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Every Day Ought To Be Earth Day

A sermon given by Ann Lovejoy at the Unitarian Universalist Church.

Earth Day image

I am honored to be celebrating our amazing planet with you today. I deeply appreciate the opportunity to remind us all that every day really ought to be earth day. The human race would not exist without the mothering earth that nurtured us for millennia.

It is fascinating to speculate how different humans might be had we been born on a different planet. This is really not just a creative exercise; by the time our children's children grow up, the earth will be a very different planet and the human race will adapt or not.

Not very cheerful? While daunting to humans, it might be fabulous news for other life forms. If you will excuse a dip into the old testament of the bible, certain psalms suggest that much of creation would have cause to rejoice. (Aside: if you are not a theist, please feel free to substitute other concepts such as Beloved Causative Agent, Divine Series of Life Producing Amazing Coincidences, Completely Non-intelligent Design or whatever is most pleasing to your mind.)

The ancient psalms talk about the day of judgment as a dreadful one for mankind; there will be gnashing of teeth, wailing, and horrible punishments for transgressors. So who is pleased by this prospect? Psalm 148 says the stars, sun and moon are delighted to hear God's judgment, as is the earth, all sea creatures, lightning and hail, snow and clouds, stormy winds, mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars, wild animals and all cattle, small creatures and flying birds.

Psalm 96 says: Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord; for he will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth. I can imagine that the trees might be pretty happy. I can imagine a tree saying, "I've always been a good tree; I gave food and shelter to birds and animals, I provided shade in summer and protection from winter storms. My roots prevented erosion and my foliage turned deadly carbon monoxide into life-supporting oxygen. Why would men cut me down and turn my wood into Barbie doll boxes and toilet paper?

We humans have not been good stewards of our earth and our poor management is increasing. Since World War II, we have used more natural resources than had been used in the entire span of human history. I cannot help but wonder how different the relationship between humans and the earth might now look if religious traditions had commandments like "Love my creation with all your heart" and, " Love my world as you love yourself." With that perspective, how might humanity treat the earth and all it holds?

Without such love, we lack a balanced perspective, thinking that humans deserve to rule—and ruin—the world. Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess coined the term 'deep ecology' to describe a comprehensive ecological awareness. Deep ecology informs ecophilosophy, which concerns the ethics of Gaia, the mothering world-web. Physicist Fritjof Capra says "Ecology and spirituality are fundamentally connected, because deep ecological awareness, ultimately, is spiritual awareness." Capra defines deep ecology by contrasting it with shallow ecology:

"Shallow ecology is anthropocentric, or human-centered. It views humans as above or outside of nature, as the source of all value, and ascribes only instrumental, or 'use', value to nature. Deep ecology does not separate humans - or anything else - from the natural environment. It sees the world not as a collection of isolated objects but as a network of phenomena that are fundamentally interconnected and interdependent. Deep ecology recognizes the intrinsic value of all living beings and views human beings as just one particular strand in the web of life."

A few spiritual paths are respectful in this manner. Many Native Americans have a tradition of thanking God at dawn each morning and each time they eat. While hunting, they sing songs of praise to the creator and to the animal they will eat.

What if we expressed thanks for pure, clean water every time we took a shower, washed our hands, had a cool drink on a hot day? What if we expressed thanks daily for the trees that turn pollution into clean air for us to breathe? What if we protected the purity of life-giving water and air with all our strength?

What if each time we drove a car, we expressed thanks for the gift of oil? Would we use gas more respectfully, cherishing it as precious and irreplaceable? What would it take to make us seek sustainable energy sources that don't involve irremediable destruction? How can we change our all-too-comfortable ways?

Progressive theologian Matthew Fox points out that there are only two times in life when we are really willing to change: when desperate (the AA model, the hitting-bottom place where we will do whatever it takes to not be there again), or when in love. Love makes us vulnerable to change. Love lends us willingness to receive God's—or the Causative Agent's—love and to give it freely. Love allows us to let go of stubborn clinging to old habits; when we are in love, it's easy to say, "Change my entire life for you? Absolutely, why not? Sounds great. I'd LOVE to. I'm so glad you asked."

