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.

Grrrls, Learned From My Mother, Living in This World, Orientation

The value of this girl

Since I posed the questions about the value of girls, or the way girls perceive their value, it seemed like I ought to answer them myself. And really, if you haven’t, I encourage you to go read the comments, all 95 of them. They are breath-taking, and I am grateful to all who shared their stories.

What was your socio-economic and geographic setting when you were growing up?

I grew up in the oldest, whitest neighborhood in a Southern city with a half-black, half-white population, give or take.  In my pseudonymous blogging days, I called it Jane Austen’s Village, because it was the last place in the world where people lived on their so many pounds a year.

My father was from an old family that didn’t have a lot of money (not property owners); he grew up in a multi-generational household that moved from rented house to rented house, probably to make room for one more cousin or uncle.

My mom did not grow up there, but her mother did, and that family owned a fair amount of land, so they were better off. One of my grandparents (maternal grandfather) graduated from college, after which he had a career in the Marine Corps. My mother was the first woman on either side to graduate from college; my father left college to enlist in the Army Air Corps in WWII, then went straight to law school after the war.

What were the expectations for you?

I think my dad hoped I would find something meaningful to do with my life, but I may be reading back the pride he felt when I started seminary at age 33. When I was younger he hoped I would get a liberal arts education, but what was to come after that felt very vague. The expectations my mother had were unvoiced. I never had a sense that she looked ahead in my life, only a feeling of being critiqued for whatever I was doing in the present.

I used to assume we were disconnected, my mother and I, because I was adopted, but the more I listen to other women’s stories, the less weight I give that factor generally. It is true that when I became engaged, my mother told me my future husband was “noble” for being willing to marry me without knowing my background.

At the Senior Prom, 1978, with the boy who kissed me by the lockers.

Who told you what value and success might look like for a woman?

My mother told me that a woman’s value derived from marriage to a man who should have enough success for both.

And even though I loved my dad, who was a great guy and a success in plenty of ways, I hate it for her if that was her personal definition of value and success.

Was that success wrapped up in attention from men?

Therefore, yes.

Were there definitions of what kind of attention was appropriate?

Absolutely. I was to be attractive enough to get a man interested in marrying me, but without sleeping with him, and I was to remain attractive enough to keep him from sleeping with anyone else.

The number of ways in which I failed at fulfilling this rubric is astonishing to calculate, even though I did follow the rule about waiting until the marriage she seemed surprised I managed to have.

Was there cognitive dissonance? (In other words, did you hear one thing and see another?)

The real conflict was between what my mother taught and what my dad seemed to value. He liked bright women and women who pursued their interests. He liked it that I was smart. He was frustrated during the periods of time when I couldn’t get it together academically. He was dubious about my marriage for reasons different from my mother’s and often said things to me about how a woman should be able to support herself.

Was there an a-ha moment suggesting there was something wrong with the whole social construction?

No, I bought into it completely until my 30s, when my marriage ended. Although it wasn’t working well, I just kept figuring that if I could do better at the rubric, things would improve.

And since I’m reading “The Purity Myth,” did virginity form part of the definition of your value?

Lord, yes. And I was Judge-y McJudge-erson about other girls and their virtue, I’m ashamed to say.

And how about marriage?

I’ve addressed that above, but I also want to say that marriage was one thing, but having the wedding was the focus for me. And I understand that to be just as immature as it sounds. I had no idea what lay on the other side.

Do your past and/or current understandings of sexual orientation (yours and others) form part of the subtext of this conversation?

Sure. I learned that men could be gay at 11 (in 7th grade), when I watched “That Certain Summer” with my mom. It was a Movie-of-the-Week. “Can that really happen,” I asked? She was surprisingly matter-of-fact about the reality of homosexuality…in MEN.

I was in college before I knew women could be other than straight, and the first references I heard to lesbians were cruel and derisive. Perhaps because of that negativity and certainly because my notion of value derived from the philosophy obtained from my mother–and really the subtext was that she might value me if the right man did–it never crossed my mind to be anything other than straight.

I choose those words carefully. It never crossed my mind. It didn’t occur to me until much, much later that my heart mattered. I persisted in my attempts to fit into a paradigm that I thought would win my mother’s love. I kept trying, even long after she died. It seemed like the one way I might be able to please her, finally.

