Susquehanna Morning

Susquehanna Morning

Friday, February 16, 2018

Lent 1: Ash Wednesday 1995

When my children were little we had an Ash Wednesday ritual we observed with them. Gathered around our dining table after dinner, we wrote on small pieces of paper something we wanted to think about or do during Lent. It might be some aspect of our character we wanted to work on (a friend has told me she tries to soften her heart to certain people during Lent). It might be some small pleasure we would forego (the hardest thing I ever gave up for Lent was wearing earrings). It might be some spiritual discipline we would take on (daily prayer with scripture, or maybe blogging). After we'd finished writing we would fold the papers, put them in a small metal bowl, and strike a match. The flame always shot up disconcertingly high, which means the kids adored it. After the ashes had cooled (which took almost no time at all), we would place ashes on one another's heads, saying the appropriate words.

The year my daughter was three, we said, "Repent and believe the gospel." First, Ned placed the ashes on my forehead, saying those words, and then, I placed them on Joan's, doing the same. And Joan, very solemnly, placed the ashes on her father's head. And she said: "To the hospital."

Joan was absolutely on target. Among other things, Lent can be a time to reckon with what one hymn calls our "sin-sick souls." We Presbyterians have the reputation of being big on sin. When I was in seminary, you could always tell when the Presbyterian students were leading chapel, because, without fail, we included a prayer of confession. I've heard from people over the years that this is varying degrees of useful. I think it's important for the church to understand how skewed interpretations of scripture and toxic forms of Christianity have turned what is a useful concept (missing the mark, turning in on ourselves instead of outward to God and one another) into a spiritual bludgeon. When someone I care about told me the prayers of confession were causing pain, I took a hard look at the ones I had been writing and using and made some changes.

At the church I serve we now say "Prayers for Wholeness." When I pray with folks one on one or in small groups, I usually offer them in the name of Jesus, "who is our healer and our hope." The shift from sin-full to sin-sick is one that resonates with me personally. At their best, the images we use lead us to acknowledging our need for God, drawing us closer, rather than pushing us away.

Lent can be a good time to get ourselves to the spiritual hospital.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Ash Wednesday 1970

I was in the fifth grade (I think). And one night I awakened in the wee hours with a dreadful stomach bug that emptied me out and made me weak. I had a fever. Clearly, I was going to stay home.

My mother was really good at keeping us home from school. She made up the couch in the living room with sheets and soft blankets and the pillows from our beds, and tucked us in with the TV close by and all our current books and magazines. Whatever this bug was, the fever lingered (though the gastrointestinal part was, blessedly and truly, over). So a day turned into a week. And that turned into another week. And I believe I really was poorly, because I had no desire to do much other than watch the brand new soap opera I'd happened to catch the premier of ("All My Children"), and reruns of "That Girl," and to read my books.

In the middle of my third week at home it was Ash Wednesday, and suddenly I really wanted out of that couch-bed. I became very distressed when I understood that I wouldn't be able to receive my ashes. (I was a nerdily religious kid. In high school a friend who'd known me in those years asked, "Weren't you the one who wore a rosary on your uniform?" Yeah. That would be me.)

And... it's not as if a ton of people would see me, with or without my ashes. I had nothing to prove to anyone. I just really wanted them. It was important. Lent was important. And I knew, without exactly spelling it out to myself, that the message the priest always said as he smeared the ashes on my head. "Remember, man [sic], that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return," was kind of extra relevant for me, being sick. It's not that I thought I was in danger of dying. But for the first time in my childhood I felt just the teeniest bit fragile.

My mother said no. Her "no" was absolute, then and always. I cried as she went off to church to get ashes for herself. "We'll rub our foreheads together when I get back," she said. I didn't want that. I wanted them placed on me, in a cross, with those words, that made a tingle of fear run along my spine.

She returned with a big smile on her face and a small envelope in her hand. 

