We are in a holy season. The calendars of two of the worldâ€™s major religions set apart this timeâ€”in Islam, a month, in Judaism, ten daysâ€”as especially important. Nearly a billion Muslims will fast from sunup to sundown every day this (lunar) month to acknowledge Ramadan. And beginning at sunset tonight, a majority of the worldâ€™s approximately 14 million Jews will celebrate Yom Kippur, also with fasting, prayer, and services. Itâ€™s a bit awesome to realize that so many people will be focusing on matters of the heart and spirit, following traditions and practices meant to turn human attention away from the ordinary business of daily life and toward some higher purpose.
In both traditions, tomorrow is a day of fasting. From sunup to sundown, millions of people will refrain from eating. In both traditions, fasting has a twofold purpose: to focus oneâ€™s attention on the spiritual and to build solidarity with the poor and suffering. In both traditions, one part of celebrating the holiest time of the year, is to acknowledge suffering. But not only to acknowledge itâ€”to feel it in oneâ€™s own body by experiencing hunger.
Today, we begin a time of acknowledging suffering as well. For the first time, the â€œWord of the Monthâ€ that, as a congregation, we will consider together, is â€œbrokenness.â€ To tell the truth, I donâ€™t remember exactly how â€œbrokennessâ€ became the word of the month for October. The process is a fluid one, with ideas and needs flowing from the Worship committee, our REGAL program, our SEMI circles small group ministry, and me. The idea of having a â€œnegativeâ€ or â€œdifficultâ€ word had been floating around for some time, and I was resistant to the idea. But somehow, as the list of words emerged sometime last year, it seemed right. And so, here we are, joining so many others in the world in an effort to recognize, face, and contemplate brokenness from the perspective of our faith tradition.
It gets harder and harder for me the older I get and the longer I minister, NOT to believe in some kind of Providence or meaningful coincidence. When we set the schedule for the words of the month, none of us were thinking of Ramadan or Yom Kippur. No one checked the dates. And no one could have foretold the dramatic and heart-wrenching stories that would be in the news this past week: the horrific school shootings, the passage of legislation that legitimized the use of torture on terror suspects, more suicide bombings, plane crashesâ€¦the list is long. Much is broken in this world.
And yet, even though the suffering and pain in the world is so obvious, we seem to be getting better and better at ignoring it. While we can access news and information twenty-four hours a day, if we choose, we can also choose from among thousands of forms of distraction. One online movie rental company boasts more that 65,000 titles to choose from. A majority of automobile accidents are now caused by â€œdistracted driversâ€â€”a category that didnâ€™t even exist until a few years ago. The world is broken, and we, in the words of Pink Floyd â€œhave become comfortably numb.â€
I have been thinking a lot about this numbness and its cause and effects in my life and the lives of people around me. Iâ€™ve been thinking about what Iâ€™ve come to believe is a dangerous myth that pervades our society and our psyches. This myth is, â€œWe should never feel pain.â€ From headaches to heartaches, it seems like there are a thousand remedies–from pharmaceuticals to Dr. Philâ€”all aimed at keeping us from feeling bad. And feeling bad means feeling pain, so we turn away from the brokenness and pain and toward numbness and distraction.
Joanna Macy, Buddhist, deep ecologist, teacher and scholar, describes it this way:
Whenâ€¦the odds are running against us, it is easy to let the heart and mind go numb. The dangers facing us are so pervasive and yet often so hard to see â€“ and painful to see, when we manage to look at them â€“ that this numbing touches us all. No one is unaffected by it. No one is immune to doubt, denial or disbelief about the severity of our situation â€“ and about our power to change it. Yet of all the dangers we face, from climatic change to nuclear wars, none is so great as the deadening of our response. That numbing of mind and heart is already upon us â€“ in the diversions we create for ourselves as individuals and nations, in the fights we pick, the aims we pursue, the stuff we buy.
Macy has dedicated her life to helping people overcome this dangerous numbness. In her most recent book, she calls this â€œcoming back to Life.â€ Rather than helping people find ways to be happy in spite of the suffering in the world, she asks people to face the suffering and really begin to feel it. But she doesnâ€™t stop there. She helps people find courage and strength to transform their despair into compassionate action.
â€œWe must help people realizeâ€ she says, â€œ – and it means continually having to realize it ourselves – that this thing [weâ€™re] asked to take in, this grief, stems from our capacity for compassion, which literally means “to suffer with.” We are compassionate beings, and if we stifle our compassion, our capacity to be present to our world, we go dead. We go dead.â€
Our propensity to numb out, to fill every minute of the day with busyness, to avoid noticing the pain and danger in our world feels as though it protects us. But if what Macy and others say is true, that very numbness endangers us more that we know, more even than the dangers â€œout thereâ€ threaten us. By â€œgoing deadâ€ we may as well be dead. We have no connection. No meaning. Our only hope lies in coming back to life.
Alice Walker once named a book of short stories, The Way Forward is with a Broken Heart. In an interview about the book, she once said:
You know, what are hearts for? Hearts are there to be broken, and I say that because that seems to be just part of what happens with hearts. We are made to fall in love and we are meant to have broken hearts. And not just about falling in love, but broken hearts about so many things that pierce us deeply.
