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!


Preaching — a Heartbeat away from Washington, D.C.

I am proud of my heritage and fond of telling visitors on my tours at the Library of Congress, that I am a sixth generation Washingtonian. As in D.C. While others move in and out of the city, with each passing administration, the Peacocks have stayed here from one decade to the next.

I believe this is so because we have never worked for the government or been in politics. We are the ordinary working people who love and call the District of Columbia home.

This does not mean that we have never been political, of course. I was raised by a Jesuit educated, Rockefeller Republican father. Dr. Peacock preached fiscal responsibility and championed civil rights. I myself am an aging hippie, who skipped school to protest the Vietnam War. A year shy of voting age, I rallied for George McGovern — who, as we all know, lost in a landslide to “Tricky Dick” Nixon.

I’ve lived in Alexandria, Virginia for over thirty years now, in the shadow of my beloved hometown. Alexandria has sometimes (mostly fondly) been called “The People’s Republic of Alexandria” — a predominantly blue bubble in what has become a purple state.

I am comfortable here, maybe a little too comfortable. My bleeding heart liberal politics are rarely challenged in my own backyard. And as preacher and pastor, in the pulpit I try to own that. I try to be honest and not self-righteously holier than thou. As if, Democrats had a monopoly on holier-than-thou. Far from it.

I serve a congregation whose bread and butter relies on both government and politics. While I discern the politics in our pews skew center-left, I am grateful that they are balanced with faithful folks on the right side of the aisle.

Politely, we Episcopalians believe that we check our politics at the church door. For middle child and peacemaker me, this has been a comfy place to be. Again, maybe too comfy.

I took a vow to preach the Gospel, not apologize for it.

St Bernard preaching in the public square.

The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr famously said he hoped his “preaching would comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Not his own words exactly, Niebuhr was paraphrasing a Chicago journalist. In 1902, “Finley Peter Dunne wrote a column in the ‘everyman voice’ of fictional Mr. Dooley — a satiric ode to newspapers’ important place in society.” Dunne regularly critiqued Theodore Roosevelt and the President loved it, often sharing the commentary during his cabinet meetings.

Though public and political in its origins, the quote has a very biblical ring to it.

Reinhold Niebuhr picked it up in the aftermath of the atrocities of World War II. William Sloane Coffin Jr. used it as an anti-war rallying cry. Martin Marty, the Lutheran theologian, quotes the journalist to emphasize that in a me-first-world, God will be just as just with the rich, as he is merciful to the poor.

All three of these religious thinkers are staking a claim in the political sphere. Jesus did not preach in a vacuum. He challenged the corrupt powers and principalities of his day, who preyed on the outcaste and destitute.

Kingdom of God language is political language.

Which brings me to the political firestorm in which we find ourselves now.

In my 25 years of ordained ministry, five presidential elections have come and gone. And now in 2020, here comes the sixth. From the pulpit, I have never told anyone who to vote for. Democrats and Republicans, in many ways, have seemed virtually interchangeable — just leaning in a different direction every four to eight years. Brazen partisanship, I believe, does not have a place in the pulpit. But that does not mean that the policies of politicians and elected officials – aspirational or real — cannot be critiqued in church.

In fact, I took a vow to do just that. I took a vow to preach both love of God and love of neighbor. I took a vow to speak the truth in love.

Rabbi James Prosnit, last year, preached much the same on Rosh Hashanah morning:

I’ve tried never to be partisan. But as I’ve suggested to some, my rabbinic role requires me to be political — particularly when the Jewish values on issues are so clear in my mind. When it comes to God’s earth and this planet, Judaism has some things to say. When it comes to societal inequalities… our tradition reminds us that with privilege comes responsibility. And when it comes to something like immigration and refugee status, not only our texts, but our history and experience as Jews has a lot to teach those in power.”

Inheritors of the prophetic tradition, this is just as true for Christians, as it is for Jews. Just as true for this Episcopal priest, as it is for the rabbi.

And in this poisonous milieu, where we currently stew, Rabbi Prosnit continues,

The present mindset purposefully and blatantly exploits divisions by what we tweet, and by the names used to call out or belittle someone we disagree with.”

In the Twitter-sphere, and on social media, hate has found a home. A place where it is nourished and helped to flourish. Cyberspace has become a cowardly place, where bullies choose to hide. On Facebook, in a virtual world with like-minded friends, we don’t have to come face to face with anyone real. And we don’t have to take any real responsibility for the damage we do to the fragile social fabric — of our culture, communities, and country.

Our Sunday service means little, if it does not speak to the realities of our Monday through Saturday lives — if it does not speak to the precarious times in which we live. Our heavenly theology means nothing if it does not allow us to wrestle with everyday devils.

So nothing from the public sphere should be off limits in the pulpit or in our prayers. Not abortion, nor addiction, nor climate change, nor the death penalty, nor gun violence, nor healthcare, nor human rights, nor immigration, nor criminal justice, nor public safety, nor racism, nor anything else should be forboden.

This does not mean, of course that the priest and the preacher, are instant experts on current issues or world affairs, far from it. But it does mean that our faith can inform our thinking and move us to do, what Christians ought to do morally and ethically – to help heal this broken world.

And if you can’t talk about life’s most important issues in church, we might as well close our doors, right?

So, the Episcopal Church welcomes you, my friends. Come worship with us at Emmanuel at 1608 Russell Road in Alexandria, Virginia. Sunday mornings at 8:00 AM or 10:30 AM.

All are welcome. With all your questions. With all your concerns. With all your hopes. No exceptions.


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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 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.

 

JoaniSign