Apocalypse When? Weaving the World Anew

Watch the video here.

Did you know the world just ended?  It did.  And then it just did again, just now.  The world ends in every moment.  But more importantly, in every moment, it begins anew.  It begins again, and again, and again.

That’s what physicists tell us, anyway.  That the universe, our world, is not so much a thing as it is a process, a series of events that wink out of existence the moment they occur, to be replaced by new events.

Does that make your brain hurt?  It does mine.  It’s easier for me to understand it this way:  the world ends all the time.  People we love die.  We lose jobs, and marriages, and homes.  We move.  We become ill.  Places we love get bulldozed.  And these are just the ordinary endings, terrible enough—but in the last few years, we’ve had a massive dose of the extraordinary:  nuclear disaster, shootings in schools, massive hurricanes, drought and fire, threats to women’s rights, threats of more wars…for months and months, it’s been one disaster after another.  I don’t know about you, but I’m getting tired.

Each time some terrible thing happens, we are stricken.  We are dazed.  But we still are.  The moment our old world ended, a new world began: a world in which we must find our way for the very first time.

How do we make sense of all these endings?  How do we find the hope we need, to make new beginnings?  Humans have always done this by telling stories.

One of the most fundamental stories of Western culture came to us as a way of making sense of violent endings.  The world of the ancient Israelites ended again and again.   They were a small nation constantly caught in the middle of battles of empire.  First the Babylonian Empire came and conquered them, desecrated their most holy Temple, and sent the people away from everything they knew.    Then the Persian Empire overthrew the Babylonians and let the Israelites go home and rebuild the Temple.   Eventually the Romans came and conquered everyone, and destroyed the temple altogether.  The people of Israel were often refugees, whose men were injured or dead, the women raped, the children hungry.  They felt small and powerless.  In order to survive as a people, they needed a story that gave them hope.  And so when they heard this story from Zoroastrians of the Persian Empire, the empire that once rescued them, they adopted it as their own.  The story goes something like this:

“Once upon a time, a group of people was being oppressed by an evil empire.  The people cried out for help to their god, who sent a hero—a messiah!—to lead the oppressed ones in battle against the forces of evil.  The battle raged back and forth, with fires, floods, and famines.  The forces of good unleashed Plagues, but the schemes of the evil Dragons and Beasts on earth defeated them.  Animals, angels, and spirits fought on both sides. Eventually the forces of good won a major battle on a hill, and peace reigned for a thousand years.  But then the evil forces rebelled again, and so the god completely destroyed the earth and all its the forces of evil.  Then he made a new world, where he established a new kingdom that would remain for all time.” 1

Does this sound familiar?  It should, because not only is it a summary of the Book of Revelation in the Christian Bible, it’s also the basic plotline of nearly every science fiction and fantasy series ever written.  At least once a year, if not more, a new movie comes out in which the forces of good and the forces of evil square off against one another.  A hero comes along just in time to lead the forces of good in a cataclysmic battle that once and for all vanquishes the evil empire and replaces it with the good empire.  Sometimes we get a trilogy or even a seven-part series.

Biblical scholars call this kind of story an “apocalyptic.”  The word “apocalypse” is Greek for “lifting the veil,” as in revealing something that was hidden.  Apocalyptics always began by declaring that the story was revealed in a dream or vision.  And they always followed the same basic plot, just changing names and details and images.  Many apocalyptics were written throughout Jewish history, each to explain its own specific crisis.

Now, early Christianity, as you may recall, was a reform movement within Judaism.   So the apocalyptic story in the Book of Revelation follows the same formula that the earlier ones did.  It wasn’t originally accepted as part of the Christian Bible.  The Christians were a tiny minority in the Roman Empire and they didn’t want to upset the government by making such a violently critical apocalyptic part of their sacred text.  But after Christianity became the state religion, this changed.  Now that the empire was on the side of God, God must be on the side of the Empire.

Which brings up the reason this storyline has stayed in our consciousness for these last two thousand years:  it works for both sides of any violent conflict.  It not only gives oppressed people hope, but it also gives conquerors language to use in conquest.  As long as each side imagines itself as being on the side of good, the story meets everyone’s needs.

But there are many, many problems with the story.  Remember, it is a story people told to explain how their world could end in violence over and over again; it was born from a longing to be saved once and for all.  And so, it imagines a lone male hero, the savior.  It imagines time on earth as linear, having a beginning and an end.  It imagines this earth as a bad place, which will be destroyed in the final purging of evil from the universe.  And it imagines God as an emperor who does the purging through violence, replacing one empire with another.

These themes are the reasons why the word “apocalypse” in our common understanding has come to mean “the end of the world,” and a terrifying end at that.

Well, these problems wouldn’t be so bad if people understood the story for what it is:  a particular narrative that came from a particular time and place to make sense of particular events.  But according to a Time Magazine poll, 59 percent of Americans believe the events in the Book of Revelation will literally come true.  And throughout Christian history, the basic narrative has been used over and over again to justify the violence of empire. 2  It was used to drive the Crusades.  It was used by Europeans to colonize the Americas and slaughter their native peoples.  It was used by Hitler to build the Third Reich, and most recently, it was used by George W. Bush to take the United States to war on Afghanistan and Iraq.

