This was a conversation someone overheard one day: Two people were discussing the beliefs and practices of various religions when Unitarian Universalism came up. “Yes, one of them asked, just what do Unitarians believe?” The other person, without a pause, said. “Oh, the Unitarians, they believe in recycling.”
And indeed we do. Now I have to say that I haven’t always liked that story. It somehow seems to point to a certain shallowness of our beliefs and tradition, that we don’t agree on anything but some common denominator like recycling. But when you really look at our Unitarian Universalist 7th principle, which honors the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part, is a pretty radical concept.
Of course the 7th principle is about a lot more than recycling. It is a statement of right relationship. It says that in all our relationships, we strive to make them just. We strive to respect the interconnectedness we share with all living things. It says that when we make a decision we will consider its consequences on everything that it affects, including the earth.
Yesterday was the 47th anniversary of the first earth day and it was marked by demonstrations all over the country—and indeed the world—by scientists. Thousands of people here in Portland and many other places advocated for science and honoring the place that it has in our democracy. It feels as if we are far away from the early days of Earth Day…
The first Earth Day happened back in 1970 and it was the idea of Gaylord Nelson, a senator from my home state of Wisconsin. He wanted to create a day when attention could be brought to the state of the environment. A year earlier, in 1969, a massive oil spill occurred off the coast of Santa Barbara, CA, and it was the devastation of that event that spurred people to action. This was also the time when student protests against the Vietnam War had gathered a critical mass of energy and support and were beginning to change the course of that conflict. It was hoped that some of the energy and enthusiasm of that movement could be directed towards environmental justice. 20 million people took part in rallies across the country on that first Earth Day.
It brought together, the history says, Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, city slickers and farmers, tycoons and labor leaders. By the end of that year, the first Earth Day had led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts. “It was a gamble,” Gaylord recalled, “but it worked.”
I have to say I found myself reacting with a sense of some sadness and frustration seeing the images of the rallies supporting science from yesterday. I was glad to see the people out there bearing witness and yet somehow it seems like this shouldn’t be in dispute. There’s so much to be done and time is a wasting. How is it that we are not living in a time where there are more protections being passed to help the environment but a rollback of some of those fundamental regulations passed when the first Earth Day happened. Something was wrong with this picture
The statistics about climate change, we know, are pretty sobering. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists:
Every one of the past 40 years has been warmer than the 20th century average. 2016 was the hottest year on record. The 12 warmest years on record have all occurred since 1998.
Globally, the average surface temperature has increased more than one degree Fahrenheit since the late 1800s. Most of that increase has occurred over just the past three decades.
And we humans are the cause—the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
This is how the Dalai Lama says it: “Today we understand that the future of humanity very much depends on our planet, and that the future of the planet very much depends on humanity. But this has not always been so clear to us. Until now, you see, Mother Earth has somehow tolerated sloppy house habits. But now human use, population, and technology have reached that certain stage ‘where Mother Earth no longer accepts our presence with silence. In many ways she is now telling us, “My children are behaving badly,” she is warning us that there are limits to our actions.”
She is warning us that there are limits to our actions.
I think that we as a species have indeed been behaving badly when it comes to the earth. That’s a reality. And yet I don’t know just how helpful it is to feel guilty. My observation is that when guilt is operative it has a way of just keeping us from moving forward… not sure that is really the motivation that is most helpful.
Truth is, at least for me, there’s a lot in the mix. There’s guilt. There is a bunch of grief, grief for so much that has been lost. There is fear, fear about what our lives and our children’s and grandchildren’s lives may be. There’s anger—that it seems so little is being done. Then there’s just a sense of overwhelm, a sense of not knowing where to begin.
The question is what is our call at this point in history? I think that generations from now they will be looking back to see what we did or didn’t do for the environment.
I think we are called to be working whereever we can on how that happens. Working to rid fossil fuels. looking at what we eat and what that means for the environment. And looking at alternate sources of energy. And yes, recycling too. Question too often seems to be where do we begin? There are all kinds of places.
And next Sunday, there will be an all church dialogue on climate change. It will be not only a chance to learn more but also a chance to learn some very concrete things we can do. It will be sponsored by our Ministry for Earth group and by our Animal Ministries group.
And I’m pleased to tell you that it looks like our church will soon be able to host a number of solar panels on our roofs. We have had a group working on this for some time and they have a financial plan for how it can happen. Our board and finance committee have given tentative approval and hopefully will be able to give final approval soon. Linda Craig and others who have been working on this. Thank you all for your good work.
There is much to be proud of that is happening. I know because I hear your stories and the day by day things so many people do to live in right relationship with the earth. These are all pieces of the puzzle and they are important pieces of the puzzle.
But I also believe that the times call for us to look at the whole of the puzzle—and what that, too, asks of us as Unitarian Universalists. I believe the times we are in also call us to look deeper. They ask us to more fundamentally shift in the way we live, in the ways that we are in relationship with the earth.
Much of our culture is grounded in the Judeo-Christian myths of creation that gives humans dominion over the earth. It is something that has been given to us to use. It is not so much seen as something we need to protect as much as it is seen as something to spend. Underlying this is the notion that it will always be there for us to use as we please, that it is an inexhaustible resource. Of course we know that isn’t necessarily the case. The drive for profits takes precedent over right relationship with the land and its resources. This certainly feels like the ethos in much of our government right now. We need to look not only at the short term goals but the longer-term ones as well.