Many of us, deist or not, feel nourishing love when we connect with the natural world, from sun and moon and stars to ocean and river, mountains and meadows. Many of us feel enriched by our connection to all beings, human or not. The incredible beauty of the world often opens our hearts. When we are moved by beauty, we fall in love a little. May that loving feeling make us more willing to accommodate the needs of the whole creation-plants & animals, water & air & soil-as well as our own.

Though feelings are not facts, they are tremendous motivators. Poet Wendell Berry says "People need more than to understand their obligations to one another and to earth; they also need the feelings of such obligations." Perhaps falling in love with the natural world around us can help us decide that the highest and best use of a wilderness area is to leave it alone. Instead of logging old growth to build malls, stripping mountain sides to make stone-washed blue jeans, or destroying millions of acres of rainforest to run cattle for McDonald's hamburgers, we can make adjustments in our expectations and decide that we can live without some of the destructive luxuries that we take for granted.

Might love help us chose to live lightly, spending our time on earth in healing the world rather than squeezing every last drop of "use" from it? Might love lead us to live in such a way that we cheerfully take only what we need and allow the rest to sustain other creatures, from birds and bees to fish and elephants?

I believe the answer is yes. Love is an amazing teacher. Over the years, I have learned two things: 1) absolutely nobody wants to listen to an angry woman. 2) It is far easier to reach people—even people hostile to your message—with love, warmth and humor than with anger and bitterness. Love is also a powerful motivator. We protect most vigorously that which we truly love. We protect with every fiber of our being that which we love viscerally, not intellectually. To really love the world, we must genuinely partake of it, every day.

If we want to save the world, we must take Jesus's advice and love one another, humans and non-humans alike, as family (or rather better). Love is not easy. Love requires compassion and a willingness to set aside judgmental behavior. An older woman who had been married longer than I had been alive once told me that the secret to any partnership, whether political, spiritual or a marriage, is to find your partner's foibles amusing. Steadfast, sustainable love requires humor.

To save the world, we must also take Gandhi's advice and be the change we want to see. We need to begin to be that change right now, today. To be effective, we also need to deeply understand that outcome is not up to us. It is indeed our job to be examples of positive change, to share our knowledge with others, and to lead the way to new understanding. Still, it is horribly easy to burn out in frustration and pain unless we totally get that all we are supposed to do is our best. Our job is simply to do the next indicated thing to the best of our ability, but outcome is never up to us.

I learned this through many years of teaching about sustainable gardening, which has not always been an easy sell. Perhaps the most difficult part for many to accept is the practice of nontoxic problem solving. Instead of attacking an apparent problem, we support the solution; when a plant attracts pests, we nourish the root system and improve the soil it lives in. Properly nurtured, the plant no longer attracts pests. Sadly, gardeners who learned to kill first and ask questions later-if at all-find this whole idea crazy making.

A huge part of sustainable agriculture involves understanding that soil is alive. There is a complex web of soil life, similar to our larger-scale food web. In Oregon, I once taught a Master Gardener advanced course on lawn care and said that because we now know the soil is alive, tilling and the use of toxins are no longer preferred practices. This upset some folks, and one man in particular was incensed. He argued furiously, I listened respectfully and agreed that it is very hard to change what we think we know when new science leads us to deeper understanding. I also gently suggested that he visit the local university's soil science department and look at soil through a microscope. The day did not end well.

Another time, the entire turf department of the University of Iowa walked out on my lawn talk when someone asked, "What do you have against lawns?" and I answered, "Apart from the fact that lawns use up to half the water in many communities, that lawns receive millions of pounds of excess fertilizers that end up polluting water supplies, and that 6 billion dollars worth of toxins are used on North American lawns each year, nothing." Oh well.

Only years later did I accidentally learn that the original angry man had turned in his entire arsenal of toxins and started making compost. Today, turf departments in many ag schools, from Ohio to Iowa, offer courses in least-toxic turf management.

My point is that when we act with the intention of changing others, we are apt to be extremely disappointed if we don't see them change right now—which almost never happens. When we act as we wish to live and invite others to join us in what is very clearly a pleasant prospect, we are a lot more persuasive AND we get to live a fabulously rewarding life.