But perhaps one of the most troubling things of all, to me, is that we seem to be so steeped in apocalyptic language that even environmentalists use it to talk about the ecological problems our planet is facing.  Repent, or die!  Change your behavior or the whole planet will perish!

Now, when fundamentalists who want the world to end, and environmentalists who want it to keep going, all start talking in the same terrifying ways about plagues and fires and floods and wars, it is easy to feel afraid.  It is easy to think we might indeed be close to the end of the world.  It is easy to lose hope.

But I think hope is our best hope.  And so I think we need to start telling a different story.   Is there a different story?   There are many.  Here is one:

Somewhere, high in the mountains, there is a cave. Inside the cave lives an old, old woman.  She spends most of her time weaving.  She wants to weave the most beautiful garment that ever was, and she has spent a very long time at it.  She has come to the point where it is time to attach a fringe of porcupine quills to the edge of the garment, and so she needs to flatten the quills with her teeth.  From years of biting down on the quills, her teeth have been worn down to nubs, but still she works on, weaving, and flattening.

Now, at the very back of a cave there is a stew, simmering, in a cauldron.  The cauldron hangs above a fire that began so long ago that it might be the oldest thing there is.  The stew in the cauldron contains all the seeds and grains and herbs that grow on the surface of the earth.  If the old woman doesn’t stir it, the fire will scorch everything and who knows what troubles could ensue.

So she gets up to stir the stew.  She leaves the weaving on the floor, and slowly, painfully, makes her way to the back of the cave.  Now the moment the old woman turns her back, a great dog springs up from the entrance to the cave.  The dog comes over and sniffs and paws at the weaving.  It finds a loose thread and pulls on it, and pulls and pulls.  But all the threads are woven together and so next thing we know, the weaving is all undone.

When the old woman comes back from stirring the stew, she finds, instead of her beautiful creation, a chaotic mess of destruction.  She stands there and looks at the heap of loose threads.  And then she realizes she is tired.  She has been doing this work by herself since the beginning, and she is tired and lonely.  So she calls on her siblings and her cousins, and they call on all their children and their grandchildren, and soon everyone crowds into the cave.  The people look at the threads, at their colors and textures, and then they begin to speak.  As each speaks, the others listen.  Even the littlest ones speak.  And as they speak, and listen, into their minds comes a beautiful design.  It is even more beautiful than the last one.   Together, they take up the mess, and they begin again, to weave the most beautiful garment that ever was. 3

You know, there have been many times in my life, when I felt bereft of hope for this world.  When I felt so weighed down by sadness for all that was being lost that I didn’t see how or why we should even bother trying to save anything.  But then I would read that there are six thousand women’s groups in Africa planting trees.  Or I would see a dandelion growing from a crack in a parking lot.  And I would realize that life loves itself:  it wants to live.  Human beings might have the power to destroy life as we know it now, but we do not have the power to destroy life forever.   There have been massive floods before.  There have been times when the sun was blotted out for years by the ash of volcanoes or the debris of meteor crashes.  There have been times when the whole planet was on fire.  There have been mass extinctions.  But life on earth has always survived.  It has adapted and recovered and taken wondrous new shapes and forms.  Endings have always meant beginnings.

Knowing this gives me hope.  And I think, what if we turn our own energies toward helping life along?  What if we imagine God, not as a vengeful emperor, but rather as the force of life that calls us toward love and beauty?  What if, instead of terrible and frightening stories of the doom that will come upon us if we don’t change, we tell stories of the beautiful world that is coming into being right here and right now, because we are co-creating it?  What if we lift the veil and find, instead of only destruction, also hope, and healing?

For while this is a world in which ancient trees are almost gone, it is also a world in which high school students are replanting forests.  While this is a world in which white police brutalize black citizens, it is also a world in which a multi-racial movement has sprung up proclaiming “Black Lives Matter!”  While this is a world in which fossil energy companies control the media and buy wars, it is also a world in which the Navajo at Black Mesa are replacing a coal-fired power plant with a solar one.  While this is a world in which industrial cities are falling into ruins, it is also a world in which people are making those ruins into farms and gardens.

What stories of healing are you living?  What stories would you like to begin?  Tell them!  Enact them!  These are the stories that will give us hope.  And hope is what we need in order to do our work of stirring the pot and re-weaving the world.

The world just ended.  Just now, it did.  And just now, it began again.  Let us lift the veil and see what is there.

Prayerful Reflection

Great Spirit of Life,
You who body forth as this starry universe
and our shimmering, blue-green planet:
Help us remember with love all that has ended.
Remind us when we lose hope
that each day—each moment!—
is a chance for a new beginning.
Help us let go of old stories, that make us afraid,
and embrace new stories, that give us hope.
In this springtime of possibility,
may we hear your clarion call to love and beauty
and together weave a world that is new.
May it be so.
Amen.


