Adventures on the Island of Misfit Toys

A couple of years ago, PW and a local rabbi presided over the wedding of a Romanian Orthodox Christian woman and a Russian Orthodox Jewish man. The wedding ceremony included a chuppa, a three crowns ceremony, and a eucharist, with challah made by the groom’s grandmother who lives in Israel and wine made by the bride’s father. I’m not sure what the grandmother thought happened at communion, because the challah loaf was approximately the size of a miniature pony.

At the wedding, some of the groom’s family surprised PW by lining up to receive communion, along with the bride’s family. In a scene that has long since taken on a life of its own, PW quickly changed the words of distribution to “Bread for the Journey” when she put bread in the hands of the Jewish family members (instead of “the body of Christ.”) She hadn’t had time to suggest alternate words to the chalice bearer, so she heard him repeat as he followed along behind her, “Blood for the Journey” (instead of “the blood of Christ.”)

Can I just say that, to me, never is Christian liturgy more like a Monty Python sketch than during communion? Of course I can, this is my website! The scene above is reason #814 why I wish Christianity would move past this yucky body and blood of Christ business. The first 813 reasons are that it’s just gross. This is the 21st century, folks. Must we STILL be littering our liturgies with the language of cannibalism and vampirism? But I digress.

This same couple brought their new baby to church last Sunday for the Jewish ceremony for naming a daughter, and a baptism. The church bulletin included the Jewish prayers in both English and Hebrew, along with the usual Episcopal baptism liturgy. In addition, we had the Boston Children’s Chorus as guest musicians, so we had a house full of company, so to speak. I’m sure most of us have never been involved in a service like this until Sunday.

Here's part of the worship bulletin for last Sunday

Male members of the groom’s/father’s family all wore matching bright pink kippot, perhaps in celebration of the new baby daughter? No idea what the color signified, if anything, but it was stunning. After brief remarks by PW and the rabbi, the families were invited up to the front for the Jewish ceremony, which included a Chair of Elijah and ceremonial sips of sweet wine from a kiddush cup. Immediately following, everyone moved down to the baptismal font for the baptism.

In PW’s comments prior to the two ceremonies, she noted that the baby girl (whose name combines the Greek word for “wisdom” with the Hebrew word for “life”) would have full dual citizenship as a Jew and a Christian. This will likely be a stumbling block for many on both sides of her citizenship aisle, since we humans are notoriously exclusively-minded. I can hear it now:

“What religion are you?”
“I’m Jewish and Christian.”
“What? You can’t be both?”
“Yes I can!”
“No you can’t!”
“I already am!”
“No you aren’t!”
“Oh yes I AM!”

This imagined conversation reminds me of the time I picked up GForce at preschool one day and overheard a boy asking where her dad was and why he didn’t ever pick her up.

“Who is your dad?”
“I don’t have a dad. I have three moms.”
“You can’t have three moms!”
“Well, I do!”
“But where’s your dad?”
“I don’t have a dad.”
“WHAT? Why do you have three moms and no DAD!”
“Because THAT’S how I wanted it!”

The next time I saw that kid’s mom, she told me that her son went home that night wondering why he only had one mom. She and I had a good laugh about that.

For the life of me, I cannot fathom how Christian and Jewish communities can justify any kind of exclusiveness – particularly when it comes to hosting ceremonies that mark rites of passage: weddings, baptisms, naming ceremonies, funerals, etc. If anything, these are the occasions when faith communities should be throwing open their doors.

Believe it or not, even opening communion to anyone who wants to participate is STILL a radical thing to do in the Christian tradition. Crazy, right? Thankfully, PW’s eucharistic theology is basically this: if you put your hands out, she will put bread in them. She’s not going to bother interviewing you about whether you’ve been baptized or attended membership classes or whether you’ve repented for anything. She doesn’t even care if you are Christian, Jewish, Atheist, whatever. If you want bread, you get bread. She’s a rebel like that.

