Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


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Serving at Saint In-Between

"An oath I could not quite live up to."

An oath I could not quite live up to.

My first call to serve God and country came at the age of nine. First as a Brownie for year or so – until proudly I got my “wings”. Sprouting wings I ascended to the rank of Junior Girl Scout. Green uniform and all. But I was not a very good Girl Scout. In fact I was a pretty lousy Girl Scout.

My uniform would never quite pass inspection. There was always stuff that needed to be sewn on that wasn’t – troop numbers and patrol badges. I hated camping and when no one was looking, I would switch assignments with the other troop members. Let me gather wood any day – rather than take latrine duty. I never got past the introduction in my handbook and I barely completed the most basic of requirements. I fudged what I could to get my citizenship and cooking badges. At flag ceremonies, the other girls’ sashes were a veritable rainbow of ribbons — while my naked sash was the ultimate embarrassment. My commitment was shaky. My efforts sub par. My loyalty questioned…to God…to country…to Troop 4111.

Girl Scout uniforms circa 1965

Girl Scout uniforms circa 1965

“Joani”, the troop leader asked me “Do you want to be a Girl Scout or not?”

Choose this day whom you will serve.

Silly as this may sound, at nine years old I had made a choice to serve something much bigger than myself. The Girl Scouts had lofty ideals. It was a place where I could make friends, learn new things, and make a difference for my native land in a grade school kind of way. I had taken the Girl Scout oath but this little nine year old did not quite have the hutzpah to live up to it. Sadly my scouting days were over.

Choose this day whom you will serve.

Just who that would be I did not know for a very long time. If it was not country than maybe it was God. I was really good at the “God stuff” at Holy Family School. I loved first Friday Mass. I loved the holy cards that marked my place in my missal. I loved the stories of the saints. I loved the chanting and the incense. I loved the Stations of the Cross. I loved the rosary. I loved the Baltimore Catechism. I even loved the uniform. Peter pan collared blouses. Plaid jumper. Red bow-tie. Saddle shoes. Bobby socks. My home life was hell but Holy Family School was heaven to me.

Choose this day whom you will serve.

But then came the questions. My Jesuit educated father had gifted me with an insatiable curiosity – “an inquiring and discerning heart”. I raised my hand religiously in religion class – frustrating the good sisters to no end. “Transubstantiation makes no sense, Sister. Why would Jesus want us to eat him?” “Jesus was born of a virgin? Didn’t Jesus have a real dad, Sister?” And as I got older my questions got bolder. “I don’t understand why French kissing is a sin, Sister. What’s wrong with tongues touching?” And the nail in my coffin — “What the heck does the Pope know about birth control?” Sister Mary Clare took me aside and delivered the diagnosis: “Joani, you are intellectually gifted but you are spiritually retarded”.

Choose this day whom you will serve.

Well maybe it wasn’t God. I went off to Catholic University and majored in philosophy where I could ask all the damn questions I wanted. I studied Plato and Aristotle; Boethius and Aquinas; Descartes and Kant; Hegel and Kierkegaard; Sartre and Camus. I loved the proofs of logic and proving the Jesus freaks wrong. But the meaning of life evaded me.

Until I became a mom. When I became a mom it was abundantly clear just whom I was serving and their names were Zach, Colleen and Jacob. I was not a stay at home mom. I really do not have a domestic bone in my body. My children are all grown now. But I really mean it when I say that every age was a good age and every stage was amazing. Not perfect of course – hell no — but amazing. And my children just by being my children taught me the meaning of life. This life is sacred. Every day – no matter how lousy – is a gift of God. Every single day is a Holy Day – a Feast.

Choose this day whom you will serve.

So with kids in tow I found myself back at church – but this time at the Episcopal Church. I taught Sunday School according to the Gospel of Frog and Toad, Dr. Seuss and the Berenstain Bears. I helped start a neighborhood preschool for at risk kids. I read lessons and passed the chalice. I read Thomas Merton’s “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander” and the Ulanovs’ “Primary Speech”. I was the “Theotokos” in a liturgical drama. I was hooked. I was an Episcopalian.

Choose this day whom you will serve.

So I guess it was God after all. I guess it was God all along but it took a while to really know it deep down in my gut. So I walked across the street — literally — I walked across the street to Virginia Seminary in 1991. And now ordained twenty years I have served God in Her church in five different parishes. Saint Luke’s. Holy Cross. Saint George’s. All Saints. Emmanuel. But the hardest parish I have ever had to serve is Saint In-Between.

Ten years ago I crashed and burned after being 24/7, seven days a week, chief cook and bottle washer at Holy Cross. No need to bother with the details but once I was checked out of Dominion Hospital I was also without a church. And quite literally without a job. I rearranged my resume to try and pass off my skills in the secular world – but to no avail. I had lots of interviews but no offers. I volunteered at Ten Thousand Villages and United Community Ministries. Unemployment among the mentally ill in the United States is estimated to be as high as 80%. A staggeringly obscene statistic. I took the only job I could find  — the lowliest I could have imagined doing inventory in a library.

Learning to live a bipolar life is just about the hardest thing I have ever had to do. And some days – the depressed days — it was all I could to get out the door. But get out the door I did. And you would think that church would be a great help at a time like this. But church was no help — no help at all. And diocesan functions were the worst. In a hierarchical church, who is a priest without a position? Who was I with only my name and not a church name on my name tag? “Where are you serving now?” nosy folks would ask. Invariably I would answer: “I am serving at Saint In-Between.”

Choose this day whom you will serve.

Well I believe it is still  God of course. I still endeavor the best I can to be Her humble, bumbling, and imperfect  servant. But my discipleship has been reshaped and redefined. Work is incredibly healing – especially meaningful work. But my work now is different.  I still work in that library – Bishop Payne Library – where at the front desk I serve as pastor, priest, book jockey and mental health evangelist. And I am also awesomely blessed to serve as Priest Associate at Emmanuel on High – where I get to preach, teach, and celebrate. (And where I have the best colleague in the world, the Rev. Chuck McCoart.)

My ministry now is different but different is good. Different is delightful. Different is divine. And for this different – I am deeply grateful.

So my friends, tell me about your Saint In-Between.

Pax vobiscum,

Joani