May I let my voice be a clarion call. I will use these words for justice. I will use these words for truth. And humour.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013


Sermon: The Guardian of the Garden

Delivered to First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh in the Undercroft Gallery (with wireless headworn mic), on June 30, 2013
On nights when it's my turn to get Henry ready for bed, after bedtime snack and toothbrushing, we read two books in his bedroom and turn out the light and maybe a prayer, and then I sing to him. Our standard default is “This Little Light of Mine” which I've been singing to him since he was an infant. But sometimes he asks for something new. And when “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Hot Crossed Buns” didn't cut it, I offered him one of my own that I'd been working on called “Ode to Glen Eden.” The chorus and closing goes a bit like this:

“This is a beautiful garden, it has a dangerous guardian (x2).
We're going to melt that guardian down some time, we're gonna press our flames to that heart of ice (x2).
That heart of ice, (x3)
is my size....”♫♪

H: Dad I really like that song. What's the beautiful garden? (That was the easy question.)
J: Well son, the beautiful garden is the Earth, the only place where we can actually live, and we're so lucky that it provides us with food and wood and everything that people and animals need to live.
H: Tell me about the guardian Dad. (Of course I had no clue how to articulate this to Henry without going into adult details, so I punted a bit.)
J: Well, the guardian watches over the Earth to make sure and keep it safe, but it's not always friendly, especially when people are not good to the Earth.
He's getting to the stage of inquisitiveness now where he keeps drilling down with “Why?” followed by “Why?” followed by more “Why?” and... I don't recall how it ended up.
       I really do find the Earth as a source of reverence – I learned that while preparing for my first time preaching here at First Unitarian – Winter Solstice 2011. How amazing is this Earth in all the idiosyncracies that somehow exist so it can support life like us.
       And how
very dangerous is the Guardian that protects it? Freewill creates its own karmic vehicle when we choose something harmful. And at the moment, collectively, we are choosing an abundance of things either harmful or potentially so – in our reading, Wendell Berry mentioned fossil fuels. The list continues: nuclear weapons; GMO foods and other genetic experiments; polluted air, water, and soil, imprudent use of medicines leading to more virulent drug-resistant pathogens that could one day bring us a pandemic. It's difficult to even imagine, but any of these things could potentially bring the end of the homo sapien species. And at the same time, there is very little likelihood that any of those could end life on Earth as a whole. The Earth would go on living, and perhaps vibrantly again without the avaricious hubris of competitive humanity plundering Earth's land, animals and people for industrial profits. The guardian would use humanity's selfishness and ignorance to end humanity's selfishness and ignorance.
       This is my pastoral message then to what Emerson called “the
Oversoul” or as I see it, the collective soul of humanity – underneath our day to day perceptions is a common sense of dread, that humanity is living so recklessly beyond its balance that it may crash. Recently, Rolling Stone Magazine published an article entitled “Global Warming's Terrifying New Math.” A brief summary: credible climate scientists have estimated that humanity can only pump out 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere before Earth's temperature will raise 2 degrees Celsius, a point at which ecosystems – and humanity – would experience devastating effects. And unfortunately, just with the presently-known fossil-fuel reserves, we are capable of adding 2800 gigatons of carbon dioxide – five times that amount! The biggest problem – cutting back would cut into the fossil-fuel industry's profits, and they have no plans to stop. I wonder if this is humanity's way of doing the guardian's work, judging itself as unfit for the garden it's been offered. [pause] The answer to that question I do not know....
       Prior to coming to Pittsburgh, I was a hospital chaplain, and met many people who were dying. I worked to comfort them, along with their families, and help them arrive at reconciliation, closure, and sometimes acceptance. It's a strange feeling to be with somebody soon to be breathing their last, a natural future experience we will all share. What's strangest is if/when they come to tranquility, understanding that “everything's going to be all right” and that means that they're going to be on the other side of the impenetrable existential barrier known as “dying.”
       For the collective human existence, however, the timeframe need not be limited to 100-odd years. Humanity could expire in a year, in 100 years, or 20 million years.
       On a rational level, we could say that “Species die off all the time. The fossil record indicates that prior to human intervention, up to 100 species went extinct every year. And now since the fruits of human activity have taken hold, scientists estimate an extinction rate of 27,000 species per year. Actually of all the species the Earth has ever seen since it first gave birth to life,
99.9% of them have gone extinct, most before humanity even entered the picture.” But of those that did go extinct, many of them lasted a million or more years. Humanity's known history is a fraction of that – perhaps humanity is practicing, “Live fast, die young?”