I won’t even bother getting into the handwringing hoohaw that various strains of both Christians and Jews go through over whether queer people can/should be ordained, and if so, to what level. Really? Both the Christian and Jewish faith traditions are rooted in generations of people being exiled, outcast, persecuted, and annihilated. So what do we do? Well, we exile, outcast, persecute, and annihilate. Or, we study things to death in hopes that the people who want to join our ranks (as well as the issues they bring with them) will give up and/or go away — which is just a more passive form of exiling, casting out, persecuting, and annihilating.

Emmanuel Church has a reputation for having no residency or belief requirements for membership, weddings, baptisms, communion, you name it. As a result, we end up hosting ceremonies and casts of characters that force us to re-examine what it means to be inclusive, and occasionally struggle with how inclusive we really want to be. It’s good, stretchy work. Like any stretch, sometimes it leaves us feeling uncomfortable. And sometimes, what feels perfect to one group of people feels jarring and disturbing to another group. Still, I’d rather be stretched than frozen any day, even if it means occasionally feeling like we’re a kind of Island of Misfit Toys.

I’m pretty sure that the combination Jewish/Christian ceremonies we had this past Sunday would not have happened without our ongoing and deepening relationship with Boston Jewish Spirit and their Rabbi Howard Berman. PW refers to the relationship as “an interfaith family,” which testifies both to our deep commitment and struggles to understand and work with each other, set in an environment of mutual affection, admiration, and respect. It can be hard work, swimming against the tide of centuries of mutual suspicion and distrust, as well as the overt anti-Semitism that is threaded through much of the Christian Testament. But swim we do, and our two congregations have formed a kind of buddy system in the ways we look out for and help each other.

As a capper to Sunday’s extraordinary liturgy, we had a stunning moment during the Bach cantata. At the beginning of the instrumental prelude for the tenor aria in BWV 96 – “Herr Christ, der einige Gottes sohn,” I noticed that the tenor credited in the bulletin was not moving toward the front for his solo. I looked down at my bulletin to make sure I was looking for the right tenor.

By the time I looked back up, the conductor (who used to be a tenor in the chorus before he was selected to be the new music director) had turned to face the congregation, holding the big, clothbound conductor’s score in his hands. The orchestra continued playing without a conductor and Ryan sang the aria beautifully.

At coffee hour after church, I learned that Ryan found out only that morning that the regularly scheduled tenor was having throat problems and wouldn’t be able to sing the aria. None of the other tenors in the chorus had ever sung that particular aria before, so not even an hour before the service started, Ryan decided to sing it himself.

Several people told me after the service that the expression on my face was priceless when I looked up to see Ryan readying himself to sing. Apparently, a look of rapturous amazement remained on my face throughout, and Ryan told me later that looking at my face helped him get through the aria. I had absolutely no idea that I was providing any assistance whatsoever. I was just sitting there, awestruck by the whole morning.

It’s cool and curious how the simple act of showing up and staying open to the crazy possibilities of life can sustain the people around us. And, most of the time, you’re lucky if you find out that you’ve provided this support. Moments earlier, I myself had drawn similar inspiration and sustenance from the brilliant pink kippot bobbing around the empty chair for Elijah and then the baptismal font.

The other day I read an interview with Tom Waits in the New York Times. In the interview, he shared what he tells the sidemen who play in his band or on his records: “I want you to play like you’re 7 years old at a recital. I want you to play like your mom’s in the room. I want you to play like you’re miles from home, and your legs are dangling from a boxcar. Or play like your hair’s on fire. Play like you have no pants on.”

If you substitute the word “worship” for the word “play” in the above quotation, that’s what church was like for me on Sunday. Full of surprise, sweetness, boldness, jarring moments, and tiny shards of time that took my breath away – like watching the Jewish and Christian parents of a newly welcomed baby walk up to the communion rail together for a blessing, or like watching the orchestra play without their conductor, because he has turned to face the congregation and is singing like an angel. It turns out, sometimes you figure out how to do things you’ve never done before by just, well, doing them.

A song didn’t come to mind for me today, so I’m sharing this fabulous clip from the movie “Three Kings.” It was playing in my head the whole time I was writing.

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30 responses to “Adventures on the Island of Misfit Toys

  1. Your comment about the three moms reminded me of when my sister Martha, the youngest of the four of us in that particular family, was crying about being adopted.