1 Nantais, David E. and Michael Simone.  Apocalypse When? America 189 (4) 18-20 Ag 18-25 2003.

2 Brock, Rita Nakashima and Rebecca Parker.  Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love for this World for Crucifixion and Empire.  Beacon Press, Boston, 2008.

3 A re-imagining of a story from Meade, Michael.  The World Behind The World:  Living at the Ends of Time.  Greenfire Press, Seattle, WA, 2008.  Pp. 15-17.

Belonging

A homily for Membership Sunday

Did you enjoy junior high school?  Seventh and eighth grade?  Just thinking about those years makes me shudder.  One of the worst things was how mean people were to each other.  Even so-called friends constantly competed to see who could come up with the worst insults, who could win in a war of words. Looking back, I think it was the strategy of the utterly powerless, our way of trying on power, because the adults never taught us healthier ways of being together, or of using our power.  And so each day we all slunk home miserably after having all of our flaws pointed out in great detail:  the crooked teeth, the knobby knees or the dimpled ones, the acne or the dry skin, the body odor, the voice that changes pitch at the worst moment–all the agonizing bodily problems of adolescence.  Some kids got support and nurturing at home, and came back to school able to handle the taunts.  But some, like me, didn’t.  My alcoholic father didn’t speak to me except contemptuously, and during the small amount of time that my mother was home, she criticized the way I had done the laundry or the cooking.  So, what kind of self-image do you think I had, with those kind of mirrors?

Human beings are obligatory social mammals. We need to be physically cared for by others, and we also need to interact in loving ways with them. As babies, we need to be held and talked to and smiled at. Several dreadful experiments in the past few hundred years have demonstrated that if you do not do this with babies, they die. We are obligatory social mammals. We have a deep, innate need to belong, to belong to a group that cares for us.

Part of what enables us to belong, or perhaps what makes it necessary for us to belong, is our mirror neurons. These are cells in our nervous systems, spread throughout our bodies, that activate when we see another person doing something, or expressing a feeling: they activate just as if it were our own bodies doing that thing, or feeling the feeling. These mirror neurons give us our capacity for empathy, to feel what others feel. This is useful from a survival standpoint in at least two ways. One is that empathy is the basis for mutual care and concern, for love. When we know we are loved, when others reflect our own light back to us, we thrive. When we thrive we contribute to the well-being of the group, the whole, and in turn that well-being contributes to our own well-being. It’s a positive feedback cycle.

Another way empathy is useful for survival is that it enables us to make predictions about how the others in our group are going to behave toward us. If we see that someone is directing anger our way, we might change our own behavior to try to lessen the anger. We might placate the person. Or, we might show a greater display of anger than the other person, to try to make them back down.

So our mirror neurons help us survive. And they also make us vulnerable. Again, if the people in our group are positive and loving mirrors, we thrive. But if not…if the culture around us is angry and hateful and superficial, and the people in our close family group are unkind and the people we work or go to school with are uncaring or mean…well, we end up where I was in junior high. Where many people are in this world: lonely, fearful, believing we are ugly inside and out, believing we are unworthy of love and kindness.

It is no wonder that so many people are isolated and unhappy today. And that this isolation and unhappiness is causing our larger social systems to break down, which worsens the isolation…a different positive feedback cycle.

But what if we could break the second feedback cycle and substitute the first one? What if we could form communities where people loved and accepted each other and mirrored each other’s best qualities, where they encouraged each other’s growth toward their best selves? What if we could help people raise families in which children are loved and valued from the very beginnings of their lives, by many generations in the group? What if the people in such a community experienced so much love and caring in their own group that they could not help but act together to bring more love and caring into the larger world?

I have a dear friend whose group of college housemates wanted to create just such an intentional community. They spent months formulating a vision. Finally they invited all their friends and their extended families for a huge celebratory dinner, where they unveiled their plan. They said that at first they had thought about buying an apartment building or a really big house where they would all live and raise their children together, but they had rejected this. Instead, they had decided to live scattered throughout the city, so each could be a leader in their own neighborhood, coming together for inspiration at a common house a few times a week. In this common house they would share meals. They would teach their children. They would meet to explore new ways of living, ways that were sustainable and creative and full of beauty and love. They would make music and art. They would share their deepest longings and their biggest questions, their spiritual journeys. And they would organize for the kind of social change that would make a life of abundance and beauty available to all beings, everywhere.

Well, after the young people had shared their vision, one of their grandmothers stood up to speak. She said, “What you have described here tonight is beautiful. It is just what this world most needs. And it already exists. It is called church.”1

I went to many churches as a young person, longing for this kind of deep community. But I could not and would not accept the doctrine of Original Sin, the idea that people are born inherently wicked. I did not need more reinforcement of the idea that I was worthless. So I gave up on church and found solace in nature. By losing myself in communion with the hills and woods and water each day, I survived some truly terrible things. But like all of us, I am an obligatory social mammal. In order to do more than just survive—in order to thrive, to heal and flourish and make positive change in my world—I needed a human community. I needed a group of companions who would love me just as I was and inspire me to continually grow. I needed a community who would welcome my deepest spiritual longings and questions. After trying church after church, I finally walked into a church that was Unitarian Universalist.

