Sermon, Mother’s Day, 2003
by Molly Young Brown
Our culture continues to plunge down a suicide course of violence to other peoples and to the environment. Our fears are constantly stimulated by actions undertaken to make us feel safer–it’s a real paradox. Warfare, threats of war, violent conflict, terrorism by fanatical groups and by nations; new plagues like SARS and AIDS, economic uncertainty and environmental destruction on a larger scale than ever before; divorce, family violence, alienation between generations, road rage, and so on.
But let’s not go there today, into a list of all that’s wrong. Let’s focus instead on how we can best respond, as individuals, as families, as a community, to these troubled times.
What a strange topic for Mother’s Day! I confess that when I offered to give this talk, I didn’t realize it would fall on Mother’s Day. But now that it has, I would like to make a connection.
What do mothers want for their children? How do they feel called to respond to these troubled times, as mothers? I am a mother of two grown sons and recently became a grandmother. I see Jen, my daughter-in-law and brand-new mother, working so hard to meet her baby’s needs for nourishment, love, interaction, rest, and security—breast feeding him, holding him, talking with him, helping him learn—as well as reading books, thinking together with Greg (her husband and my son), and talking with other parents. And Greg is as active as he can be in these activities, all but the breast-feeding for which he lacks the necessary equipment!
These new parents have so much helpful information available to them, so much more knowledge about how babies develop and what they need to thrive. At the same time, they are bringing up a child in a world fraught with peril from sources right here and now within this culture. They are bringing up a child in a world of consumerism, advertising, television and computers that can damage a child’s brain development, pollution in air and water and food, and all the horrors I named earlier. They are determined to shelter Ben as much as possible from the worst aspects of the dominant culture, and no doubt he will thrive under their care. But they cannot protect him from all the physical, psychological, and spiritual toxins in today’s world.
So in honor of Mother’s Day, let us pause for a moment to send appreciation and support to mothers everywhere who are struggling to love, nurture and protect their children against such odds: American mothers, Iraqi mothers, Afghan mothers, Israeli mothers, Palestinian mothers, mothers all over the world. (Pause) And let us send our gratitude to our own mothers and grandmothers who did their best to love and protect us. (Pause)
That is our evolutionary imperative–as mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, even as people without biological children–to nurture and protect the next generation, so through them our genetic pool will survive. Maybe we forget that prime directive these days in America, where greed, ambition, and fear seem to drive so many of us to insane behaviors. We forget to take into account the effect of our actions on the children.
And if we do, how then shall we live? How shall we design our lives? Friends of mine, Elias Amedon and Rabia Elizabeth Roberts, quit their jobs and sold their house to undertake a pilgrimage for peace around the world. They have visited Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, Morocco, Syria, Palestine, and Iraq, meeting with ordinary people, community organizers, and Presidents, finding numerous ways to serve, sending back their stories to a growing email list, returning from time to time to give talks in this country and raise more money for their work. They served in the Iraqi Peace Team and tried to prevent the US invasion of Iraq. They are now working to forestall a similar attack on Syria. [If any of you are interested in receiving email accounts of their journey, you can email them at: firstname.lastname@example.org.]
Most of us here would admire their work, but how many of us could design our lives as they have? Most of us have responsibilities that tie us down: to children, to aging parents, to other family members in need. We may believe that we can’t afford to quit our jobs and let go of our financial base, as they have. We may lack the good health, the connections, the confidence, and/or the courage. We may feel called to other kinds of service.
So how can we live our lives in such times, being faithful to our family and community responsibilities, and still participate in transforming the larger world? Shall we be satisfied that “peace begins within” and simply attempt to live peacefully within our own families? Turns out that ain’t so easy! The dominant culture impinges on us from all directions, especially if we watch television or use the Internet or go to movies or drive a car or work outside the home or send our kids to public school. There’s almost no hiding place these days!
We can’t shut out the world, although we can numb ourselves or go into denial about what is happening. We can accept the party line dished out by the major news media, in its simplistic black/white images: America is right, and anyone who opposes us is wrong. But those of us who want to stay awake, think critically about things, and maybe even make a difference, have a harder row to hoe. We have to pay attention and make conscious choices in a complex and often ambiguous world, with no clear Right or Wrong.