"Monsignor sent these for you," she said. Monsignor O'Connor and I had already had some interesting interactions, including the time my mother took me to his office at my request, so that I could ask to become an altar girl. (Spoiler alert: There were no altar girls in 1970. But Monsignor said, "But I think there will be, some day." And that was enough for me. For a while.)

And I rose from my couch and my mother solemnly dipped her right thumb into the #10 envelope, and then smeared a cross on my forehead.

"Remember, man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return."

Then she tucked me back into my couch, and went into the kitchen to make me tea and toast.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Fretting the Sermon

In recent years I've told myself the following story:

I used to be anxious about my procrastination-based approach to writing my sermon each week. I felt I should do what my friends do-- many claim to have their sermons done by Thursday, which means they can potentially have Saturday free! Imagine! One friend (who has also been a mentor) used to write her sermon every morning in her office, Monday through Thursday, for an hour-and-a-half to two hours each day. Thursday she would go home, sermon ready for Sunday.

I used to fret about all this.

But then, I have told myself in recent years, I came to accept what is my sermon-writing-style. I think about the texts all week long. My thoughts marinate. I wait to be struck with my opening salvo-- which, in my experience, usually means, the sermon will simply flow, at that point-- and then I can begin. And if that happens on Saturday, well then, that's what will happen, and that's how I'll do it.

And look! My favorite international women's clergy creator of community even has a weekly hangout known as the 11th Hour Preacher's Party! So, no worries, right?

Except then there's a day like yesterday. I awoke tired from a long day before (doing wonderful things, to be sure). I also awoke with the remnants of back pain that had been nagging me for a couple of days. And I awoke... most decidedly... not in the Good Place...

[SIDEBAR: My kids have recently turned me on to "The Good Place," the NBC comedy starring Kristin Bell and Ted Danson about the afterlife, and lots of imagined complications thereof. It's smashing. I want to quote it all the time, because it's so, so funny and smart. Now, back to our irregularly scheduled blogpost.] which I mean:

Not in a place where I felt ready to write.

In a place where I felt compelled to stew over the morning's news for a good many hours.

Not in a place where the "opening salvo" was at all obvious to me.

In a place where my mood was dark.

To be fair, I've been in worse "places" trying to write a sermon. Anyone out there ever try to write a sermon when they were in the middle of some kind of conflict, with friends, or family, or colleagues? UGH. Nothing worse. First of all, if I'm mad, I feel like a hopeless hypocrite... how dare I try to say something helpful about God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit or life, the universe, and everything if I'm in that state?

But yesterday was the pits. I didn't feel well physically, I didn't feel on or available mentally and/ or spiritually, and I didn't feel the flow. At. All.

But I did what you do. Sometimes we are asked to just plant one foot in front of the other, either physically or metaphorically speaking. As Anne Lamott keeps reminding us in these anxious days, Left, Right, Left, Breathe.

So, I did that. I started with something that seemed like it might work.

Ultimately, it did. But I was writing until about 10:00 Saturday night, and then I had to get up at 6:15 to finish it. (I know, boo hoo.)

Interestingly, at 6:30, when I opened up my laptop, I saw something. A word. One word that ended up being the lynchpin for the whole thing.

I think my sermon might have been better if I had started earlier in the week.

But I also think that, that thing we clergy say encouragingly to one another, might actually be true: The Holy Spirit has our back.

Another thing is also true; If what you've got is a dog, walk it. Walk it proud.

Someone said to me that they thought it was good that I fretted over my sermon each week, that I wasn't casual or careless about it. I am amazed at the thought that anyone might not; certainly, no one I know treats this aspect of our job-- our call, we call it-- that way. I do fret. Here are the first words of my sermon from Sunday October 22:

Sometimes it amazes me that I dare to climb into a pulpit to offer a word on the gospel. It amazes me that anyone dares to do it! That’s because, if you spent any time reading the gospels, you pretty quickly have to come face to face with the fact that the religious professionals do not come off well. Not at all. Priests, scribes, elders, Pharisees, Sadducees… the whole long list of those who attempt to speak for God are portrayed as lacking. With one notable exception. 