That church embodied our UU theology about what it means to be human. The members there reflected my own worth and dignity to me and I reflected theirs to them. They loved and accepted me not despite my flaws, but because of who I was in my wholeness: a complicated, imperfect person with both gifts and problems, doing her best to muddle through. As I began to live into my own worth and dignity, I began to heal. I began to grow and to transform into a new person. I began bringing other hurting people into the congregation. I began participating in social activism. I began to contribute my own gifts to the congregation, which itself was then transformed. Something that had been very good became even better.

Then–oh, then–came my first congregational fight. It was a biggie. People shouted at each other. They accused each other of all sorts of nefarious dealings and motives.  It was so painful.  But then the congregation called for help from the district, and the conflict became a learning opportunity. After it was all through, we realized that our relationship had deepened. We now knew much more about each other. We had more confidence in our relationships because we had been through something difficult together. We knew how committed we were to working things through. We began to truly cherish one another.

But while the conflict was going on, some people left. Some felt profoundly disillusioned. They didn’t think UU’s should fight, that we were somehow different or better than the rest of the world. Or they thought that church shouldn’t have any unpleasantness. Or, they left because the conflict reminded them of conflicts in their families, and they just couldn’t deal with the pain.

Well, I would never dismiss the pain of another person. I respected those people’s need to leave. But as far as thinking church should never have unpleasantness, or that UU’s are different from everyone else….to be disillusioned means you had illusions in the first place. Congregations are made up of people, and I have never yet met a person who is perfect. Imperfection is the very nature of human life and so it is the very nature of congregational life.

Of course when we first fall in love, with a person or a faith community, we do have illusions. We project our ideal of what we think the person or congregation should be onto what is. And so that first fight, that first disillusionment, is all the more important. It is necessary, because it allows us to get behind our dreams of perfection, to what is real. And it is only when we are real together that our shared life has any meaning. It’s only then that genuine growth and transformation can take place. It’s only then that we truly embody our theology.

And that theology, our theology, says that each of us—each of you—is worthy. Whether you are 3 or 13 or 93, and whatever your self-image, you are worthy. And so is everyone else. And we are all connected in a vast interdependent web of life, so that everything we think and say and do in this life matters. It all matters.

So this is why what we do in church is so important, and why membership is so meaningful. We are forming an intentional community that embodies the revolutionary idea that human beings can live together in love; and not only that, that we can live together with the whole community of life, in love. We might disagree sometimes, we might fight, but when we are truly committed to the health of the whole, we can work it through and be transformed by the process. We can live together in love.

May it ever be so.

Blessed be.


1Rebecca Parker in Buehrens, John and Rebecca Parker, A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the 21st Century. Boston, Beacon Press. 2011.

Can We Talk? A Mother’s Day Special

Sleeping Mother by Christian Krohg

Have you ever listened to the kind of cathedral music devoted to the Virgin Mary? You know the kind I’m talking about? Those ethereal chants and hymns that soar up into the very highest registers of the human voice? That is beautiful music, isn’t it? But how long can you listen to it? I like to listen to it for maybe a half an hour or so, to calm myself if I’m feeling crazed, but pretty soon I want to put on something with a rhythm and some bass. I want some passion in my music. I want to dance. I find that ethereal Blessed Virgin music to be lovely, but a little too… disembodied.

That’s on purpose, you know. That kind of music was originally written to raise people up out of their bodies and into the purely spiritual realm. (As if there were any such thing.) The realm of the flesh was seen as sinful. From about 400 of the Common Era on, the church associated women with that sinful realm. So, the only way the church could allow people to praise the divine mother, was to divorce her from her whole embodied self, particularly her sexuality. She could be a mother, but only if she was a virgin mother. And her personhood existed only in relationship to her son: she was a sexless being whose whole purpose was to give life to someone else.

In paintings and sculptures, Mary is always shown as the nurturing mother, feeding the divine child from her breasts or holding him lovingly, smiling into his face as he reaches for a lock of her hair. This is the blissful part of motherhood so many women dream of, and that mothers actually do experience sometimes. Those times when we snuggle up with a child to read a story and his whole body is limp with sleepiness. The first time the baby gives a great big belly laugh. Those are indeed blissful times. But they’re not quite the whole story, are they?

The Blessed Virgin is never shown swelling purple with rage at an obstinate two-year-old, or involuntarily smacking him because he head-butted her in the mouth. She is never shown sobbing into her pillow about what a terrible mother she is because she accidentally shut his little fingers in the door. She’s never shown tearing her hair out after he has grown up and yelled “I hate you!” and slammed the door in her face. You never see her crying with exhaustion after being up with the colicky baby all night, with a thought bubble above her head that has the words from this Rosalie Sorrells song: “Today’s the day we give babies away, with half a pound of tea.”

Nor do you ever see Mary out dancing with her friends in a sexy red dress, or swooning with passion in Joseph’s arms, or swimming naked in the Sea of Galilee, or working on an intricate design for a shawl to weave for market.

