Lacunas #2

July 9th, 2012


(C) The Reverend Patricia Donohoe

The fastest growing religious status is “none.” Is that because we are not being honest in our God talk? The following sermon points to some “lacunas” we might want to consider in our conversations about religion. The sermon was delivered at Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church, July 8, 2012. The sermon texts are Mark 6:3 and 2 Corinthians 5:9b-10.

The lectionary reading for today from the Gospel of Mark begins like this:

[Jesus] left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands? Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?”

The lesson goes on explaining how Jesus was rejected among his own kin, by his own hometown. But I’m going to stop with “are not his sisters here with us?” Because that is where I run into a brick wall every time I read this passage. I keep seeing a big hole in the story and wonder how to fill it in. Before addressing the missing pieces in this story, however, I’d like tell you another story.

One day a few years ago, when I went to visit my daughter Lora and her family, I came into their house through the laundry room, as usual. But that day I was immediately struck by something different. Usually there was a big pile of shoes of all shapes and sizes in the middle of the floor. Every morning my daughter Lora would rummage through the pile swearing and cursing as she tried to find two shoes that matched and were in the right size for each of the three kids—all in time to get them to wherever they needed to be that day.

But this morning was different. Instead of a big jumble in the middle of the floor, ALL the shoes were carefully matched and laid out in a perfectly straight line from one wall to the next.

WOW! I said to Lora as I walked into the kitchen. You’ve been extra busy!

No, Mom, she said. It wasn’t me.

WHO, then? I asked.

She pointed to my little granddaughter Laney, who was barely four years old at the time.


Yes! The other day, Lora said, when Laney disappeared and things got real quiet, I went looking for her. There she was, in the laundry room, on her knees. She was lining up the shoes, and over each pair, she was saying, “Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ.”

You may laugh—or not. Frankly, I hope you did. Little Laney was just doing what she had heard her mom do—if not exactly in the same spirit. Little Laney, of course, did not know the whole story of just who this Jesus Christ guy was. In that, she was like all of us. There’s a lot we don’t know about Jesus—or his family—as our lesson for today illustrates.

Are not his sisters here, with us?

We know next to nothing about his sisters. How many sisters did he have? How old were they at the time of this story? Who were they? With the possible exception of Salome, who is mentioned only twice in the Bible (Mark 15:40 and 16:1), we don’t even know the names of the sisters. Yet they were a crucial part of the story. Not only did they help to provision him on his travels, at least one of them, Salome, stayed with him to the bitter end at the cross and brought spices to anoint his body the next day.

The brothers—James and Joses and Judas and Simon—are not only mentioned by name but by designation. They are disciples. The sisters are essentially disregarded.

Jesus preached a new family order, but even he apparently saw women primarily in the old, conventional, subservient roles. When he healed the bleeding woman, for example, he designated her new status by saying, “Daughter, your faith has made you well.” (Mark 5:34) Notice, he did not say “sister,” a designation that might have put her on a plane that was a little more equal in relationship to him.

But I’m sorry to say that even “sisters” get short shrift in our scriptures. According to my concordance, the word “brother” and its cognates are used some 787 times in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. The word “sister” and its cognates are used 247 times. That’s more than three times as many references to “brothers” as “sisters.”

There’s a lot we don’t know about Jesus or the Bible, and what we do know is often full of holes, or lacunas. A “lacuna,” you may recall, is a gap or missing part, a hiatus. In anatomy it’s one of the numerous minute cavities in bone tissue. In botany it’s the air space in plant cells. I once saw it used to describe the tiny indentations in a plaster ceiling.

The first time I remember encountering the word was in a graduate English course thirty years ago when the rage in literary criticism was deconstruction and reader response theory. Now you’ll find the word everywhere, from popular novels to rock bands to theological inquiry. It seems that more and more people are finding more and more holes in Christian theology.

