Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


"Star, Star, Teach Us How to Shine, Shine!"

A year ago, I read in The Times that the skies lit up over New York City.

“There was a boom and a hum and smoke and the sky turned fluorescent blue.”

Twitter like mindedly lit up with eerie lights.

“It was spectacular”, a deputy inspector in the 114thPrecinct said. “You could see it a half mile away. You felt it in your chest, the explosions in the night sky turned electric blue.”

“The lights were so bright,” one witness observed, that “the dark night was bright as day.”

The 911 phone lines lit up, too. 

Was it an Unidentified Flying Object?

Was it an alien invasion?

A lost aurora borealis? 

Confused, 21stNew Yorkers flocked outside to figure out what was going on. What was the meaning of it all?

Turns out it was a celestial phenomenon that can be explained by physics: a discharge of supercharged photons into the night sky – from Con Edison. Literally an electrifying event.

Two millennia and two decades ago, the night sky likewise (sort of) lit up with cosmic confusion. 

Four times Matthew’s second chapter mentions the star. The star that beckoned to the Magi and by which the Three Kings traversed afar.

A star?  A supernova, maybe? A comet? Haley’s Comet flew by in 12 B.C.E., astronomers tell us. Possibly planets aligning? Planets are the wanderers in the dark inky sky, after all.

Or maybe it was just a fluorescing symbol that lights the way?

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A tracking device, a traffic light, a GPS, a giant cosmic flashlight focusing down on the place where Jesus lay.

“The Truth is Out There,” the sage Fox Mulder of the X-Files so famously said.

I am a nerdy, nerdy fan of this 1990’s sci-fi series. Collectible action figures of Fox and Dana keep watch on my windowsill. I have a UFO Nativity ornament hanging on my tree. And one my very favorite Christmas presents this year is a book called The Real Science Behind the X-Files: Microbes, Meteorites, and Mutants by Anne Simon, Ph.D.. (Yes, an actual well-respected scientist wrote this book!)

If you are familiar with the show, you know that being an embarrassment to the FBI, Agent Mulder’s office is buried in the basement of the Hoover Building. Mulder is on a quacky quest to prove that in this universe, we are not alone.

But for Mulder this is also a deeply personal quest, to search for a child, a little sister who disappeared in the dead of night. Mulder turns his gaze skywards, hoping upon hope for his sister to return.

In episode after episode, partner Dana Scully, a trained medical doctor and UFO skeptic, does her damndest to keep grounded the pie-in-the-sky Mulder. While she quite ironically, as a person of faith, finds her North Star in science.

Through eleven seasons together, Mulder and Scully stumble and fumble their way toward the truth.

3D View of a Supernova’s “Heart”

The Way, interestingly enough,is the earliest name that followers of Jesus called themselves. 

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” (Isaiah 9:2 KJV)

They had found a way.

Flashes of light piercing through confusion, stagnation, delusion.

Like explosions going off in our heads and opening our eyes.

In headlines screaming things we’d rather not hear.

In images revealing things we’d rather not see.

In events unfolding we’d rather ignore.

Flashes of light in the darkness. 

Epiphanies.

Flashes of light melting into the night as fast as they appear.

Gone in the twinkling of eye. Minds enlightened. Souls stirred. Limbs stretched. The Way before us clearer, brought into focus, a sage once said.

Like the Magi, now we fledgling Christians hopefully seek the same. To return to what matters most: life, love, compassion, justice.  Not just for you and me but for everybody. Not just for those with the loudest voices but for the voiceless.

We are called to follow these wise ones on the road less travelled. That other rocky and more difficult road. That road that more often than not, we are reluctant to travel.

Where we’ll have to do things, we don’t really want to do.

Where we’ll have to speak up and say things that aren’t easy to say.

Where we’ll have to let go of things that we would rather keep.

Where we’ll have to give of ourselves, losing time and losing sleep.

We’ll have to be less selfish and more self-aware.

We’ll have to keep our eyes on the prize,

on peace on earth and goodwill for all.

“Star, star, teach us how to shine, shine.”

