on my tiny Connecticut Avenue apartment, I had a part time job in Adams Morgan at a bi-lingual preschool – The Spanish Education Development Center.

I was a teacher’s aid in a classroom full of three year olds – none of whom spoke a word of English. My very first afternoon on duty during naptime, one little boy was extremely restless on his cot. So I broke out my high school Spanish to try and settle him down.

“Com se llama?” I asked him.

Pepe”, he said.

“Mucho gusto, Pepe”, I said, “Siente se en su cama. Es hora de dormir.”

“Pepe, Pepe, Pepe!” he kept repeating.

“Si, yo entiendo. Te llamas Pepe. Es hora de dormir.” I said.

Pepe, Pepe, Pepe!”

He was inconsolable until the teacher came in.

“Guillermo, necisitas el bano?” she said.

And little Guillermo ran off to the bathroom.

Over the course of three years, I learned colloquial and conversational Spanish – which I spoke all day long – and these folks became my neighbors and my friends…so many friends from south of the border — Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Ecuador, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, The Dominican Republic, Bolivia and Costa Rica. And my little Latino charges – they gradually learned English – and were fairly fluent by the time they entered kindergarten.

We were gifted with speaking one another’s tongues, but even better than learning to speak a foreign language — the Spirit had gifted us with the gift of understanding.

Many years later, 2001 to be exact, on a mission trip to the DR, I lost a bet with Bishop Gray (such a wonderful pastor and person Frank Gray is!). So instead of the “episcopos” in the pulpit on our last Sunday there was this “sacerdote” – me!

And I preached my one and only sermon in Spanish ever.

And it went something like this:

“Dios es amor. Dios te ama. Yo amo Dios. Dios ama todo el mundo. Jesu Cristo es el Corazon de Dios. Amor vive en el Corazon de Dios. Amor vive en los corazones de su gente.

Dios es amor.”

The Day of Pentecost, this day, the Holy Spirit translates God’s love into every possible human language.

“Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, the asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own language?

Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs – in our languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power” — God’s mighty deeds of Love.

Pentecost is the Tower of Babel redeemed. But more than that one scholar says, Pentecost is Christmas come again.

“All wrapped up in human form, God comes to us in our very own bodies; God speaks to us our very own language(s). In an age of increasing cultural diversity, religious pluralism, and the perpetual rubbing of shoulders across lines of nation, race, and class, God offers authentic human communion. Through ordinary human speech, the Holy Spirit establishes unity in the midst of diversity, the fulfillment of a promise…” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, p. 5, G. Lee Ramsey, Jr.)

Good, good news for a broken and divided world.

So Pentecost is to be practiced. Pentecost — the gift of the Holy Spirit –is a gift to be exercised at home and at work, in our neighborhoods and in our communities, with family, friends, and stranger, and right here in our own backyards — (especially in my bipolar backyard!)

So with the Spirit’s help this week…let us each find a way to practice Pentecost, very specific and concrete ways to practice Pentecost. And let us all give thanks for the Holy, Holy, life giving, Holy Spirit…for God’s great gift of understanding.