A recent article in “Psychology Today” on atheists and agnostics states that “nonbelievers are growing in number, but you might not know it because they may be in the next pew with their kids.” That seems to be more and more the case with people I know and run into, and the numbers confirm it—at least, for mainline churches. According to our PCUSA website, our denomination saw a net loss of 20 percent of its membership from 2000 to 2010. Eight in ten PCUSA churches have fewer than 250 members; seventy-five percent have fewer than 200. We are not alone in this trend.

At a party for Laney’s sixth birthday recently, I sat at a picnic table across from the fathers of two of her friends. One is a police detective; the other, a public school administrator. Both are dedicated to serving the common good, and both had left the churches of their upbringing many years ago and not looked back. But both were searching. They wanted to be part of a community that welcomed all people into its heart and hierarchy, affirmed the sacredness of life, avoided doctrinaire pronouncements, encouraged questioning, and recognized the fallibility of liturgy and belief systems based on ancient myth and outdated world views.

“I just can’t say those things anymore. I don’t believe them,” one of them said to me, in reference to “confessions” like the Apostle’s Creed. For them, saying that Jesus is “the only Son of God” reeks of an arrogant insensitivity to other people’s faith traditions.

A recent CNN article on “unbelieving” clergy profiled a former Pentecostal preacher who “came out” as an atheist at the age of forty-two and now ministers to the growing numbers of other atheists, agnostics, humanists, and those not wanting to identify with any religion.

For several years now I have been struggling with trying to define what, if any, religious terminology describes where I am with my faith. The closest I can come is to borrow Karen Armstrong’s self-described designation and say that I am a “freelance monotheist.” I usually add, however, that I am also a Presbyterian Neo-Pagan. It would take too long to unpack what all of that means, and my reflections today are not about my journey. But let’s just say that, like the Transcendental and Romantic poets of yesteryear, I, too, have felt “A presence that disturbs me with the joy/ Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime/ Of something far more deeply interfused/, Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns/, And the round ocean and the living air.”

As a Presbyterian, I trust in a loving God who has good intentions for us in life and in death. As an adherent of the Reformed Tradition, I value representative governing structures, an orientation that sees God’s goodness at work in the world, and an approach to life grounded in grace and gratitude. In my affiliation with this congregation, I feel blessed to be part of a community that emphasizes the importance of asking questions.

So I am asking: Is this the time and place for those of us who are not “traditional Christians” to come out of the closet, examine what we say we believe, and have some honest-to-God discussions about the questions we have?

When Dave and I go to Annapolis to visit grandkids, we pass a church with a large sign that says, “Jesus Christ is the answer.” But I want to know, “WHAT is the question?” According to Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo, religion has always recognized its basis in interpretation and the need for deconstruction of sacred texts. Vattimo advocates something he calls “weak thought” to counter the dead certainty in modern religion and atheism. The ideal community, he believes, is based on charity rather than truth and emerges from people engaged with each other and the world, people not afraid to ask questions, to look for the lacunas in the way they worship and live.

Such communities, Karen Armstrong believes, will not disappear. Their numbers may be small, but their small numbers may, in fact, position them for ushering in a new awakening. After all, small boats can turn a lot faster than large ships.

Lacunas can be life-savers as well as deadly holes. Remember, one definition for “lacuna” means air-space. In Barbara Kingsolver’s novel “Lacuna” the main character finds an underwater cave or lacuna that leads to unexpected discovery and delight—but only after he has developed the courage and air capacity in his lungs to get there.

Are we ready to take some deep breaths and look for the lacunas in our religion?

When, for instance, will our daughters and granddaughters no longer need to search for the voices of women in all the world’s major religions?

What do we really mean when we say that Jesus is the Son of God?

And how can we go about practicing the Golden Rule in our discourse about religion?

Lacunas, #1

June 27th, 2012

In my last post, I mentioned that I would be writing a sermon to be entitled “Lacunas” and that I would be addressing some of the holes I saw in the Bible and traditional Christian theology in a series of blogs.

Let me begin by stating that I am not an expert or scholarly theologian in this area. I am grateful that I was able to attend Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC, and graduate with a Master of Divinity degree. And, although retired, I am also grateful that I was ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), served as an associate minister at a local church for three years, and was active in the work of our presbytery for several years afterwards.

