Tag Archives: Emmanuel Church

On being a fish in the School of Love

Update on June 15, 2017:
I wrote the post below nearly six years ago. This past Tuesday, I learned that Z., the parishioner I wrote about, died last week. She had been in a nursing home for the past few years, which resulted in a huge improvement to her health. Two years ago, she re-connected with long estranged family members who, until they heard her voice on the phone, thought Z. had been dead for years. They continued to visit her at the nursing home regularly up until her death. Emmanuelites also continued to visit her and sent her cards.

Tomorrow Emmanuel will hold a funeral for her, this woman who both taught us and learned from us how friends accompany each other: doggedly, imperfectly, earnestly, generously, with forgiveness, patience, admiration, and whatever else we can muster, in service to each other and to the mysterious force that is the gravity of love. We’ll sing, pray, and eat with her one last time (while Z. came to and ate at every potluck, she steadfastly refused to participate in communion because she was afraid of germs). Then we’ll send Z. along to the burying ground, and to whatever is next. I hope her version of heaven is a place where, among other things, she is the only one allowed to smoke. She loved smoking, but hated when anyone else did.

This poem I read recently is for Z.

Enriching the Earth
by Wendell Berry

To enrich the earth I have sowed clover and grass
to grow and die. I have plowed in the seeds
of winter grains and various legumes,
their growth to be plowed in to enrich the earth.
I have stirred into the ground the offal
and the decay of the growth of past seasons
and so mended the earth and made its yield increase.
All this serves the dark. Against the shadow
of veiled possibility my workdays stand
in a most asking light. I am slowly falling
into the fund of things. And yet to serve the earth,
not knowing what I serve, gives a wideness
and a delight to the air, and my days
do not wholly pass. It is the mind’s service,
for when the will fails so do the hands
and one lives at the expense of life.
After death, willing or not, the body serves,
entering the earth. And so what was heaviest
and most mute is at last raised up into song.

Original post, dated July 25, 2011:
All the churchgoing I’ve done in my adult life has been in urban settings. When I compare this to the churchgoing of my childhood, the biggest differences seem to be that, as an adult, I’ve attended churches with a lot more people who are either visibly mentally ill, or homeless, or both.

Listening to the radical teachings of a homeless rabbi to the marginalized people of a land occupied by a hostile foreign army is a lot more intense when some of my pewmates are marginalized people who stink to high heaven because they don’t have a regular place to bathe or wash their clothes, and/or who are clearly struggling to keep any sort of grip on their minds. Some have been given to what I think of as Liturgical Wandering, where they get up and mill about at inappropriate moments. Some have come storming down the center aisle, hollering incoherently and angrily. Some have panhandled during communion. You get the idea.

We have a few regulars at my church who are in the category that PW refers to as “the least, the last and the lost.” Like all the rest of us who more easily pass as “normal” (even though in our own ways we are also “least, last, and lost”), some are higher functioning than others. Recently, one of our “least, last, and lost” responded to an announcement in the worship folder that offered pastoral care services to anyone who needs them.

I will call this person Z.

Z’s pastoral care needs include help with laundry, grocery shopping, and getting rides to and from church. I don’t know if there’s any diagnosable condition involved, but Z is consumed with fear and suspicion. This results in incredibly tense situations at church, especially around personal contact (touching) and food. I’ve seen more than a few well-meaning people tenderly touch Z on the shoulder while trying to find out what it is that Z needs, only to find themselves on the other end of Z’s outraged, “Get your HANDS OFF OF ME! WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE??”

Yesterday, I volunteered to give Z a ride home from church. Well, I didn’t exactly volunteer. PW asked if I would do it. I didn’t want to do it, but when my inner Bartleby the Scrivener muttered “I would prefer not to,” I took a deep breath and said “too bad” to it. Then I responded to PW with, “Okay.” There were at least a thousand other things I would rather have done, but it’s a shallow, flimsy, and ultimately worthless commitment to a difficult and demanding faith tradition if I only show up for the people I enjoy. There’s at least one thing I’ve learned in all these years of church-going: if we’re really following the example of our homeless rabbi, being a Christian is less like a garden party, and more like mud wrestling.

