How many of you have, or have ever had, a “go bag,” a bag kept for emergencies?

Miriam’s Tambourine or What Moses Didn’t Think Of

A sermon by Ann Beirne

Link to handout

August 7, 2011

Unitarian Universalist Church of Queens

Good morning. My name is Ann Beirne and this is my husband David Freiman. I’d like to begin by thanking you again for having me back.  Today we’ll be discussing a story from the Hebrew Bible but before we begin I’d like to take a  moment to put the story in context in two ways:

First, I’d like to explain my use of Biblical reference.  As Unitarian Universalists, we have a unique opportunity to engage in “cafeteria spirituality.”  The living tradition which we share draws from many sources. From these, we have the freedom to look at everything, but take what interests us and leave what doesn’t.  Today’s reading is particularly brief, but, to extend the metaphor here, I think it’s something we’ll enjoy chewing on and digesting a bit.

Second, I’d like you to indulge me by participating in a little readiness activity.  Let me assure you that this is not a quiz and that no one will actually be reading your answers.  It’s just an activity to get our minds activated and ready.  How many of you have, or have ever had, a “go bag,” a bag kept for emergencies?  If you don’t have one, then use your best guess for this activity.  You should find a piece of paper with two columns.  On the left, list the items in your “go bag”, or those that you think should be or have been in it and on the right, list why each item is there.  I’ll give you a few minutes to do this.


As you might have guessed from this activity, today we’ll be discussing preparedness: how we prepare and for what.

Today’s reading comes to us from the book of Exodus.  It’s a familiar tale, particularly to those of us who have ever been to a Seder.  To put this story in context, after the devastating plagues, the Israelites were given permission to depart, and they knew that the permission wouldn’t last.  These were people at what we would now call “the highest state of alert.” According to Exodus 12:39:

Since the bread they had brought out of Egypt was not leavened, they baked it into unleavened loaves.  They had been rushed out of Egypt and had no opportunity even to prepare food for the journey.

As they were running for their lives, with the Pharaoh’s soldiers in hot pursuit, God parted the Red Sea for the Israelites, allowing them to cross, then brought the Sea back together, and the Israelites escaped.

And here is where I think the story gets really interesting.

Chapter 15, verse 20-21 reads:

The prophetess Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand, while all the women went out after her with tambourines, dancing and she led them in the refrain, “Sing to the Lord, for he is gloriously triumphant; horse and chariot he has cast into the sea.”

Going back to our activity, here are some of the items FEMA recommends keeping in a Basic Emergency Supply Kit:

  • Water, one gallon of water per person per day for at least three days, for drinking and sanitation
  • Battery-powered or hand crank radio and a NOAA Weather Radio with tone alert and extra batteries for both
  • First aid kit
  • Dust mask, to help filter contaminated air and plastic sheeting and duct tape to shelter-in-place
  • Moist towelettes, garbage bags and plastic ties for personal sanitation.  (Incidentally, I’m not sure what that means, but I’m reasonably certain I don’t want to know)
No mention of tambourines.And that’s what I find so fascinating about this story.  Running for their lives, surrounded by death and suffering, what did these women make room for in their go bags?
Tambourines.  And why?  Because they knew they would need them.One of my favorite quotes about New York is from the musical Rent.  In a support group for people living with HIV, the members are asked to recite an affirmation which includes the words
“Forget regret or life is yours to miss.”
One member, Gordon,  protests, saying that he regrets the news that his T-cells are low. The leader asks how he feels and  Gordon responds that he feels the best he’s felt all year.
He is asked,
“Then why choose fear?”
He responds,
“I’m a New Yorker.  Fear’s my life.”
Since 9/11, we are all on the lookout for disaster.  Many of us can identify with Gordon’s mentality, even though Rent was written five years before that day.  Fear has become a way of life for many of us.  Once you begin the practice of “if you see something, say something” it is very hard to stop and we tend to see something everywhere we look.  Sometimes it is easier to prepare for disastrous eventualities than fortunate ones.  We are much more comfortable with hearing, “Surprise! Happy Birthday!” than “Surprise! Earthquake!”In the book The Positive Power of Negative Thinking psychologist Julie Noremexplains a concept known as defensive pessimism.  In an age when everyone seems to be selling the “Law of Attraction”  and visualization of your goals, she found that “thinking positive” simply didn’t work for everyone.  And it also seemed impossible to ignore that people who actually worried about their dinner party being a disaster, that project not being completed or flunking out of grad school did have successful dinner parties, completed their projects and succeeded in grad school.  And in one notable study, people with anxiety who were told to visualize success when performing tasks were more anxious and less successful.  In other words, for some people pessimism actually works.For myself, this became an issue when I became an in-law and a stepmom.  My stepchildren, aged 9 and 13 at the time, had what I considered to be a terrible habit.  David would say, “okay, time for bed,” and nothing would happen.  No one would move until around the fifth time the suggestion was made, which was usually at least 45 minutes later.  This didn’t bother David, who was happy to start this process 45 minutes before he actually wanted to see some action, but it drove me crazy.  So I instituted “pajama parties.”  Two hours before bedtime, I would announce, “Everyone in your pajamas.  We’re watching a movie.”   That little bit of advance planning meant that when the movie was over, everyone brushed teeth and went to bed without any resistance and without me stressing out about when exactly bedtime was.  Score one for defensive pessimism.

