The Heat of Midnight Tears

September 26, 2005
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

I christened a little baby girl last weekend in a private ceremony. And you know how we do it, we use the water from our North River and I hold that baby and welcome her and say, "may you bear your name with honor and may the Spirit of Love guide your every thought, word and deed." And I touch the baby on the brow and the lips and the hands with the water.

It' s a lovely ritual, one which was done to me as a Unitarian Universalist child, and one I love to do. Baby dedications always have a special sense of irony about them at First Parish, since this congregation was gathered in 1642 out of a baptism controversy: the minister wanted to do full immersion and the congregants wanted just to be sprinkled. You can hardly blame them – what if you were being baptized in January or February? It could kill a person, and there was a high enough infant mortality rate as it was. So we' re descendants of the Sprinkler faction, and we' ve changed a whole lot theologically since then and we don' t baptize babies because we don' t believe they were born in sin. We name them and celebrate their new life they bring among us.

But we still use the water, that symbol of grace and purity, and of original blessing. In the Jewish faith, which celebrates the Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, in a week or so, there is a ritual called tashlich, where Jews go to a source of natural, running water and cast pebbles into it as they name the shortcomings or shames that burden them, and then cast a pebble representing each one. It is an act of taking responsibility for one' s own failings and a precursor to the days of repentance at Yom Kippur. The water washes the pebbles clean and represents the renewing of the heart to which Jews are called during the Days of Awe.

In Unitarian Universalist congregations, it is a fairly common ritual on Homecoming Sunday for congregants to bring small vials of water with them that they have collected on their summer travels. The waters are then mingled together in one vessel, purified, and used in baby blessings or other rituals throughout the year.

This ingathering of the waters bothered and upset some UUs of my acquaintance this year, as they listened to privileged people share their travelogues of swanky vacation spots and thought about the incomprehensible loss inflicted by last December' s tsunami, and they thought of those victims of Hurricane Katrina who had waded, boated or swum out of their homes, or who had drowned in them. This is not to mention the series of hurricanes that decimated so much of Florida just last year -- or, for those UU congregations with Partner Churches in Transylvania, the news of the flash floods that devastated several villages and killed several of our overseas Unitarian friends.

For the UUs remembering such losses, the symbol of water was no longer healing and blessed, but sinister and tragic. I cannot blame them. The element of water has roared into our awareness of late in a violent and terrifying manner.

In case you' re not clear about the relationship between water and hurricanes, as I was not, I' ll share with you what I learned from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association:

A hurricane is a severe tropical storm that forms in the ocean. Hurricanes need warm tropical oceans, moisture and light winds above them. If the right conditions last long enough, a hurricane can produce violent winds, incredible waves, torrential rains and floods. In other regions of the world, these types of storms have different names. Hurricanes rotate in a counterclockwise direction around an "eye." A tropical storm becomes a hurricane when winds reach 74 mph.

So Mama Ocean, who gives us tsunamis, also gives us hurricanes. And boy has she been giving it to us lately. Just yesterday I saw watching the news from Texas about Hurricane Rita, less then one month from Katrina. I thought of that haunting gospel song as Mahalia Jackson sang it,

Didn' t it rain children, talkin' ‘bout rain oh my Lord/didn' t it/didn' t it/didn' t it rain my Lord. Didn' t it rain?
Some praying some crying some running some moaning
will you listen how it' s raining/just listen, how it' s raining

We are dust and to dust we shall return, but we are also water creatures. We start our lives in the amniotic waters of our mothers' wombs, and up to 75% of our bodies are water (all that muscle you' re building at the gym is mostly water). We are watching water cause a lot of damage and harm in our world, and it hits us where we live because we have an especially intimate relationship to the element of water and we cannot live without it. You may know that violent crime and mental illness crises spike at the time of the full moon. I believe there are actual studies documenting this phenomenon. And why is it so? Because we are watery beings, and as the moon pulls at the ocean' s tides, it also pulls at our own inner tides. I know that when I see images of the tsunami waves or the massive, disastrous flooding of a hurricane, there is something about the image of that water rising that viscerally affects me. Have you ever had a dream of an enormous wave coming at you as you stand helplessly on the shore? It' s a universal anxiety dream, common to all earthlings.

Perhaps those dreams are not just dreams but premonitions. Look at where we' re going. There is a direct correlation between global warming and the strength of hurricanes, which the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration studies show will very likely increase in power in the 21st century and beyond, as we continue not to deal with the implications of the emission of greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. Our country rejected the Kyoto Treaty that would have committed us to reducing emissions, because of the economic cost, which would apparently put American companies at a disadvantage. But look at us. What' s going to be more damaging to our economy in the end, cutting back on greenhouse gases or cleaning up after more, stronger hurricanes? The clean-up for Katrina alone could cost up to $200 billion. Nature by herself wreaks plenty of havoc. Do we want to enable her, or do we want to be better stewards of this planet? I mean, in a year, the average American produces the same greenhouse-gas emissions as four and a half Mexicans, or eighteen Indians, or ninety-nine Bangladeshis.