       In case we do come to an early “live fast, die young” demise, I want to affirm that even then, it will be okay. It has to. After we're gone, the struggles will be over, along with the exhilaration and joy. And then there will be rest. But here's the rub.... What happens when one lives fast and recklessly, and doesn't die young? Humanity has been rough on itself and rough on its host planet. I can personally attest that being rough on my knees in high school sports, and on my shoulders in college – these things have brought injuries, making some activities painful. When I was high jumping at 18 and trashing my left knee, 45 years old seemed a long way away. Joel 45 would send Joel 18 a message, were that possible. In a similar way, Humanity 2100 will probably not have “died young” by then, and would ask us to prevent the injuries presently being created through these present generations' ways of living.
       And I'm not ready for humanity to buy the farm just yet, or even to go on causing itself such long term harms. To put this clearly, I'll quote Wendell Berry, “Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.” I interpret this “downstream” to mean later in time, where “upstream” means earlier in time.
What are we to do? Humanity seems somewhere between directionless, and directed toward this quarter's financial statements. I believe a
small portion of humanity are developing a clear understanding of what is happening in a systemic sense. I believe that we would do well to continue communicating with each other, and with the rest of humanity, to counter the stories of those seemingly hell-bent on creating an early end, or perhaps only hell-bent on gaining power, money, and influence at any cost. Our stories and our perspectives are our light, and in their telling, the darkness within us, among us, and between us is diminished.
     (Include if appropriate energy: I'd like to go out on a limb and take a break and invite you all to tell stories to each other for a minute – without words. I was thinking maybe we could stand up and walk around and do this, but it's a bit too crowded to do that without introducing real chaos, so just from your chairs, I invite you to connect wordlessly – using your eyes, your faces, and your body language – to communicate with those around you, that for matters to you, for which words do not suffice. If you find this too intense, or you'd rather not participate, please feel free to just close your eyes and take a break. After several moments, I have these bells to ring. My family used to have these on the doors of our house that rang each time we exited or entered [wait 5 breaths, ring bells]. May we find ourselves in a new place and a new sense of purpose through this new connection to each other.)
         I propose that humanity does not know its true purpose. Because “true” is monocultural thinking in that it focuses on a single objective, assuming some prior nugget of truth was somewhere buried. Humanity must wait to discover its purpose amidst all its other activities? No. Humanity is ready to evolve from adolescence, no longer wanting to live recklessly on some Amish
rumspringa – a period of hard-partying the Amish teens do as part of discernment of their values, then choosing whether to return back to their own culture. Rather, humanity entering into its adult phase aches to determine itself – not in a “mightiest-most-influential-voices-get-the-megaphone” kind of way, but through the speaking and hearing of all voices.
Unitarian Universalist
values set an excellent model for this process. Democratic processes will be critical. A goal of world community is seriously important for coming together around a common human determination. A lack of respect for the interdependent web is how we got here, and something we as UUs say we want to change. Human worth and dignity – including humans now living, along with those whose legacy we carry and wish to respect, and those further on in the timestream who call to us for a good world in which to safely raise healthy children. Equity in relations is important as well. Our quest for spiritual growth, and our responsible search for truth and meaning calls us to then respond with our findings, and with our whole being.
         I know I said earlier that the democratic process will be important, however I believe that it may take considerable time for humanity to really come together for a determined unified purpose. Especially difficult for some reason is getting cooperation of those who have privilege to choose less privilege and convenience in a world like the one Wendell Berry speaks of.
       And I'm white, straight-appearing, male-appearing – I come from white monoculture, so I want to see THIS democratic process expedited (impatience with process is part of the white monoculture I grew up in and am accustomed to). I would like to prime the pump regarding our present purpose. Because I hear the voices of 2100 calling me; I think you might hear them as well. I propose that we choose for our present purpose the creation of a safe, healthy, and harmonious world for the people of the 22nd century, composed of safe, healthy, harmonious local communities. And I propose that we come together and have fun while we do it.
        I say that because I also hear the voices of 2013 calling to me. People suffering from great emotional and social distance with even their nearest neighbors; and more to the point, people suffering from lack of the basic necessities of life, even. Because when injury comes to humanity at large, the brunt of the injury tends to accumulate upon the least fortunate and most oppressed among us. I hear
them saying that there is so much struggle over who gets how big a slice of pie that we're actually making less pie. I hear those voices say we should be focusing on just making sure that everybody gets an adequate slice at this Garden Family Picnic (side-note not mentioned: family picnics are much less enjoyable when monetized – can you imagine bartering with family over baked beans, chocolate chip bars or corn on the cob?)
        The way to a harmonized 22nd century is to harmonize the 21st, here and now. May we commit to finding the courage to risk joy. May we find our flame to melt the ice of each human heart we meet. And may we allow for the flames of our friends to work their magic on our own ices within. In this way – one by one – we will melt the heart of the guardian.

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