Enjoying My Shoes

A sermon by Barbara Wells
Paint Branch UU Church
September 2, 2001

Readings:

Camas Lilies, by Lynn Ungar

Consider the lilies of the field,
the blue banks of camas
opening into acres of sky along the road.
Would the longing to lies down
and be washed by that beauty
abate if you knew their usefulness,
how the natives ground their bulbs
for flour, how the settlers’ hogs
uprooted them, grunting in gleeful
oblivion as the flowers fell?

And you — what of your rushed
and useful life? Imagine setting it all down —
papers, plans, appointments, everything —
leaving only a note: "Gone
to the fields to be lovely. Be back
when I’m through with blooming."

Even now, unneeded and uneaten,
the camas lilies gaze out above the grass
from their tender blue eyes.
Even in sleep your life will shine.
Make no mistake. Of course
your work will always matter.
Yet Solomon in all his glory
was not arrayed like one of these.

 

Enjoying My Shoes, by Jane Rzepka

I bought a pair of shoes the other day. The clerk put them in a box and then in a bag and said, "enjoy them."

I haven’t the faintest idea how to enjoy my shoes. I have a long history of not feeling one way or another about my shoes. Certainly I’ve missed out an enjoying them..Frankly, I feel a little naïve. I always wondered why traffic was so bad on Friday afternoons — no doubt offices empty our early and people go home and enjoy their shoes. The malls are packed on weekends with what I know now to be people enjoying their shoes. Children scamper around the neighborhood, adults appear to be walking their dogs, runners pound the pavement, all, it seems, for the pleasure of enjoying their shoes.

It’s a good time of year for new and simple pleasures. Plant something new. Invent a fantastic ice cream concoction. Go to a ball game for a change. Set up the hammock and use it this time. Buy a different kind of book. Spend an extra ten minutes with a person you love. Feel the breeze. Wear some weird color. Turn the music up. And the lights down. Find something that smells terrific. Invite someone over without cleaning the house and discover that they still like you.

Go ahead and do all that. Me, I’m going to enjoy my shoes.

 

Sermon

Singing with my sister is such a wonderful thing. It always takes me back to our childhood, where we learned to sing literally hundreds of songs in harmony. We sang them most frequently in the car, on the long trips we took to visit our relatives in Georgia. Singing them again fills me with a great sense of joy — a joy that is found often in children.

For me, many of the memories that emerge when I think of childhood joy center around the summer. While I genuinely loved school, it was during the summer that I had that wonderful something that is all too rare in human life — time to just hang out. I have such vivid memories of lazing around my grandma’s house in the summer heat, drinking coca colas and waiting for dusk when we would play outside in the coolness of evening and watch the fireflies and the bats fill the sky. We never really did much during those precious weeks we spent there. Oh, occasionally we’d make a sojourn to swim, to visit another family member, or to see a movie. But, mostly, we read books, and ran around outside discovering the world. My life was full up of the kind of things school didn’t teach me — wonder and silliness and fireflies and joy.

When Labor Day came and school started up again, I was ready. For my spirit was full of the joy of the summer and school could never take that away.

Tomorrow is Labor Day, a celebration of work. Americans, for the most part, are great workers. If we are to believe the statistics, we in this nation work longer hours with fewer vacations than any other industrialized nation. This country, we are often reminded, was built on hard work and industry — Americans are not slackers like those lazy Europeans with their six week vacations — oh no, not us! We are workers who bring our cell phones and lap top computers with us to the ocean as if the whole world will fall apart if we don’t make that call or write that e-mail. Some of us aren’t able to or won’t take a vacation. But, if we do we far too often spend it running around, determined to see every cathedral in Italy, climb every mountain in the Rockies, catch every wave at the beach. Many of us return home from our holiday so exhausted we need a few days off just to get over it. And if the well to do work this hard, imagine how difficult it is for the poor, who can barely make a living wage working 2-3 jobs. Our materialistic culture is hard on us all!

While I am aware that there are those here among us who are retired or who don’t fit the description I just gave, I know lot of you can relate to this. I see many nodding heads — perhaps you need to nod off after working so much! Go ahead! This is a perfectly fine time to rest. In fact, that’s just what I want to talk about. The religious implications of taking it easy, of chasing fireflies, of enjoying our shoes.

In America, work is almost a sacred ideal. This comes primarily from the Protestant heritage that still forms the roots of this nation. The Protestant religion (from which our UU faith emerged) places a high value on the importance of work. In a sense, much of modern, Western Christianity suggests that work is the best way to get to heaven. Work hard and God will reward you. And the work we are to do isn’t just the work we get paid for. We are also to work at home, keeping our house clean and neat and our children morally upright. We are then supposed to come to church each Sunday and work there, too. As you may recall my saying before, the word liturgy actually means "the work of the people." It seems that even at church we are supposed to work.

But is this kind of emphasis on work, work, work, really the best path for us to take? Could it be that true spirituality emerges not only from good work (and good works) but also from those moments of play and rest that many of us might feel we left behind in childhood? Is there something religious about rest? Indeed there is. It’s called the Sabbath.

