Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


An Unorthodox Easter: The Gospel According to Gary

My son Zach from a very early age was a Far Side fan. You remember Far Side, of course — those twisted little windows into reality that appeared in the funny pages each Sunday. Gary Larson was the Svengali of subversive. Insect like people living in the suburbs, cows channel surfing on the couch, dogs dishing out wisdom, and the occasional person observing life’s absurdities. It was actually a little scary that Zach at age six without any parental explanation got it. And got it he did. Zach collected every compilation of Far Side Cartoons published. And he collected some of the unpublished ones as well – the ones that never made it into the newspapers.

For Zach, these were kind of like the “lost gospels of Gary Larson.” Sifting through them, I came across my most-favorite-by-far Far Side Cartoon of all time.

Etched in black in a white rectangle 3 ½ inches square, the scene is set. Jesus sits slumped over on a barstool. He cradles a cup of coffee in his hands, steam rising like incense. He has more than a five o’clock shadow. His clothes are rumpled and dirty. His hair is wild and uncombed. Behind him is an empty coffin, a stand-in for the empty tomb. The caption reads:  I wonder what time it is…I feel like I’ve been dead for three days.

From the Lost Gospel of Gary Larson

Irreverent right? Sacriligeous right? Heretical right? Hysterical right? I go mostly with hysterical because to me it is so hysterically true. What better Jesus to greet us on Easter morning than the Jesus who knows exactly what it is like to stumble and struggle in the darkness. What better news after walking through the hell of Holy Week — than to wake up surprised as anybody — to live and breathe again.

This is my kind of Jesus.

Heretic (of a kind), I am proudly so. Remember, this little blog is titled Unorthodox and Unhinged. And I come from a long line of the unhinged — who know all too well what it is like to stumble and fumble through the dark.

The darkness the world calls depression — definitely the down side of bipolar disorder.

Growing up we knew my mom was not like other moms. Reading my mother was like reading a weather report: cloudy and dark or bright and clear? When she was the latter my mother was the life of the party, a fabulous storyteller, she infamously shopped- ‘til-she-dropped. Back in the 70’s in a single shopping spree, my mom spent $1000 in a Hallmark Store! Birthday party favors, greeting cards, and Halloween decorations galore!

But more often, my mom took to her bed for days on end, and we dared not darken her door. To smooth out her moods my mother medicated herself with drink and abused prescription drugs. Add lithium to that cocktail and she was practically catatonic — seemingly beyond resurrection.

My mom came by this honestly, her mom before her, my Grandmother Cady, had taken to her bed for three long years. My grandmother had retreated into the tomb of her darkened room. And during these years, my mother had to drop out of school and become the mother who cooked and cleaned and grocery shopped for her father and older brother.

I understand much better now what triggered my mother’s illness.

And like my mother before me, I too fell down the bipolar rabbit hole — quite late at the age of 48. I will not bore you with the details but sixteen years ago, while I was rector-chief cook-and bottle-washer-24/7 at Holy Cross and going through a divorce, I crashed and burned. My days had become so dark I could barely get out of bed. And when out and about, I could barely wait to get back into that bed again at the end of the day.

After preaching every service, making every pastoral call, facilitating every forum, being at every Bible study, leading every vestry meeting, sitting in on every committee, negotiating every dispute, and even singing in my own choir – I was depleted, body, mind and soul. The parish found me wanting but I had nothing left to give. Absolutely nothing left. So I went home to numb the pain and prayed: Please God, do not make me go back there. Please God, I just want to go to sleep and not wake up.

Now these dark days seem like ancient history to me now, but never say never again. There is better living through loving relationships and chemistry and therapy and sound sleep and satisfying work and writing and storytelling and drunk-acrobat-cats and laughter and long walks and books, lots of books. This is how I crawled out from under and back to life — a little bit like Jesus in the Gospel according to Gary Larson.

This is my salvation and continues to be.

Jesus is the only savior who makes sense to me. Forsaken and lonely, lost and afraid, scruffy and dirty, tired and worn, this savior who loved so well and lost so much. This savior, who I believe, was just as fricking surprised on Easter morning — as you and me — that he was alive again.

Resurrected, I believe, to call us all out from the dank and darkness of our everyday tombs.

So my friends, a very happy Easter! Let us rejoice, with but one voice, for the God who’s been three days dead.

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!


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Show Up. It’s the Least You Can Do.

Show yourself, Jesus.  In the middle of drought and famine and disease, for God’s sake, why can’t you just show up?

This was the lament of the little village of Kingala, whose story is told by novelist Barbara Kingsolver in The Poisonwood Bible. It is the fictitious epic tale of a misguided mission to the Congo in the early sixties. Each chapter is narrated by the somewhat miserable minister’s wife and daughters. The youngest one writes:

Looking back over the months that led to this day, it seems the collapse of things started in October with the vote in the church. The congregation of Father’s church interrupted his sermon to hold an election on whether or not to accept Jesus Christ as the personal savior of Kingala.