At the exchange of the peace during church yesterday, the co-chair of the pastoral care committee, B, hugged me and wished me “many blessings” on my afternoon adventure with Z. B knows how important those blessings are. She recently spent something like 5 hours sitting in a laundromat while Z did laundry and refused all help. I didn’t realize that such a simple exchange with someone I love would end up becoming a life preserver that I would cling to desperately in order to get through the afternoon.

Giving Z a ride home was excruciating – it took way too long, it overwhelmed every one of my senses in bad ways, and it tapped the bottom of qualities I think of myself as having in abundance: patience, kindness, compassion, empathy, and good humor. I completely underestimated the effect that an hour’s worth of Z’s paranoia would have on me. I knew that I was only experiencing a sliver of what it is like for Z to navigate the world on a daily basis. This simultaneously comforted me, made me feel ill, and shattered my heart. I squeezed the life preserver of B’s blessings and hung on tight.

As you may have gathered from the description of the scene at the laundromat, Z moves at a glacially slow pace. After a complicated and time-consuming trip to the grocery store, where I thought Z might collapse from stress, we arrived at Z’s apartment. I carried the groceries up and stacked them precariously on one of the few available flat surfaces. Z thanked me awkwardly, and looked smaller than ever as I closed the door behind me. When I left the tiny, chaotic room that Z calls home, I got in my car and took a deep breath. I didn’t know if I would throw up or start sobbing, or both.

I sat there for a few minutes, bobbing in the sea of a wider world that was both roiling with the shock, horror, and grief of Norway – where my grandfather was born – and buoyant with the glee, relief, and wonder of the many same-sex couples across the State of New York, who spoke their vows to each other and got to hear the thrilling words, “By the power vested in me by the laws of the state of New York, I now pronounce you legally married.” I let the tears come.

That’s me, out of formation in the lower left corner

More and more, I think the practice of going to church is, basically, swimming in the School of Love. It’s about learning that sometimes love is as simple, and as difficult, as escorting a nausea-inducing person to your car, opening the door, and helping the person sit down on the once pristine passenger seat. It is about remembering to hold your breath while you reach across to help that person, who does not want to be touched, with the seat belt. It is about wielding a grocery cart and 20 bucks to buy diet soda, blueberry muffins, pita bread, hummus, and taboule. It is about choosing to be compassionate, even when everything about it makes you feel ill.

One of my swim coaches once told me, “You won’t get any better if you back off from the pain. So if you want to be better, when you get to the pain, just swim through it.” He made it sound so easy. Oh sure, la dee dah! Just swim through it! La la! Even when I knew there was an endorphin rush on the other side, I always found it terrifying to swim through the pain. That was several decades and two shoulders ago, before I found that most of life’s swimming doesn’t happen anywhere near a pool.

What do I want to be when I grow up? Better. Better at compassion today than yesterday. Better at love this year than last. Better at doing the next right thing than I was just a moment ago. And so I keep swimming in the School of Love, clinging to the lifeline of my many blessings.


Plea. Gift. Sign.

It’s my turn to offer up some thoughts about Advent and/or Christmas music, as part of a blog chain started by my pal Harriet the Spy. Here are the other links in  this blog chain:

Harriet at spynotes
Hugh at Permanent qui vive
Jeanne at Necromancy never pays
Cranky at It’s My Blog!
Dr. Geek at Dr. Geek’s Laboratory
Lemming at Lemming’s Progress
Readersguide at Reader’s Guide to…
Freshhell at Life in Scribbletown
edj3 at kitties kitties kitties
My Kids’ Mom at Pook and Bug
Yours truly
Magpie at Magpie Musing
Dave at The Ideal Dave
and then Harriet at spynotes will do a wrap-up

I love being in the company of such a groovy group of writers and thinkers, and I’m a little baffled at how I stumbled into this gang. I hope you’ll go read their blogs if you don’t know about them already. There’s very cool stuff happening out here in Internetville.

The Little Drummer Boy
How much have I always hated this song? Let me count the ways. Nah, rather than count, I will tell you that I have hated this song with the intensity of a thousand supernovas, ever since I can remember. For a host of reasons, this song has always been like fingernails on a chalkboard for me. Until a couple of years ago.

In 2010, PW’s friend Ana Hernandez released an album of Advent and Christmas music called “An Unexpected Christmas,” in which Ana’s arrangements of some familiar songs, as well as some original work, are sung by the Virginia Girls Choir from St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, VA.