The value of a broken heart is that it gets bigger. It opens, it gets bigger, and it is really an honorable condition. I stress that because many people fear it; they think, “Oops, pain! Let me run away from here!” But pain, actually, is unavoidable anyway. To have your heart break over a genuine emotion and a genuine belief or passion is very good for you, in the sense that you become different, and bigger in your capacity to deal with life and other people.
The way forward is with a broken heart. Not forever heartbroken, no overwhelmed with grief and despair, but broken open, made bigger in our capacity to deal with life and other people.
In the Jewish tradition, Yom Kippur is considered a time of turning. Jews are expected to reflect on their lives, face their mistakes and sins, and make a decision to turn back toward Life. Ten days of repentance lead up to Yom Kippurâ€”ten days when relationships must be mended. Tradition holds that sins between human beings must be taken care of prior to Yom Kippur. After human relationships are mended, then the community joins together to recite the prayers and rituals of the Day of Atonement.
One of the most commonly asked questions about Yom Kippur is why the ritual calls for the whole community to confess to sins they have not committed. Together, they recite a list of sins that includes lying, stealing, and murder. Yes, murder. This may seem wrong to us, steeped as we are in our individualism, but there is wisdom there. The entire community faces God together. No one is left to confess their sins alone. Instead, having reconciled with one another, they face their brokenness together.
Here is yet another connection with the life and work of Joanna Macy. In a recent interview, she was asked, â€œHow can [we] stay sane and healthy and fully engaged in appropriate action, especially considering how overwhelming this [brokenness] is emotionally?â€ She answered:
[T]o not go crazy or go dead, we need to reframe our inner responses constantly, with respect and compassion, and not scold ourselves or each other. The key thing here in being fully present to our world is not to try to go it alone. Hook up with a group. Go to your church, your community center, your neighborhood school. Find a group, or start your own.
Even if you’re only three people, it makes a difference. You can’t break a spell all by yourself. You’ve got to reach for that hand. You’ve got to look into each others’ eyes. It’s hard just to read about this in the papers, unless you can say to yourself, “Okay, Tuesday night I’m going to be meeting with my group and I’m going to tell them how hard this is to deal with.”
So we talk with each other. We mount actions together, we take risks together. This all breeds a tremendous sense of solidarity- we begin to feel in league with beings all around the earth, and with beings of the future too, and also with the beings of the past who loved this earth and tended it for so many centuries and generations. And we are reminded again of what we have always known throughout our long evolutionary journey – that we can do amazing things, if we do them together.
And so, as we face the brokenness in our lives and in the world, we need to stick together. We need to hold each other as we face the grief, encourage one another when despair grows overwhelming, and work side by side. Amazing things can happen as we go forward together, with a broken heart and a strong faith in the power of Love.
Iâ€™m reminded of a passage in Barbara Kingsolverâ€™s book Small Wonder:
In the long run I find it hardest to bear adversaries on the other end of the spectrum: those who couldn’t care less, who won’t or can’t fathom the honest depths of love and grief, who opt out of the bull-ride through life in favor of the sleeping berth. These are the ones who say it’s ridiculous to imagine that the world could be made better than it is. The more sophisticated approach, they suggest, is to accept that we are all on a jolly road trip down the maw of catastrophe, so shut up and drive.
I fight that; I fight it as if I were drowning. When I come down to this feeling that I am an army of one standing out on the broad plain waving my little flag of hope, I call up a friend or two and offer to make dinner for us. We remind ourselves that we aren’t standing apart from the crowd, we are a crowd. We’re a prairie fire, a church choir, a major note in the American chord, and the dominant one in the song of the world: a million North American students rejecting the tyranny of the logo and the sweatshop behind it; a thousand farmers in India lying down on their soil to prevent its being seeded with a crop that would steal their history and future; a hundred sheep farmers in southern France defying a fast-food hegemony by making cheese in limestone caves exactly as their great-grandparents did, tribal elders from east to west inviting peace to enter the world through its Hopi cloud dancers and its Sufi dancers; the Women in Black who stand in eloquent silence on every continent, refusing the wars that would eat their sons and daughters alive. We’re the theater of the street, the accurate joy of children’s hearts, the literature of tomorrow’s wisdom arrived today, just in time.
I’m with Emma Goldman: Our revolution will have dancing–and excellent food. In the long run, the choice of life over death is too good to resist.
May we, together, choose life over death. As we face the brokenness around and within us, may our hearts break open to ever-greater compassion. May this be the beginning of a Great Turning among us.
Amen. AshÃ©. And Blessed Be.
by Wangari Maathai, from her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech
We are called to assist the earth,
to heal her wounds
and in the process, heal our own â€“
indeed, to embrace the whole creation
in all its diversity, beauty, and wonder.
This is our hope:
That the children born today may still have
a bit of green grass under their bare feet,
a breath of clean air to breathe,
a patch of blue water to sail upon,
and a whale on the horizon to set them dreaming.