None of this necessarily makes me more qualified to address some of the shortcomings of mainline Christianity than anyone else. What it might suggest, however, is that I may tend to think about religious and spiritual issues more than some people.

For instance, for the past several years, I have been wondering what informs our faith. It seems to me that, by and large, a particular religious tradition (Christianity, for example) rests on four basic pillars: the teachings of an extraordinary leader; the scriptures (oral and/or written) that attest to the leader’s exceptionality; the interpretations and applications of those teachings and scriptures by a community of followers over time; and the inner spiritual guidance and epiphanies of individuals within a particular community of faith.

In other words, if we were seated around a table that represented the Christian faith, the four pillars or legs of the table would translate into first of all, Jesus Christ; second, the Bible, and, in the case for Christianity, the New Testament especially; third, the ongoing interpretation of the Bible by the community of believers who try to understand and apply the teachings of Jesus; and, last but not least, personal revelations that lead us to new insights (or faulty ways of thinking).

The architect in my family tells me that four legs make a stronger table than three, that additional legs make for an even stronger table, and that a round table is stronger than a square or rectangular one. Most communion tables and altars are rectangular and have four legs.

I’m not sure where that leaves us except to wonder what might be missing from the Christian Tradition, for, as Barbara Kingsolver wrote in her novel The Lacuna, “the most important part of any story is the missing piece.”

What Now?

June 8th, 2012

And YOU are a Presbyterian minister?

That was a question put to me in the form of a comment at a recent gathering of friends.

The person asking the question simply could not believe that I could be a Presbyterian minster (albeit retired) and say that I didn’t really consider myself a Christian.

Presbyterian neo-pagan, yes. Freelance monotheist–yes!

But Christian?

And yet everywhere I go, I seem to run into people who are rejecting traditional belief systems and find themselves floating in a home brew of doubt, questions, and blending of ingredients from diverse religious and spiritual traditions. Most have a sense of something greater beyond themselves but can’t find any fitting religious container for their concoction.

I thought it might be worthwhile, for myself if no one else, to try to explain how I got to where I am and what thought processes, experiences, and resources have led me to this place of UNknowing.

But first I have to stop and write a sermon. Its title:  ”Lacunas.” According to my dictionary a “lacuna” is a gap or missing part, a hiatus. In anatomy it’s one of the numerous minute cavities in the substance of bone. In botany it’s air space in the cellular tissue of plants. I once saw it used to describe the little pocket indentations in the surface of a plaster ceiling. The word comes from Latin for ditch, pit, hole, gap, deficiency, and is akin to “lacus,” as in lake or lagoon.

I can’t think of a better word to describe where I am or to begin this new series of blogs.

You may find a lot of holes in my reasoning. I invite your feedback. But in my next blog, I’ll begin sharing what I see as some of the holes in the Bible and traditional Christian theology.

Remembering Bobby, #7

November 2nd, 2011

My brother Bobby, born November 2, 1955, would have been 56 today. He died two and half years ago, on April 7, 2009.

This past Saturday, October 30, 2011, my sister and I, along with my husband Dave and Betsy’s friend Jerry, laid Bobby’s ashes to rest. And so here I am, a few days later, writing my last post on Bobby. On his birthday.

I didn’t plan it that way. In fact, we had planned to scatter Bob’s ashes two years ago, but things just didn’t work out. I wondered if they would this time.

The four of us (Betsy, Dave, Jerry, and I) had gone to Roanoke, Virginia, to mingle Bob’s ashes with those of our brother Billy’s. His had been scattered on a high place overlooking the city where he could finally be a star. But when we got to Roanoke, the mountains were socked in and icy roads made travel to the higher elevations hazardous.

It was Jerry who suggested we consider another site, one where Bob used to play and was his happiest as a kid. So on a cold, gray, rainy morning we drove out to the old neighborhood and parked our cars along Mudlick Creek. The last of autumn’s colors shimmied in the still pools of the once-gurgling creek that winds its way to the Roanoke River.