    My brother Doug and I consoled her by telling her we were adopted too, by our dad. My sister Amy asked if she were adopted too. No, we told her, you’re not adopted at all. She burst into tears and told us she wanted to be adopted too.

  2. Joy it is so good to “hear” your voice again. What a wonderful congregation you belong to. I think we should do away with all the body and blood of communion and concentrate more on the community we share and the “bread for the journey” that we need. Good for PW to be spot on with those words. Oh that we could all let the barriers that separate us down and share together our similarities and our differences without fear of judgment, that would be a great day.

    I hope you get a chance to right again soon.

  3. I like the part about how some people “study” things until the people who want to join give up and go away. One of the main victories in my life (academic, not church) is that they haven’t been able to make me slink away yet.

  4. Joy — Thanks. This is really something you can dig your teeth into! You encapsulate lots of issues. Thank you for writing what many of us felt.

    • Thanks, Pat. There was a whole lot to wrestle into one overly long post, and I still feel like I left some important parts out. Glad I was able to capture some of it for you.What a day!

  5. A lovely post, as usual. I loved that Tom Waits interview; in fact, I pointed out that same passage you quoted to Heather. From now on, I will try to blog like I have no pants on.

  6. Biloine (Billie) Young

    I enjoyed your column. I am just back from New Hampshire where a delightful rabbi from Boston, Rabbi Hannah, who shepards the synagogue in Laconia, New Hampshire, conducted the bar mitzah service for my grandson Mark Young. She had doe the same a year ago for Mark’s brother Matthew and will probably repeat the process for Michele in a year or two. She incorporated all of our non-Jewish family in the ceremony, which I really appreciated. You might ask if your Rabbi friend knows Rabbi Hannah. She is a former english teacher who resigned from that career, went to Rabinnical school and is now the Rabbi for this small group in Laconia. I am a fan of hers. Should add that I am a friend of your mom and dad – have known them part of forever. Biloine ( Billie) Young

    • Billie, you are so sweet. More proof that all the sweet people in the world are old friends of my parents. Funny you should mention your grandchildren’s ceremonies. I always wanted to have a bat mitzvah after I went to my first one. I just might ask Rabbi Berman if he’ll guide me through that process! I’ll ask him if he knows Rabbi Hannah. Thanks for reading.

  7. What a great post! I would love to be a member of a congregation like that! Open to possibilities! Also totally agree with your comments regarding the communion ritual.

    • Thank you, Kathy. My guess as to why more congregations aren’t like this is because they don’t know it’s possible. That’s why I write about it so much.

  8. As usual, Joy, it’s such a gift/treat/pleasure to read your words and let them slosh around in my head. Thank you.
    It was a former rector at Emmanuel who guided me to think about communion in a way that makes sense for me (as one who grew up an evangelical fundamentalist and came to the Episcopal church through the oddly-skewed world of professional musician): it doesn’t matter what you believe when coming to the ritual-history-laden act of communion; rather, it’s one place god/goddess/Love is sure to be waiting for me, in all my brokenness (with no strings attached), quick to meet me and assure me of complete Presence.
    Thanks again for today’s post, Joy. You are a real gift.
    bj

    • Aw, Brett, thanks so much. What you describe is where I go in my head during the most odious parts of the Eucharistic prayer. I’m glad that most of the chalice bearers at Emmanuel are now saying “The Love of Christ, the Cup of Salvation.” When I am doing the chalice, saying that always makes me smile. In fact, I try to always remember to substitute the word Love for Blood, in the Eucharist, in prayers, and in hymns. I think we should hand out decoder rings at the door to help people like me.

      If I had my preference, the Eucharistic prayer would focus our attention more on what happens when one person invites another to share some food and drink. This phenomenon is as old as humankind, creating a sacred space by inviting someone to share some bread and wine. In some cases, it can be the difference between life and death, between sustenance and devastation. THAT’S what I want to hear about, not blood and guts. But I’m one of the crankier Christians I know. Thank goodness we cranks have companions like you to draw us toward what is beautiful, true, and soaring.

