Miriam, Mom and Me
Faith Sharing is a regular part of worship at the White Plains Presbyterian Church. The following testimony was shared by Elder Phyllis Worthington on the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost in the Season of Stewardship, October 9, 2016
I begin by quoting Jeremiah: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you hope for the future.” These words, written to the exiles in Babylon, took on a very special meaning for me at about this time last October, when out of the blue, I began my extraordinary personal journey of faith.
I have always enjoyed taking advantage of the impressive adult education curriculum which is of such vital importance to our individual spiritual growth here at our church. I perceive it to be a prominently positioned informal continuation of the worship service through the study of the scriptures in a classroom setting. For me, it has always been thought-provoking and spiritually fulfilling. To have the opportunity to listen, to participate, and to interact with inspiring theologians and learned biblical scholars remains to be the proverbial “icing on the cake”, leaving my whole being energized. I leave the church with my spiritual appetite appeased!
As most of you are aware, for the past 10 or so years, we have welcomed Phyllis Trible as a guest lecturer and teacher. With her my recent faith journey began. I have attended Phyllis’ classes for several years. Through those years, from time to time, we have exchanged pleasantries. I remember one time in particular, having a conversation regarding my lack of understanding for the scriptures because where I was raised we spent more time memorizing verses than getting to the meat of the matter by discussing and interpreting them. My understanding of the Bible – especially the Old Testament – left me confused and insecure. In that conversation with Phyllis we found that we shared a common background. Lo and behold, we discovered that we were both raised in the Southern Baptist tradition! We both experienced and participated in Sunday School sword drills (in case you are wondering what a “sword drill” might be, I’m sure we can find some time during her class to define and demonstrate for you). Also we shared the love of the old Southern Baptist hymns from the Broadman Hymnal; and then there was the obvious: we both share the same first name!
Another common bond worth mentioning is our love of classical music. I had previously explained that the only way I really knew the scriptures was through singing them – through sacred anthems, Handel oratorios, Bach cantatas, Masses by a myriad of composers, and of course, solo repertoire. All of these sacred musical vehicles carry the message of the scriptures, be it Old or New Testament, and fragments of texts would stick in my head, embedding themselves in my heart. A few of my favorites I’ll share as examples: From Isaiah – “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne.” From the Psalms – “He watching over Israel slumbers not nor sleeps”; this morning’s anthem also from the Psalms, “O pray for the peace of Jerusalem”; from the book of Ruth, “Entreat me not to leave thee”; from Zechariah, “Rejoice greatly, o daughter of Zion, shout, o daughter of Jerusalem”; Matthew – “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” – and on and on it goes. For years I could sing the Bible, but not always grasp what it really meant.
Last October was different. As our friendship developed I wanted to know more about Phyllis’ life as a biblical scholar and teacher. Her response was that I should read an essay recently published in a book called “I (Still) Believe”. In it, Phyllis sketched a picture of how faith and biblical scholarship intersected in her life. My interest had been peaked. I searched the web and came upon a wealth of books, articles, and information that began to feed my soul in ways that to this day are indescribable. I felt the Holy Spirit working within me. I stayed up late at night reading the Old Testament, struggling to understand by laying my assumptions aside and taking a fresh look at the scriptures through the eyes of the feminist I knew I had always been. I could not eat. I lost 15 pounds. The more I read and re-read, the greater my hunger for knowledge of the Bible grew, and manna from Heaven was my nourishment. I learned new words. BIG words. HEAVY words. Words like exegesis, hermeneutics, feminist hermeneutics, and eisegesis.
My passion and ravenous appetite to read as much as I could on feminist theology increased. One day I happened upon a pamphlet entitled “Feminist Approaches to the Bible”. The copyright was 1995, and it contained four essays by well-known feminist theologians, including Phyllis Trible! The title: “Eve and Miriam: From the Margins to the Center”. I mention particularly this article to show how my singing of scriptures led to rediscovery and inspiration which now links me forever with Miriam. The Miriam portion of the essay haunted me, and frequent nudging within my soul compelled me to read it again – this time jogging my memory, reminding me of my own “Miriam moment”. This I relate to you now:
We are all familiar with the story of Moses parting the Red Sea, God freeing the Israelites of bondage from the Pharaoh and Egypt, the sea swallowing the Egyptian soldiers with their horses and chariots. As Phyllis relates this story, she speaks of Moses “taking the center stage”. Her words: “Israel celebrates the victory won. A magnificent song appears on the lips of Moses and the men of Israel (Exodus 15:1-18). The first of many stanzas set the tone and the content:
I will sing to the Lord
who has triumphed gloriously.
Horse and rider God has thrown
into the sea.”
As I read those words, in the deep recesses of my mind, I felt something tugging. Those words were extremely familiar to me, but I didn’t recall Moses singing them. My experience was different. As I read on, Miriam does indeed sing a slightly different version of the Song of the Sea. My “AHA” moment arrived. I ran upstairs to my music library and began hunting for my copy of the Handel oratorio, “Israel in Egypt”. I found it immediately, and a program fell out of the score. Sure enough, on May 15, 1983, (33 years ago!) I had been hired by the Westchester Choral Society and Orchestra, to sing the soprano solos in this oratorio! For those of you who remember Tweet Timmons, you may have known that she was a member of the Choral Society, and she ALWAYS recorded their concerts! I looked, and there it was! I found the cassette, and listened.
My memory of performing Miriam’s Song of the Sea was very vivid because it made a profound impression on me at the time. After all of this glorious Handelian singing took place, there was what we call in musical terminology, a coda, which is a capsulated version of the theme that was just performed. In this portion of the oratorio, the tenor soloist rises and sings what is called a recitative (a sort of narrative) in which he announces:
Then Miriam the prophetess,
The sister of Aaron,
Took a timbrel in her hand,
And all the women went out after her
With timbrels and with dances,
And Miriam answered them,
Amidst the orchestra and double chorus, Miriam stands and delivers in an a cappella declaration, proclaiming:
Sing ye to the Lord, for He hath triumphed gloriously!
The horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea!
The chorus and orchestra respond magnificently, singing God’s praises, thus ending the oratorio. Very dramatic stuff! Very Miriamic!
I was brought to tears as I played that recording, and it motivated me to go one step further. I took that segment of the recording, added slides of Moses parting the sea, and of Miriam leading the women in song and dance, in order to create a video tribute to Miriam, which I sent to Phyllis, expressing my gratitude for inspiring me to use my musical talents to honor Miriam. The circle was complete.
This next part is not easy for me to talk about because it was a vulnerable moment which changed my heart and enlightened my way of thinking. Throughout the beginning steps of my faith journey, I questioned, “Why, Lord? What is happening to me? What is it you want of me? I’m here, Lord. I’m listening.” We all get impatient and have to be reminded that we are living “in God’s time.” As I continued to question, so it was that I was reminded of the same – “in God’s time.” One evening as I readied myself for bed, I became overwhelmed with God’s perfect love surrounding me, in me, filling the room. I stood there, bearing all to God with tears streaming down my face, praying for guidance and understanding. Once again, the Holy Spirit entered my body, and suddenly tears became shaking sobs as I listened and simultaneously understood with every fiber of my being what it was like to surrender one’s self to the Lord. I felt the invisible shackles break away from my body, leaving me in a state of total serenity. I had just felt “the peace that passes ALL understanding”, and it nearly took my breath away.
Continuing on the path of this spiritual journey, whatever troubles and medical mishaps befell me (suffice it to say, there have been many), I continued to experience that peace. I would find myself humming a portion of Psalm 119, “Great peace have they which love thy law, and nothing shall offend them.” (KJV) The words were very much alive and well within my soul!
In my adult life, there has been a very large obstacle in my memory which occasionally rears its ugly head. It was an unresolved problem from childhood, involving my relationship with my mother. Here, I read from 1st Corinthians: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” In a recent adult education class, this scripture spoke volumes to me, for I experienced yet another watershed life-changing event. This past spring, Barbara Horan led a two-week series reviewing a book on The Beatitudes. We specifically examined “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy”. Barbara continued, explaining “Mercy is the primary form that God’s love to the world assumes.” Out of this sentence spawned a discussion on the act of forgiveness. As the discussion progressed, many in the class spoke of their experiences of the difficulty of forgiving, but after doing so, each had described in one way or another how the weight of the world was lifted from their shoulders. In that classroom as I listened to these stories of “letting it go”, I once again felt overwhelmed and tears began to stream down my face. Why, you may ask? I was reminded of my feelings as the third child growing up in the 1940’s, where there were many times when I resented my mother. These feelings of resentment and bitterness are best described by my much wiser (now deceased) baby sister, Lisa, who once wrote these words: “…Wounded memories kick in automatically, because a child’s anguish has the capability to produce hurt for a lifetime.” Let me repeat: “A child’s anguish has the capability to PRODUCE HURT for a lifetime.”
That is exactly what happened to me with my childish thinking. You see, I could only perceive my mother as selfish, self-serving, and living a double standard – that is, acting one way at church pretending to be a Christian, and then acting totally the opposite at home. The root of bitterness was planted in the soil of hurt. What has perdured in my mind all these many decades later is the selfishness my mother constantly exhibited with her first four children. Harsh words from this septuagenarian, who supposedly is now an adult and has put away childish things! I think not!
Years later, after my parents raised two more daughters from a different generation than we older girls, I discovered that Mom had expressed deep regret for the way she treated us, and even went so far as to single each of us out and ask our forgiveness. I remember her asking my forgiveness, and on the surface, I forgave her, but in my heart – my bitter heart – I knew I had not. My mom went to her grave thinking she had been forgiven by me, but I knew differently! My anguish was still producing hurt for a lifetime. Would I never grow up?
Returning to our adult education classroom setting, as I listened to all of those stories of forgiveness, and as the tears rolled down my cheeks, I suddenly felt that tremendous burden lift from my shoulders with the realization that holding this grudge in my heart was indeed, very childish. That root of bitterness which had produced so much unnecessary anguish for me over the years was pulled from the soil of hurt and replaced again with the “peace that passes all understanding.” Mom, I finally “became an adult and put away childish things” – I have forgiven you. Can you find it in your heart to forgive me?
In conclusion, I return to Jeremiah – “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you hope for the future.”
As I have learned to walk “in God’s time”, my spiritual journey continues, and to whatever path the Lord directs me, I am secure in knowing God will always look out for me and keep me out of harm’s way. God’s hand was present (probably nudged on by my mother) when I crossed paths with an extraordinary biblical scholar and feminist who opened my eyes to take a fresh look at the scriptures and further encouraged me to question assumptions that we so often bring with us to the text. She has demonstrated to me that feminist theology is woven in the Bible as bedrock theology. I now know it is okay to reexamine and appropriate the scriptures in a way that affirms the role of women in our world!
Regarding the new-found serenity, I continue to experience after forgiving my mom, I look to the book of Ephesians: “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”
I would like to close with one of my favorite “Trible Quotes”:
“Do not abandon the Bible to the bashers and thumpers. Take back the text. Do not let go until it blesses you. Indeed, make it work for blessing, not for curse, so that you and your descendants, indeed so that all the families of the earth, may live.”
As for God’s next path for me: Who knows? Perhaps I’ll enroll in seminary! After all, in God’s time, it’s never too late!