Declaring Interdependence

Yesterday I had the privilege of spending some time with the religious educators of this community in their annual, beginning-of-the-year teacher training event. In the part I led, we reflected on the value and meaning of their service to our children, youth, and families, as well as to themselves—to their own personal and spiritual growth. Between us, we shared some thought-provoking quotes about teaching, like this one: “A teacher is a compass that activates the magnets of curiosity, knowledge, and wisdom in the students.” Or this quote: “To teach is to learn twice.” Then there was this one: “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.” This particular quote comes from automaker Henry Ford, and the group appreciated it, even though one person did say that Henry Ford has some answering to do for his part in global warming….

A last quote points the way towards my theme this morning: “The future of the world is in my classroom today, a future with the potential for good or bad. Several future presidents are learning from me today; so are the great writers of the next decades, and so are all the so-called ordinary people who will make the decisions in a democracy. I must never forget these same young people could be the thieves and murderers of the future. Only a teacher? Thank God I have a calling to the greatest profession of all! I must be vigilant every day, lest I lose one fragile opportunity to improve tomorrow.” That’s the quote. The future of the world is in my classroom today. Around us: fragile opportunities to improve tomorrow. This is one aspect of the interdependent web vision that takes a place of honor as our Unitarian Universalist Seventh Principle. Future generations rely on what present generations do. Future generations need us, and we need them. This is interdependence.

And now, here we are today, in our annual ingathering service. We are seated in the round, and I’ve always liked how this underscores the importance of relationships and community to our Unitarian Univeralist sense of the Sacred. “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be,” said Martin Luther King Jr., and this sense of mutual reliance most definitely animates the Gathering of the Waters ritual from a moment ago. To this place we bring our separate waters, infused by personal meaning and memory and hope, and we pour them all into a common vessel and a common life, to do things together that we cannot do alone. We may differ in belief, but we come together in common purpose to connect with life’s abundance. We may draw from a wide variety of religious and philosophical sources, but only so that we can invite as many people as possible into experiences of richness, experiences of justice-seeking and healing, expansion and inspiration, forgiveness and grace. Our diversity serves an essential unity. The inner-directed search, the free spirit, requires the encouragement and disciplines of a supportive community, lest that search and spirit become unfocused and too fuzzy to make any practical difference.

The interdependence vision. It links us to future generations, and it links us to each other. It’s about people, near and far and yet to be born. But it’s also about the planet. The various parts of our earth reflected in each other, as in a webwork of mirrors. Mirrored in a singular and lovely Georgia peach, you can see sunshine, you can see rain, you can see the red soil out of which the peach tree grew, you can see the human hand that picked it. A whole cosmos comes together to make one Georgia peach possible, or one banana, or one string bean. It is the same for everything. I have seen it. I saw this mystic unity one day long ago when, as a child, living in Northern Alberta, I stood at the top of a hill, feeling the sun on my skin, feeling the warmth in my body; watching the grasses wave in the wind, listening to their hush-hush-hush sounds, their susurrations; and then, far below, the Peace River, winding through the heart of town, silver waters flowing in from far away places and then flowing on, on to different lands, on to mystery. “The rivers flow not past but though us,” says the naturalist John Muir, “thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing. […] Wonderful, how completely everything in wild nature fits into us, as if truly part and parent of us.” John Muir puts words to my wordless experience, the wonder of it, fundamental reality. I have felt it, and perhaps you have felt it as well. The web of life. “Thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell….” Butterfly effects. Connections upon which everything depends.

So let us declare it. That’s my simple, central message this morning. Declare interdependence, because we can lose awareness of it even if it embodies the reality of our lives. This brings to mind a story about the great spiritual teacher, Jiddu Krishnamurti. One day he was traveling by car in the Himalayas. He was sitting in the front seat, beside the driver, while a student of his was in the back, together with another friend. The car climbed past waterfalls, across steep gorges, and over hills covered with flowers, but the two people in the back were oblivious to all that, focused as they were on discussing lofty topics like self-knowledge and awareness. Suddenly, there was a sharp jolt, but they paid it no attention, and kept on talking away. A few moments later, Krishnamurti interrupted them. “What are you two discussing so intently back there?” “Awareness,” they answered. But, said Krishnamurti, “Didn’t you notice what happened just now?” The two had no idea, so Krishnamurti said, “We just knocked down a goat. And you were discussing awareness!” It means that interdependence may be a reality and yet, as with the goat, we can still ignore it, we can still act as if we were merely skin-encapsulated egos and nothing and no one else has a stake in our decisions and actions. Contrary to the hope represented in our Gathering of the Waters Ritual, nothing stops us from choosing to flow apart rather than together, so that in reality we remain as a thousand separate bits of water, rather than the forceful river we could become. Who cares if our neighbor is in need? Who cares that one third of the world’s population now lacks enough safe water to drink? Who cares that ecosystems are losing their capacity to regenerate, or that the population of nonhuman species has declined 35% between 1970 and 2000? Who cares about our young people, or the people who don’t even exist yet, the generations of the future? Most everybody today resonates with the “web of life” image, but when we don’t declare interdependence, when we don’t live accordingly, the web of life becomes an engine of instant karma, and it conveys destruction to everything the web connects together. It can convey hellish impacts as faithfully as it can transmit heaven. Interdependence is a fact of life, and our challenge is learning how to live well and meaningfully within this fact. The fact is an opportunity, but now we must mindfully grasp it. I mean, how many times are we going to run over the goat before we notice what’s happening?