No, Mary is completely focused on her child, and she is ever patient, ever kind, ever calm, ever loving. The most unhappy she ever looks is when she holds her dead man-child on her lap after his crucifixion. Even then her grief is portrayed as pretty, rather than wrenching.

I mean, imagine, your beautiful eldest son, a great teacher and prophet, murdered by the empire for teaching people to love one another. And you are going to hold him across your knees and look like this? (Sweet sad face.) I don’t think so. I think there would be screaming and stomping and weeping and tearing of hair and clothing.

So this image we have of the blissfully loving or decorously sad divine mother is just a little…incomplete.

But if we consider today’s Mother’s Day cards to be any indication of what American culture believes about femininity and motherhood, we are still holding this image up for ourselves as the ideal.

Last year I went to the store to try to find a card for my mother. This is always impossible, because none of the cards say anything remotely applicable to our relationship, but I still try. So, I was looking, and looking, when I noticed another woman standing near me. First she picked up a card, and read it, and shook her head, and put it back. Then she picked up another, and looked inside, and snorted. She picked up a third and went “Ha!” Then another, and muttered “Yeah, right!” Finally she slammed a card back into the rack and stalked off, every line of her body rigid with pain and frustration. And I knew then that I was not the only one.

The mom whom the cards address is always there for her child, always available to listen and nurture and comfort. She stays up all hours of day and night to care for the child, in sickness and in health. She tends the child’s emotional wounds, and gently challenges the child to be the best person she can be. If the child is a girl she teaches her the feminine arts of beauty and allurement: how to shop, how to dress, how to cook and clean, sew and decorate, how to attract a suitable husband. If the child is a boy she civilizes him: she teaches him manners, helps him with homework, and gives him advice about finding a suitable wife. In Mother’s Day Card Land there are only two genders of children, Son or Daughter. The mother who inhabits that land makes it clear to children of either sex that they are the most important thing in the world to her. She is completely fulfilled by spending every hour of her life at home caring for her family.

Well, if that’s the ideal, no wonder many of us have trouble finding cards for our mothers. And no wonder many of us mothers are afraid our kids won’t even call today. Our mothers didn’t measure up, and we don’t measure up either. But—that’s because the mother pictured in these cards is not a real person. And she is not living in the real world.

So let’s give up the ideal for a minute. What is the real?

There are many “reals,” as many as there are people. There are people in this sanctuary whose mothers did devote themselves entirely and happily to raising their children.  But there are also those whose mothers were the main providers for their families and were hardly around.  Some had mothers who hated them and abused them, and some people’s mothers live with mental illness or addiction.  There are some people who have no mother at all.

There are women who give birth with joy and ease.  There are women who have adopted many children with special needs.  There are women who want desperately to be biological mothers but haven’t been able to.  There are women who gave up babies for adoption and are glad they did, and women who gave up babies and remain heartbroken decades later.  There are women who love being mothers more than anything, and also women who find motherhood difficult beyond belief and would really rather not have had children.  There are gay male parents who are more nurturing and better at homemaking than most women.  There are single parents, straight and gay, and transgendered and gender-queer parents, who do mothering and fathering both.  So the real is complex, and when real people have to live in the real world, mothering gets downright hard.

Consider my mother as an example: she had me when she was 19, and my sister two years later. My mom is a brilliant, creative person and she desperately needed contact with other adults. But she stayed home with us until I was four. Then she saw that my father was drinking more and more, and she decided she’d better do something to improve her situation. So she went to college, and we went to daycare, and that was fine. But then when I was eight, my mother went to medical school, and I hardly saw her again for the next nine years. When she was home, she was exhausted and crabby. My life was lonely and hard, and as time went on I had more and more responsibility at home for taking care of my alcoholic father and my sister and our house and our pets.

But what were my mother’s choices? She could stay at home full time and be dependent on an addict, or she could go to school and work full time, and have a career that was fulfilling, and that would support us if she left her marriage (which she eventually did). Part time school and work were not options because medical institutions at that time were set up for men with wives at home. As they still are.

As a child, I was proud of my mother and I was glad to help her succeed and do good work. She wasn’t like the TV moms, or the moms in books who were there when you got home from school to ask how your day was and give you cookies and milk–but she was a medical student and a doctor. She was helping people. And she provided for us. She taught us how to survive as women in a man’s world.

It was only when I married and had my own children that I found out what the full impact of my mother’s decisions had been. Children and teenagers need nurturing and care. That nurturing energy which people of every culture have called the divine feminine—that energy is needed in our world. And every parent needs to have it, not just female parents, but every parent. And not just parents, but everyone who lives on this planet. Everyone needs to know how to nurture life. No one is liberated if we have to give up our capacity to nurture in order to succeed. But that’s just what my mother had to do. She was not there to nurture us and this hurt us.

I didn’t blame my mother. I knew her options were limited. But I told myself I was going to do better. I was going to find a way to balance my needs with my kids’ needs. For a while I managed it: I chose a field in which I did have the option to go to school part time and stay home part time, and I did just that. But then I finished my degree and started to look for a job. I soon learned that like many professions, mine was one in which if I wanted to succeed, I would have to work 70-80 hours a week. Another system originally set up for men with wives at home.

