What The World Needs Now

excerpted from “Live For It” by Ellen Bass[i]

Jasmine unfolding, the scent and color attracting the bees,
the darker veins guiding them toward the nectar,
honey in honeycombs, worms aerating soil,
the levity of bird bones,
fins of fish, the eye blinking—
who could have ever conceived it?

The crescent moon, tender as new love in the luminescent blue,
Milkweed silk—who could have imagined it?

And my lover, when she lifts her lips to me
and I first feel that softness,
warm like summer nights as a child
when she rubs against me like fur
and small cries escape my mouth like birds,
“Sing to me,” she breathes
and I sing glory I did not know was mine to sing.

What is this but a miracle?
What is this but the improbable, marvelous reward of desire?

Desire—that fire I was taught to suspect,
that intensity I struggled to calm.
“Don’t want too much,” the voices warned.

No.  Want.  Want life.
Want this fragile oasis of the galaxy to flourish.
Want fertility, want seasons, want this spectacular
array of creatures,
this brilliant balance of need.
Want it.  Want it all.

Desire.  Welcome her raging power.
May her strength course through us.
Desire, she is life.  Desire life.
Allow ourselves to desire life, to want this sweetness
so passionately, that we live for it.


What The World Needs Now

(Offered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Chico, February 10, 2019)

What does it mean to love and be loved?  What is healthy love and what is not?   What is the place of love in human life on earth, and why does it matter?

In the field of systematic theology, these questions fall into the category of theological anthropology, or human nature in relation to the divine.  Wow, you may be saying, that sounds dull.  I thought we were going to be talking about eros today!  I was expecting something a little more, shall we say, exciting?

Okay, let’s talk about eros.

Have you ever stood in a winter storm with your arms open wide and your face to the wind and felt it scour you clean?  In the summer, have you ever been so hot that you slipped off all your clothes and slid naked into a cold river?  Have you ever stood between the rising of the full moon, and the setting of the brilliant sun, and felt the turning of the earth?  Have you ever lost yourself in music or painting or sculpting, or danced in joy until dawn?  Have you ever tasted a strawberry picked straight from the plant and nearly swooned as the bright flavor exploded in your mouth?  Have you ever made love with another person and felt, if only for a moment, your two selves become one?  Has longing ever pierced your heart?  Has beauty ever made you cry?

These are erotic experiences, experiences in which we feel the life force moving through us and responding to the life all around us.  We feel a longing to intimately participate in this life; we long to know and be known, to love and be loved.  We see beauty and respond by creating more beauty; we are the world consciously loving itself.  We are part of a great communion of all life.

Erotic love is one of the most joyful pathways human beings can follow to awakening to this communion.  Relationships based on mutual care and pleasure provide refuge and sustenance for their partners.  These would be wonderful enough, but even more is possible.  The ecstatic awareness that comes with erotic love can be a magic portal.  Through it people can enter a new relationship with what some call the interdependent universe and others call the divine.  Do you remember your first mutual love?  Did colors seem brighter?  Did birds seem to be singing in a language you could almost understand?  Did every breeze seem to caress your skin?  Did the moon seem to hang low and lush, just for you?  The heightening of our senses that comes with desire can make us exquisitely aware of our interbeing with all that is.

This was what happened to a Muslim man named Mevlana Jelal Ad Din Muhammad Rumi, in 13th century Persia.  Rumi, as Americans call him, was born in what is now Afghanistan and moved to what is now Turkey as boy.  He was a respected scholar and jurist—until the fateful day when a wandering ascetic named Shams came into his life.  Shams means Sun in Arabic, and for Rumi Shams was his sun.  He fell madly in love.  His love for Shams opened his whole being so wide that he began regularly to experience all life and love as One, in Arabic called Allah, THE One. In the mystical school of Islam that Rumi began, Allah is said to have created the universe that Allah might be known by Allah.  In other words, the universe both is God and is a mirror of God; in still other words, the universe is Godself becoming.  In still yet other words, humans are the divine beholding the divine, both Lover and Beloved.  The job of lovers is to see the divine in each other and grow, through love, toward union with the whole.  In Islam, there is a concept of the unity of all creation.  It is a communion of all life and the divine, from which human beings often feel cut off, but long for.  The name of this concept is tawhid.  According to Rumi’s teachings, this communion, this state of participation in a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, is what we seek when we love.