We must declare interdependence. And I believe that the way there is practical, through sustainable living. By this I mean lifestyle choices which honor the integrity of the planet and honor the dignity of people near and far and yet to be born—doing all this, even as such choices enrich our lives immeasurably, sustain what is truly precious, and ensure that it won’t be wasted, won’t be exhausted, will be there for future generations as much as it is for us. What I am saying, in other words, is that sustainable living has two sides to it, and both complement each other. Honoring the planet and honoring other people go hand-in-hand with families and individuals living lives of richness and abundance. I like how David Wann puts this, in his recent book entitled Simple Prosperity: Finding Real Wealth in a Sustainable Lifestyle. He says, “It’s time for a new way of valuing the world and our place in it. The good news is that curing the pandemic of overconsumption at both the personal and cultural scale is not about giving up the good life but getting it back. […] By redefining our individual and cultural priorities, we can create a more satisfying sustainable American dream.” That’s what David Wann says. Sustainable living is about getting the good life back, getting clear about what’s truly important in life, crafting a better American dream.

And this is the adventure I want to share with you this year: crafting a better American dream, a better human dream. While I know that the phrase “sustainable living” may immediately bring to mind very nuts-and-bolts kinds of things (like recycling, or taking shorter showers, or buying locally) these are all merely ways of putting into action a larger understanding and feeling about the world, a certain set of priorities and values. Sustainable living is unsustainable unless our perception of reality shifts, and we can see sunlight and rain in a Georgia peach. Sustainable living is unsustainable until we get clear about what is of true value and worth, and then use this clarity like a compass, allowing it to direct how we give our time and energy and money, giving until the giving feels good. Recycling, or taking shorter showers, or buying locally are only small parts of a far larger picture that touches everything in our lives.

We have an adventure before us this year. Part of it includes a once-a-month, year-long sermon series focusing on the spiritual question of authentic happiness. Part of it involves religious education classes for all ages, focusing on environmentalism and sustainability. A key part of it will be this year’s annual stewardship campaign, “Creating spiritual community … working for sustainability,” in which we’ll have the opportunity to reflect on this congregation and all the ways it sustains our hearts and spirits, our friendships, our good works, our hopes for the future. This, in turn, will feed yet another key part of this year’s adventure: the work of our Care of Earth Team, which includes Lyn Conley, Manette Messenger, Louis Merlin, Sally Joerger, Bill Goolsby, Dana Boyle, Richard Cohen, Helen Borland, and Jules Paulk. Their mission is to listen to the hopes and dreams of this place around declaring interdependence and living more sustainably—to build on the work that’s already been done here on this, to write the next chapter. The Care of Earth Team will listen and then to develop a three-year plan that will empower this congregation to model sustainable living, as well as to support members and friends in their personal lives as they—as we—strive to make better choices. The ideas will come from us; they’ll develop and refine the plan; we’ll make it happen together; they’ll keep us on track and periodically let us know how we’re doing. Above all, it’ll need all of us pitching in. Eco-anxiety can paralyze us, and so can “green noise,” or all the conflicting advice we hear about what’s truly good for the environment, and what’s not. But if we pull together and not apart, we can beat that. We can find a way through.

Adventure awaits. The future needs us. The earth needs us. Atlanta needs us, and so does Africa. We need each other. Who cares if our neighbor is in need? Who cares that one third of the world’s population now lacks enough safe water to drink? Who cares that ecosystems are losing their capacity to regenerate, or that the population of nonhuman species has declined 35% between 1970 and 2000? Who cares about our young people, or the people who don’t even exist yet, the generations of the future? We care. We care. And this is what we are going to do: this is it: do all the good we can do. Become the river, all of our bits of water coming together, culminating, flowing forcefully, carrying us to the place of our dreams.