#amwriting, Reflectionary

Better When Writing – interview at A Sanctified Art

Recently, I was the WholeheARTed Guest at A Sanctified Art, where I answered questions from Lisle Gwinn Garrity that inspired contemplation of my creative process. Thanks, Lisle, for thinking of me! Check out the resources being created by A Sanctified Art here.

SA: When did you first consider yourself a creative person?

MS: From the time I was a little girl, I loved thinking up stories. I would draw (very bad) pictures of the children I hoped to have and invent names and identities for them. I retold myths and adapted adventures of favorite characters from literature. I especially loved Bible stories and would “tell” them on the flannel board I stored under the high old-fashioned bed in my childhood home. A wonderful Sunday School teacher at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House in Alexandria, Virginia, gave me permission to expand my storytelling when she developed curriculum for 5th and 6th-graders that taught the Old Testament through drama and the New Testament using puppets. We learned stories, wrote scripts, and acted or performed the stories.

SA: Tell us about how you express yourself creatively?

MS: I experimented with many forms of writing both in school and personally, but I never found a form that suited all my interests until I started writing for church—plays, sermons, and liturgies all felt like lively and faithful ways to use my gifts. Even when I write about my life, as I began doing in blog form in 2004, the most meaningful storytelling happens in dialogue with scripture. I now write prayers especially for pastors. My newest favorite thing is combining words and images using Canva, Prisma, and Instagram.

SA: What is your creative process like?

Follow A Sanctified Art on Instagram

My creative process almost always starts with a text I will be talking to, and I wish I could say that inevitably means I study and pray, but often it means I read the text and go for a walk, or have to run an errand, or find myself waiting at a child’s choir practice or watching a Little League game, and something flashes through my mind. Ten years ago I would rifle through my purse for a tiny notebook, but today I open the Notes app on my iPhone and one-finger type or dictate the thought before I lose it. It happens that way because I cultivate openness and privilege originality.

(Read the rest at A Sanctified Art.)

reverb10, Writing


(Another post for #reverb10.)

December 2 Writing.
What do you do each day that doesn’t contribute to your writing — and can you eliminate it?
(Author: Leo Babauta)

Aside from working and sleeping?

Well, I'm kidding. 

For me, in recent years, writing mostly took the form of blogging. And the thing that has gotten in the way of it is a combination of recognizing the audience has declined and having things to write about that felt quite legitimately unbloggable. How personal do we want to get, if we're a pastor, and people from the church(es) we serve read this stuff? I set a rule for myself that the blog material ought not be anything I wouldn't say in a sermon, with the understanding that not everything I write here would be interesting in a sermon. 

Really what I was saying is I would present my life to the world in a certain way.

Which leads me to confess to the first thing I do each day that doesn't contribute to my writing:

My wish to present my life to *myself* in a certain way. 


The more my life diverged from the picture I wanted to present, the less I wrote.

Which leads me to the other thing I do that doesn't contribute to my writing:

I got used to an audience. And the combination of not wanting to put things in front of an audience (including myself) and the decline in blogging in general and my entire investment in doing my writing in the forum of blogging all combined to less writing by me.

In August, I started using 750Words for daily writing, and I actually met the September challenge to write every day, but I didn't maintain it after that. I liked the place to purge emotions, but it felt lonely. I missed having feedback.

Which leads me to one more thing that daily gets in the way:

The Twitter. I love Twitter because there is almost always someone to talk to, in those 140 character snippets, someone to give feedback, or if nothing else, someone linking to something interesting. 

I'm not obsessed. I'm not there every single day reading every tweet by everyone I follow. But I would be less than honest if I didn't admit I like the contact, of a sort, that has moved from blogs to Facebook and Twitter. 

But the truth is the more I write, the better I write, no matter where I'm writing or what I'm writing about, and I need it not just to fuel sermons but for myself. I've called it my spiritual practice, and it's true that without it I feel less connected to my authenticity (which may sound weird given the way I approached blogging). The interesting thing about writing on 750Words so faithfully is that it came during a time of great upheaval, and I felt extremely close to God despite seeing the structures of my life as I understood it in a state of some collapse. So maybe I was getting feedback. It just wasn't as measurable as @ responses on Twitter or Facebook "likes" or blog comments. That's the tricky thing about the inner life, isn't it?

So here I am, writing. We'll see how this goes.