 The crops were flat and dead. Fruit trees were barren. There were rumors of rain in the river valleys to the west and those tales aroused – the thirst of dying animals and crops. Tata Kuvudundu (the local witch doctor) cast her bone predictions. And nearly every girl in the village danced with a chicken on her head to bring down rain.

 Church attendance rose and fell. Jesus may have sounded like a very helpful sort of savior in the beginning, but he was not what the villagers had hoped.

 We went ahead and had church that day and Tata Ndu, the chief sat in the front pew. Papa preached a railing sermon against idolatry:

 ‘The people revered the statue of Baal and went every day to worship him, but Daniel worshipped the Lord our God. Don’t be fooled by a statue of clay and bronze!’

 Papa paused in his sermon for dramatic effect. Tata Ndu stood straight up and held up his hand.

 ‘Now is the time for the people to have an election. If you don’t mind, Reverend we will have our election now. We are making a vote for Jesus Christ in the office of personal God for the Kingala village.’

 Papa tried to object by explaining that Jesus Christ was exempt from popular elections and that matters of the Spirit were not decided by polls. But Tata Ndu forged ahead.

 ‘You Americans say elections are good. You Americans say Jesus is good. Now we will have a vote.’

The voting bowls were passed up and down the pews.

 Jesus Christ lost: 11 to 56.

 One week after Easter, we are waiting for Jesus to show himself. One week out of the grave, we are waiting for him to make an appearance. To show up and do his job. His savior thing.

doubting-Thomas-Jesus-window

Now most of us recognize the messiah, the same way we measure success. By the measure of peace, the measure of power, the measure of prosperity. Money in the bank?  Fancy car in the driveway? Promotion on the way?

We want a successful savior. One in a three-piece suit and a power tie. One who gets things done. One who can heal whatever sickens us. One who can resurrect whatever we may have ruined. Only water walkers and wonder workers need apply.

On this traditionally ‘low Sunday’ we have very high expectations. But given the current state of the world, like Thomas we have our doubts.

Doubt has dogged the faithful for two thousand years.

How can the divine die? How can the eternal end?

How can the dead bring the dead back to life?

Is this stuff historical? Or just mystical?

Physically true? Or just metaphysically true?

So much ink has been spilled struggling with these questions. Theological tome upon boring tome, has been penned trying to make sense of it all. Theology that would surely put you to sleep.

I typed  resurrection in the Bishop Payne library catalog search box and 2043 titles popped up. Type in Easter, you get 1002.  Doubting Thomas scores a mere 28.

Because maybe the story is ultimately not about Thomas (though we are ALL Thomas and Thomas is US). Maybe the story is about a “God coming to us, wherever we are”, no matter where we are.

Christians believe in a God who shows up.

On the second Sunday of Easter, two thousand years ago, Thomas the Apostle, was hoping for just that.  Frederick Buechner writes:

Imagination was not Thomas’ strong suit. He was a numbers man, a realist. He did not believe in fairy tales. Thomas wasn’t around at the time the rest of the disciples were as they sat together in the Upper Room. Doors locked. Shades drawn. Scared sick one of them would be next to be nailed to a cross.

When suddenly Jesus came in. He wasn’t a ghost or a figment of their imagination. He said ‘Shalom’ and showed them some of the Romans’ handiwork. To show them that he was as real as they were – and maybe more so.

 He breathed the Holy Spirit on them, gave them a few directions, and then he left.

 Now nobody knew where Thomas was at the time, maybe out for coffee, but he missed the whole thing. And he said, NO, I don’t’ believe you. Let Jesus show me himself, the marks in his hands, the wounds in his side.

 Eight days later Jesus shows up.

 Dumbfounded Thomas does not have much to say except, ‘My Lord and my God!’

 Jesus’ response to Thomas was to show up in person. Not in a book. Not in a creed. But in the flesh. Jesus let Thomas see his face and hear his voice and hold his ruined hands.

And that is the conundrum and miracle of Easter. We have a God with a human face – we may not recognize at first – but who shows up again and again.

In the tired nurse by the hospice bed.

In the relief worker handing out bread.

In the mother, hiding a timid child beneath her skirts.

In the words of a counselor, assuaging past hurts.

In the service of a soldier, setting captives free.

In the face of a stranger, in acts of random kindness and hospitality.

Thank God for this God. In this crazy and broken world, for me, this is the only kind of God who makes any sense. A God who embraces our lives despite our faults.  A God who believes in us, though like Thomas we doubt. A God who lifts us out of the dirt and into the light.

To live this earth bound but also resurrected life.

To live this earth bound but also resurrected life.

