Umbilical Cords and Apron Strings

“Umbilical Cords and Apron Strings”
Rev. Greg Ward
Unitarian Universalist Church of the Monterey Peninsula
May 13, 2012


CALL TO WORSHIP – Nina Whitcanack

Umbilical Cords - Apron Strings


For the last few weeks, I have been living with the influence of the image of this fetus in the womb. It’s my screen saver. I feel so peaceful, so nurtured, so relaxed when I pause to take it in. Just look at the beauty! Wordless - Life Loving Itself, all needs met.


As I look at my laptop I also see the icons. My Mac Hard Drive, my mobile me, my emails, my Safari, all of my folders, my Pages, my IPhotos, my Facetime, my address book, my trash, my ITunes, my calendar. They all fight for my attention, literally covering the beautiful image of the fetus on the screen with icons I think are important to my life.


So easily I can lose track of the peace, serenity, the vision of the Eternal and Sacred as I conceive of it, embodied in the image while I pursue my goals. And especially if I am not aware of my Apron Strings.


And what are Apron Strings all about? When we see toddlers hang on to mommy’s apron strings it can be so cute, an effective way to exchange love, affection and safety. But as adults, (If we don’t cut) apron strings of our dependency on love, attention, and approval then, we can actually block our spiritual growth and stunt our living. My apron strings show up when I comply with old, outdated ways others see me - out of wanting to please, or when I withhold who I really am.


An apron string showed itself to me the day Rev Greg and I met to plan this service. Our goal was to plan the service and to come to a clear understanding of the concepts involved. Still, I had an unsettled anxiety about how to do the Call to Worship the right way.


I just felt flat and I end our conversation with the question, “Greg, do you have any suggestions of how I could say something clever, a reading or something, PLEASE.”  Rev Greg looks puzzled, surprised. Me “You know, I don’t have any sources available to do a good job at this.”


There, in a flash - I can see the apron strings. The woman who echoes old voices, and apron strings tug to tell her she is not enough. Apron strings of one who needs saving from a task before her. Apron strings - a worry that the congregation must think she is clever when she speaks in order to give her the love she needs.


Yes, my mind seems to work to make something out of nothing, the condition of my relationship with you based on old ways of seeking love, attention and approval, the kind of mind chatter that ties me up. These are the apron strings I strive to cut.


And, paradoxically, I find it is the actual discovery of the apron strings themselves which opens the way for greater Love and a more umbilical connection.   How deeply rewarding it can be to be in touch with the Source of Love within, WITH awareness of the Apron Strings.


Come Let Us Worship Together.



In Europe and America, there's a growing feeling of hysteria
Conditioned to respond to all the threats
In the rhetorical speeches of the Soviets
Mr. Krushchev said we will bury you
I don't subscribe to this point of view
It would be such an ignorant thing to do
If the Russians love their children too

How can I save my little boy from Oppenheimer's deadly toy
There is no monopoly in common sense
On either side of the political fence
We share the same biology
Regardless of ideology
Believe me when I say to you
I hope the Russians love their children too

There is no historical precedent
To put the words in the mouth of the President
There's no such thing as a winnable war
It's a lie we don't believe anymore
Mr. Reagan says we will protect you
I don't subscribe to this point of view
Believe me when I say to you
I hope the Russians love their children too

-        Sting (Gordon Sumners)



Time is short.  It behooves us to be honest.  To cut through the crap… or the cautious hesitation of polite, safe sentimentality.  To say what’s really in our hearts.  Even if to do so requires us to peel off our personas and egos and protective ideology, and leave us more tender and more humble than we normally allow ourselves to be. 


A moment approaches where the ledger of all our efforts will be placed on the scales and we ‘settle up.’  Too infrequently in our lives – in all of history – do we prepare ourselves for such moments.  Too infrequently do we permit ourselves to accept and exchange the whole truth of what our time together has been – the composite assembly of both the unquestionable love which bound us together and gave us meaning… and the more questionable ideologies – the lines drawn in the sand - which resulted in tension and distance and kept us from the kind of unity that, in our hearts, we live our lives yearning to know.


We could let this moment for connection pass and settle for another experience which is less than what we have been telling ourselves our lives are really all about.  But we could all probably name other such disappointments we already grieve over… experiences which are the source of our existing protective strategies of doubt, cynicism and distrust.   And it’s difficult to settle for less than what we know we were born to be.


I confess that this yearning to forge an honest and tender and love-lined parting has less to do with my savvy as a minister… and the altruistic motives of wanting both of us to set upon our new respective paths healed, healthy and whole – without the nagging plague of unfinished business hanging before us… the kind that keeps us from bringing our best selves to what’s next.  As much as my ego would like to claim those motives – so that I can imagine myself as a wise, caring minister… that’s not why I share my hope for an honest and heartfelt reckoning.


No.   The truth is that I ask for such a reckoning… really… because my mother has been telling me to. 


By that I don’t mean my mother has been urging me to preach to you today about reckoning.  About calling for unconditional acceptance and love built from tenderness, humility and selflessness.  I don’t know how many of you know my mother… but those are not her strong suits.


