When scripture and poems are memorized, they are available when needed, says Broderick


“What use is scripture if it is not inside us? It has to come into our hearts, inform our activity, tell us who we are and why we are. Scripture places us down in a wider place,” said the Rev. Janet Broderick at the 9:15 a.m. EDT Tuesday, July 28, morning devotional service on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform.

Her homily title was “Story of the Boxes.” The aphorism of the day was from Lucille Ball: “I am not funny; what I am is brave.” The scripture text was Luke 23:33-34 (NRSV) —

“When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’ And they cast lots to divide his clothing.”

Broderick said, “When scripture becomes part of our lives, the words inform us so deeply that they come to mind when we need them.”

She studied poetry with poet Joseph Brodsky when he was just a Russian émigré before he won a Pulitzer Prize. “We were reading Robert Frost and W.H. Auden, and Brodsky taught us to memorize poems. He would assign five poems, and at the beginning of class we had to write one down. If one comma was out of place, we had to do it again.”

Brodsky told his students, “You have to know poetry by heart so that it comes to you when you need it.” Broderick said that “it has been helpful to me as a priest to have the words deep inside.”

The oral tradition is different than learning something by reading, she said. It is like learning hymns and being able to recall the words in times of stress. She recalled being with a friend who was dying of breast cancer and singing hymns with her.

“Having those words means nothing if you cannot feel them,” Broderick said.

She told a story about a young African-American man, a student at Goucher College in Baltimore. He went out for a walk and stopped by the windows of the kitchen in his dorm to smell what was being cooked for dinner. 

The police drove by and arrested him. He told them he was a student but they did not believe him. They handcuffed him and put him in the patrol car. At the police station the student produced his school identification and the police checked it and then let him go.

The student said, “I was embarrassed, so terribly embarrassed, and ashamed to have my hands cuffed in front of my friends and fellow students.” Broderick asked, “Why was he ashamed? Why was he not furious? Why was he not indignant and threaten to call the proper authorities?”

Broderick told another story about a mother and son going to a bank. The mother said, “I want you to act properly and wait with me until we get to the window.” The young man did as his mother asked.

Another mother entered the bank with her son and that child was allowed to run wild. “He did what my children did and took the pens on the chains and colored all over the paper,” Broderick said. “Which child will grow up to think he can own the bank? The one who uses everything. The one who did not feel ashamed.”

How does it happen that we can feel deeply upheld by scripture, Broderick asked. It does not happen by experience or from the study of books. “It happens when we are transformed by the word of God in ourselves.”

Broderick’s last story was about Ruby Bridges, the 6-year-old Black child who integrated the New Orleans Public Schools. Robert Coles, author of The Spiritual Life of Children, was in the Air Force near New Orleans and wanted to get to know Ruby.

Every morning Ruby would pass in front of almost 200 people yelling at her and threatening to kill her. She was protected by 20 U.S. Marshals. Her teacher told Coles that every morning she looked out her window and saw Ruby stop, move her lips and then go into the school.

Coles asked Ruby if she was talking to the people. She said, “No, I was talking to God. I was praying for the people in the street.” Coles asked why she was praying for them. She answered, “I wanted to pray for them. Don’t you think they need praying for?”

Her parents and her minister had taught her to pray for the people and she did so, every morning when she went to school and every afternoon when she left school.

Coles asked why she prayed for people who were so mean to her. Ruby said, “I just keep praying and hope that God will be good to them.” Coles asked her what she said, exactly.

She said, “Please God help them, ‘cause they don’t know what they’re doing.”

Broderick said, “Her parents taught her Biblical truth. At 6 years old, Ruby received strength knowing that she was upheld by scripture. Is the Bible real for you? Has it come into your heart? May it be so. Amen.”

The Rev. John Morgan, pastor of Williamsburg Presbyterian Church in Williamsburg, Virginia, presided from the Hall of Christ. Joshua Stafford, interim organist for Chautauqua Institution, played the Tallman Tracker Organ. Meredith Smietana, a student in the Chautauqua School of Music Voice Program, served as vocal soloist. The organ prelude, performed by Stafford, was an improvisation on the “I Love Lucy” theme song. Smietana sang the hymn, “How Firm a Foundation.” The anthem was “Psalm 33,” by Emma Lou Diemer. Stafford played an improvisation for the postlude. This program is made possible by the Gladys R. Brasted and Adair Brasted Gould Memorial Chaplaincy.

Tags : Joseph BrodskyLucille Ballmorning worshipreligionRev. Janet BroderickRobert ColesRuby BridgesStory of the BoxesU.S. Marshals

The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A life-long Chautauquan, she is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun, Sammi.