The first track on this album is The Little Drummer Boy. Cue Joybells’ rolled eyes, the “Oh geez, I can’t believe they’re beginning the album with THAT!” I had my finger hovering over the fast forward button, but then this unfolded:

I love the layers of percussion, with Ana’s tight harmonies shimmering above. And mostly I love the persistent minor-key-ness of it. And now it’s an earworm that I welcome.

Once in Royal David’s City

Yeah, yeah, this is an old holiday chestnut. Except when it cracks you open as if YOU are the nut.

At PW’s previous church, I sang in the choir–mostly tenor. Five years ago was the last midnight Christmas Eve service for PW and me, before we moved on to Emmanuel Church. So it was already emotionally loaded for me.

The music director, A, and his wife, L (who was also the soprano soloist for the first verse of “Once in Royal David’s City) had a six-month-old baby girl at the time. As the choir was lining up in the hallway outside the sanctuary getting ready to process, L was trying to get Baby E to fall asleep before the service started. It was late and E was so tired she was cross-eyed. But there was a lot of energy in the hallway, and she just couldn’t get over the edge into sleep.

As the organ prelude began to wind down, I told L, “Just give me the baby. You’ve got to go sing that gorgeous solo. We can’t start without that.” So L put her restless daughter in my arms and I threw a blanket over E’s to try to reduce her visual stimuli.

I found my place in the line and bounced E in my arms (that always worked with GForce, before she got to be six feet tall!) Then from the back of the sanctuary, L began to sing that soaring melody, unaccompanied: “Once in Royal David’s city, stood a lowly cattle shed…” By the time she got to the second line of the hymn, her voice hovering over our heads in the hallway, E was limp–sound asleep in my arms.

As the choir began to process in on the second verse, I tweaked that gorgeous tenor line by singing to E, “She came down to earth from heaven…” We sang and processed slowly through the candlelit sanctuary, and the baby slept through the whole thing. I sang my heart out, tears welling up and then spilling over. And as I looked at the congregation, most of the people I saw were also weeping. Afterwards, people asked me if we had staged it, my carrying the baby during the procession. But, in a distillation of one of the messages of the Christmas story, what began as a purely practical solution became an entirely magical moment, and now I can’t hear or sing that song without remembering the weight of slumbering possibility in my arms.

The Infant King (Sing Lullaby)

In the weeks leading up to that same service where I processed carrying the sleeping baby, I made a CD of all the songs we were going to be singing so that I could practice in the car. I had never sung “The Infant King (Sing Lullaby)” before, and I was a little worried because every time I practiced it I couldn’t get through it without crying.

Sing lullaby!
Lullaby baby, now reclining,
Sing lullaby!
Hush, do not wake the Infant King.
Angels are watching, stars are shining
Over the place where he is lying.
Sing lullaby!

So far so good in terms of the lyrics, but the intertwining of the parts is so evocative for me. The first verse is an exquisite set-up for the heartbreak that sneaks up in the second verse. The first verse is such a great musical and lyrical painting of this moment: it’s the wee hours of the middle of the night after I’ve just given birth to GForce, and the nurse has brought her to me, wrapped tighter than a burrito, after they’ve taken her to the nursery to bathe and swaddle her. And it’s just the two of us. She’s sleeping. I’m staring at her. Will I ever sleep again? Do I even care? Look at what I made! Everything’s all “La la la happy happy happy.” And then the second verse comes along like a sucker punch.

Sing lullaby!
Lullaby baby, now a-dozing,
Sing lullaby!
Hush, do not wake the Infant King.
Soon comes the cross, the nails, the piercing,
Then in the grave at last reposing:
Sing lullaby!

The first time we read this through in rehearsal, I thought, “WHAT?! We’re singing THIS on Christmas EVE?? Nails? Piercing? Can’t we celebrate the miracle of birth for more than 30 seconds before we move on to humiliation and execution?” But isn’t that exactly how it is with parenting? Bliss and abject fear intertwine. As soon as you bring a child into your life, you set yourself up for a lifetime of this. It’s maybe the only love affair we have where, if we’re doing it well, we’re getting our hearts broken over and over again. And, perversely, we hope that we get to live for decades with this parental bliss and fear.