And there was another complicating factor: like all the women in my family, going back at least five generations, I had married an alcoholic. So I found myself having to make the same kind of awful choice my mother had made. I could stay home and be dependent on my husband, or I could work impossible hours that kept me away from my children. I left the husband and threw myself into my job.  It was necessary for our survival, but it was the worst time of my life. I lasted three years.

Then I came to a point where I simply could not bear to be away from my kids so much. I loved them more than I had ever imagined a person could love. They were wonderful human beings, in completely different ways. I wanted to spend time with them, to read with them, to dream with them. I wanted to take them to the beach and to the forest and teach them about their world. Academic success was not worth the price of giving that time up. So I decided there had to be another choice. I let all my dreams and ambitions go. I gave up my tenure-track job, and instead wrote grants so I could do research part time. I could still barely support us, economically—but I would never be that brilliant leader in my field that everyone had said I could be. I would never change the world with my ideas. I made the opposite choice from my mother: I gave up success in order to nurture my family.

But in the meantime, before I made that decision? My kids were miserable. First I left their father, and they were devastated. Then I put them in after-school care three days a week, and that made them tired and sad. I don’t know if my son ever really got over it, because as time went on, despite my best intentions, he grew more and more distant from me. He went to live with his father full-time when he was 14. Now, fifteen years later, we are just getting to know each other again.

Now, my story is a hard one. But it’s the story of a woman with an enormous amount of privilege. With my education and skills, I had options that most women in this world can’t even dream of. I’ve known any number of women who had no education and no skills and no way to support their children if they left an abuser. For those women, staying with a partner who regularly hurt them was the best way they knew to take care of their children.

So here’s the hard reality of parenting in this society: we love our kids more than we can bear, and we do the best we can with what we have…and still we will fail them, in one way or another. We cannot meet everyone’s needs all the time. This is why we must have compassion, both for our parents and for ourselves. We are all perfectly imperfect.

I long for my children to come to me and say, “Mom, when you did X, it really hurt me,” so that I can say, “I am so sorry. I never, ever wanted to hurt you.” And then, if they’ll listen, I’ll say, “Here is why I did what I did. I hope you won’t repeat my mistakes. Do everything you can to heal so that you don’t pass these same family dynamics on to your kids. Marry someone healthy so you can share the work of parenting and of providing for your family.”

But you know what?  Even if my kids heal all the wounds of their childhoods, and even if they break the generational patterns of addiction and codependence, if they have kids, they will still live in a society that forces people to choose between nurturing their children and succeeding at work.  They will still live in a society that dishonors mothering by making war.  They will still live in a society that brutalizes the children of mothers with brown skin.  They will still live in a society that every day violates the sanctity of our beautiful Mother Earth.

So–what if we change all that?  What if we change labor laws so workplaces have to allow job-sharing, and part-time work, and family leave for all genders?  What if we redefine success so you can achieve it whether you are a single person with no kids, a parent with a partner, or a single parent like I was? What if we redefine success so that it means nurturing life—so that it means nurturing life in our families, in our communities, among nations, and in our world?  Unitarian Universalists have always been people who made major social change.  What’s to stop us now?

So let’s take another look at Mother’s Day.  Let us no longer keep it as a day when we pay lip service to a mother who exists only on paper.   Instead, let us take the day to speak honestly with each other about the real challenges of motherhood.  Let us honor parenting as the sacred work it is.  This Mother’s Day, let us commit to truly nurturing life.

May it be so.  Amen.  Blessed be.

Prayerful Reflection:

Spirit of Life, Source of all Love,
You who in each moment bring our living universe to birth:

We try so hard.
We try so hard to do what is right by our children,
and we so often seem to get it wrong.
And we want so much from our mothers,
and they so often cannot meet our needs.

May we be reconciled.
May we look into one another’s eyes and see Your love there,
shining.

May we hear you speak,
in the voice of the wind and the water,
whispering:

You are my own precious child
and I love you.

Mother and father of us all, we thank you for our lives.

Amen.

Just Rest

Story

Rose And The Day Without A Nap

Reading

Just sit there right now
Don’t do a thing
Just rest.
For your separation from The One,
Is the hardest work
In this World.
Let me bring you trays of food
And something
That you like to Drink.
You can use my soft words
As a cushion for your Head.

–Hafiz (14th-century Sufi poet and scholar)

Sermon

Have you ever spent an evening with a pre-schooler who didn’t get her afternoon nap? What happened? Did a lot of things go wrong for her? When they did, could she cope? Could she respond to logic? Could she share? Or was there one crisis after another, each ending in time-outs and out-of-control sobbing?

But are pre-schoolers the only ones who get like this, when they don’t get the rest they need? When people don’t get enough rest, no matter how old we are, we can’t think straight, we don’t solve problems well, we get irritable, we get clumsy, and we overreact again and again. Sometimes we feel like we’re losing our minds. Just the other week, I was rushing around, trying to do too many things after not quite enough sleep, and I tripped and fell headlong on the trail in the woods. Well, that was a pretty clear message. I had just been reading that a third of car accidents are the result of fatigue. And so, as I sat in the mud, and felt my joints for breaks, I thought to myself, you know what? You’d better slow down. You’d better get some rest.