Each of us is able to reduce our resource share and our carbon footprint until we reach sustainable levels. Corporate-driven media wants us to believe that the good life is about having stuff: it is up to us to learn and teach that the good life is about love. When we model a satisfying, wholesome life, rich in connection and unburdened by excess, we can do a better job of educating others.

Excess is a huge problem for North Americans. We consume an obscenely high proportion of the world's resources, all too often for the equivalent of Barbie doll boxes. A few years ago, the Kilung Rimpoche lama taught at my Sequoia Center. When he talked about being happy, several people became upset. One asked, "how can you tell us to be happy when there are starving children, ecological disasters, and terrible wars going on?" Rimpoche explained, "Buddha taught that happiness reduces suffering because happy people don't need anything and they love to help others."

He said, "Happiness is very hard for westerners, because you think you need so much; a big house and a car for each person, much furniture, many clothes, many, many things. In Tibet, we share a small house with other people, we have animals we love very much, and no car. On a nice day, we take care of our animals and work in our gardens. On a rainy day, we bring the animals inside with us, drink tea, sing songs and tell stories. It is easier for us to be happy people."

Sadly, this is not a particularly practical model for westerners to follow. So how might we create happier lives? What might our model look like? I suggest that each of us strive to fall in love with our own daily life. If we are not loving the life we live, we need to change it, right now, today. Explore your life to see where your own anchors lie, where your nourishment is derived, what brings you to gladness and joy. Then, make sure to drink daily from that wellspring. Many people say that they gain sustenance from the mountain, yet haven't visited the wilderness in years. Many of us say we love the ocean, yet we view it from the car window rather than walking along the beach. It is vital to our wholeness and well-being that we do something that restores us and brings us joy every day.

We all know how to get ourselves to change. Most of us know very well what we can do right now, today, to change our own lives. We all know how to simplify, to give away excess, to share our absurd abundance with those in genuine need. I don't have to tell you to walk more and drive less, to turn off the tv and get to know your neighbors, to eat locally produced food, to reduce your energy use to sustainable levels. You know all that.

If you feel torn between dozens of worthy causes that need your help, just pick something to focus on for now. Be sure to choose a cause or a practice that engages you, that suits your talents and skills. John Muir pointed out famously, "Pick up anything in the universe and you will find it is connected to everything else." It doesn't really matter which cause we embrace, as long as we embrace it as fully and lovingly as we can.

We do need to change a great deal and soon, but we don't need to do it all at once. By making small changes, a little bit at a time, day after day, year after year, huge changes can and will take place. We can foster the change we desire by living it together, right now, today.

Brothers and sisters, time is short. Love one another and love the precious world that keeps us alive each day. Let us devote ourselves to earth service with all our hearts and minds, all our strength and all our abilities. No matter how bleak the future looks from here, we cannot know what is really going to happen. I learned this from my husband Bud, who lives with a diagnosis of terminal cancer.

Bud understands that all his doctors can tell him is someone else's story. That is their experience. He knows that the numbers they offer him—the number of months he may live, the number of months his treatment may remain effective, the numbers of bloodwork and disease indication—are just numbers. Nobody can tell you your expiration date and somebody lives on the tail of every bell curve.

Bud's outlook could be bleak but he wakes up each day laughing and saying, "I'm alive." He has decided to spend the rest of his life, however long it may be, teaching those experiencing cancer to live a life filled every day with love and gratitude.

This is true: no matter how dark the future looks from here, we cannot know what is really going to happen. Whatever you do, don't worry; it eats the spirit and diminishes our capacity to stretch and grow and live well. Bobby McFerrin was right; worry is wasteful, so don't worry, but do act and be happy. Let each of us live so that our lives are a light to the world and let us offer our loving service with a smile.


This is the text of the sermon given by Ann Lovejoy at the Cedars Unitarian Universalist Church, Bainbridge Island, Earth Day 2007, and is reproduced by YES! Magazine with her kind permission.

Author and educator Ann Lovejoy is the Administrative Director for the Madrona School on Bainbridge Island.

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