So I didn’t so much reject the possibility of being other than straight myself as never even consider it, because I was more concerned with the approval of the one person who never gave it to me. And even after she was gone, when it first crossed my mind that my heart might be tuned differently, I still wanted to live up to her definition of success. (Thus my second marriage, but that’s another story.)

What’s your basis for valuing yourself now?

I am a beloved child of God, and that ought to be enough for anyone, but I fear I put too much emphasis on my professional identity–you know, being fierce and fabulous for Jesus, in a very particular way–and not enough on being valuable simply for being.


Thank you again to all who commented on last week’s post. The comments are open here for more discussion, if you like.

Learned From My Mother, Ministry, Prayer, The Inner Landscape


Do you ever think about who taught you to pray?

I guess I learned from my mother, goodnight prayers taught and repeated over and over again. She liked prayers with a form. I think she found them reassuring. 

"God is my help in every need. God does my every hunger feed."

When she was dying, she avoided her own church and had a friend take her to the Unity church mid-week. In those last months of her life, those friends committed to pray for her each morning at the same time. I found it fascinating that they prayed separately, in the privacy of their own homes. 

The other thing she liked was quiet. She didn't like the hubbub of a busy church service, or the appraising looks of anyone not in her carefully chosen inner circle.

I am not like her. 

On the RevGalBlogPals cruise in April, Nanette Sawyer asked us to think of things that helped us find the feeling of God's presence in the core of our beings — or something very close to that, I may not be saying it right. And I remember jotting notes on a post-it, one of which was "Praying with others." 

It's not something we do a lot in Congregational UCC churches in Maine, at least not in my experience. As a little Baptist girl growing up in Virginia, I remember the whole Sunday School class praying, sentence prayers we called them. If you felt shy or didn't know what to say, you could squeeze the hand of the person next to you. So from Bernadette Lane, and other teachers, I learned to pray on my feet, to find something to say no matter what the situation, to be comfortable putting words on the murmurs of my heart that I could speak aloud in a room full of people.

I liked the way it felt, that we all prayed together.

As a pastor, I get to pray in worship almost every week. Sometimes I write a prayer, but often I bind up the themes of the day the way a florist wraps ribbon around the stems of flowers to make a bouquet. I hope the effect will be evocative, that people will hear something and feel something that brings them closer to God.

In my first church, I remember sitting in my little garret office with a woman who worked for a Nazarene congregation. She came to see me about starting an afterschool program, but somehow, most likely because of her kind pastoral presence, I told her about the job search I was in at the time. I remember that on a darkening autumn afternoon, she offered to pray for me. I remember feeling cared for, deeply, both by this person I hardly knew and by God. As she said "Amen," tears slipped down my cheeks.

I pray a lot with other people, prayers for and about them, their needs, their worries, their fears and hopes. I do it willingly, gladly, sincerely.

But when it comes to praying for myself, I find I am quite inarticulate. Many of my prayers are monosyllabic, consisting of "please" or "help!" 

It helps me understand my mother's love of that prayer already formed, meant to be repeated, comforting. I can pray those prayers. In the first months of being treated for Rheumatoid Arthritis, awake at night due to the prednisone that helped so much, but made life a little miserable at the same time, I dug from memory the Serenity Prayer, or something close enough to it that repeating it made me feel less alone.

But what I really love is to pray with others, and sometimes my desire for that and the lack of it means I don't pray as much as I might should.

In this phase of my life, as I try to discern what's next, taking into account the multiplicity of personal and professional factors involved, I find I am confused and changeable. Friends whose natures are more organized recommend lists and systems, but I live by intuition, and I also know how to "con" a list of factors, for and against. I know how to con myself. Robin recommended the Ignatian method, and since I am ignorant of it, I turned to Google for further information.

First on the list: Pray assiduously.

And I suspect that means some combination of all of the above: prayers with others and alone, prayers sitting still or walking the dog or driving the car (eyes open!), prayers sung and prayers written, prayers of one word and of many words and of no words at all.

One of the other things my mother taught me was that there was always a right way to do something, one right way. I'm not sure she was right about that. I suspect God could use me in more than one place or more than one way. But it's my hope that there is a better way than others, a place I can be fierce and fabulous for Jesus, a place I can honor as many aspects as possible of my call to be a minister and my call to be, well, Songbird.

So I will pray, assiduously. Feel free to join me, wherever you are.