According to the Jewish tradition, rest is an essential part of the sacred pattern of the universe. One ancient Hebrew creation story starts out something like this:

“In a beginning, when the Creator began to create, the earth was without form and void. The breath of the Creator stirred over the face of the deep, and the Creator spoke light. And light came into being. And the Creator saw that it was good, and separated the light from the dark. And the Creator named the light Day, and the darkness the Creator named Night. And there was evening, and there was morning, the first day.” 1

Next the Creator goes on to speak earth and sky into being, and separates them from the sea. Then the creator calls into being plants, sun and moon and stars, animals of sea and sky and earth, and then people. At each stage of creation, the creator marvels at the work that has been done and says it is good. And when the whole is nearly complete, the Creator says it is very good. And yet, the work is not quite done. This is how one translation of the story ends:

“With the seventh day, God finished all the work that God had done. God [thus] ceased on the seventh day from all the work that God had been doing. God blessed the seventh day, and declared it to be holy, for it was on this day that God ceased from all the work that God had been creating [so that it would continue] to function.” 2

So that it would continue to function.

In the Jewish tradition, then, one of the most important things that came into being when the divine breath stirred, in fact the crowning glory of creation, was rest, the rest of Sabbath, the seventh day. And rest is necessary in order for creation to function.

Wayne Muller writes:

“The ancient rabbis teach that on the seventh day, God created menuha—tranquility, peace, serenity, repose—rest in the deepest possible sense of fertile, healing stillness. Until the Sabbath, creation was unfinished. Only after the birth of menuha, only with tranquility and rest, was the circle of creation made full and complete. “3

Later in the Hebrew Bible, Jews are told by God to keep the Sabbath holy. This is one of the ten commandments Moses receives from God. In other words, in the Jewish tradition it is just as important to completely rest, one day a week, as it is NOT to lie, steal, or murder. Rest is necessary in order for creation to function.

One of the great rabbis of the 20th century, Abraham Joshua Heschel, wrote that, “The Sabbath as a day of rest is not for the purpose of recovering one’s lost strength and becoming fit for the forthcoming labor. The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life.” 4

What can this mean? Of course we do need rest to recover our strength. We need to sleep so that our bodies can repair themselves and our brains can process the events of the day.

But Heschel says this kind of rest is not what the Sabbath day is about. The Sabbath is about something bigger and deeper. It is about living in harmony with the beautiful world and celebrating and praising it. It is about ceasing work entirely and devoting oneself solely to simple pleasures of relationship and the senses, as these are divine gifts and therefore where the divine is most closely revealed.

In the Jewish tradition, the Sabbath is ushered in on Friday evening at sundown. Before it starts, the people prepare the meals they will need for the Sabbath so that they only need to be warmed later. They disconnect clocks and phones and most machines, and put on their most beautiful garments. Then, at sundown, the women of the home light candles and sing prayers over them to welcome the Sabbath as if welcoming a bride. The people eat a simple, delicious meal. At the beginning of the meal they lay their hands on the heads of their children and bless them, with words of love and wishes for their health. Later, couples might take ritual baths to prepare their bodies and hearts for lovemaking. Families attend worship services, sometimes both Friday night and Saturday morning, sometimes just Saturday. After Saturday services, they eat Sabbath lunch with traditional Challah bread, and wine in a beautiful vessel, and pass around a cup of freshly ground spices, just for the fragrance. Couples enjoy the pleasures of one another’s bodies in the afternoon. They may later play games with their children, or take walks in nature, or read. Just after sunset on Saturday, the women bid the Sabbath farewell by singing a special prayer, and then they extinguish the Sabbath candles.

Now, I think it is worth remembering here that the ancient Hebrews, who invented this tradition, were people who were often exiled from their homeland. They were often the poorest of the poor, and the most hated refugees in any land. These poor and despised people were the people who said that one day a week, we must stop all work, and we must devote ourselves to celebrating the beauty of the world we have been given. In this way did they create the world for themselves, again and again. For them, the Sabbath was necessary in order for the world to function.

My friend Jodi, an observant Jew who happens to live in poverty, says it is the same for her now. She says she and her children re-create themselves and their world each week, when they turn everything off, and dwell for 24 hours together, in the quiet center of the heart of God.

Now, every religion in the world instructs human beings to stop all our hurrying and striving and find that still place within, that place in which we know ourselves to be a part of all that is, and see and praise its unutterable beauty.

Why, then, is it so difficult for us Americans to rest?

Partly I think it is that old Puritan work ethic that is part of our national consciousness, the one that says prosperity is a sign that you are one of God’s elect. And you know that old saying: “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” But a bigger part of it is that we are steeped in an idea called, by its inventor in 1929, the Gospel of Consumption. 5

This begins with the premise that we are inherently unhappy. In order to become happy, we must continually buy more and newer stuff. This means we must continually work more and more hours to get the money to buy the stuff.