I think that paragraph is demonstrably true. But I also fret about the careless way it seems to dismiss as hacks all the representatives of a religion that is the mother of my own. I am aware that the gospels are, to an extent, polemics. They are written from a defensive posture in the midst of a hostile environment. But I am also aware-- and I know I don't emphasize this enough-- that this is a family fight, a brother against brother situation. And the last thing we need in this environment in which white supremacy is rearing its hideous head is fuel for any fire directed at anti-Judaism.

I fret about my sermon. I struggle with how to say what I want to say in a way that doesn't play into old, harmful tropes about Jews (or any outsiders, for that matter). I also struggle, some weeks, with what to say.

Writing a sermon is a trust fall. You know that exercise when one person closes their eyes, and falls backwards into the arms of six or so people? Writing a sermon can feel like closing your eyes and falling backwards into... hopefully, God, the Spirit, But, sometimes, my own hobby horses, my own prejudices, my own certainty.

Every week, I trust, and I fall.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Talking About Rebekah: A Long Overdue Post

"Rebecca" by Gustave-Henri Aubain (1862-1908)
I'll say it again: What a very interesting way to become betrothed, and to begin a marriage.

When we meet Rebekah we know just three things about her. First, she is related to Abraham through his brother Nahor (second cousin, I think; I'd have to make a chart to be sure). (This has been Abraham's stated goal for procuring a wife for his son Issac.) Second, she is found by a spring of water, she and her water jar, and she is willing... in fact, eager... to offer it to a stranger (Abraham's servant). (The offer of hospitality is always a good sign.) And she is "very fair to look upon, a virgin, whom no man had known."

Rebekah's got it all: breeding, character, and beauty. 

But... oh, she worries me.

Maybe that is why it has taken me, literally, months to summon the will to complete this reflection on her?

I want to grab her by the shoulders, and give them a good shake, and say, "Maybe not... maybe this isn't the best way to find a husband, the old 'by-the-well' thing." But off she goes, and she is so eager to marry this man of whom she knows only that he is a relative, and he has a father who has a servant who traveled all this way. And the jewelry. Of course. (Ask anyone who knows me. Earrings _might_ just do the trick, under certain circumstances.)

I want to say: Rebekah. This man. You don't know what he has been through. You don't know the baggage he carries.

The son for whom his parents waited, not just years, but decades.

The son whom his father took on a three-day death march, after which he hogtied him, and held a knife to his throat. (An angel intervened, and that, children, is why we no longer sacrifice humans.)

The son whose mother promptly dropped dead after the above incident.

The son about whom we know nothing else until now. And here is how it will be described, when she arrives, and she and Isaac meet at last.

Isaac went out in the evening to walk in the field; and looking up, he saw camels coming. And Rebekah looked up, and when she saw Isaac, she slipped quickly from the camel, and said to the servant, “Who is the man over there, walking in the field to meet us?” The servant said, “It is my master.” So she took her veil and covered herself. And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent. He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.     ~ Genesis 24:63-67

So. Isaac was comforted, after his mother's death.

Oh, Rebekah.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Lent 16: Rebekah: Unfinished Bible Study Version

"Elizarus and Rebekah at the Well," Johann Carl Loth, 1670's

You have to love an account of courting between a man and a woman which begins with a man telling another man, "Put your hand under my thigh..."

But, Biblical Times. So. In the words of Rashi, based on the Midrash Rabbah...

"It does not mean literally the thigh; it means the Milah (organ of circumcision). The reason is because one who takes an oath must hold in his hand a sacred object, such as a scroll of the Torah or phylacteries. And the circumcision was his (Abraham’s) first commandment and came to him through suffering. And it was beloved to him. And (therefore) he chose it (as the object upon which to take the oath)."

This is also the opinion of Tosefot in the Talmud Shevuot 38b. 

(Rabbi Moshe Leib Halberstadt at

Now that this is out of the way...