We unpacked all that physically remained of our youngest brother–a bag of sand-like, whitish ashes that could easily fit into a woman’s size 7 shoe box.

No sooner had we carried what was once our living, breathing brother over to the creek than the sky parted directly over our heads. An intense blue hole opened right above us and the sun shone through, down onto the creek, into the grotto where echoes of Bob’s laughter could once be heard.

And was heard again, in all its deep, rich joyfulness at the absurdities of life.

The sun lit up a young, golden-leafed maple where Betsy and Dave used some sticks to rake a scattering of ashes into some loose dirt around its base. I took the plastic bag, still brimming with its contents, and swooped it out over a still pool of water. Betsy did the same.

“You’re part of the elements now, Bob,” I said. Of course, he always was. More than any of us, he was the one closest to nature.

We watched as his ashes spread out in the water like a milky galaxy across the night sky.

Dave meanwhile had gone to stand on the little bridge that crossed the creek so he could take some photos.

“Look!” he said. All of a sudden, the creek started running again, into the pool where Bob’s ashes were mingling with the water.

The water was continuing its journey. It had seeped from hillside springs, washed down from the mountains, filtered through the glens, and wound its way through the meadows, and now it was on its way to becoming one with the Chesapeake Bay, Atlantic Ocean, and air around us.

You’re free, Bob.

We’ll miss you.

And the earth shook

August 24th, 2011

My attachments pasted in, email addressed, and note to my copyeditor finished, I took a deep breath as I poised my finger to hit “send” on the last chapter of my book. It was a momentous occasion for me. I’d been working on this rendition of the book for more than two years and the project as a whole for more than ten. But I had no idea just how momentous the occasion would become.

Just as I started to press the “send” option, a low rumbling sound came rolling in from somewhere. My first thought–earthquake!!! I had been in a minor “shake” in Raleigh, North Carolina, back in the late 1960s, and I’ll never forget the sounds and feelings that went with it–the low rumbling that slowly but steadily built into a roar, the shaking and swaying of everything, and the noise from rattling glass, furniture, and buildings.

Surely NOT! Not in West-by-God-Virginia! No, it must be a C-5 in descent over our house for landing in Martinsburg.

Then the house shook. The house swayed. Looking through the windows to see what was up, I saw the deck posts shimmy. I stood, but there was no center of equilibrium. This never happened with a C-5, even when it was smack dab over our house, I thought, as visions of being trapped in the lower level of our house sprang to mind. That was when I ran outside. Dave was on the deck rockin’ and rollin’ to a bumpy, erratic beat.

Earthquake! we both shouted.

And then there was silence. I sent the last chapter. And things subsided back to “normal.”

I knew my momentous occasion was no earth-shaking event in the big scheme of things. But I couldn’t help wondering what might happen if and when the book is ever published.

Lassoes and Loopholes

September 15th, 2010

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of research on the Civil War book I’m writing based on letters from my ancestors. In trying to fill in the gaps, stitch the letters together with background information, and provide historical context, I’ve searched high and wide to try and track down details about people, places, and events alluded to in the letters. Often my sleuthing takes me back to books and articles published long ago, but even when I find some clues, the whole picture is never there, at least in clear focus. Usually I have to piece things together from various sources and see where the “evidence” leads.

This can be especially frustrating when I’m dealing with secret organizations. The Underground Railroad, for instance. Or the Knights of the Golden Circle. Or the “Snake Hunters” who helped Union troops capture the Moccasin Rangers in West Virginia in 1861. Or the “Patriots” who participated in the Canadian Rebellion of 1837 and 1838.

Getting a tight fix on people and events that used subterfuge to cover their trails is a bit like lassoing moving targets in the dark–there are always going to be loopholes big enough to trip up even the surest-footed Sherlock Holmes.

Which brings me to my point for today, if there is one besides “blenting”–that is, using my blog to vent. One thing I’ve relearned on this journey is that every piece of history ever recorded, in whatever format, is incredibly limiting and freeing. We can never recapture all that happened in even a fraction of a second, but every tidbit corralled has the potential to open up whole new ways of seeing and appreciating this awesome thing we call life.