Sing lullaby!
Lullaby! is the babe a-waking?
Sing lullaby!
Hush, do not stir the Infant King.
Dreaming of Easter, gladsome morning,
Conquering Death, its bondage breaking:
Sing lullaby!

I love the melody and harmonies of this carol so much that my theological disagreements with the specifics of its lyrics are irrelevant. This carol is the distillation of my journey to becoming a Christian. For me, worrying about whether anything in scripture [f]actually happened is completely missing the point. What matters to me is the arc of these ancient stories. The details don’t have to be factual for the arc to be fundamentally true. Any storyteller worth her or his salt knows this. And the arc of scripture bends toward redeeming Love. Relentlessly.

The arc of this carol is the same as the arc of what it means to me to be both human and Christian: we begin with the wonder of birth (of life, of a dream, of an idea, of hope), to the crushing of dreams that is death (not just physical death, but any humiliation, brutal defeat, exhausted resignation, senseless violence), to the resilience and redemption of Love, which never lets death have the final word. Never.

I’m writing this on Sunday night, after watching President Obama address the community of Newtown, CT, the latest town torn apart by a mass shooting. I’m writing this a week after hearing of the sudden death of a long-time friend, mentor, and colleague of PW’s and mine. I feel “hemmed in by death,” as PW described it to a friend early last week, days before Newtown became shorthand for unspeakable violence and loss.

And yet.

I watched a video Saturday night of one of the parents of a six-year-old girl who was killed in Newtown. Here’s one view of how Love conquers “death, its bondage breaking.” I urge you to watch the entire thing, if you haven’t seen it already.

Connecticut Shooting Tragedy: Robbie Parker | Video – ABC News

I’m going to let the brilliant poet, Christina Rossetti, have the last word here. I couldn’t find a choral rendition of this carol that I liked, so I’m going with Shawn Colvin’s version. That’s like settling for Paradise instead of Nirvana. This carol’s beauty can mask the urgency of its rousing charge. It’s not a lullaby; it’s a commission: Whatever we do, don’t miss any opportunity to testify to Love. There will always be senseless violence and brokenness in the world. There can never be too much Love. Let Love and Beauty be our tokens. May Love and Beauty bloom wherever we are–as plea, gift, and sign.

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.

Love shall be our token,
Love be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and [all of us]
Love for plea and gift and sign.

I voted for the future

On Sunday, I drove to church with a parishioner who struggles with paranoid schizophrenia. After I picked her up, I told her I was really glad that she wanted to come to church. She fixed me with a concerned look: “There’s so much fear about the election. I knew that church was the safest place I could be today.”

This particular parishioner is completely dependent on the universal health care we have here in Massachusetts. Among the many things that frighten her is Mitt Romney’s promise to do away with the national version of the same universal health care he signed into law when he was our “severely conservative governor.”

So when I stepped into the voting booth this morning, I voted for my mentally ill friend and everyone else who feels consumed by fear. I also voted for my marriage to PW. And I voted for a future full of elbow room for my three daughters, and any daughters or sons they may have, and any marriage commitments they may one day want to make. These are some, but not all, of the visions I voted for this morning—a future where:

  • Insuring a woman’s reproductive freedom is as important as insuring a man’s ability to maintain an erection for up to four hours.
  • Two people who want to make a lifelong and lovelong commitment to each other can enjoy the legal protections and responsibilities of marriage, regardless of their sexual orientation.
  • We join other countries as diverse as Mexico, Canada, Rwanda, Mongolia, Israel, India, and Bhutan in providing universal healthcare, and we compete with countries such as Germany and Singapore in making significant investments in scientific and medical research.
  • We heed the warnings that abound in our environment and begin working with other nations on the difficult task of ending global warming.
  • Any redistribution of income flows in the direction of abundance to scarcity, and not the opposite, which has been the norm for the better part of the past 12 years.
  • We make sacrifices on behalf and in honor of the people who put their lives in harm’s way to ensure our safety and security. In short, never again should we go to war without increasing taxes to pay for it.
  • Taxes are understood to be an investment that ensures the strength of our social fabric, and are not an evil to be avoided and eliminated.
  • Our elected representatives level with us rather than lie to us.
  • Our representation at all levels of government reflects our extraordinary national diversity.
  • We leave no one behind, regardless of their demographic descriptors.
  • We guard the right to vote with more fervor than we guard the right to buy weapons, and exercise it with reason and critical thinking.
  • Being smart and well-educated is something we want for every person, and seek in our elected representatives.
  • Everything is music.
[spotify http://open.spotify.com/track/23Bb7XkXXoDojT64AIsw7V]

P.S. Thanks to my friend Jason McStoots for the graphic at the top of the page.