Here is one of Rumi’s ecstatic poems:

Some Kiss We Want

There is some kiss we want with
our whole lives, the touch of
spirit on the body.

Seawater begs the pearl
to break its shell.

And the lily, how passionately
it needs some wild darling!

At night, I open the window and ask
the moon to come and press its
face against mine.
Breathe into me.

Close the language- door and
open the love window. The moon
won’t use the door, only the window. [ii]

Rumi taught that when we love well, when we move past the limitations of our own ego, when we reach consciousness of our unity with the divine whole that is our world, we have no choice but to love that whole and care for every part and being.  Rumi taught his followers to love and care for peoples of all religions, castes, and nations, as well as the other creatures of the earth.

Hafiz was another Persian poet from this same school of thought.  Here is one of his works, which can be found in the back of our gray hymnal.

“Cloak yourself in a thousand ways; still shall I know you, my Beloved.
Veil yourself with every enchantment, and yet I shall feel you, presence, most close, dear, and intimate.
I shall salute you in the springing of cypresses and in the sheen of lakes, the laughter of fountains.
I shall surely see you in the tumbling clouds, in brightly embroidered meadows.

Oh, Beloved Presence, More beautiful than all the stars together,
I trace your face in ivy that climbs,
in clusters of grapes,
in morning flaming the mountains,
in the clear arch of sky.
You gladden the whole earth and make every heart great.
You are the breathing of the world.”[iii]

In this way of understanding, eros, the life force, our drive to love, is the divine moving in us, making us aware, giving us our ability to perceive beauty, making us long for union with all that is.  These Islamic teachers express an idea of the divine as both immanent—fully present in this world now—and transcendent.  Transcendent in this case not meaning something separate and apart, but rather a reality that is greater than the sum of its parts, something of which we are members and in which we participate.

One thing that might occur to you as I speak of these teachings is how familiar they sound.  Do they sound a little bit Unitarian Universalist? The unity of the divine, and the divine as both immanent and transcendent?  The universality of divine love?

This is not actually a coincidence.  Islam directly influenced the development of Unitarianism in eastern Europe, and that influenced American Unitarianism.  The Persian Sufi poets greatly influenced Unitarian and Universalist thinkers, particularly the Transcendentalists.  Think of William Ellery Channing writing:  “Nature is a great shining forth of the Divine Mind.”  And Emerson writing:  “Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball-I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me-I am part or particle of God.”

Partly as a result of these Islamic influences, our faith tradition has a long history of understanding the world as sacred and beautiful, and the human capacity for relationship and sexual love as being one of what Channing called “the powers of the soul.”  Our faith tradition values all healthy erotic relationships.  As Rebecca Parker writes in the book, A House for Hope,

“Eros is more than acceptable in liberal religious understanding, it is revelatory of humanity’s deepest capacities to touch and be touched, to take joy, to be transported and to transport another, to create life… at its best, sexual intimacy can reveal the powers of the soul—our ability to feel and be affected, our capacity for both vulnerability and power, to receive and to give.  It can teach us that we have agency to act in the world and that we can be moved deeply by the presence and the actions of another.  It can transport our hearts into spaces of openness, flexibility, tenderness.  It can renew, refresh, and satisfy our love for life—not only our affection for a beloved, but our affection for the world.  Same-sex affectional and sexual relationships do all this, just as heterosexual relationships can.”[iv]