Winter Meadows

December 9th, 2009

It’s a cold snowy day as I write this. For months my writing and work on the Civil War book project seems to have been stuck in a drift. But that’s okay. The ”force that through the green fuse drives the flower” has been flowing for me elsewhere in the past four months.” What has been flowing for me is time with family. Is there anything more important?

In August/September, Dave and I traveled to Minnesota for a Borchard family reunion. In October we took a little time out to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary in Maine. Since then I’ve been devoting most of my time and energy to helping my daughter and her family during her recovery from hernia repair. She has been prohibited from lifting anything more than eight pounds for two months from the date of her surgery. That includes five-year-old Ethan, three-year-old Delaney, and Camden, the 18-month-old, that cute “little” snug-a-lug who weighs in at a “mere” 36 pounds!

So, thanks to the “weights” I’ve been lifting and yoga, my upper body strength has increased significantly. But I haven’t had much time, energy, or inclination for writing. In fact, I had actually started skidding into a writing slump before my daughter’s surgery, after I printed out and started reading a rough draft of the historical novel I had been working on. The deep freeze seemed the perfect resting place for it.

Yet, if the past four months have brought anything home to me, it’s not only the importance of family, but the joy of being blessed with kids, grandkids, relatives, and a husband I dearly love. And that, I realize, is what the letters and stories of my ancestors are really about.

Even so, I have found it hard to plow through the frozen meadows in my writing, and so I have been hoping for a few small breaks or signs that a thawing is on the way. Three things have happened in the past week that, for me, just may indicate that the “green fuse” is rising.

The first is a funny little coincidence that most people would probably find insignificant. When Dave and I went to vote on Saturday, December 5th, the two people who had signed in just before us had the last name of “Byers.” Since that is one of the family names associated with the letters, I wondered: was something nudging me to get back to them?

On Sunday, December 6th, I completed a little project I had been asked to do by my grandson Ethan for his kindergarten class at Parr’s Ridge Elementary School in Mt. Airy, Maryland. What were the Christmas traditions in Shepherdstown, his class wanted to know. In doing a bit of research for this project, I discovered that Shepherdstown is known as a “storybook” town, so I decided to use the “storybook” approach for the project–with hopes that it would inspire the kindergarteners, now learning to read, to do their own storybooks. I had a lot of fun doing it, and it reminded me of how much I enjoyed writing and doing artistic things.

On Monday, December 7th, Dave and I were shopping in our local bookstore, Four Seasons, when the January 2010 issue of “The Writer Magazine” caught my eye. One of the stories featured on the cover was “Simple Strategies to Get Out of A Creative Rut.” I bought it.

Tuesday night, before going to sleep, I opened the magazine to that article. Was I ever surprised and delighted to find that it was an archival article by Peggy Simson Curry, Wyoming’s first poet laureate. Peggy died in 1987, but I was fortunate to be in the last creative writing course she taught at Casper College and, later, in a small writing group she started. If I had to pick one person who inspired and helped me in my writing career, it would be Peggy, not just because of her accomplishments, but because of who she was. Whomever she was with, whatever she was doing–she did with all her heart, mind, soul, and strength.

In writing about her own winter as a writer, she recalls the time she saw some men with pitchforks digging hay out of a snow-covered meadow. “Deep in those haystacks, covered with snow,” she writes, “was the green and fragrant heart of summer. No matter how cold the day, a man could dig down and find the green. He could smell again the timothy and the clover.”

Is it just coincidence that that article by that particular person landed in my hands at this time? I tend to think not, but regardless of the significance of such a “coincidence,” for me it has a clear meaning. As Peggy writes, “winter meadows [are] an inevitable part of every life, but in such meadows there [are] always the humps of snow-drifted green, the gathered and fragrant harvest of living.”

Thanks, Peggy.