The Long, Hard, Stupid Way

This week has been thick and dense, much like the cloud cover and fog that have engulfed the city. So my post is long. If you want to read it, you might want to line your snacks up ahead of time.

This being an odd-numbered month, Heretic School is on tap for early Tuesday mornings at Emmanuel Church. Heretic School makes the fabric of my week so much more vibrant and resilient. Sitting together with people I admire, puzzling our way through texts that baffle, annoy, or outright frighten us, is such a great and generous gift of time and spirit.

Later in the week I heard a great lecture by a designer named Frank Chimero, entitled “Do Things the Long, Hard, Stupid Way.” In the lecture, Chimero tells the story of David Chang, the head chef in the wildly popular New York City restaurant Momofuku. The story, perhaps apocryphal, is that Chang caught his sous chef cutting a corner in preparing a dish and told him:

Just because we’re a casual restaurant, doesn’t mean we don’t hold ourselves to fine dining standards. We try to do things the right way. That usually means doing things the long, hard, stupid way.

Since the “long, hard, stupid way” pretty much describes the way I’ve done just about anything worthwhile in my life, this story appeals to me. It reminds me of the thing my older brother told me once, with which I ended my previous post here. It also reminds me of the time years ago that I heard T-Bone Burnett talk in an interview about how one of the things that appealed to him about Christianity was how difficult it is. These are my people, and they’re singing my song!

So all this was rolling around in my Joybrain this week when I engaged a Biblical literalist on Facebook over the Amendment One vote that’s coming up in North Carolina on Tuesday. A friend of mine had posted this great flow chart on her Facebook page:

One of her Facebook friends responded with the standard line that God made marriage for one man and one woman, “it was Adam and Eve not Steve & Tom or Mary & Joyce.” At first, I thought, no, I’m not getting into this. These types of arguments rarely go anywhere, and they often frustrate and demoralize me.

Without comment, I posted a link to a video that had interviews with a wide variety of North Carolina clergy saying what was wrong with Amendment One and why people should vote against it.

The man responded with more canned argument about how our country has gotten away “from knowing God and his word” and that we need to repent and come to Jesus or we’ll fall under the power of other countries. At that point, it was my bedtime, but I couldn’t resist responding with this before I went to bed:

I’m a Christian, lesbian, and married to my wife for the past 8 years here in Massachusetts. We have three daughters together. I read and study the Bible, go to church every Sunday, pray daily, and know that, like you, I am made in the image of God.

The work of Jesus Christ about freeing ALL God’s people from tyranny, oppression, and danger. Jesus had NOTHING to say about homosexuality, and very little to say about marriage. More than anything else, he talked about not being afraid and about the corrupting, oppressive power of wealth. If you actually read the legislation, Amendment One puts all kinds of North Carolina’s families and children at risk. Certainly not what Jesus would want for God’s people.

I would go so far as to say that Amendment One would make North Carolina look more like Taliban-ruled Afghanistan than any state in this country, which, after all, was founded on liberty for all people. I don’t normally engage with people who claim to know what God thinks, and I may end up regretting this, but I couldn’t stay silent. Silence has never protected anyone.

When I got up the next morning, I resisted the temptation to see how the man responded. I wasn’t sure I was up to what I assumed would be a lot of vitriol. As PW and I drove to work together, I told her about the Facebook thread. She suggested that I was already in the conversation, and advised that I go ahead and read his response, but with as much compassion as possible. And that if I chose to respond to him, to do so from a place of compassion, not combativeness.

