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Lacunas #2

Monday, 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

Wednesday, 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?

Friday, 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

Wednesday, 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

Wednesday, 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.

Celebrating Bobby: Stories from His Life, #3

Friday, June 19th, 2009

A friend had given Bobby a ride to the airport. It turned out that he got there in plenty of time–early, in fact. So early that he fell asleep at the gate where he was to board and missed his flight. Thank goodness for a kind ticket who agent took pity on him and got him on the next flight.

Meanwhile, our sister Betsy had found out what had happened and was waiting at the other end–a bit nervously. Would she recognize him? Neither of us had seen him for several years–not since our mother had died ten years ago.

We were used to Bobby’s rough appearance–after all, he lived on the street. But what had ten years on the street done to him?

I wondered if he was addressing our philistine concerns or his own sense of inadequacy when I talked with him on the phone and he said, “And, Patty, I’ll look as nice as I can.”

I didn’t know what to say. My heart was breaking. So, in typical Donohoe fashion, I resorted to humor.

“Well, Bob,” I said, “that would be good since it’s important to look as nice as you can in order to get on an airplane these days.”

Then I waited to see how he would take my comment. I didn’t have to wait long. He burst out laughing and said, “Thank God for Donohoe humor. God, it’s good to talk with you!”

But I was still in for several surprises when we saw him.

Time Out

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

It’s been more than a month since I’ve posted my last entry. What’s happened?

Life. Since my last entry I’ve done quite a bit more research and written several more chapters for the historical novel I’m working on, researched and conceptualized a sermon, participated in a week-long painting workshop, spent at least one day a week with my daughter and three grandchildren, done my spring gardening, hosted and/or celebrated my grandson’s baptism and several family birthdays, and dealt with the death of my brother Bobby.

Dave’s and my upcoming plans also include a two-day workshop in Lancaster, PA, on forgiveness; a week-long painting retreat at Blackwater Falls State Park in WV; and a weekend at a nearby resort at Deep Creek Lake in Maryland.

Sometimes I feel that I’ll NEVER get these books done! But each time I veer away from them for a while, something important turns up, something that enriches them and would never have been part of the process if it weren’t for the time out. 

I wonder what will turn up this time? More letters? Old photos? The perfect editor/agent/publisher? Or something as simple and profound as a new insight? Time will tell.


Pat at Haworth, home of the Brontes, Sept. ‘08

Saturday, February 28th, 2009