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Sunday, September 8, 2019

She Did It Her Way: Remembering My Grandmother

Grandma At 97
PHOTO CREDIT: Tammy Paolino

Firstly I want to thank you for taking the time to remember my grandmother with us today. She did love a gathering and some of her happiest moments were the birthday parties that we staged in her honor, especially in recent years.

It’s hard to imagine having had ninety-seven birthdays. For most of them, someone probably started the familiar chorus of Stolat! Stolat! Niech żyje, żyje nam.... ​May you live a hundred years. And she must have taken them seriously, because she came pretty darn close.

I feel very grateful to be a white-bearded old man myself--and though she couldn’t see too well by the end she never missed an opportunity to tell me to shave it off--before I had to say goodbye.

I lived in her house on two separate occasions, once when I was a toddler, and one of my earliest memories is eating Froot Loops with my cousin Diane in the apartment upstairs, an apartment that would later be my first home of my own. And in between we were always welcome at her table for ​pierogi​ or deep fried calzones or pot roast, or whatever was on the menu.

She wore many hats over the years: softball player, school lunch lady, master gardener. I remember countless trips to the mall in her series of Oldsmobiles, with a pack of Kools and a bingo stamp in permanent residence in the center console, and the pine tree hanging from the rear view mirror.

One of the main things she helped instill in me is a love of music. A progression of three parlor organs, each one grander and more complicated than the last, held a place of honor in the living room, and--though she never quite mastered what all the buttons did--playing, and the sheer fact that she could--​ brought her endless joy. The soundtrack of those years includes many a halting rendition of “Moonglow” or “Mack the Knife” or “Spanish Eyes”. Over the years there were a number of songs, from Sinatra, or Bobby Vinton, or Susan Boyle, or Clay Aiken, that she took on as a personal anthem for a season or longer. She encouraged me to stick with playing beyond childhood lessons and i know she was proud of my amateurish efforts even if they weren’t exactly her style.

After we lost my grandfather 21 years ago, Jessie was on her own for the first time in her life. Like her mother, she was determined to maintain that independence for as long as she could, and she did, for a long time. As she gradually had to concede her autonomy and allow others to care for her, we filled the time and tried to distract her by sharing memories and getting her to talk about happier times.

One of my favorite stories was the time the family towed the camper down to Disney World. Grandma wisely elected to fly down and meet us rather than endure three days in Grandpa’s suburban with six other people. On the day she was supposed to arrive, it was discovered that--true to form--everybody thought someone ​else​ knew her flight information. In those pre-cell-phone days there was no easy way to find each other, and somehow grandma--in a strange city, without a solid idea exactly where we were--got herself to the campground and came marching up to us, suitcase in hand, madder than a hornet.

She didn’t think it was too funny at the time, but It was an example of the resourcefulness her immigrant, depression-surviving parents must have instilled in her as she navigated growing up in Greenpoint, returning to her native Bloomfield as a young bride and mother, and then to Little Falls as the eventual matriarch of an ever-growing family. She got such a proud gleam in her eyes when she recited how many grandchildren and great-grandchildren she had. While in some ways she was definitely a product of her generation, she was also surprisingly progressive at times, and gracefully accepted the changes and chances of this life, and the direction each of ours took. We... you... were her life’s work, and she would be not-so-secretly pleased to see you all here.

Though she wasn’t quite around physically for those hundred years, she’ll live on a lot longer than that in our memories and stories, a lady who truly did it ​her​ way.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Who Was That Masked Man, Anyway?

The Last Sunday After the Epiphany

Exodus 34:29-35
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Luke 9:28-43

I spent most of the past week in that slightly foggy state brought about by a cold. I’m not telling you this in a plea for sympathy, but it may give some context to the rest of what you’re going to hear. It definitely helped me identify with the followers in today’s readings, who were left trying to process events seemingly out of a fever dream. This is your brain. This is your brain on NyQuil.

I tend to fixate on strange details even while operating at 100%, and my preparation for this morning was no exception. With all the glowing faces and booming voices in today’s readings, the thing that caught my attention was that little veil that Moses kept playing with. Go in to talk to God… take off the veil. Come out to talk to the people… put on the veil.. What was that all about? The people of Israel are about to embark on a new covenant with God, with new rules for life, and here their leader is, having his own personal masquerade party.

Mardi Gras mask
"Mardi Gras Mask" by Caitlin Reagan
Used under Creative Commons License. Some Rights Reserved
Speaking of masquerade parties, Tuesday is Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras, French for “Fat Tuesday” has its roots in the church. It represented the last chance to use up ingredients like butter and eggs, back in the time when Christians abstained from not just meat but all rich foods throughout Lent, not just on Fridays. This rigorous dietary observance had a practical aspect as well: meat that they had stored away for winter was nearing the end of its usefulness, and there would be lean days ahead until spring produce was ready.

Mardi Gras marks the end of a season known as “Carnival” (literally “farewell to meat”) which may have been adapted from the Roman pagan festival of Saturnalia. In the Middle Ages, when Lent was a period of intense spiritual practice and self-discipline, people needed a good party first to get themselves in the right frame of mind.

As Europeans colonized various parts of the world, they brought these traditions with them, where they would get combined with and flavored by indigenous practices. Different cultures at various times in history have marked the period with more of a wild party atmosphere that would overtake a whole city, still true today particularly in New Orleans, Rio, and Sydney, to name but a few.

Even today there is a scattered practice across the various mainline churches to informally designate the last Sunday before Lent as Mardi Gras Sunday. Some churches will have special brass music at worship, cajun food or even a dance. In the Anglican church, pancakes became the symbolic food of choice, and I hope you will all join us for some on Tuesday night.