His response was to tell me that he is a retired soldier, working with other soldiers, and that he has been to Iraq and Afghanistan and clearly I know nothing about the Taliban, who will kill anyone who does not believe what they believe. His ending surprised me: “May God work in you his will and glory in Christ Jesus.” It struck me as open-handed, which I’m sure was partly due to my adopting PW’s suggested posture of compassion. So I responded:

Thank you for your service, and for your ongoing support for and work with soldiers. My comparison with the Taliban has to do with a religious minority attempting to impose its world view and its rigid perception of God’s law onto a population that does not share its religious views. That is what Amendment One is all about–a religious minority attempting to write into state law its particular religious views.

I encourage you, and anyone else reading this thread, to stop and consider what we know about the universe—it is rapidly expanding and only about 15% of the matter in it is known to humans. If the universe is the work of God, and I think it is, why on earth would anyone assume that God’s only communication with us is contained solely in The Bible? If God’s ever-expanding creation is made in God’s image, then perhaps God continues to speak to us, at all times, in all places, and in ways that we can barely comprehend.

Given what the scriptures tell us, over and over, about what God wants for God’s people, I think that it is safe to believe that where justice, mercy, and love are alive in the world, that is God speaking. Where hunger, oppression, tyranny, hatred, and division are alive, that is God weeping.

I pray that all people in all places may find ways, whatever their path, to expand the realm of justice, mercy, and love, and to shake off the chains of tyranny, oppression, hatred, and division.

As I reflected on it, I realized that the key for me in this exchange was to stay invested in simply standing and representing a different view–to represent possibility, and not get invested in winning the argument, or convincing the other person. Those results would be nice, but, to paraphrase William Stafford as I’ve done before, it’s the process that’s important.

The exchange was also an excellent test of my convictions. Do I really want the realm of justice, mercy, and love to be alive in the world? Yes, yes I do. How hard am I willing to work for it? As hard as I can. Some days there’s more can in me than others. And since it’s not work that can be done alone, that’s why it’s so important to draw strength from others. I draw my strength from people in and out of church, with people I know and with people I have never met, but am connected with by a web of Love.

I know as well as anyone that to take on a label is to risk being pigeonholed by other people’s assumptions. If I’m a lesbian, I probably hate men, or I couldn’t get one to like me, or I just haven’t met the right one. If I’m a Christian, I’m probably an irrational, science-denying person incapable of critical, analytical thought. I’ve heard all that and more.

But see, for me, being a Christian (and for that matter, being a lesbian!) has meant doing things the Long, Hard, Stupid way. It is to willingly inherit an ancient legacy of stories and customs that have been misused and badly interpreted for millennia. It is to share a path with people who, at one extreme, believe me to be unworthy and ungodly purely because of whom I love. If I am to live with any amount of integrity, then I believe it’s essential for me to stand and represent the possibilities inherent in the labels I take on.

Christianity is a peculiar path for me, made all the more peculiar by the fellow travelers. It’s a long, hard way, in which you’re guaranteed to encounter stupidity. So, really, it’s a lot like the rest of life, unless you have figured out some way to live in an echo chamber of genius. In which case, I’d suggest that you’re missing out on some interesting, provocative, and challenging scenery.

This week I found that engaging the more close-minded of my fellow Christian travelers with detachment and compassion can be excellent practice for clarifying my understanding of and my thoughts about this path. It’s also an intensive cardio workout for my compassion, which both feeds my desire to be on the path and makes me better at staying on it.

GForce, age 3, in the suds

While I was taking a shower on Friday morning, I noticed that the new bar of soap was particularly sudsy. It occurred to me that I’ve never heard a singular for the word “suds.” What would the point of a single “sud” be, anyway?

Then it occurred to me that Christianity is like suds, it is inherently and essentially communal. It’s not a path meant to be traveled alone. Which is why it’s difficult. Which is why it demands companionship. Which is why it’s difficult. Which is why it requires companionship. It’s circular like that. Not the least bit efficient.

So here’s to the Long, Hard, Stupid Way. Maybe I’ll see you somewhere on the path, and we can hoist some suds to the journey and our fellow travelers. The first round is on me.

Fools for Love

Well, here we are, almost through the first day of the 50 days of Easter, and in the midst of the eight days of the Passover festival. Getting to this part of the year feels more like the New Year to me than any other time of year. Maybe because the days are still getting longer, and spring is stubbornly insisting its way into New England, despite the occasional frost that I’m still finding when I walk the dog in the mornings.