  9. You’re not really cranky, just speaking the truth. All the trappings confuse the issue, and you’re right on the mark (in my book) with the community/giving aspect of the table. Isn’t that Love’s action after all? Thanks again.
    one cranky person to another

  10. Wow. I read this and as usual, it’s wonderfully written. I feel guilty at the contrarian thoughts racing around my head right now: At my sharpest/most critical, I’m thinking, Easy for someone in the majority religion (in the U.S. for now, anyhow) to talk about the virtue of being inclusive — kinda like white privilege, where maybe non-white people might perceive our inclusiveness as largesse. While reading, I kept thinking, Yes, but “Jews for Jesus” as a group is still oxymoronic to me, and visceral stumbling blocks are strewing themselves in front of me as I write: If I join in, I’ll be recruited, and besides, how can I trust the friendship? Don’t they really just want to save my soul and fulfill the Grand Commission? These thoughts are from my worst self — the self that grew up with Holocaust-era parents … America-born Jews with Holocaust survivor guilt who looked for and found anti-Semitism at every turn. In fact, a few days ago, my nearly 86-year-old mother said, “I’m going to write my own obituary Sarah. It’s going to say, ‘Until they re-write the New Testament, there’s no hope [for anti-Semitism to disappear].” So I read in this and others among your blog entries about your remarkable house-of-worship-sharing and the inter-faith opportunities it affords, and I’ve been delighted by Pam’s sermon transcripts whenever I’ve been lucky to read them, and among my favorite writers are Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton and C.S. Lewis (some of my best friends are Christian!), but I’m still having this reaction: I guess of course it seems fine for kids of Jewish and Christian parents to be a mashup of both religions, but I get nervous if I think that we’re suggesting that all of us consider blending our individual religions and simply enjoy the best of each. Difference is exciting and if I were doing it “right,” I’ve already got 613 commandments to follow. Not sure I have the wherewithal to take on more, though I’m delighted to read the occasional sermon or attend the odd baby-baptism or Communion later in childhood for Christian friends.

    • I adore you, Sarah Siegel!

      I think it’s hard enough being a critically-thinking, reflective, open-minded person of ANY religious persuasion, let alone attempting to navigate more than one. I know people who do, and I admire them for it. But, for me, it’s not about just taking the best of each. What is “best” for one person could be toxic to another, even within the same congregation, much less the same denomination or faith tradition writ large.

      What I was trying to write about here is the mind-boggling (to me) thing that happens when, say, an Orthodox Russian Jewish man and a Romanian Orthodox Christian woman fall in love and want to marry. During a time that really ought to be focused on equipping themselves for the excitement and challenges of building a life together, such a couple is often met with clergy on both sides who refuse to entertain a religious ceremony that doesn’t follow a particular formula, and in which the couple don’t look like a traditional couple.

      What our communities, with Pam and Howard’s guidance, are attempting to do is to create a place where each congregation can join in with the other without fear of being recruited away from their starting point, and with the knowledge that we are valued members of both places. There are several Emmanuel congregants who attend every possible BJS service, plus Torah study. This doesn’t make them less Christian, nor would I argue that it makes them Jewish. That’s for each individual to decide, I think.

      I agree with your mom. The anti-Semitism of the Christian testament is the elephant in the room that many clergy and congregants simply walk around or pretend isn’t there. It’s difficult to take it on, but certainly as the dominant religious “brand” in this country, I believe we Christians are obligated to speak out against it at every opportunity (and there are plenty, particularly around our most important celebrations of Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter). And because the most offensive passages pop up during these special holiday times, people are even less inclined to preach/speak against them because they don’t want to upset the apple cart. That’s both lazy and cowardly, a particularly bad combination among religious people.

      We all have cultural blind spots. Anti-Semitism wasn’t even on my radar until I met my first Jewish friend in college. In college! I can be incensed by the obnoxiousness of Christian triumphalism in scripture and song, but as a member of the dominant cultural tribe, it doesn’t fall on my ears with the same chilling effect that it probably does on a Jewish person’s ears. Which is why we need to be in dialog all the time. I need you, and my other Jewish friends, to help me eliminate my blind spots. I need to study and question and discern. I need to be more suspicious of my assumptions.

