Gospel of Mark, Learned From My Mother, Lent

That fig tree (Mark 11:1-19)

I wish I had a picture of the fig tree my mother’s friend Anna had outside her duplex vacation cottage at Virginia Beach. My mother loved fresh figs, and she had special permission to stop by in fig season and pick some if she happened to be at the beach. I was with her once, and it felt very strange to drive down virtually uninhabited 80th Street and turn down the little drive to the family side of the cottage. We had often stayed on the other side, which I guess the family rented out to friends, or friends of friends. It was considerably more rustic, and I have many happy memories of sleeping with an open window and hearing the sound of the surf on the other side of the dunes, as well less pacific memories of a rainy Memorial Day weekend during which we played a geography alphabet game almost to the death, and certainly to the pain.

The day we went seeking figs, I was a young adolescent, maybe 13 or 14, and I was mortified by the idea that someone might see us and think we were stealing figs or hanging around somewhere we shouldn’t have been. I clearly had no idea how unlikely it was for a white woman nearing 50 and her young teenage daughter to get in trouble on a non-gated street of beach cottages on a fall afternoon in 1975.

I didn’t like figs, or I didn’t think I liked them, and that made me even more surly about the whole adventure.

So it was hard for 1975 Martha to imagine why Jesus would have cared about getting a fig, would have cared enough about picking figs and eating them to get angry and curse the tree.

The next day, after leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. From far away, he noticed a fig tree in leaf, so he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing except leaves, since it wasn’t the season for figs. So he said to it, “No one will ever again eat your fruit!” His disciples heard this.  (Mark 11:12-14)

We’re in an odd place in Mark’s gospel. Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem is considerably less climactic by Mark’s telling. He looks around at everything in the Temple … and then he goes back to Bethany.

This incident with the fig tree is his second entry into the city, then, and he is probably already agitated. He’s hungry! He sees a fig tree, and who knows what kind of emotional and gustatory memories are stirred within him. The season is right, and the tree is in leaf, but there is no fruit!

He loses his temper. He curses the tree.

Worked up, he goes to the Temple and knocks things over; he tells the people things are not as they should be.

“x” marks the spot of the cottage where the fig tree grew.

I’m not saying it was all about that fig tree, but it certainly crystallized something. Maybe his entire human existence flashed before his eyes in the memory of a fig tree his mother tended; maybe a neighbor gave young Jesus permission to stop by and pick a fig whenever he liked.

It’s odd, and so specific, and so human.

My mother found figs that day at Virginia Beach. I was 14, and I thought she was odd, but I spent more time today than I would like to count on Google trying to find pictures of the cottage and the street, trying to bring back emotional memories this passage stirred in me.

For fig trees 
and their fruit
for hunger 
and for anger
for all that 
makes you like us 
and us like you 
I thank you 

I’m reading and blogging about Mark for Lent and using the Common English Bible because it messes with my expectations of familiar passages. I also sometimes refer to NRSV-based resources including The Jewish Annotated New Testament, and the New Interpreter’s Study Bible, as well as the online Greek interlinear Bible.

(Full disclosure, though: I resisted looking up what anyone else had to say about the fig tree.)

You can find the full schedule here, including links to earlier posts.

Church Life, Crazy Busy, Learned From My Mother, Pray First, Prayer

The To Do List

My mother used to write them out in longhand, her beautiful penmanship rising above the mundane nature of the lists. She wrote of groceries needed, or projects she hoped to accomplish, or books she planned to read. She wrote in pencil, knowing that the tasks ahead of her might change and the list might need revising.

I type lists in the “Notes” function on my iPhone, because I can email them to myself, or know they will be with me when I arrive at Maine Hardware or Trader Joe’s. The icon taking me to it looks like a tiny, little yellow legal pad, and when the app opens, the screen looks like one, too. Just like my mother, I can edit easily, as changes warrant, but instead of striking through or checking off the things I’ve completed, I simply backspace over them until they disappear.