I called last Sunday as Fool Sunday, ostensibly because it aligned with April Fool’s Day. But mostly I called it that because the whole undertaking of being a Christian, or maybe any person of faith, seems deeply and counter-culturally Foolish to me. If nothing else, Faith is Foolishness in action, and I mean that in all the best senses of the word Fool.

As I left church last Sunday, one of my fellow congregants — D — was standing outside his double-parked car waiting for one of our more debilitated parishioners, whom I called “Z” the previous time I wrote about her. Z doesn’t like to be touched, so she doesn’t like to ride the subway to church, even though it stops right outside her apartment.

There’s a group of parishioners who have agreed to provide Z rides to and from church. So, last Sunday, while Z, at her glacial pace, inched her way into the front passenger seat of D’s car, I walked toward D and we had a brief exchange about what a good service it had been. I said, “I think it might have been the best Fool Sunday ever!”

D looked confused. I said, “It’s the confluence of April Fool’s Day and Palm Sunday: Fool Sunday! And if nothing else, we are Fools for Love, right?” And I nodded toward Z’s painfully slow progress into D’s car. D brightened. “Heyy…Fools for Love…I like that! I like that a lot!”

To get us off to a running start for Eastertide, PW ended her Easter sermon today with this quotation from Wendell Berry’s brilliant “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.” Isn’t that a perfectly concise description of one of the Fool’s greatest responsibilities? From the perspective of this particular Joy, I say yes, yes it is.

Thank you Wendell Berry for coming up with such a compact job description. Thank you PW for sharing it with those of us who were Foolish enough to spend  Easter morning at Emmanuel.

Here’s Berry’s poem in its entirety. May you enjoy a Happily Foolish, Foolishly Happy Eastertide and/or Passover Festival.

The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

by Wendell Berry

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

For the anniversary of my life

When I was in college, I read and wrote a lot of poetry. It was both luxurious and exhausting, like mapping a geography that constantly changed. That was when I first encountered the work of W.S. Merwin. I don’t remember in what year of college I met Merwin’s poem “For the Anniversary of My Death,” but it was love at first read. The first line of the poem is inscribed into my memory, where it hangs out in the same room with lots of other firsts (stitches, swimming ribbon, kiss, love, broken heart, broken bone, etc.)

For the Anniversary of My Death

By W. S. Merwin

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

There’s something about year’s end for me that highlights the collision between the inexorable march of the calendar and the concentric, infinite whorls of life giving way to death giving way to life. Maybe by the end of every year I just notice this collision more, as though the previous 11 months have worn away the insulation on my nerve endings. Whatever the reason, by November and December, I’m moved to tears more, I feel like I hear and feel everything more acutely, I notice more stuff that’s in my peripheral vision, and words, phrases, and melodies tumble around in my head like too much laundry crammed into a dryer. When I slow myself down to sort all this out, I feel mostly bewildered, as though I’m sifting through a great pile of mismatched socks.

So I’ve been quiet here for the past couple of months.

And it’s not like I suddenly feel I have something really profound to share today. I just need to be reconnected with this discipline, and with the small and mighty community of people who come here to share, to seek, to find, to laugh, to cry, to wonder, to ask, “Where in the world are we (or is she) going?” That is, after all, why I come here, too.

A little more than six weeks ago, I was in a spectacular—and still unbelievable—car accident. While I was sitting alone in my car, stopped at a light, a man half my age drove into the back of my car while he was travelling at least 45 mph, according to the police. There was no squealing of tires to warn me—he never even hit the brakes. For me there was just deafening noise and intense impact, as if a bomb had gone off in the trunk. When the dust cleared, I peered out my windshield to see a car lying on its side in front of me. It was the car that had just hit me.

I couldn’t process any of this at the time, and I still can’t. All I could manage to say when I stumbled out of my car in a fog of shock was, “What the…What just happened? What??” Wave after wave of onlookers, police, and EMTs, approached me to ask if I was hurt. “I…I don’t know. Um, I think I’m okay. I…What just happened? What the??” As it turned out, the only significant damage was to the cars involved, and the other driver’s insurance rates. I was extremely lucky to sustain merely an addled brain, a badly bruised knee, and a little whiplash.