Children's Word, Writing

Lost and Found

(A few years and several churches ago, I dramatized the Parable of the Lost Sheep to be used on Children's Sunday. It's part of the lectionary texts tomorrow, and I'm going to read the version below as a story for the Children's Word. I'm happy to share this if it's helpful, just shoot me an email. Two suggestions: don't actually read the gospel verses, I have them here for reference purposes; and have a sign to hold up so the children and/or congregation can "Baaa!!!" along with you.)

all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the
Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes
sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “Which one of you,
having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine
in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he
has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home,
he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me,
for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be
more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous
persons who need no repentance.
 (Luke 15:1-7, NRSV)

A long time
ago, in a pasture far, far away, three sheep met under a shady tree. Their
names were Cottonball, Whitey and Baab. They greeted each other and commented
on the weather, and then Whitey asked an important question:

“I was just
wondering what happened to Shep? He’s always around, but I don’t see him
anywhere! Have you seen him, Baab?

Baab, who was a
very young lamb, said, “BAAAAAA!!!!!!”

But Cottonball,
who usually knew everything going on in the flock answered, “I heard he went out
looking for Blackbonnet.”

Whitey sighed. “That
Blackbonnet, always wandering off. She is such a silly little lamb.”

And Baab
agreed. “BAAAAAA!!!!”

They all
wondered why her mother didn’t take better care of her and teach her to behave
like a decent little lamb.

Whitey said, “Lambs
should be seen and not heard.”

Cottonball nodded, emphatically. “And I hate to mention it, but what if some dangerous animal should come by and
try to eat us! It’s Shep’s job to take care of ALL of us!”

Whitey agreed. “There
must be 99 of us, and only one little lamb who wandered off. What does one
little lamb matter?”

exclaimed Baab.

Cottonball had
an idea. “I think we need to call a meeting. SHEEP!!! SHEEP!!!” She gathered
all the sheep together near the shady tree. “I’ve called you all here today to
discuss the current situation involving Blackbonnet. As you know, that silly
little lamb has wandered off. And instead of taking care of us good, obedient
sheep, Shep has gone to look for her!! I say this has to stop!! Do you agree?”

All the sheep
answered with a resounding “BAAAAA!!!!  BAAAAA!!!!”

Cottonball went
on, saying, “When Shep gets back, I’m going to give him a piece of my mind!!
Imagine caring more about one little runaway than the rest of us?!???!!! It’s

All the sheep
agreed, and they said it even louder: “BAAAAA!!!! BAAAAA!!!!”

Just then, they
saw Shep coming. “Hello, my friends!!” he called. “Look, it’s Blackbonnet!!!
She’s safe!!!”

Baab was the
first to say, “BAAAA!!!!”

Then all the
other sheep joined in, saying “BAAAA!!!! BAAAA!!!!”

Cottonball spoke
up. “Shep, I want to have a word with you.”

“What is it,
Cottonball?” he asked kindly.

“You were gone
a long time looking for Blackbonnet.”

whispered to the other sheep, “That’s right, he was.” All the sheep agreed, “BAAAA!!!!

Shep explained,
“It took a long time to find her. You see, she saw some pretty flowers and
wandered off, and she couldn’t find her way home by herself.”

snickered and said, “I believe that!”

Baab agreed
with him. “BAH!!!”

Really, they
all agreed.


Cottonball was
just getting warmed up. “That’s just the point, Shep. Here we all were, 99 of
us sheep and lambs, quietly minding our own business, behaving as nicely as
anyone could want. And you went off and left us here!!! You left us all

“Yes, you
did!!!” said Whitey, louder this time.

Baab said, “BAAAA!!!!”

And all the
sheep said, “BAAAA!!!! BAAAA!!!!”

Shep spoke to
her softly, “Now, Cottonball, were you really alone?”


Shep looked her right in the eye.

Cottonball had
to admit it. “Well, no, I wasn’t really alone, not exactly. But who was going
to keep us safe with you gone, Shep?”

Shep smiled. “I
can’t always be with you, Cottonball. Sometimes you have to take care of each

Then Whitey piped
up and asked, “But why do you care more about one bad lamb than you care about
the rest of us?”

“When lambs get
lost, that’s when they need me most, Whitey. Don’t you remember the time Baab
got separated from the flock?”

Baab’s ears
perked up. “BAAAA!!!! I remember!!! You helped me!!!!”

Shep patted his
head. “That’s right. I went looking for you just the way I went looking for
Blackbonnet today. I care about all the sheep, the young ones and the old, the
mothers and the fathers, the black sheep and the white sheep. I love all of
you, but sometimes one of you needs me more than the others do. And if I can
find one lost sheep, isn’t that good news for all of us?”

Baab bleated
happily, “BAAAA!!!!”