Read Genesis 24, and notice what a folk take it is...

Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years; and the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things. Abraham said to his servant, the oldest of his house, who had charge of all that he had, “Put your hand under my thigh and I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I live, but will go to my country and to my kindred and get a wife for my son Isaac.”

The portions of scripture that are most easily linked to the oral sources tend to be repetitive. This story contains instructions from Abraham to his servant (unnamed, the "oldest of his house," like Abraham... so, Abraham's true surrogate) on procuring a wife for Isaac. No Canaanite women, but a woman from his country and his kindred (just like his sister-wife, Sarah).

The servant travels, says a prayer for a sign and for success, encounters Rebekah (at a spring! Perhaps a post on wells and springs would be good. Have you noticed they pop up in stories concerning women?), engages her, says a prayer of thanksgiving, and goes in to meet her father Bethuel and her brother Laban.

The servant then tells, almost verbatim, the same story we have been told, only to the family of Rebekah.

But let's talk about Rebekah.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Lent: Fessing Up

For no particular reason, here's a little blanket I'm knitting. Sporadically.

Hello friends.

I haven't written any reflections in a while, have I? Looking like, oh, about two weeks since the last one.

I am sorry for that.

Sorry, partially because I know some folks were reading, and they expressed appreciation. Sorry, too, because I enjoyed writing them... up to a point. That point being: when the demands of the season (many of which, I hasten to add, were my own ideas!) made writing feel less a joy and more a burden. 

I also want to say something I was sensing in the last several posts. My initial desire was to write reflections on biblical women. That morphed into women of the Hebrew scriptures, which morphed into women of Genesis.

Then I realized something. What I was writing weren't reflections; they were more like little bible studies. And I love bible study! But when I present something as a bible study, I venture into issues around things like language, and readings by scholars, and I get very "completist" about the whole thing. You know, when you force yourself to do something all the way through (in this case, address every mention of the woman in the Hebrew scriptures) because that's what A-students, or people in your family, or (insert the name of the super-achiever tribe of your choice here) do. I have a half-written piece on Rebekah, which I stopped because I was researching this and that and checking language stuff and... and... and...

Reflections (at least, as I envision them) allow space for creativity. They are about essence, flavor, color! They are not about saying absolutely everything that can be said about the given topic (woman). That's what I had intended to write.

I hope tomorrow I shall be able to write a reflection on Rebekah, who is a very interesting woman. I hope I shall be able to do it without needing to tell you what I think she had for lunch on a Friday. I hope to reconnect with the creative project I had in mind from the get-go.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Lent 15: Sarah, a Postscript

"Abraham and Sarah" by Marc Chagall (1887-1985)

This comes in two parts.

First, the "binding of Isaac" in chapter 22 of the book of Genesis has other layers of meaning than as a precurser to the cross. It is arrogant of Christians to layer a particular theology of the cross (of which there are many) on this Hebrew text.

One very pragmatic assertion about the story is that it is one of the many stories in Genesis that falls under the category of etiology. Examples: How was the world created? (God spoke it into being.) How did we get language? (The arrogance of those who built the Tower of Babel.)

The question this text answers is, "How did God's covenant people step away from the ancient practice of human sacrifice?"Genesis gives us a story of a man who believes he hears that God desires a particular sacrifice, and who then learns that, no, that is not what God wants at all.

Second: The monologue I posted yesterday was in reaction (my strong reaction) to the story, and in particular, to the fact that Sarah has no voice in the story. Sarah has borne the burden of this covenant promise of children. She has borne it, even to the point of losing her own humanity in casting out another mother and child, and being willing to be responsible for their perishing. That she is sequestered away from this episode, that we do not get even a glimpse of her anguish (or the cruelty of the possibility that she has not been told), is a painful gap in the story. I am not the first to wonder: Is this what killed her?

It seemed important to give this flawed and fascinating woman at least one final opportunity to speak her love and possibly her terror and anticipatory grief. Sarah deserved her say.