I frequently find myself reflecting on my luck, particularly at the end of the year. This year, my reflections on my luck were accompanied by the relentlessly looping soundtrack of the car wreck, with a steady drumbeat of newsflashes that made my heart hurt:

  • A couple of weeks ago, I heard that a dear friend—a college classmate and a woman I have admired and adored for more than 30 years—has some kind of cancer that her oncologist isn’t even sure how to treat. She also recently lost her dad to leukemia.
  • On Christmas morning, as PW and I were walking into church a couple of hours before the service started, we encountered a woman standing outside Emmanuel looking at the various signs on the doors. “I’m looking for an Episcopal church,” she said. “I just found out that my husband of 34 years has been having an affair for the past three years, and I need to find a place to sit in church with my fine young son.” Sure enough, they showed up for the service and the son sat with his arm around his mother the entire time.
  • This past Friday, a long-time friend of my parents and college classmate of my mom’s died after a long ordeal with cancer. Barbara Higdon was classy, brave, brilliant, and one of those trail-blazing women on whose shoulders generations of other women stand, many of us without knowing it.

The day after I heard about my friend’s diagnosis, I was walking  through Chinatown and was frozen in place by this graffito:

There are many more heart-hurty news bits in the mix, but those three, plus the graffito, best capture the variety. As I was sitting in church on New Year’s Day, in the stunningly beautiful Lindsey Chapel, the low winter sun came streaming in the windows in such a startling way that many of the people in the congregation turned around and looked up. The room and the congregants were bathed in a brilliant, other-worldly light.

Meanwhile, Bishop J. Clark Grew (ret.) was preaching about the currency of hope, and how this year’s familiar Christmas narrative reminded him that the divine rarely breaks through in our lives in ways we expect. As if on cue, the words “for the anniversary of my life” floated across my mind’s eye in an unbroken line.

After my initial reaction (“What the heck? THAT’S not how Merwin’s poem goes!”), I felt like a dog resisting the pull of the leash. I wanted to investigate these words “for the anniversary of my life,” to spend a long time sniffing them, tumbling them around in my brain.

I don’t know if “for the anniversary of my life” and the graffito’s message “She knows she’ll never die!” were the divine breaking into my consciousness, but I’m open to the possibility. Maybe the openness to the possibility is the whole point. This morning I felt driven to pull one of my favorite books off the shelf: William Stafford’s “You Must Revise Your Life.” This slim little paperback is a combination magnifying glass and life raft when I encounter life’s mysteries. I mostly don’t want a decoder ring for life’s mysteries; I just want new ways to look at them without drowning.

The book is only 118 pages long, and in my copy I have folded over dozens of pages, underlined many passages, and bracketed entire paragraphs, usually putting stars next to the brackets. At the bottom of page 81, I have a couple of sentences bracketed, with a star, and above it I wrote, “This is it!”

“[T]he product is expendable, but the process is precious…The process is the process of living centrally and paying attention to your own life. Surely that’s worth doing. If you don’t, who will?”

In the sense that we all have an expiration date, the noun-ness of our lives is expendable. It’s the living itself — our verb-ness — that’s precious and unbounded by time: the ways we choose to live, whom and what we choose to notice, to share, to explore, to accompany, to hear, to carry with us. Sometimes we write, and sometimes we are surface on which others write. Barbara Higdon’s physical matter is dead, but the essence of her life cannot be extinguished; I’m still discovering ways in which she is written into me.

Like many people out there writing our lives from one day to the next, with and without words, I find myself beginning this year in wonder and mourning. I don’t know the ratio of one to the other, because, honestly, I feel filled with immeasurable amounts of both. Which brings me to another little poem, this one by a 12-year-old girl from New Zealand.

May your year ahead be so bold and brilliant. May your wonders be deep and your mournings be shared.

Dark, Dark night.
The trees. The river.
One more day;
For so slow goes the day.
Before the end
    the world goes round
        once more.
The world begins the day.
The night has gone.
The day for the end of the world
    once more begins.
Once more begins the sun
Slow, so slow.
Go on, world, live.
Begin, sweet sun.
Begin, sweet world.
The people live and die.
People die alive

By Lynette Joass
Age 12
New Zealand

From “Miracles: Poems by children of the English-speaking world,” collected by Richard Lewis.

Here’s a song for this post: Sweet Honey in the Rock singing “Breaths.”

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.