Masks, costumes, and other disguises have always figured strongly in the observance of Carnival. From the earliest days, it was an opportunity for commonfolk to put on rich regalia, sometimes poking fun at their wealthy neighbors or otherwise putting the social order on its head.

Venice specifically has a tradition of elaborate masks, which were allowed to be worn from the Feast of St. Stephen (December 26th) until Lent began as a temporary escape from the city’s rigid social hierarchy. This practice lasted from the 12th century until 1797, and was revived in 1979. Carnival of Venice, as the song goes, is again a major celebration and tourist attraction.

On my last trip to New Orleans, I visited a little museum in the Treme neighborhood that showcases the tradition of “Mardi Gras Indians”. These groups of African-Americans pay homage to the native american tribes around the city who once sheltered people escaping slavery, by creating elaborate beaded and feathered costumes. Each outfit takes six to nine months to make, weighs up to 100 pounds, and is generally worn once or only a few times.

In modern-day Belize, prominent community leaders cross-dress or wear decadent costumes while dancing for money and prizes in a traveling band known as a comparsa. Carnival in all its forms presents an opportunity to level the social playing field and escape the norms of behavior that are otherwise expected, and in some times and places brutally enforced.

.But let’s get back to Moses and that veil, shall we? Moses, unable to contain the glow his face took on after speaking to God, covers himself with a veil to soothe his frightened followers. Likewise in the Gospel, Jesus appears transformed into dazzling white before three of his disciples, accompanied by Moses and Elijah, which renders the sleep-deprived Peter incoherent.

Why do you suppose the followers in both these stories were so disturbed by the change they observed in their leader? Moses, surely somewhat enraptured from his one-on-one encounter with the Almighty, didn’t even notice his face had changed until it was pointed out to him. I couldn’t help but feel a little bit bad for him, like “Hey, P.S. I just spoke to God! But sorry if my suntan is freaking you out.” Likewise, I wonder if Jesus, bemused by Peter’s reaction, was tempted to tell his dumbfounded disciples “Fasten your seatbelts, kids. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”

But yet we can identify with the followers in both these stories as well, can’t we? They were tired, maybe impatient. They’d already been asked to take extraordinary leaps of faith, giving up their familiar lives and wandering into a physical and spiritual unknown. We tend to like for the people we know to behave predictably, and I suspect they did too. But now, in both stories their leader was suddenly looking radically different and they were being told God was speaking through him with new, life-changing commandments for them to follow.. How much more could be expected of them?

I thought we would spend a few minutes on the kinds of masks we wear in our own lives.  Not actual masks, mind you, although that would make the office or the grocery store more entertaining. To mask or veil something, or ourselves, suggests deception. This isn’t always a literal or visual tactic. Sometimes it can be as simple as the details we include or leave out when telling a story. I think we all do this to ourselves and others by varying degrees, sometimes unconsciously, sometimes in self-defense, or to seem nice or smart or successful or normal. How often do we say or hear “how are you?” and the acceptable one-word response is “fine”?

But it can also be as profound as hiding a major aspect of our identity, like the people who live silently for decades with anxiety, illiteracy, addiction, or abuse; or who suppress feelings about their gender or sexual orientation out of fear they will be rejected by the people in their lives.

Then there are the physical masks we wear. We can say things about how we want to be perceived by others by the things we buy, where we go, and what we do, and we have a multibillion dollar marketing industry ready to help.

The online world introduced a whole new set of masks for us to play with. While we may think of social media as a way to present a more glamorous or exciting version of our lives to an online audience, it also allows people to tap into communities and exchange ideas that either cultural taboos, physical isolation or even political oppression would have made impossible ten years ago.

Anonymous screen names have allowed people to organize resistance movements or escape dangerous situations. However, like real masks which can allow anonymous injury to others, these online personas can have a dark side, too, like when they also allow us to spew vitriol at strangers that we’d likely never have the nerve to say to their faces.

It is not always with deceptive or malicious intent, however, that we embrace these masks.. Sometimes it’s because we don’t think the other person can handle the unshaded truth, and it’s easier or kinder to let them be with an alteration. Maybe Moses donned that veil to keep the people from being distracted while he tried to get them on board with what the covenant with God was going to mean for them, which was far more important, but Paul suggests he wasn’t doing them any favors, because instead of remembering the covenant, their minds went back to the veil.

But sometimes it’s because we’re afraid of how the “real” us would be received. Moses, you may recall, was a stutterer who was dragged reluctantly into a leadership role. When he obtained “that glow” after speaking to God, maybe he was just as uncomfortable with the attention to his appearance as his followers were seeing him in this different light. How often do we stifle our own needs or ideas for fear of sounding silly or presumptuous or “high-maintenance”? There’s an element of our culture that discourages thinking of yourself as too special, and thus we might take steps to “fit in” by dumbing down our dreams or putting them aside to be what is “appropriate” or convenient for those around us.

Yet when Moses went back in to consult with God, the mask comes off. And so it should be with us, as if God couldn’t see past it anyway! Paul tells us, “when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” How freeing indeed that we have a God who knows our frailties and selfish idiosyncrasies and loves us anyway?

My hope for this Lent is that we can all examine the masks we wear, the limits we put on ourselves and others, that are born of fear and doubt; That we challenge ourselves and those we encounter to be transfigured by God’s presence, and not hide but embrace the irrepressible glow that comes from God’s love for us. We have only to listen to to the words and model the actions of his son, whose covenant with us requires only love, pure and unmasked, for God, one another, and ourselves, just as we are. And what a celebration that would be. Amen.