This idea was specifically invented because American companies in the 1920’s were worried that pretty soon, they would be able to produce everything everyone needed for a whole year, in just six months. This would mean people would only need to work 20 hours a week to provide everything their families needed. Imagine that! It was a big problem because the companies wanted to keep their factories going all the time to make money they wanted. And they were very worried that a people with leisure time would become radical.

It turned out they didn’t need to worry right away because then the Great Depression happened, and then World War II happened. But after World War II, the same problem arose again. Newspaper headlines were full of concern about the coming surplus of leisure. The time was finally ripe for the Gospel of Consumption to take off and spread like wildfire. And it did, to the point where in 2005, American couples worked 500 more hours per year than they had in 1929 to be able to buy all the stuff they think they needed…and they spent 32 times as much on durable goods.

On the impact side, Americans are only four percent of the world’s population, but we use 25 percent of the world’s resources; this means we take what we need from other places, impoverishing ecosystems and peoples all over the world. If everyone in the world had as much stuff as we do, we would need five and a half planets. 6 Our government uses the military to “stabilize” parts of the world where we extract resources and dump our waste. And most of the people in the military are poor people and people of color.

Thus the virus of consumption creates unnecessary poverty and war, and endangers the health of the planet.

What can we do?
Rest.
Just rest.
Remember that rest is necessary for creation to function.

You may think it would never be possible for Americans to slow down and rest. You may point out that we are still recovering from a recession, and people who have jobs need to work especially hard to keep them. But let me tell you another story.

In the depths of the Great Depression, when people were losing jobs right and left as company after company failed, a man named Mr. Kellogg had a new idea. He owned a cereal company, and he realized that if he cut the work week to thirty hours for his three shifts of workers, he could add a whole fourth shift. That provided 300 new jobs—during the Great Depression! The workers were able to rest, to spend more time with their families, to educate themselves, to build their community. Mr. Kellogg’s idea worked. The workers were so happy with the results that they continued to vote for the shorter work week clear up until the year 1984. 7 By then, most employees were too young to remember what the world was like before the Gospel of Consumption swallowed everything.

If a shorter work week was possible during the Great Depression, it should certainly be possible now. In fact, if our society collectively decided we could get by with the amount of stuff per family that people owned in 1948, we would only have to work about three hours a day.8  But can we actually do this? How can we wean ourselves from the cycle of consumption, which has taught us that work is who we are and what we are about and that we are only allowed to experience pleasure when we have the right stuff and our work is all done and we have solved all the world’s problems?

Rest.
Just rest.
Remember that rest is necessary for creation to function.

My brothers and sisters, my point here is not to make you feel guilty or ashamed. No, the very opposite. What I am asking you to do is to love yourself, and love the world, enough to rest.

And so I ask you to try an experiment. Take one day a week—at least a full 24 hour period—and spend it enjoying the simple pleasures of your earthly body. Turn everything you can—including computers and phones—off. Put on your most beautiful garments. Light candles. Eat simple meals with loved ones. Bless your children. Worship. Take baths. Enjoy erotic pleasure. Play. Tell stories. Take walks. Make music. Sleep. Celebrate the beauty of this world.

You might notice, after some time of doing this, that you feel less frantic. You might notice that your mind is clear and problems don’t seem so big. You might notice that you have more energy. You might feel quite content with very little stuff.

If you are employed, and you need less stuff, you might be able to cut back on your work hours. This could open up hours for unemployed people to fill. You might find that working less opens up more time for family, and community.

If you are retired, and you need less stuff, you might find you have more money and more energy to give to your community.

If you are unemployed or only marginally employed, like my friend Jodi, you might find that celebrating life one day a week changes your perception of what poverty is. Jodi has very little money but she does not actually feel herself to be living in poverty. She and her children have sufficient food, a roof over their heads, and a very few beautiful possessions. And that is all they feel they need. They have a lot of time together and they spend much of that in community service.

Whatever your circumstances, if you take one day a week for a Sabbath—if you rest—you might bring to your family and community a heart centered in love and joy. This is the most effective tool for change known to humankind.

In short, if you rest, you might just create a whole new world.

My friends, to preserve our beautiful planet, we must let it rest. And to do this, we ourselves must rest.

Just rest.

Blessed be.


1 Personal re-telling of Genesis 1:1-5, Hebrew Bible, based on readings of several Hebrew-English interlinears.

2 ORT Online Resources. Navigating the Bible II. http://bible.ort.org/books/torahd5.asp?action=displaypage&book=1&chapter=2&verse=1&portion=1

3 Muller, Wayne. Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives. New York, Bantam Books, 1999. P. 37.

4 Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The Sabbath. New York, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1959. P. 14.

5 Kaplan, Jeffrey. “The Gospel of Consumption and the Better Future We Left Behind.” Orion Magazine, May/June 2007. http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/2962/

6 http://www.myfootprint.org/en/. Results for average American. Take the quiz and see the size of your ecological footprint!

7 Kaplan.

8 Ibid.