I expect a lot of you are familiar with the story at the very beginning of Genesis when the earth is created over many days. If you can imagine it, God worked very hard to create the earth and those six days were very long —millions of years or so! But at the end of the story, God does something odd. God stops, looks around, realizes creation is complete and good, and then — God rests.

Over the many thousands of years of Jewish history, this story has been at the heart of the commandment to "remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy." This was and is no light commandment. Not only are the Hebrew people to observe this day off each week, so, too, were any non-Jewish people they employed or enslaved. In a sense, this commandment made sure that people were not worked to death, something the Jews had experienced in Egypt when they themselves were slaves.

In the Jewish tradition, the Sabbath is always celebrated on Saturday, the last day of the week. Christianity moved that day from Saturday to Sunday, but for generations maintained the importance of the Sabbath — though less as a day of rest than a day to go to church — sometimes for hours on end! It wasn’t all that long ago that most states in our nation had what were then called "blue laws" which made it illegal to sell liquor on Sundays. And forty years ago, it was not uncommon to have very few stores or restaurants open on Sundays. That certainly has changed in America! But in other countries, the custom of the Sabbath continues. Today, if you go to Israel where my friend Lisa lives, you w ill discover that everything starts to close up on Fridays about 3pm as families return to their homes for the Sabbath meal. Even in homes not traditionally religious, like my friend’s, the Sabbath is a cherished time of rest and renewal. My friend told me, "All my girls love this evening at home when they can know both their parents will be there and the TV will be turned off." It’s a time to talk together, tell stories, listen to music, and be with loved ones. Despite their busy, modern lives, my friends in Israel take part in an ancient ritual, which profoundly enhances their spirits.

What about you? My friend and colleague Lynn Ungar writes, "what of your rushed and useful life? Imagine setting it all down — papers, plans, appointments, everything — leaving only a note. ‘Gone to the fields to be lovely. Be back when I’m through with blooming.’"

Would you feel guilty? Would you think that your life meant less because you weren’t doing something? I know that I have felt that way — far too frequently, I’m afraid. Yet, it’s funny. It’s so often those times when I have let it all go — not forever but for a while — that things open up inside me and I discover at least a memory of that joy I thought I had left behind in childhood. Can you imagine letting go? Can you believe that it is truly a religious thing to do?

Let me talk about religion for a moment. Religion tends to imply something more than a single person’s view of life, as important as that is. Religion implies a shared path of some kind, and it is that shared path that interests me. You all have often heard me speak of the importance of community. I believe the best spiritual and religious lives are lived amidst those who are willing to walk with us along the journey of life. There are two things I have seen that can, if done well, lead to a powerful sense of community. Those two things are work and play.

The work bit may seem obvious. Some of the best relationships I have ever developed were created because of a shared task we set out to do together. Whether it was cleaning up the kitchen with my sisters and mother singing old spirituals or leading a church group through a challenging project, these times of working together quite frequently create lasting bonds.

But, sometimes, too much work can begin to feel like a burden. When the kitchen is overflowing with dishes and we are in a rush, cleaning up can really feel like a chore. So, too, can church work start to feel like drudgery if there is too much to do and not enough people to do it. And if our day job (or jobs!) are keeping us working long hours with few breaks, coming to church to work can feel like a real burden.

At times like this it is tempting to push through the burn, keep working harder, and hope that we’ll still like each other when we’re through or to throw in the towel and go away. But, perhaps a better way to proceed would be to stop working for a moment and take a break. To go have some fun together and let the dishes wait. And that leads me to play, the other great way to build community.

The other night at the Enrichment Hour Planning meeting, an active youth group member who has grown up at Paint Branch was reminiscing about the church retreats she remembered from her childhood. "It was so much fun!" she said, "to play with the adults and bigger kids. I really felt like I got to know them." Her experience is a common one. For those times, we can really let go of the need to do something productive and to just laugh and play together, can be times when the spirit of community can tiptoe in. It is that spirit that is so essential to human nature. We need each other not only to do the important work of the world. We also need each other to laugh and be silly and have fun with.

I believe this idea that community is best built through a balance of work and play holds true not only in our life at church, but also with our families, our friends, and our co-workers. Yet, it seems that many of us, myself included, are pretty unbalanced in this regard. A lot of people in America work way too much. Too often, our consumer culture demands it just to stay ahead of the bill collector. But, it’s bad for our health — mental, physical, psychological and spiritual. I remember a guy in the church I served in Seattle. He once worked 48 days without a day off. He was a wreck. He was overweight and drank too much. His four daughters hardly ever saw him and his wife was saddled with most of their care while still working at her job. When he came to church, he was full of anger that spilled over onto everyone he touched. His spirit was calling out for rest — for a Sabbath from his work. But because he felt that work was more valuable than anything else, and because he felt he had to buy all the things the TV told him to, everyone around him suffered including the man himself.

While this may be an extreme example, he was not the only person I’ve known who is like this. I would say that overwork and the stresses it causes might be an epidemic in our nation. But what are we to do? How can we find the balance without losing those things that matter to us? When will we find time to go to the fields to admire our lovely shoes?