Celebrating Bobby: Stories from His Life, #6

August 22nd, 2009

My brother Bobby liked to travel light, free from entanglements. But there was one entanglement that he carried with him wherever he went. You could say it was the mother of all entanglements. Mother as in MOTHER–our mother.

In a crack-crazed frenzy one night Bobby shoved Mother to the floor and stomped on her, breaking her hip. She eventually recovered and seemed to have forgiven him. Maybe she also felt contrite. For years we had all been emotionally ravaged at various times from her explosive, abusive temper. Had she said some things that night that provoked Bobby, who was already beyond rationality or restraint in a drug-induced fury?

My sister and I had seen Bobby’s glassy-eyed, animalistic behavior ourselves when he was under the influence of crack-cocaine, and I can still remember how we barricaded ourselves in the bedroom when we feared for our own safety.

But Bobby and Mother made up, and life went on. For awhile, at least.

A few years later Mother was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. It was during those long months when she lay dying that Bobby gave her and us all a great gift. He was the one of her four children who stayed with her and looked after her on a daily basis.

My brother Billy and his wife Linda, a registered nurse, lived nearby and also kept a check on her. My sister Betsy and I were a thousand miles away with full-time jobs and family responsibilities. The last time she and I saw Mother was when she came to the memorial service for my sister’s husband John, killed in a C130 airplane crash on October 5th, 1992. Bobby drove her up to Virginia from Florida, oxygen tank and tubes included.

One month later Betsy and I were on a plane to Florida for a memorial service for Mother. Our two brothers were there to greet us.

They are both gone now. Little did I know that the next time we would see Bobby would be at the memorial service for Billy. Nor did I realize at the time how Bobby, whose freedom was his driving passion, had freed me not once, but twice.

I like to travel light, he said, freeing me from my misplaced sense of responsibility for his personal choices. I was glad I could be there, he said, of the time he spent with Mother during her final days. So was I.

Celebrating Bobby: Stories from His Life, #5

August 20th, 2009

Something happened the other day to remind me that I hadn’t finished what I wanted to say about my brother Bobby. It seems that a distant family member, someone who had been “written off” as being unworthy of any further claims to family affection or affiliation, was actually the one person who came through at a time and place when other highly esteemed family members checked out.

No, it wasn’t Bobby. But it could have been.

That was actually the first great gift that Bobby gave me. But there was another gift that happened a few years later that enabled me to see the first one through a more generous lens.

Bobby was sitting at our kitchen table trying to read the newspaper when he asked me if I had a magnifying glass. I brought him two–a small one for slipping in a pocket and a larger one with a handle. “Here,” I said, “take either or both.”

“If you’re sure you don’t mind,” he said, “I’ll take the small one. I like to travel light.”

That was when I asked him if he had any regrets about the lifestyle he had chosen, living on the streets on a hand-to-mouth basis.

“No,” he said. “I don’t like to be tied down, and I don’t need much. But I have lots of friends and lots of freedom, and that’s what I love.”

I had no doubts about his sincerity. There was no defiance or insistence in his answer–just a simple statement of who he was, relaxed, at ease, and happy with the choices he had made.

A heavy burden lifted off my shoulders then. For years I had been wondering if there was something (God knows what) that I should have been doing to “save” Bobby. Now I knew. We were both free to follow our own paths.

New Art Show

July 6th, 2009

Welcome to my new art show at The Down the Alley Gallery above the Visitor’s Center in Shepherdstown.

The show’s theme, “Play Time,” plays off Shepherdstown’s Contemporary American Theater Festival as well as just having fun with watercolor.  No serious “WORKS of Art” allowed. But artists and guests are welcome!

The show runs through the month of July and features several new paintings, including the one at left entitled, “Opening Night.” Purchase price for this original watercolor, framed and matted, with an image area of 11″ by 15″, is $375.

The gallery and visitor’s center is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. The visitor’s center is located behind The Lost Dog Cafe. To see and purchase more paintings by Pat, be sure to visit The Yellow Brick Bank Restaurant and The Bridge Gallery in Shepherdstown. Or visit her website at