These understandings directly counter conservative church doctrines holding that the world is corrupt, human sexual love is dangerous, and same-sex love is wrong.  Was anyone here taught these doctrines at some point in your life? According to these doctrines, the only way human beings can reach union with the divine is through obedience to God’s laws.  Rebecca Parker, again, shares an experience she once had in talking to a conservative colleague in ministry about the divide in the Methodist church over same-sex relationships.  She writes:

“Sam felt loved by God when he was obedient to God’s rule…In (his) interpretation of (Genesis), God created humanity in two genders, male and female, and created woman to be man’s helpmate.   Patriarchal heterosexual union is the way God has ordained things to be.  Only by complying…could people receive God’s love and be in right relationship with God…those who turn away from God’s love will suffer the torments of the damned, and those who accept it will be rewarded with eternal life…God’s love, he said, includes rewards and punishments, because human beings are nothing more than selfish, willful children…motivated by what gratifies us, by what we want, not what God wants…For him, love was inseparable from a hierarchical structure of command and obedience.”[v]

Our faith tradition sees this identification of love with “a hierarchical structure of command and obedience” as precisely the problem—in fact, we see it as the biggest problem facing life on earth.  It haunts personal sexual relationships, structures of political and economic power, and our relationships with the whole web of life.  Relationships with each other and the rest of the world that are based on patriarchal dominance, on control, and power over, cause harm.  Between individuals, at best, they limit women’s freedom, and at worst result in outright abuse and violence.  At larger levels, they give rise to industrial capitalism and empires whose machinery and wars endanger all of life on earth.

Unitarian Universalism offers an alternative.  We affirm the beauty and goodness of eros.  We affirm that healthy erotic love between human beings, whatever our sex or gender, can bring us joy.  Not only that, it can be a doorway through which we enter into profound awareness of our interbeing with all life.  Love is the seed, love is the green growing stem, love is the flower, love is the fruit, and love is the seed again of more love.  Love is the life force expressing itself in our human forms.  Eros, desire, longing…when we can let go of our need for control, and surrender to these powerful forces calling us toward communion, toward intimate relationship with the world, in ways that create life and beauty, we fulfill nature’s purpose.  We are ourselves fulfilled.

This is the Unitarian Universalist theological anthropology about eros.   It is what we believe about what it means to love and be loved, what healthy love is, and what the place of love is in human life on earth. And so it is critical that Unitarian Universalists make our voices heard in the public sphere.  Our faith tradition offers a path to healing our broken hearts and our wounded bodies.  It offers a path to healing our broken society, and our relationship with the whole community of life.  As Rebecca Parker writes:

“As we face the future, we need a rebirth of love for life, for the planet, and for one another, grounded in a relational understanding of human existence…There needs to be a (religious) home built on the understanding that all life is interdependent, whose foundation is faithful care, whose threshold is open-hearted welcome, whose kitchen serves any in need, and where love can lie down in peace and take joy.  This kind of love can provide us the nourishment we need to resist the excesses and injustices of market capitalism.  It can instigate more justice and sustainability for the planet.”[vi]

May this community be such a home for love.

Blessed be.

Artwork:  Pink Rhythms Chalice by Peg Green

[i] Bass, Ellen, “Live For It,” from Woman of Power.  Excerpted in Elizabeth Roberts and Elias Amidon, eds., 1996Life Prayers From Around the World:  365 Prayers, Blessings, and Affirmations to Celebrate the Human Journey, Harper Collins, San Francisco. Pp. 234-235.

[ii] There are so many translations of Rumi’s poetry online and in print that it is difficult to choose one to cite. A quick Google search will reveal many possibilities.

[iii] The same applies to the poetry of Hafiz.

[iv] Parker, Rebecca Ann, 2010.  “A Home for Love.”  Chapter Nine in Buehrens, John A., and Rebecca Ann Parker, A House for Hope:  The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-First Century.  Beacon Press, Boston.  Pp. 130-131.

[v] Ibid,  pp. 124-125

[vi] Ibid, p. 136.

Just Rest


Rose And The Day Without A Nap


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)


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?
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?

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.