      I am so grateful for your honesty and your ability to articulate your worries, concerns, suspicions, fears. I think you and I can do that together because we have a history of listening to each other and caring for each other in ways that honor our individual perspectives. I think you know, I hope you know, and have always known, that I have never wanted to recruit you to Christianity. What I value with you is having friends in you and Pat who are out as queer people of faith. Despite our different cultural/religious lenses, we are walking a particular path as queer people of faith, and I relish the companionship. On a larger scale, that is what Emmanuel Church and BJS are attempting to do. I suspect that if every Christian church had an ark of the covenant in it that was being used by the resident synagogue, the Christian church would change a lot faster. We still suck a lot more than we should, and I want to be fully engaged in the tikkun olam – תיקון עולם‎. I know I can’t do that without friends like you.

  11. Chiming in as a long-time member of the Emmanuel community who finds it the most refreshing change from the narrow-minded fundie-ish Congregational church I was raised in. I’m not sure that what Emmanuel and BJS are doing is becoming or trying to become one another. There’s a Venn diagram somewhere that would show our overlapping portion, which to my mind includes some outreach, some shared worship, shared physical space; the occasional interfaith marriage or naming/baptism; invitations to each others’ holiday celebrations; joint mostly secular events (concerts, talk-backs after plays, and the like). I may be wrong, but Elijah’s chair for last Sunday’s naming ceremony looked an awful lot like the Bishop’s throne used when that person visits Emmanuel for blessings and such things. And BJS’s ark and Torah live in EC’s sanctuary, a reminder to Emmanuelites of whence we came, and I trust a reminder to BJSers of their rightful place and welcome in the same sanctuary. What I believe we’re doing is honoring each other’s faith traditions in ways that might well get both of us thrown out of more orthodox places. And I believe each congregation is the richer for it. I no more feel myself trying to be Jewish than I imagine my BJS friends try to be Episcopalian or even marginally Christian. I guess I’m more Christian than anything else. But then, I’m not sure I’d identify myself as Christian without explaining that I go to a Christian church, the place I happen to sing, and am comfortable there (a) because its service is couched in terms I grew up with and (b) we make no rules about who you are and where you come from and what you believe to make you a welcome member of our community. I’ve pretty much always ignored the things about Christianity that make me squirm – and they are legion – and taken what I can from the people gathered in a given church. This one just happens to be special in many heretofore unimaginable ways.

  12. Joy, Your loving response to Sarah reminds me how not “out” I am as a person of faith [of some sort or another]. Good lord, if I were queer on top of it, how big a closet would it take to contain me?!? Worth thinking about how to be out about one’s faith, whatever it is, without being all those faith-y people who so put one off. You do not let a person rest easy, dear.

    • You are so hilarious, Jaylyn. If you were queer on top of being a person of some sort of faith, maybe you could be in the shed, instead of in the closet. You could get one of those sheds with a window in it, and a little windowbox for flowers. (;

  13. Joy, I knew you’d get it and now I understand better where you were going. And importantly, too, Tom Waits’ “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)” is among the most remarkable songs I’ve ever heard.

    • Sarah, you are so right about that song. I have a lot of Tom Waits songs that are stuck in my brain, and that one’s right up there. I’ve been loving reading the interviews with him as he promotes his new album (to the extent that he “promotes” anything). Now I won’t ever hear “The Piano Has Been Drinking…” without thinking of you. Perfect!

  14. Joy, you are super! This is fantastic! Am passing on to our rector, associates and music director at SMC Annapolis.

  15. Joy, I have one of those sheds — two, in fact. Complete with windowbox. What a great idea!! LOL! JO

  16. For some years, I was a member of St John’s on Bowdoin Street (“The Church of St. John the Evangelist”). The rectors at that time – Jennifer Phillips and Richard Valantasis – helped me to make peace with Christianity. One time I brought a Hindu friend to Mass, and Jennifer had no problem offering him Communion. (Although I’m not sure she changed the words on the fly!)

    I so appreciate your willingness to share your journey with and into and around Christianity.

  17. Pingback: All Saint’s Day Miscellany « Secret Geometry – James Primosch's blog

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