Some lists I still write by hand, though, and those are full of line-throughs and amendments, sometimes in pencil and other times in eccentric colors of thinline markers. I’m working from one right now, trying to use my four days of Study Leave the best possible way. As always, there is plenty to do and more:

1) Write three sermon review articles for a preaching publication
2) Write a new Christmas Pageant, hopefully involving the well the Sunday School is building
3) Read a short book for the worship class I’m teaching at Bangor Theological Seminary, to be discussed the Monday after I return
4) Write a sermon! I’ll need one to preach when I get back. 🙂

In and among all the projects on my list, there weaves a whisper reminding me to pray:

•Pray before writing.
•Pray before reading.
•Pray to be open.
•Pray to be inspired.
•Pray to get the words right, if not perfect.
•Pray to be faithful to God’s purposes.

I think I might need to put it at the top of the list:

Pray. A lot.

What’s on the top of your to do list?


Common English Bible, Learned From My Mother, Proverbs

The Wardrobe

I started snooping so young, I needed to stand on a chair.

My mom died before my dad, and he was adamant that other than her clothes, nothing of hers was leaving the house while he was still in it. But because I was the kind of daughter who liked to look through her mother’s drawers—I must confess it—I knew which drawer had the good jewelry, and which had the pretty costume pieces and where the out-of-style pins from the 1960s and 70s had landed in the guest room.

And I knew that in the drawer with the precious jewelry was a clipping, an old Ann Landers column encouraging children not to fight over their parents’ things, whether money or material objects. My brother wasn’t inclined to snoop in drawers, but he knew how our mother felt about it, too, because she talked about it when she was dying, too young.

Don’t fight over things. That was her sermon, delivered gently, subtly, never to both of us at the same time.

My father heard it, too, and somehow we knew, my brother and I, how to proceed. We took turns choosing, first in this room, then in that. We sat down at the dining room table, the one that’s in my house, and went through the things in the safety deposit box, where we discovered our dad had moved a *few* things of our mother’s. We considered our daughters and divided the good jewelry.

A huge moving van pulled up outside our parents’ house in Virginia, and the movers packed it in two sections, one for Pennsylvania and one for Maine. This was a long time ago, fourteen years, and the things that came to my house are worn down now by dogs and children, showing their age.

So it was strange to visit my brother recently for the first time in many years and see how the other half of the material objects had fared. There are three children in his family, too, and dogs have lived in his home, but somehow everything at his house looks just the same as it did when we packed it on the truck in 1998. The things I hadn’t seen in such a long time looked so shiny and pretty; I stood in front of a mirrored wardrobe and caressed the gleaming wood.

I had a moment, just a little moment, of remembering how we divided things up, of the place where the system failed, when I realized his wife had written a list and helped him develop a strategy, so that even though we had promised to do this just the two of us, she was there.

My brother might tell the story differently. I assumed he wouldn’t care about the old-fashioned music box if he could have the Grandfather clock, but later he told me that he couldn’t have chosen the music box because I had been so vocal about wanting it.

We all have our stories.

In Proverbs 3 we read:
Happy are those who find wisdom
and those who gain understanding.
(Wisdom’s) profit is better than silver,
and her gain better than gold.
Her value exceeds pearls;
all you desire can’t compare with her.
In her right hand is a long life;
in her left are wealth and honor.
Her ways are pleasant;
all her paths are peaceful.
She is a tree of life to those who embrace her;
those who hold her tight are happy.
The LORD laid the foundations of the earth with wisdom,
establishing the heavens with understanding. (Proverbs 3:13-19, CEB)

My mother with #1 Son, January 1993, in the house where everything is shiny in my memory.

Our memories are like that wardrobe, drawers and shelves of treasures, hangers holding banners of the past. When I think of the things my parents collected, the ones in my brother’s house and the ones in mine, what matters about them is not their value or even how well-polished they are. What matters is the joy my dad took in buying a print he loved or the image I can conjure of my mother getting dressed for a party then taking off one piece of jewelry. What matters is sitting around the table we shared and laughing with the next generation the way we told stories with the last. What matters is the hope they had for their children, that we would love the memories of them stored in our wardrobes and have the wisdom to let the rest go.