God knows I am no expert in this. I have always been serious and industrious and guilt ridden when I think I’m not working hard enough. Yet, I think I am beginning to internalize the importance of the Sabbath in my own life. And I would like to suggest that you consider creating Sabbath moments in yours as well.

What might that look like? One thing we might consider advocating for is a return to the Sabbath — to insist that people be paid enough that everyone could have at least one day off a week. For those of us who are lucky enough to already have one or two days off each week, can we imagine setting aside one whole day when we put work aside and try to just enjoy the wonder of the day and make time to play? I challenge you (and myself) to try it.

But the Sabbath can also come in smaller chunks. A Sabbath hour can be very effective. I know a number of people who have made a decision to take an hour when they get home from work as a time to unwind. Imagine coming home from work one day a week and instead of rushing to make dinner, check homework, respond to voice and e-mails, you turn off the computer, don’t answer the phone and just play. With your kids, with your dog, with your spouse. Maybe you eat cereal for dinner that night — it won’t kill you! An hour can go a long way toward easing the tensions of the day.

And then there are what we might call "Sabbath moments." These are usually not planned but come to us when we open ourselves to the possibility that the gifts of life are abundant and can be given to us at any time. Such moments can be found in the midst of every day living — glancing at a tree and noting the first leaf turning gold; watching a deer make its way through the woods at dusk; seeing, really seeing, the face of someone you love; sharing a laugh with a friend; singing at the top of your lungs a song you loved as a teenager; taking a hot bath; holding the hand of a child; enjoying our shoes — all these ways and countless others offer us moments of rest and relief in the midst of our busy lives. We can rush right by them — or we can let them into our hearts and feel their power to heal.

For ultimately, we are made up of such moments. As Jane Rzepka, minister of the Church of the Larger Fellowship writes in their most recent newsletter, "For Unitarian Universalists, life is made of moments. Moments of insight. Moments of transforming emotion. Moments of hilarity. Moments of tenderness, of longing, of satisfaction, of love. Moments of memory. Moments of clarity. Moments of peace. Most of us are not aiming in any intentional way at the traditional afterlife of Western culture, most of us do not believe that the meaning of our lives will be handed to us on a silver platter, most of us do not count on eternal reward. For us, the time is now." (Quest, Sept. 2001)

Now is the time. To seek the spirit of the child in all of us who laughs with glee and cries from the heart. Now is the time to let go of our guilt. "Of course your work will always matter. Yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these." Now is the time to hear the still small voice inside that says it’s OK to sing off key and to enjoy your shoes. Now is the time to leave the dishes for an hour while we gather together in community to tell our stories and play.

If we do this, will the important work of making our world a better place get pushed aside? Will we become dilettantes who ignore the pressing needs of a hurting planet? I suppose it’s possible. But I don’t think it’s likely. And besides, there are some who say that the most radical thing we can do in this world is be joyful.

Patch Adams, the clown doctor who unstintingly spreads laughter and healing recently said, "everywhere I go people are unhappy. There is so little joy. We need communities and we need a revolution based on joy." Such joy gives us the energy to face the hardships life will bring. And at the heart of this joy is that other radical little word — love.

Let me close by sharing a story about how I experienced joy and love in community this summer. Jaco and I had the privilege of working this July at UUMAC — the UU mid-Atlantic Community — a weeklong family camp in Pennsylvania. There were a number of Paint Branchers there and it was wonderful to spend a week together in such a beautiful place.

Midway through the week, we had the opportunity to go rafting. It was a perfect day — hot enough that the cold water felt great and the sun was a yellow balloon in the bright blue summer sky. We stopped at a swimming hole for a dip, and there was a strong current that formed a kind of long slide for swimmers. I watched as the youngest member of the flotilla, our own Montana Monardes, age five, went flowing over the rocks as smoothly as a minnow, his life jacket keeping him bobbing above the water like a cork. His joy was palpable and listening to his laughter brought me to a place of happiness that still occupies a space in my heart. Here is a child, I thought, who will carry love with him wherever he goes.

But I must also tell you of yet another Paint Brancher on this journey. In our raft, sitting in the bow with paddle in hand, was Esther Nichols, the oldest person in the group that day. Esther knew how to enjoy the river and she also went flying over the rocks with laughter on her lips. She, who has never lost the spirit of joy despite much sorrow and pain, showed us all the way. When, later that week she took a trip to help build houses for Habitat for Humanity I was not surprised. For Esther knows that the work of the world does not keep us from enjoying its beauty. She knows that having fun does not preclude caring. She knows that real life includes it all — joy and loss, work and play, laughter and tears. She models for us the dictum at the top of our Order of Service this morning that "play reminds us that our goal is to be a child grown wise."

So dear friends, I challenge you to love the child who still lives inside you and I encourage you to let that child out from time to time. Do something that makes you happy. You might be surprised that it makes others happy as well. Breathe deep. Laugh. Sing. Play. Me, I’m going to enjoy my shoes.

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