But we have come to see in recent years just how destructive that narrative can be. Think about the earthquakes that have been happening in Oklahoma in recent years—pretty clearly linked to the oil drilling that has been happening there for a long time. Think about the issues with water in so many places here and around the world. Water is such a valuable resource and when water is polluted what will that mean for all life that depends on it?
Our 7th principle is a statement of right relationship. We strive to recognize the interconnectedness we share with all living things. It says that when we make a decision we will consider its consequences on everything that it affects. The decision will not be based on the potential gain for us, but put into a larger context of how it will affect all things in our midst.
That principle is a core part of our Unitarian Univeralist theology—how it is we strive to live out our beliefs in the world.
Lately I have found myself thinking about how this relates to our first principle—the inherent worth and dignity of all people. Often times when UUs give our elevator speech it is the first and the last principles that we talk about. They are seen as bookends of what it is we are about. But just how does that first principle relate to the last? How is it that our inherent worth and dignity relates to the interdependent web? There are times that it feels as if our first principle puts us as individuals at the center of things and at its worst kind of makes us the center of the universe. But the truth is that our inherent worth and dignity is dependent on the worth and dignity of the whole? And I’m not sure the two can really be separated. The truth is we need to strive for the worth and dignity of all living things and recognize our shared interdependence.
Our inherent worth and dignity as humans really doesn’t mean much if we don’t have a home to live in in the first place.
The writer Thomas Moore in his book “Care of the Soul” says that the ways we have separated ourselves from the earth has led to a kind of disenchantment with life. He defines ecology as a mysterious notion of longing for home. For him, home is a much broader concept than our immediate living space. He calls us first to expand our sense of home to include the world around us, and to be connected to the place where we are. He says the sense of home is connected to more subtle feelings that one is living in the right place, being around people who offer a sense of belonging, doing work that is right for us.
As we grow in this context we deepen our relationship with our surroundings, our sense of our individual self grows. And out of this, we begin to take more responsibility for the things around us and begin to take better care of them. As we grow, our sense of belonging expands to a sense of something deeper. There is less of a line between us and the rest of the living world.
We come to see ourselves as something more than individuals through our interconnection. It means letting the world around us set limits. And we bring a greater mindfulness of the surroundings we share. We come to see that the interdependent web means many things—that we are not alone, that we are born and die like other things.
In all that we do, we are called to be in right relationship with everything we share life with. My life is in balance only if it is in balance with everything around me.
This is how the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh articulates it: “When you realize the Earth is so much more than simply your environment, you’ll be moved to protect her in the same way as you would yourself. This is the kind of awareness, the kind of awakening that we need, and the future of the planet depends on whether we’re able to cultivate this insight or not. The Earth and all species on Earth are in real danger. Yet if we can develop a deep relationship with the Earth, we’ll have enough love, strength and awakening in order to change our way of life.”
It is a call to mindfulness. When we are in the presence of a tree, we think about where it has come from, how long it has been alive, perhaps longer than we have been. We think of the things that sustain it—the rain, the sun, the soil. We think about its future, how long it will be there. We imagine what will come after it.
In our own lives it might be an ever deepening mindfulness of those who have guided us, of the things we inherit from them. Like the trees, we have come from somewhere and will eventually die like the trees.
And we see what we will leave for future generations. Ecologist Joanna Macy calls this concept deep time. It is an awareness of what has come before us and what will go after us. It is paying attention to what we have, where it comes from and what will be left of it. When we are able to move and act out of the bigger picture, we are better able to work to preserve the world we live in, and we are more empowered in our lives.”
As we see ourselves as part of something larger, we are more able to see our path to challenging the many divisions in our world—racism, sexism, ableism, agism, classism—all the isms that disconnect us from the broader meaning behind the interdependent web, and what makes it so central to who we are as a religious people. What touches any one part of the system affects the system as a whole.
Words again of Susan Griffin:
“And how we are each purpose, how each cell, how light and soil are in us, how we are in the soil, how we are in the air, how we are both tiny and great and how we are infinitely without any purpose you can see, in the way we stand, each alone, yet none of us separable, none of us beautiful when separate but all exquisite as we stand each moment heeded in this cycle, no detail unlovely.”
This past winter we saw the power and wonder in nature. Our winter storms that managed to wreck havoc on our best laid plans for getting around, for carrying on with life over and over again. I’m not sure how those storms are connected with all that’s going on with the planet. I do know that for me it was a reminder of the power, the wonder, the awe that the creation offers us.
And now we are in spring, with all of it blooming glory. I look in my yard and I see the plants blooming forth from the hardness of winter. I note with surprise that I didn’t expect this or that plant would make it and then I see that it did and there is a kind of wonder, a kind of joy, that comes with it. And I see too a kind of resiliency, a kind of hope for what is possible.
Our task, I believe, is to approach this with awe and wonder, with humility and with wisdom. What is being asked of us is a lot more than recycling. There is much to be done and there’s no time to waste. But to also remember that every task we do, every decision we make moves out of a deep sense of relatedness, that each moment of mindfulness that we bring, is all part of the healing of the world. We are all part of that whole. Amen.
Let us pray. On this day we give thanks for the creation around us. Help us to be mindful of our interdependence. Help us to be mindful of our power to build as well as our power to destroy. Ground us in possibility. Ground us in wisdom. Amen.
Let us walk gently on this good green earth, good people Be mindful of all the life around you. Bless it with your living care. Go in peace.
 From “Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her” by Susan Griffin. Harper Collins Publishers.