And all the
sheep agreed: “BAAAA!!!! BAAAA!!!!”

All the sheep
began to celebrate little Blackbonnet’s return. Now they understood that the
shepherd loves all the sheep, just the way Jesus loves all people. And *that*
is the Good News today, for all of us. Amen.

Jeremiah, Preaching, Writing

Back to It

This morning I meet with my preacher group again after a break of a few weeks. Although I preached only once a month at Y1P, we kept the group together. But now I need it! I'm way off a weekly preaching rhythm. I'm off a daily writing rhythm, too, which was the whole purpose of this blog. It's earliest posts are "365" posts, little writing exercises that go back to early 2007. Now I'm doing the online equivalent of Morning Pages at 750 Words. I've been at it for two weeks, and I have a streak going. It's a different sort of writing practice, not the the formulation of well-crafted thoughts and images but a dump of what's first in my mind. I know I'm better in touch with God and myself when I'm writing. I also know I've fallen into the world of Facebook and Twitter over the past year, writing tiny thoughts and not building them into bigger, fuller or deeper expression. 

When I looked ahead to this week's passages in the Revised Common Lectionary, I must admit I was not excited. It's mostly pretty tough stuff. But I'm going to try writing about it. In the old days, I wrote about the passages I wasn't preaching, one at a time, then wrote the sermon. Or something like that. I'll be trying to get into a practice again here. But when I read Jeremiah this morning, I knew it wouldn't be easy. 

It starts well enough:

The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: "Come, go down to the potter's house, and there I will let you hear my words."

So I went down to the potter's house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter's hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.

Then the word of the LORD came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the LORD. Just like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. (Jeremiah 18:1-6, NRSV)

Nice. I like it. Even when we're messed up, God can still fix us. Full of preaching goodness, right?

But wait. God's just getting started.

At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. (Jeremiah 18:7-8)

That part sounds good, sort of. I mean, even though our badness may make God angry, we still stand a chance, right? God can change God's mind.

But hang on:

And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. (Jeremiah 18:9-10)

Oh. So it cuts both ways.

Qumram pottery  
Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the LORD: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.
(Jeremiah 18:11)

I have to tell you, I am not going to stand up in my new pulpit on the first Sunday and say, people of North Yarmouth and inhabitants of the general neighborhood, God is a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. 

There's been enough of people telling other people they are going to smash. We're so quick to condemn each other and use scripture to support it. We see it in the way people attack Islam, and particularly in the outcry about a Muslim congregation already worshiping in the neighborhood of Ground Zero and wanting to be in a space that feels more permanent than a shuttered Burlington Coat Factory.  We see it in the way people attack other Americans when they disagree politically, using charged words such as "honor" to suggest that those who disagree have none.

This dear church has been challenged by people with a different theological stance who think that the UCC's openness is really a signal of the departure of the Spirit from the people's lives. I disagree, heartily. 

And I despise the way such texts are taken out of context. Take verse 11 and preach it to upset people. Go on ahead. Maybe you think you serve a church full of evil, crafty sinners. 

(Be sure you include yourself in the indictment, if so.)

But remember that people are using the same text to condemn you because you think differently, twisting the words of the prophet intended for a particular people in a particular time and place, putting the decline of the mainline down to the ordination of women or gay marriage or the feminization of church or the wrong interpretation of scripture, ignoring that it's happening everywhere and probably has as much to do with soccer on Sunday mornings as anything else.

Remember that people will believe what you say if you describe a God acting so directly, people who will take the words personally and maybe even literally, who will hear them and remember the things in their lives that have seemed misshapen and wonder why God wouldn't take the time to work with them and help them find their shape again. 

It's a beautiful metaphor, but it is incomplete. We are not simply clay. And God is more than a potter. We can't stop there. God creates us and we have freedom and agency and vibrancy and yes, we make the most awful choices sometimes, don't we?

All of us? 

Well, I do. Sometimes. 

But I don't believe that God is taking the time to destroy us, one by one, for failing. The Good News is a more complete picture than just the potter.

And so, I move on! More tomorrow.


You can find the image here; many thanks to Vanderbilt's Lectionary site for art resources!

I also want to commend to you Carmen Andres' post about God's wrath, at In the Open Space.

Midway, Ministry, Writing

I’m Nobody

I’m nobody! Who are you?

Are you nobody, too?

Then there ’s a pair of us—don’t tell!

They ’d banish us, you know.


How dreary to be somebody!        

How public, like a frog

To tell your name the livelong day

To an admiring bog!