Clarissa Pinkola Estés tells us in no uncertain terms: “Do not lose heart. We were made for these times. Ours is a time of almost daily astonishment and often righteous rage over the latest degradations of what matters most to civilized, visionary people… [But} do not lose hope. Most particularly because the fact is—we were made for these times. Yes. For years, we have been learning, practicing, been in training for and just waiting to meet on this exact plane of engagement…”
And we are not alone. Clarissa assures us that “regarding awakened souls, there have never been more able crafts in the waters than there are right now across the world…Look out over the prow: there are millions of boats of righteous souls on the waters with you.”
And she reminds us: “Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.”
I ask you all to take a moment, then, to reflect on how you have been preparing all your life for this moment of planet-time. What sources of strength have you discovered for yourself, within yourself? What lessons has life taught you? What psychological and spiritual skill have you acquired? How have you been especially trained and prepared by your unique life events and challenges?
And if you will, take another moment or two to reflect on what part of the world is within your reach for mending. This could include your family, your workplace, your community—this Fellowship and greater Durango. The world within your reach may also include national and international connections—Internet organizations such as “Move-On”, environmental organizations that offer opportunities for action, world-wide organizations like Oxfam, or the UU Service Committee. Which parts of the world within your reach call to you especially? And what gifts of yours most yearn to be shared?
I would like to take a few minutes to share my own personal struggle to design a life of integrity in these troubled times. I do this as one example, not as any kind of recommendation for the rest of you. Each of us must take on this life design task for ourselves, although we always support and learn from one another.
Systems thinking, or “General Systems Theory” has helped me see the big picture and find my place within it. Although ostensibly a scientific discipline arising out of the biological sciences, I find its tenets and perspectives quite spiritual in nature. The basic tenet is that everything is radically interconnected, interrelated, and interdependent. This of course contradicts what I just said about each of us designing our own lives. Ha! We are all so intertwined with one another and with the natural world that we can’t take a breath or sneeze without affecting the world around us. Yet within this interrelated web of life, we each have a unique part to play, with unique gifts to offer, and unique needs to fulfill. So each of our lives is both uniquely our own, AND utterly connected to everything and everybody else.
Another tenet of systems thinking is that all systems are made up of subsystems that are systems in their own right, and all systems are parts of larger systems. This body is made up of systems like the respiratory system and the circulatory system, that are in turn made up of organs, and then tissues, and then cells. I am a human system who is part of a family system, a community system, various organizations, etc, that are in turn part of a nation, and an international community, and the planetary system of humanity as a whole. And humanity is in turn part of the biological system of life on this planet.
That understanding, when I remember it, relieves me of the rather arrogant assumption that I have to figure everything out for myself—especially how to respond to the problems I see around me. I realize that the larger systems of which I am a part, especially the natural world, can both guide me in responding, and support my actions taken on behalf of it. I am only an agent, not the director.
Spiritually inclined people often speak of tuning into their inner wisdom. The Quakers have their “still small voice within.” It has seemed paradoxical (although congruent with my own experience) that when we go deeply within, we also connect more completely with the world around us—not so much the human world as the whole enchilada: the human world and the natural world that contains the human. I believe that we are all deeply attuned to the Whole as systems within a larger system; we receive and send information constantly along the strands of the living web that sustains us all. We merely need to take time to quiet the noise of our daily lives and to pay attention to this attunement with patience and serenity. Moment to moment as conditions change and evolve, feedback from the larger system will guide us in responding powerfully and harmoniously, in ways that benefit not only ourselves, but also the larger whole.
So I try to design my life to allow for this attunement, this listening within. Personally, I do it most effectively by spending quiet meditative time in nature. I do it by journaling, and writing articles or sermons like this one, because writing requires me to listen that inner wisdom in the process of sharing it with others. I dialogue with others who share similar values and perspectives. And I read books and articles that remind me of my interconnectedness, and the power and wisdom available to me—and all of us—in the web of life.
In ending, I offer you these questions to reflect upon: What are sources of strength and wisdom in your life? How do you access those sources? How are you designing your life to make a difference in these troubled times?