It is a joy to be back among you after the gift of a three month sabbatical. My first Sunday back, on July 28, I was told I looked relaxed and happy. That’s an unfamiliar comment to receive! I want to hold onto that happy, relaxed feeling, we’ll see how long it lasts.
There were many wonderful experiences on sabbatical. The one I was most nervous about, and that ended up being more than I imagined, was the trip to Ghost Ranch in the high desert canyons of northern New Mexico. My friend, Anita Amstutz, led a retreat on Sabbath and Soul Tending. (She literally wrote the book on it. If you would like to borrow it, let me know.) It was wonderful to be with an ecumenical group that was committed to finding ways to be real with each other, to open our hearts, to care for our souls.
Open heartedness and tending to our souls seems more important than ever these days when fear is promoted by presidents, politicians, and even preachers. In this time and place, keeping our hearts open and taking care of our souls is counter cultural – and it is not easy. If the language of open-heartedness or soul tending doesn’t work for you, you could use “listening for God” or living into mystery or sabbath or just taking a moment.
But how can we tend our souls when injustice is everywhere we look: Immigrants targeted by ICE and gun wielding white supremacists; transgender women of color killed just for being who they are; systemic racism that fuels a mass incarceration crisis; for-profit prisons that require beds to be filled; children afraid to go to school for fear their parents will not be there to greet them at the end of the school day. And that is only the tip of the shrinking iceberg, in this country. It is all too easy to get into a pattern of fretting and marching, riveted to social media to hear the latest political gaffe or act of violence.
Sabbatical reminded me that we will be more effective, and last longer in our work for justice, if we pay attention to our souls, if we can open our hearts to ourselves, to each other, to God in our midst. It is not that we should cloister ourselves away from the world around us. We dare not ignore the white supremacy that is being promoted and practiced at the highest levels of government in this country. But if we go rushing out to help everyone else before we have put on our own oxygen mask, well, we will not last long in our work.
It can feel wrong, it can feel selfish, it can feel impossible to take the time to tend our own soul. Especially if there are young children underfoot or aging parents to care for. I know it is not easy.
And we are given this reminder from Isaiah, where God rails against the people for doing what they think they have been commanded to do.
In this passage, Isaiah frames the problem as a lawsuit, a technique that the prophet Micah also uses in that familiar passage: Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.
God brings the people to court; heaven and earth are the jury. In the opening statement, there is snark, (YHWH calls Israel “Sodom and Gomorrah”) there is hyperbole, and God accuses the people of being too religious.
Listen again to the passage from Isaiah 1, this time as if it was written for us instead of the people of Judah.
The vision of Isaiah, son of Amoz, concerning the USA and Washington DC, during the reigns of Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump, rulers of the United States.
Hear the word of God, you rulers of “China!”
Listen to the command of YHWH,
you people of “Iran!”
These never-ending social media posts:
what are they to me?
I am fed up with press conferences,
and thoughts and prayers.
Your signs and marches, they nauseate me.
Who asked you to make a national day of prayer?
Don’t bring me any more
of your useless plans for change –
I loathe the waste of ink and paper.
Conferences, conventions, workshops.
I cannot endure another slacktivist post.
It is wearisome to me;
I am tired of reading it all, hearing it all.
When you raise your fists in protest,
I turn my eyes away.
You pile protest upon march upon petition,
– your google calendar full up.
Stop! Slow down.
Clear your heads and your hearts.
Then try again to
search for justice and
help those who are oppressed.
Protect those who are orphaned
and plead the case of the widowed.”
“Come now,” says YHWH.
“Let’s look at the choices before you.”
It is probably dangerous to turn a text like this on its head, to invert the examples and say that maybe we need less work for justice and more silence. I am not suggesting that we stop living lives committed to justice and mercy; I am not saying that our commitments to morality and authenticity should cease. I am not suggesting that we stop speaking out on behalf of those who struggle to have their voices heard.
Our words and our work are admirable. So doesn’t it just make sense that more words and more work are even better, especially in Washington DC. But I am not sure that more words and more work are the best use of our time – at least not before we have stepped back and taken a few deep breaths and found our center, in whom we live and move and have our being.