My mother loves much more fiercely than that. 


My mother is the kind of person who, if she heard her baby’s cry, would care not one whit about all the artillery pointed in her direction… or the blood and carnage strewn about the vicinity… or who she would have to step over – or step on – to protect what she loves and carry it to safety.  My mother would face the unthinkable and then stand at the edge of the fray cursing anyone and everyone who dared to think about standing in her way.


When I say that my mother tells me that an honest and heartfelt reckoning is what’s needed, it’s more personal than just good ministry. 


Part of my reckoning with you includes some honest confession… when I came back to California five years ago, there was more to my ‘call’ than the chance to be with you all.  There was the sweet image of my mother’s face… and the imminent threat that life as I knew it would soon end if I didn’t answer the call.


I’m not just talking about the messages left by my mother on my answering machine.  I’m talking about the message loop that had been running in my head for the last 20 years.  The loop that reminded me not only of my mother’s age… or the increasing number o f health challenges she was facing… or the precariousness and unpredictability of life… but the umbilical cord that once joined us… the one which had been cut at birth but which continued to tether me to her in some strange unexplainable way… like someone who can still feel the phantom pain from a limb they lost years earlier in a battle for independence. 


I have come to believe there are liminal, interstitial spaces between realities that all life passes through in the process of becoming all it is called to be.  They are sacred spaces.  Holy passages.  Transcending from one side of existence to another requires a connection be maintained to transfer breath, warmth, energy, love – to transfer LIFE.  When we are born we are given an umbilical cord to facilitate the passage of everything essential to life.  When we get to this side, the cord is cut.  But it is never fully forgotten. 


I believe that the other end of life is no different.  Transcending from one side of existence to another is a powerful – scary – journey.  For the courage and honesty to face this awesome transition we need access to some essential things: breath, energy, warmth, love.  But for this final transition, we are not given such a convenient cord as we had at the beginning.  For this final transition, we are asked to forge such a cord ourselves.  And we build it from everything we learned about transition during life.


It’s complicated, of course, like everything.  It’s complicated because we are bound by more than umbilical cords.  We are bound also by apron strings.  By which I mean the mental and emotional ways in which a mother will continue to try and connect to her child after she realizes there is no such umbilical cord to insure the health, love and safety of their child after they are born. 


Apron strings become a mother’s way of attempting to protect what is too precious to leave at risk.  But apron strings are almost always fashioned from imperfect things –more than the blood, sweat and tears of our biology… but the stories, pain and fears – as well as the love and devotion – of our ideology.  


It’s likely that every one of us still have the remnants of apron strings tied to them.  Though we cut them long ago, they remain dangling from us, frayed and tattered.  But, as if pulling a cord, we can still hear the recorded messages:

“Are you going to go out looking like that?” 

“Stand up straight!  Don’t slouch!”

“Where are your manners?”

“When are you going to visit your mother?”


It’s complicated because when we feel the umbilical connection, tugging on a very tender part of our soul, we sometimes are pulled back into proximity of some of those apron strings we’ve worked so hard to cut… to be free from and live by our own ideals – often very different from – if not in direct defiance to – the way we were raised.


As the lyrics to the Sting song suggest,


We share the same biology

Regardless of ideology…


And yet, when time is short… when the end seems like it could be close… it becomes clear how important it is to do and say everything necessary to come together.


The Rev. Dr. Forrest Church describes a memory by which this truth became clear to him.


[In 1958]… fire drills in elementary school had been temporarily replaced by nuclear attack drills. The alarm would go off and all of us would dutifully tuck ourselves under our desks. From the moment of the first alert to the arrival of the missiles, we had ten minutes. Three times a year we practiced this. I can assure you (and some of you will remember), ten minutes pass very slowly when you are crouching under your desk waiting for an imaginary bomb to fall.


[From that first moment on, I began planning]… my escape.  I practiced by running home after school every day. Despite an innate lack of athletic ability, I finally got it down under ten minutes. One day I arrived panting at the door, and my mother fearing that I had, once again, attracted the attention of neighborhood bullies, asked me why I was so winded. I told her my plan. She understood completely. "If there ever were a nuclear attack, I'd want you here with me,” she said, “not at school under your stupid desk."


So my mother went to the principal and requested that, in the event of nuclear attack, I might have permission to run home and die with her.  The result was a new school policy. Should a nuclear attack take place – upon securing parental permission – those children who could get home within ten minutes would be excused from school.




Sometime about six or seven years ago, after living through a few existential fire drills around my mother’s health, I realized that my life also had such a policy.  That in the event that it became clear the end of our worlds – as we knew them – was at hand , my mother and I would agree not to hide under our stupid desks… We had permission to ‘run home’ and die together. 