~Emily Dickinson

I just changed my Twitter handle from an email nickname to my real name, which I’ve been slowly making more available to blog readers, too. It’s a strange journey from six or seven years ago, when I hadn’t thought about whether it mattered if I identified myself on the Internet, to joining the generation of anonymous or pseudonymous bloggers, and now to recognize that by cloaking myself in the persona (much enjoyed) of Songbird, I’ve done exactly the opposite of what I hoped to do when I began my work in ordained ministry, which is to forge my own identity.

Now, identity is not the same as fame. I never thought it was. If I wanted to leverage fame–someone else’s–I might have kept and traded on my maiden name. I was wearing it when I graduated from seminary. I could easily have kept it when I married again; I could have been ordained with it.

But I had this notion that I could be in the world with my own name, though borrowed from a spouse, and develop my own reputation as a pastor and a person and maybe a writer. I had no idea I would be building a group of friends and readers using a nickname; I could not imagine or predict Facebook, where I daily communicate with a strange admixture of childhood friends and mom or academic bloggers (met and unmet in real life) and people from right here in Maine and lots and lots of RevGalBlogPals and my own children, too. I couldn’t have foreseen Twitter, where in blasts of 140 characters I do–what? I don’t even know, really. Keep up with friends who are too busy to blog anymore, make a few new connections, carry on behind-the-scenes conversations if my tweets are “protected” as they sometimes are, and give up that hope in the seasons I decide they won’t be.

I don’t know how much I care anymore about being a writer, which is to say being published. There are those who would argue that if you are unpublished you are not a writer. And I suppose if I were called to write books, I would have had an idea for one by now. I hope, now that I’ll be preaching regularly again, to get back to writing about life and the lectionary here.

Mostly I’m a little sorry that a tremendous amount of my effort over the past five years belongs to a cartoon character more than to me. And at 49, I want to claim my work and my life, for me at least, whether or not it matters to anyone else.

I’m writing, even if that doesn’t make me a writer.

I’m Martha, and I’m nobody. Who are you?

Grief, Prayer, Writing

A blank page

Paper I've been staring at a blank page all week when it comes to writing about something that didn't impact me directly but did impact part of my extended family, in particular my nephew who is 13 years old and suffered a terrible loss when his best friend jumped off a bridge, killing himself.

Usually when I'm troubled, I find a way to tell the story, typing the words at my laptop, watching them appear on the screen. 

Writing, I work things out.

When it's too hard, or too complicated, or too inexplicable, I write it down, and in the writing, things happen.

This is probably why the story of this week sat like a rock, because I prayed so differently, without words, for once. I have a lot of words! But this did not have, not readily. 

Maybe it helps when I know the role I'm supposed to play–the role guides me to what I'm supposed to say or do? Is "supposed" as bad a word as "should?"

This week all I could do was love inarticulately, from a distance.

It did not feel wonderful.

But it was prayer. It was. Maybe the best prayers I've prayed, personally, in a long time. My heart felt hot, a glowing, pulsing rock, full of love and sadness, not a burden to lay down but a trust to carry.

A trust to carry.

So when I say they have been in my thoughts and prayers–my nephew, my niece, their mother–I as much mean they have been my thoughts, they have been my heart prayers.

(I'm grateful to Jan at Yearning for God for the post that inspired an exercise we did at Soul Spa this morning, and to all who inspired her in the first place. It was entitled "A Blank Page is Prayer." This morning I gave blank paper to the Soul Spa attendees, and part of this post is what I wrote on that page.)

Books, RevGalBlogPals, Writing

Reading and Writing

I just finished reading Book #7, Barchester Towers, which I could.not.put.down., and even before I quite finished it, I got my hands on a copy of The Help, which I also can.not.put.down., with the result that I put my knitting down too soon and stayed up too late last night. It's my day off, and I wouldn't be surprised if I finished it before I go to sleep (hopefully not too late) tonight.

Barchester Towers, the second in Anthony Trollope's Barchester Chronicles, charmed me. It's full of characters who leap off the page, and situations that play out in very satisfactory fashion, though not before some very human, cringe-worthy moments occur. I just discovered that there was once a miniseries and added it to my Netflix queue! I have the next volume ready on my Kindle. 

Salvation-on-the-small-screen  Today I'm hosting a discussion at RevGalBlogPals of a book I reviewed here late last year, Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television. 

And finally, I'm happy to say I finally got into the local paper again. The new regime there will not give me a date to write for and sometimes the seasonal pieces I send them don't get published–frustrating!! But the piece I wrote here about rearranging the living room, with some further work, was in the paper on Saturday. It's on the web, too.

What are you reading?