It could be that I am turning this Isaiah passage upside down because eleven of us from the congregation spent last weekend at Allegheny Conference, hearing John 15, talking about “abiding” more and “doing” less. It could be that I have had three months off so I see with new eyes how many different committees and service projects and justice programs we’ve got going here. It could be that I have benefited from a long drink of “enough” and “abundance.” It is probably all those things.
I admit feeling a little sheepish asking you to slow down. I am probably the one who needs to hear this word the most.
Yesterday Eric and I went for a long bike ride. Before we got on our bikes, we filled our tires with air. I have filled my tires with air many times, in fact I did it just a couple weeks ago. Apparently I had been pumping in about half of the recommended amount. This time, we filled them up and wow, I was gliding and peddling with a whole new ease. I rode across the bridge and up the incline at Bladensburg Waterfront Park with joy instead of dread. Having full tires makes a real difference.
As I rode on those fully inflated tires, I remembered that two years ago today, I was in Charlottesville, praying and singing with other faith leaders as we grounded ourselves to stand against that gathering of white supremacists. And again the next morning, on August 12, we gathered for more prayer and singing. And when the group split and there were only 50 of us left, to walk to the park, we took time for silence. As we stood on the line, confronting hate and more guns than I ever want to see again, there were more prayers and more songs.
As I glided up the next hill, I recalled that in our sanctuary work, whenever we go to the ICE office or a congressional office, the Unitarian Universalists remind us to stop and center ourselves. We ground ourselves in commitment and peace and we open our hearts to those who we will meet and those for whom we speak.
This kind of spiritual inflating doesn’t take away the injustice. It doesn’t remove the hate. And it makes a difference. It makes us slow down. It makes us plan ahead. It makes us aware of being something bigger than our fears. And in my experience, it gives us a power and energy that is more resilient than I am used to in my heady Anabaptist way.
I know I am speaking from a place of privilege, from a place of almost fully inflated tires. I would love to give each of you a three month sabbatical. Short of that impossible dream, I wonder if there are ways to tend our souls and slow down, even for a few moments.
If Isaiah doesn’t convince us, maybe we can hear Jesus. He builds on Isaiah’s rant by taking a different, more gentle, tact:
Don’t be afraid. It is all yours, the reign of God is already yours. Watch how you are spending your time and money. Observe yourself. Notice that we who have lots of stuff could do with less. Your heart will follow your treasure, so be clear about what that treasure is, choose your treasure wisely.
We can fill the treasure chest with justice and beauty, hospitality and peace, and there is more room when we let go of the weights that burden and crowd us.
We might replenish and re-inflate by:
- taking a few deep breaths,
- taking a long walk or tossing a frisbee
- stopping to listen to the birds and cicadas,
- taking in an evening of music,
- cuddling with a loved one,
- eating a meal where we really taste the food,
- taking 24 hours (or even 12 hours) without media or devices
- rolling on the floor with children and some big belly laughs
- taking a bike ride on fully inflated tires
I know it is hard, that there are distractions aplenty. And I know it is another one of those things that is hard to do alone, without accountability. Ideally that is why we gather each week, to re-fuel and re-member. And that’s probably why some folks are not here today but at the beach, or the mountains. They are refueling, re-inflating in other ways.
If we hope to achieve peace, we stand a better chance if we start from a place of peace, instead of a place of chaos and franticness. If we want to have a smooth ride, we need to inflate more fully.
As a way to test this, because I am probably more resistant than anyone, I invite you to join me in Praying with the Earth, a prayer book by John Philip Newell. And if the words are too much, just go into your own place of replenishment and peace. There will be multiple pauses for silence.
A word to my young friends in the pews. Right now, we are all going to be very quiet. Your parents are going to try something hard for them, they are going to try to be as quiet as they can. You can help them by being as quiet as you can too. You can listen for words about light and angels and see if it is a prayer that you want to hold in your mind and heart too.
To get us started I invite you to get comfortable. You might turn your mind to your connection to your feet on the floor, and the earth under the floor and roots that go deep into the earth. And then you might turn your attention to your breath, the breath that connects you with those in this room, those who have come before you, those who will come after you, the breath that connects us with the spirit that has been flowing in the world from the very beginning.
(Read from Sunday morning prayers in Praying with the Earth by John Philip Newell)