JoaniSign


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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

 


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Dirt Therapy Redux

Mary Magdalene and the Gardener

Resurrection stories. U&U is an ongoing collection of resurrection stories — that before too long I would like to turn into an actual book. It seems that now I may just have carved out some time to actually do it.

Last week I chose to leave a job that I loved. You see the garden in which I so lovingly toiled had become a bit too overgrown with weeds. Weeds suck up all the water and crowd out the sun. Its hard to stay healthy and whole in a garden choked by weeds. Its nearly impossible to grow.

So I decided to uproot myself and with God’s help, to plant myself anew in life giving soil.

“Now the green blade riseth” is my favorite Easter hymn.

So it seems very apropos to repost Dirt Therapy once again.

So here we go….

Once upon an Eastertide, a little boy came home singing the Pete Seeger song: “Inch by inch, row by row, Lord, please help my garden grow”. At school the little boy, along with his class, had planted bean seeds in jelly jars. Each day they tended their little glass gardens, checking the moist dark earth. Some of the children drowned their seeds with love. While others, their seeds withered from neglect. While others, theirs actually and miraculously sprouted and grew.

Tiny green shoots poked their heads into the fluorescent light. Slender green vines wound around the inside of the jars.

And then one day — the little boy proudly brought his home and set it down on the kitchen table. His mom asked, “Okay, my little sweet potato, what’s this?” And the little boy replied:

”That’s Jesus, mom. That’s Jesus in a jar.”

It wasn’t exactly “Now the green blade riseth” but it was sweet indeed. That sweet little boy was my son Jacob (now 28 years old!). Sadly the little Jesus vine did not survive very long — but don’t blame Jacob. Sadly, you see, plants often came home to my house to die.

Even though I quite ironically once worked at plant store called “Great Plants Alive” most of the plants that crossed my threshold sadly met an untimely death.

And back in the day when I still had a backyard, I was quite happy to just let Mother Earth be my gardener. So whatever grew — grew –and whatever withered – withered. My yard was a little city patch of green. And since I had no green thumb, this was my rule:

If it’s green let it grow.

My lawn was covered with crab grass, wild violets, clover, and dandelions. The fence was covered with tangled honeysuckle vines, ghetto pines, a struggling maple tree, and poison ivy. Plastic baseball bats and dead tennis balls dotted my lawn. A sad little wagon and outgrown bicycles littered the grass.

Occasionally I would attempt to tame this wilding place with my lawn mower and a weed whacker. But much more often, I would retreat and recline in a plastic chair on the patio to read a good book.

If it’s green let it grow.

My manic-depressive mom, Mary Lou was quite the gardener. While I have been blessed with her bipolar brain, God did not see to bestow upon me her green thumb. And hers was very green indeed.

When I was growing up, my mother could lash out like lightning just as easily as she could erupt in joy. Her highs and lows were beyond her control. My mom did the best she could.

And she did her very best in the garden.

Mary Lou was totally at home in her rock garden. She relished her trips to the local greenhouses and she spared no expense at the nursery.

The back of the station wagon would be overloaded with peat moss and potting soil, flats of flowers, hydrangeas and azaleas, and a shrub or two — or three.

The lawn would be littered with empty plastic pots, as she dug down deep in the dirt planting geraniums, petunias, and marigolds. I have a snapshot of her doing just this. Her sun kissed skin is freckled and bronze; her auburn hair peaks out from her kerchief; and golden hoops dangle from her ears. Gorgeous.

Resplendent and radiant, digging in the dirt, all is right with her soul.

Digging in the dirt is therapy.

Sowing seeds is therapy.

Fertilizing the soil is therapy.

Watering the ground is therapy.

Gardening is therapy.

Dirt therapy.

Wordless, holistic, holy, hopeful, dirty therapy.

My mother’s daughter, namely me, no longer has a backyard. But I do have a little balcony. And each Eastertide I plant my little English garden in half a dozen clay pots. I am partial to bright colors: Shasta daises; hibiscus; and geraniums. I am partial to plants of the forgiving kind, the kind that forgive me if I don’t water them as often as I should.

A little Miracle Grow, a little sunshine, a little dirt, and all is right with my soul. At least for a little while.

In the beginning, the Creator walked in the cool of the wet garden at the time of the evening breeze. God made us out of the dirt of the garden. God made us out of the dirt of paradise.

And so in all the deaths we die — both large and small — we return to the Garden. We go down into the dirt like seeds forgotten and buried in the dark earth.

So as we are in the beginning, we are in the end. The Alpha is also the Omega.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary of Magdala, came to the garden and she saw that the stone was rolled away. And there stood the Gardener, the same Gardener who had walked at the time of the evening breeze. Mary did not know him until he called her by name. And then she knew. Here stands the very tiller, the very tender, the very lover of my soul.

Now the green blade riseth.

Dirt therapy.

JoaniSign