Of course, such a notion would require that we had a ‘home’ to run to.  After so many years of being apart, we needed to clear a path to come together.  It meant discovering ways to travel – through both time and space – to traverse the cord that has connected us.  To allow ourselves to see and feel the life that channeling between us… but also to see where we allowed apron strings to tangle around what tethered us and cut off the flow of energy.  And to realize that apron strings do not just connect a mother to her sense of protection.  After so many years on their own, children also have hurts and ego to protect.  Untangling the bond which unites two people who’ve ventured so far into this world is messy.  It means cutting through all the things we’ve tried to protect ourselves with.  It means cutting new apron strings.  And that’s tender work.


In the four years since our fire drill sounded, my mother and I have had more reckoning than we’ve ever had.  I have gotten to share the feelings I carried that she wasn’t always the mother I needed.  And the fears that were born of that.  And she was able to share how I was not always the answer to her prayers either.  And the pain that was born of that.  For the last four years we revived the cord that connects us.  When the apron strings of our egos were removed, the blood, sweat and tears that passed between us brought healing.  And brought acceptance – in spite of what happened – or didn’t – in our past. 


Indeed it is almost enough for her to forgive me for leaving… and face the uncomfortable distance which has, at times, been unbearable.  But what gives us both courage now is knowing that the distance between us will only be measured in miles.  No longer will we have to count the number of lines drawn in the sand.


What has helped make this happen is my finding ways to tell her


-        I love you

-        I’m sorry for all the times I let fear or ego get in the way of my understanding or appreciation.

-        I’m so grateful for the this chance you’ve given me to be in your life and how much I’ve grown because of it

-        In my heart you will always be beloved.




Sometimes we have to travel a long way to find the other end of the cord that gives us life.  Some will say it is too far.  That it’s not connected to anything important.  But I believe otherwise.


When I was on sabbatical, eight years ago, I found myself in Turkey.  And while there, I kept running across an interesting observation: for every tourist I met from anywhere else in the world I ran into 5 from Australia or New Zealand. 


When I Finally asked someone about this I was given a fascinating bit of the history. 


In 1915 the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps – ANZACs for short – were brought into the first world war.  Australia and New Zealand had only been an independent country for about fourteen years and this was their coming of age in world affairs.  The Allies wanted to attack the peninsula at Gallipoli on the western shore of Turkey and eventually occupy the capital of Constantinople.  British generals were considering that this would be an easy acquisition and sent in the ANZAC forces. 


They landed at 4:30 in the morning.  By dawn a much larger number of Turkish forces – with the ferocity of people defending their homeland – began a massacre of the landed troops.  By the end of the week thousands were dead on both sides with virtually no ground gained.  Sadly, new ANZAC forces were repeatedly sent in and the battle continued for 8 months.  By the time the invasion forces retreated, 25,000 Johnnies (or ANZAC soldiers) and 86,000 Mehmets (Turkish soldiers) were killed or wounded. 


When I heard this I was amazed that even one – much less hundreds of thousands of Australians and New Zealanders would have any interest in seeing the Turkish soil which was the site of such a horrifying moment in their history. 


But I learned the reason why reverence and honor overcame bitterness and enmity, and it was largely due to a man named Attaturk.  Attaturk was the general who commanded those Turkish forces at Gallipoli.  The successful defense of his homeland propelled him into prominence as a national hero and eventually he become the first president of Turkey and father of the Turkish people. 


It was easy to understand why he was adored by Turks – he established democracy, gave women rights, revolutionized education including inventing an entirely new alphabet, eliminated religious fanaticism, and brought economic success.  But that doesn’t explain why was he respected and revered by Austrailians and New Zealanders. 


The reason, largely was what he did after the war… after he rose to power…  In his goal to unify the people after the war, he sent a letter to the mothers of the Australian and New Zealand men who lost their lives on Turkish soil.  The letter read:


Those heroes that shed their blood 
and lost their lives; 
You are now lying in the soil of a friendly nation.
Therefore rest in peace.
There is no difference between the Johnnies
and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side
here in this country of ours.

You, the mothers,
who sent your sons from far away countries,
wipe away your tears;
your sons are now lying in our bosom
and are in peace.
After having lost their lives on this land they have
become our sons as well."


What we long to know in life is too late discovered in death: that our need is to lie in the bosom of a friendly nation – one whose borders of barbed wire, ideology and lines drawn in the sand – still do not cut us off from the common source of life we share.  There is a reckoning possible where pain and sorrow – hopes and ideals – are shared.  Where, in the face of alarm, we are still able to run home and find one another.




So, before I go, there is something I want you to know without doubt or confusion. 


-        I love you

-        I’m sorry for all the times I let fear or ego get in the way of my understanding or appreciation.

-        I’m so grateful for the this chance you’ve given me to be in your life and how much I’ve grown because of it

-        In my heart you will always be beloved.


I hope that wherever we both go, whatever we seek and find and dedicate our lives to, we never forget these words by David Bumbaugh:


We are here dedicated to the proposition
That behind all our differences
Beneath all our diversity
There is a unity that makes us one
And binds us forever together
In spite of time and death
And the space between the stars.
We pause in silent witness to that unity.

-        David Bumbaugh


To the Glory of Life.