Let me tell you what naturalist Bill McKibbon said that strikes to the very heart of what I mean. He said, "The story of the twentieth century was finding out just how big and powerful we were. And it turns out that we' re big and powerful as all get out. The story of the 21st century is going to be finding out if we can figure out ways to get smaller or not. To see if we can summon the will, and then the way, to make ourselves somewhat smaller, and try to fit back into this planet."

I am not trying to make a case that global warming was the direct cause of these hurricanes. What I am saying is that these climactic crises are certainly not going to get any better if we don' t realize how dramatically the human species has changed the planetary atmosphere. Since the 1780' s and the advent of the steam engine, industrialization has driven up carbon dioxide levels from about two hundred and eighty parts per million – where they had been for thousands of years – first to three hundred and fifteen parts per million and by the mid -1990' s, to three hundred and sixty parts per million. What this means is that, "Just in the past decade, [carbon dioxide levels] have risen by as much—twenty parts per million—as they did during the previous ten thousand years of the Holocene Era." This isn' t just some boy crying wolf. When you hear that it is, try digging around to see who' s funding that research, and how it' s tied to economic interests.

Water covers 70% of the Earth' s surface, and not just in our First Parish Nursery School, which has flooded twice in the past few months (we' re working on it!). Global warming will naturally affect this Water World we' re living in and on, and I' m sorry, but I have more bad news for you about water: not everybody on the planet has access to clean water, and it' s becoming an increasingly urgent human rights issue. When I first heard that water was a private commodity in many places I felt a rush of real despair: people are actually fighting for the right to be able to have clean, potable water? Something they actually cannot live without? But yes, it' s true, and particularly in the developing nations. Think of how people around here feel the pinch when they' re not allowed to water their lawns and gardens. Then expand that sense of deprivation to water to wash with, cook with, and drink.

Some 1.1 billion people worldwide lack access to safe water, and when they lobby for such access, grants for water distribution often have business conditions attached, such as "we' ll loan you money as long as you have a private company manage your water resources." Obviously private companies have profits in mind. Their bottom line is not always to ensure distribution of water to all peoples. The United Nations finally developed a water rights covenant in 2002, identifying the right to clean water as a basic human right, and the UU Service Committee will be working against the privatization of water along with the UN. If this issue interests you, you will find a lot of information and resources for getting involved at the UU Service Committee web site.

Let' s go back for a moment to that baby being blessed by waters from our local river. In your mind' s eye, put yourself in a circle around that child. What do we think of that symbol of water today? We have mixed feelings. The images that come to mind are not all optimistic; some, in fact, are tragic. We are a country in mourning right now. That mourning may not be foremost in your mind, but it' s there among us all as we turn our eyes southward to the Gulf Coast. It doesn' t matter that suffering is part of our human heritage; suffering is just not something that Americans are comfortable with, seeing ourselves as the "bigger, better, faster more, do it, fix it, lead it, conquer it" nation. To helplessly watch as a massive wind batters our coastline is a terrible lesson in the ultimate vulnerability from which no amount of wealth or military might can protect us. We are learning some very hard lessons as a nation. We are a nation in mourning, and therefore a church in mourning. We fill our gas tanks for $40 and $50 and begin to see how some of our chickens are coming home to roost.

Stuart and I were talking about this the other day and I said, Look, this might not be a church year that is full of snazzy innovations, growth and energy. We have a full calendar already, we have great leadership, let' s see what people want and need. Maybe we need just to be together, just to feel the strength of the community, just to stand in a huddle while we behold all the suffering in the world. If that' s what we' re called to be this year, let' s not argue with that. I get all these glossy church-improvement fliers in the mail and right now I am just putting them in the recycling bin. It may not be a time for bigger-better-faster-more. It may be a time to simply abide in love and compassion with what is, to gather in the strength for what is yet to come, to offer help in every form we can give it, and to teach our children about the planet with more intentionality so that they' re prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to become smaller in that way that Bill McKibbon advised.

If we can abide with what is, we may develop a deeper, spiritual understanding of our predicament. Let me suggest something a little bit startling from the Jungian perspective, which says that the water is the element of the divine feminine. If we interpret these recent natural catastrophes from the perspective of planetary consciousness, we might discern that the Great Mama is very, very angry and she is making that anger known to us. Or perhaps she is kicking up a fuss to warn us that if we don' t re-orient ourselves, this relationship simply can' t last. This relationship just isn' t working for her. The organism that is humanity has simply got to get along much better with the organism that is the planet Earth.

"The heat of midnight tears will bring you to God," wrote Mirabai, the Hindu poet. As we move forward to care for others and to confront the environmental crisis facing us, we would be wise to weep those midnight tears, to allow them to cleanse us and to release grief and worry. To cry may just be the right watery response for all the pain caused by the great, unleashed waters. To cry is to acknowledge that we have not treated the Earth with proper awe and reverence. To cry is to access the wisdom that we are just not in control of this whole operation. To cry is to acknowledge to our children that we are not in charge of everything, and that there is a wisdom and life in another way that we have yet to discover, and that it will take great humility and courage to find it, and to live it. As the poet Wendell Berry says,
This is no paradise or dream.
Its hardship is its possibility.