Show us the Way of the Light Divine.

Show us a worldly way to redeem what truly matters.


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Fly Me to the Moon

I remember Ash Wednesdays at my old parochial school, Holy Family. In the smoky incense-soaked church, Father So-and-So would smear our foreheads with ash. The rest of the school day, I would try mightily to preserve that charcoal smudge – hoping my bangs did not brush it away.

I wanted to make certain that certain people would have a good view, important people like my parents, my friends’ parents, shopkeepers. I had a reputation to uphold! What a holy little kid you are! A little saint deserving of a holy card!

 Particularly I would make sure that my Grandma Cady and my Grandma Peacock would get a good glimpse before I scrubbed it off of my face.

But I was just a kid and what did I really know about Ash Wednesday? It was just a children’s game to me: a dark and wonderful game the priest devised for us to play.

Ring around the rosy, pocket full of posies. We all fall down.

 The first day of Lent – Christians sing a dark and sad song. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Ash Wednesday is a stark reminder that life is short and fleeting, precious and precarious.

This day reminds us that one day God will find us all in his morning paper – decked out on the obituary page.

Eight years old, thumbing through a family photo album, a yellowed newspaper clipping fell to my feet. Picking it up, it was a death-notice, the first I had ever read. It belonged to my Great-great-grandfather – Zachariah Hazel.

Zachariah had been a prominent Washington, D.C. businessman and architect the clipping effused. The story continued: Zachariah had helped to direct the completion of the Capitol building and the placement of the Freedom statue atop the dome.

Whoa! What? What? What?

Bursting with pride, I ran to my Grandma Peacock.

Wow, I did not know we were descended from someone so famous!’

Grandma Peacock wasted no time bursting my little eight-year old bubble.

“No, Joani Baloney. Your Great-great-grandfather was nothing but a common laborer – and possibly a drunkard besides.”

 O well, apparently, he had written it himself.

Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.

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Open up your favorite digital newspaper and click on the obituary section. Every sooty cross marked upon our foreheads is a reminder of those who have gone before us – loved ones, fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, friends, lovers.

Bittersweet, I recall when just a few years ago, I strew my own mother’s stardust on the ground. While Frank Sinatra crooned “Fly Me to the Moon” on my Ipod, my siblings and I returned her to the elements from whence she came.

At Cedar Hill Cemetery, we scattered mom atop the graves of her loved ones: my dad, her parents, her in-laws, her best friend. To stardust and to her savior, my mom returned.

Death is the greatest of equalizers. Whether we get an inch in the paper or a full-page spread, before God we are all to a person one and the same.

“We are all made of stardust. It sounds like a line in a poem …but every element on earth was formed in the heart of a star.”  Exploding out of a supernova comes the stuff of which the planets are molded. Bursting out of a supernova is the stuff of which our bodies are made.

Divinely formed from spit and stardust — to stardust we shall return. Both biblically and cosmically, we traverse through this life with feet of clay.

As Lent looms, let’s take a little look in the mirror. Let’s get a little introspective, a little penitential. A little time to reflect, pray, and possibly compose our own obituary.

Not like the one my Great-great-great Grandfather Zachariah Hazel wrote for himself but a literally honest-to-God one. Get it all out there. Don’t skip over the nasty bits. Put it all in there, warts and all. Personal confession is sobering stuff indeed.

A cliché, yes, but it is truly true that confession is good for the soul. Because no matter how messy our obituaries, the truth of Christ crucified is greater still. God’s wounded hands hung the stars. God’s outstretched arms reach out in love.

God brings order to our earthly chaos and renewal to our earthly souls.

Yes, good God,

“You are immortal, the creator and maker of humankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth we shall return. For so did you ordain us when you created us, saying, ‘You are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ All of us go down to the dust, yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

 Yes, good God, fly me to the moon and let me play among the stars.

JoaniSign

NOTE: Wednesday, February 14th, my parish is hosting two Ash Wednesday services: one at noon and the other 7:30 PM: Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 1608 Russell Road, Alexandria, VA 22301. All are welcome!