As another example, when I realized how stressed I became when visiting my mother-in-law, I tried to come up with a solution to prevent arguing with her and making us both miserable.  After kicking around a few strategies, I created an iPod playlist entitled “Happy Place.” It contained music that put a spring in my step, and I would listen to it on the way to her house.  The idea was to be in a better mood at the start of the visit to prevent stress during and after.  Score two for defensive pessimism.

And when David and I argue we have what’s called a “responder.”  A few days before our wedding, we had a huge argument when the lollipops we had ordered as favors were out of stock and didn’t arrive.  Once we cooled off, we did realize that it was a little ridiculous.  Maybe the distribution of lollipops would not be the most important thing going on that day. Now, when one of us says “lollipop”  that means we drop the subject until cooler heads prevail.  It helps us keep perspective.  Score three for defensive pessimism.  Game. Set. Match.

I am not advocating cock-eyed optimism in lieu of preparedness.  And neither, I think, would Miriam.  She, like all the other Israelite women, rushed to get out of Egypt, taking no chances and no extra time.  But they prepared for joy with the same care they took to prepare for disaster.  They recognized its importance.

So was Miriam an optimist or a pessimist?  I actually picture her having an argument with Moses, who says to her, “For God’s sake, Miriam, pack light.”  To which Miriam responds, “I’d rather be sorry I packed it than sorry I didn’t.”

After all, a cock-eyed optimist would say, “everything will work out just fine,” and might not be as thorough.  Miriam was not with her head in the clouds.  She took action, and joy was one of the many things to be planned for.

Let’s take another look at our lists.  Does your list look more like FEMA’s or more like Miriam’s?  Is there any preparation for joy on your lists?  Did anyone write down champagne glasses?

I know that for myself, it’s a struggle to temper my defensive pessimism with equally defensive optimism.  It’s often tempting to pack a diaper bag that feels a bit more like FEMA’s list than Miriam’s.  And I think the way I approach my everyday life would change pretty dramatically if I were able, for example, to bring my cell phone with my primary thought being, “the kids might do something cute and I’ll want to take a picture”  instead of , “What if I have to call 911”.  The trick for me is following that happy thought with actually bringing my cell phone.

Even the examples of defensive pessimism were really ways to avoid aversive situations, not approach pleasant ones.  As much fun as I still have with our “pajama parties” and as much as I enjoy my “happy place” playlist, both were really born out of a strong desire not to strangle my stepkids or mother-in-law.   I realized that I couldn’t change their behavior.  I could only change my own.  And I’d better do that, and quickly.  With all this focus on preparation, I find that there are times when I am surprised, and these are often times of joy.

Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of witnessing at the wedding ceremony of a colleague and her wife.  It was ninety degrees that day.  They had gotten in line early, as had many couples.  They had water and fans.  When we got to the clerk, all of the paperwork had been prepared.  It certainly seemed like we had all our ducks in a row.

When the judge asked if they had rings, they explained that they had already had a religious ceremony.  This was only the civil piece.

The judge smiled politely, and so did his husband.  I think they knew what was about to happen.

When the two brides began to exchange their vows, their eyes began to well up with tears, which really started flowing when the judge used the words “lawfully wedded wife.” When I went outside and saw so many other couples dedicating their lives to one another, I cried too.  I was amazed how moving it all was, and I was deeply surprised.

I had planned on being there to help protect those couples and their children from what some expected would be violent protests.  Yet again, my defensive pessimism had kicked in.  Nobody was going to ruin their day.  Not on my watch.  We would combat hate-speech with love-speech.

So I had prepared for disaster and found joy.  And while we didn’t have tambourines,  I think Miriam would have been impressed that we had brought bubbles and bells.

So, to start our discussion, how do you prepare?  Are you approaching joy or avoiding disaster?  And are you fully prepared for either or both?

How has your own process of preparation changed, or how would you like it to?


Before we finish up today, I’d like you to indulge me one more time.  Take out your lists again and draw a line at the bottom of your go-bag list.  Now list anything you can think of that would help you prepare for joy.  Not just to say, “yes” but to say, “YES!”.  The things on these lists, though, don’t have to be saved for a disaster, so what could you have on your person or in your home that would leave some room for hope and possibility?  Or would make those celebratory moments sweeter?  And in the column in the right, again say why.  I’ll give you a few minutes.


Is anyone willing to share one thing from their lists?


The danger of giving a talk like this is that may be quickly reduced to a trite, Pollyanna piece of advice, something like “Let a smile be your umbrella.”  But we all know that’s fine until it actually rains, at which point a smile actually makes a lousy umbrella.

The idea of preparedness for joy, along with the practice of mindfulness meditation, as we discussed with the story of Mary and Martha, is my personal struggle.  I had hoped that by looking at them more carefully, it might help me a bit.  It has, and I hope you’ve found it useful too.  But I’d like your take-away to be a little more relevant than what makes a good umbrella.

So I’ll end today with this idea.  Sorrow, despair, hopelessness: these tend to multiply themselves if given the opportunity.  The only way to limit their growth that I’ve found is to be aware that joy also multiplies itself, and to cultivate that.  So I have to remind myself that, among the first aid kit and the batteries, there’s always  a little room for my tambourine.

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