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!)

The Nativity, Julie Vivas

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. The darkness of these blue winter days yearns for the light. 

And on Advent 4, we have walked almost all the way to Bethlehem. Walked beside a pregnant, unwed peasant girl.

“…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. Such an illustrious and exceptional birth was a common motif for the likes of emperors-turned-gods in the ancient world. And I confess to you, it has always been a conundrum to this Christian.

But Anglicans are unafraid to ask such questions.

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 and many 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; I quote myself below.

“Hail Mary, never virgin, the Lord is with thee.”

“A little bit shocking? But I did get your attention, right?”

“And what I mean by Hail Mary, never virgin, in the poetic sense, is that when it comes to God, Mary is anything but a virgin. She is vulnerable, bewildered and yet open to this pregnant impossibility. Conceiving within herself all that is divine, all that is holy.”

“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 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 dramatic and pregnant pause, I returned to my seat. I was pretty sure I had flunked my first sermon, but I got an A minus or maybe a B plus — 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.

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord. And my spirit rejoices in God my savior.


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So Emmanuel, What’s in a Name?

meister-eckhart-mother-of-god

Besides being the 1st Sunday after Christmas and of course, New Year’s Day, the 1st of January is also the Feast of the Holy Name.

And this conflating of dates got me to thinking: what’s in a name? Where do they come from? And what do they mean?

Family names, of course, come from family. But what about our first names? What about what we used to call our Christian name – given to us at our Christening?

Born in the winter of 1955, I am the third baby bird of six. My mother, on her third day of lying in at Providence Hospital, still had not come up with a name for Baby Girl Peacock.

In walks a nurse, a Sister of Charity. “What’s your name?” my mother asks her. “Joan”, she says, “Joan.” So that’s what my mom writes on my birth certificate: Joan. And for a middle name, she throws in her own: Louise.

Joan Louise: named not for Joan Fontaine, not for Joan Crawford, not for Joan Rivers and not even possibly for the Catholic saint – Joan of Arc . This Joan was named for a kind yet random stranger.

Adding insult to injury, my name is also just a single syllable, as plain Jane (or as lonely Joan) as you can get.

As a kid, I tried very hard – on paper, at least, to stretch my name into something more significant. I added letters: J-o-a-n became J-o-a-n-I- became J-o-a-n-i-E became J-o-a-n-N-i-e.

As a middle child, who regularly disappeared into the woodwork, I wanted my name to matter. I wanted it to mean something.

So what’s in a name, your name, and what does it mean?

And since it’s the Feast of the Holy Name, what’s up with the mysterious and mystical name of God?

The Hebrew name of God was so holy and so sacred it was unspeakable. Marked out by four consonants – YHWH – it was never to be pronounced. Never to be prayed aloud.

But that did not keep God’s people, old and new, from calling on HER by every name they could think of (and to name just a few:)

I AM THAT I AM

Ancient of Days

Adonai

Elohim

O Holy One(s)

El-Shaddai

The Almighty

Wisdom Divine

Hagia Sophia

Everlasting

The Most High

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob

The God of Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel

The Desire of the Nations

King of Kings

Lord of Lords

Prince of Peace

The God of Mary, the God of Joseph

Yeshua

Jesus

Emmanuel

The Light of the World

The Word Incarnate

The Word made flesh

Meister Eckhart, a mystic of the middle ages, wrote: “We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born.” And each person born into this world is a “little word” of God.

EVERY person born into this godforsaken world is conceived as a little word of God.

And no matter our “Christian” names (or Islamic or Hindu or Jewish or Mormon or Agnostic names), we are put on this earth to name and proclaim all that is holy and good –

– in ways both little and large.

To name it and proclaim it — in the midst of all that is NOT so holy and NOT so good.

In the fallout of all things 2016,

this 2017, let’s make a resolution or two,

that with God’s help, we remain faithful to, all the year long.

To no longer label and segregate our neighbors  –but — to love and serve our neighbors, as ourselves;

To tame our wicked and wounding tongues,

so that we may make flesh these healing words of God:

Faith,

Hope,

and

Charity.

And the greatest WORD of these is — LOVE.

JoaniSign


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Labor Pains & Stretch Marks

great with child

Theotokos, God-bearer, Truth-bearer.

It was Advent of ‘83 and I was pregnant with God.

Well at least a little bit pregnant with God.

That frosty November, I was new to the Episcopal Church and flattered beyond belief to be joining the worship planning committee. You see, I grew up Roman Catholic and Sunday services were just endless reruns of Father Knows Best. We lay folks stayed glued to our pews. Fenced off from the altar by a rail, we knew our place. Only the priest was allowed to perform those magical mysteries and pronounce God’s hocus-pocus.

So miracle of miracles in Advent of ’83 at Immanuel-on-the-Hill, and pregnant with my second child, I played the Theotokos. I played the Theotokos in a very awkward and makeshift, hippy-dippy liturgical drama – Mary, Pregnant with God.

Such a brilliant narrative arc! It was a three Sunday cycle through the three trimesters. On the fourth Sunday: pant; blow; PUSH!

It was my shortest pregnancy of record – so different from the previous three.

Being the mother of three, I have spent the better part of three years pregnant. And what my brain might not recall from those twenty-seven months – my body most certainly does:

Seasickness on land; nauseated with just one whiff of coffee (Best pregnancy test ever! I love the smell of coffee.); expanding waistline; swollen feet; wobbly gate; expansive in mood; energetic in spirit; exhausted by the smallest of efforts; cranky and uncomfortable; floating on hope; anxiety ridden; excited as hell; bursting with life.

Ladies, did I leave anything out?

You know that horrible hymn? Come labor on? Well God blessed me and gifted me with wide-birthing hips. So assisted by my friend, Gravity, I did not labor long.

I delivered my firstborn, Zach in just two and a half hours. Dainty daughter, Colleen was born in just four. And Jacob, number three, was nearly spontaneously birthed on the sidewalk outside the Emergency Room.

There was no time for drugs. There was barely time to get to the hospital and push.

So with the baby born and nuzzling at my breast, naturally manic me was euphoric squared, euphoric to the 1000th power. Blissfully exhausted and wide, wide awake, every little fiber of my being was belting out the Hallelujah Chorus.

For unto us a child is born, unto us a child is given!

Now everyone has given birth. Be ye male or female, young or old, everyone, everywhere has given birth. Made in the image of the Creator, we are all fertile souls. And even if we are not in the business of procreation, we are all in the business of co-creation.

Over the course of the last nine (well actually eight) months, I birthed my fourth amazing child. And at sixty years of age, this is more than a minor miracle!

Back in September my bipolar brain conceived her. Formed in the pit of my stomach. Nourished by my frazzled flesh and bones. She kicked my insides and stole my sleep. A labor of love, she stretched me beyond knowing. Expanding in the dark — she was born in the light.

This past Saturday on April 25th.

SpeakeasyDC was both birth coach and midwife. Unhinged is her name.

Eight amazing storytellers told eight amazing stories about living with mental illness, loving someone with mental illness, and working in the field. Three hundred people packed the house. Laughter, tears, understanding, and standing ovations.

The truth was told: my truth, their truth, our truth, God’s truth, nothing but the truth.

Labor pains and stretch marks, the truth will set you free.

So friends, ready to get a little bit pregnant?

JoaniSign