I recently gave a sermon at the Allegheny Unitarian Universalist Church about Faith and Sustainability. I walk through some of the origins of YERT and also dig into the role of faith and spirituality in the sustainability movement. I’ve pasted the text of the sermon below, along with a link to the MP3 of the recording. This was my first sermon, and I generally don’t like to get “preachy” when I talk about the YERT experience, but you can decide how I do on that front…
I also created a guided meditation to support the sermon, and you’ll find that below the sermon text.
I hope you enjoy it!
SERMON – Faith and Sustainability: Message, Medium and Medicine.
by Mark Dixon, July 12, 2009
–>Click here to listen to the sermon.<--
--> MP3 Audio File of Sermon <--
Are we doomed?
That's ultimately the question that a couple of friends and I tried to answer through a project called YERT - Y. E. R. T. - an acronym for Your Environmental Road Trip. Two years ago I set out from Pittsburgh with two friends, Ben and his wife Julie, on a one-year 50-state road trip designed to explore and personalize environmental sustainability. And you can't dig for long into questions like "are we doomed" without getting philosophical, and ultimately spiritual in the process. And so today I'm going to tell you the story about how this thing that started as an environmental road trip eventually became a spiritual journey, and where we all might go from there.
In early 2006 I left a well paying job at a tech start-up in Silicon Valley, and Ben and Julie left careers on stage in New York, to step out on the road and try to make sense of a rapidly changing world that we were growing increasingly concerned about. Scientists were becoming more secure in their assessments about human-induced climate change. My father, a thoughtful and mild mannered professor of Mechanical Engineering, was suddenly sounding the alarm within our family about peak oil. And every policy that I saw coming out of Washington seemed to be working against all I knew to be true in the world. It got to a point where leaving everything I knew and spending all that I had to explore our realistic options in a world gone haywire well, that just didn't sound like such a crazy option anymore. The crazy thing to do would have been to ignore all that while hoping for a good life.
So I left. I just left. I submitted my resignation and walked out the door to spend some time figuring out how to relate to this wild, changing world. I hadn't really been gainfully unemployed before, so I got my apartment in order, sorted all of my unsorted piles, wrote in my journal, and I scheduled a 10-day silent meditation retreat to reflect on what to do next. I wanted to make plans right away, to do things, any things! But my wise younger brother Warren told me, "Don't make any big plans until you've gone on your retreat." I basically wanted to empty myself of all that had piled up for years on end so that I could be filled with something creative and new. Finally, three months later, I DID make it to the retreat without making any big plans, and then just four days into the retreat I got hit with a new plan. A big plan. The idea for a national video road trip project just dropped into my head. I don't know where it come from, but there it was, staring me in the face. Asking for my time. My passion. My savings. Basically asking me to devote my life to it, and to let go of everything else I had previously known about a normal life. (3:08) I couldn't stop thinking about it during the remaining days of my retreat, and as soon as I got back home I started running the idea past friends and family to make sure I wasn't crazy. My family loved it. My friends were supportive. Eventually, as I told wider and wider circles of friends about the project, I got call from Ben, who informed me that he was dying to do exactly the kind of road trip project I was talking about, and that he wanted to join forces. In fact he basically told me, "I totally want to go with you on the road trip I just have to ask my wife." Julie, his wife, initially said "no," but Ben and I continued to work on the project together, and finally in January of 2007 Julie decided to join the trip. We had our travel team in place, and we would launch six months later from Pittsburgh.
During those few months that Julie was coming around, we began to see signs that caused us to question who or what was really "in charge" of this road trip. One of those signs showed up during a two-week "practice" road trip that I took to test out the idea, the equipment, and get some interesting footage along the way. I knew that I wanted to interview random "people on the street" as part of the project, but I had never done it before, and wasn't sure how or when I would build up the courage to give it a try. I finally decided that the time was right at a gas station near Portland, Oregon, but I still had to sit in my car for a half hour, formulating my questions and building up courage as I watched customers come and go. Eventually I walked up to a guy waiting for his family to emerge from the restrooms. I introduced myself and the project, and then it took about five seconds for us to figure out that his name was Atul Deshmane and I had scheduled an interview with him for one week in the future in Belingham, Washington, more than 200 miles away. I didn't want to spend time calculating the odds of that coincidence, but it seemed impossible enough to inspire me into more road tripping adventures.
Another occasion that called me to question my assumptions about the trip came a couple months later. I was explaining the project to one of my mother's friends and she quickly stopped me after the first sentence and said, "this is not an environmental road trip, you know. This is a spiritual road trip. A spiritual journey." She just said it. Instinctively I answered, "yeah, I know," but I had never really articulated it like that before. Also, a spiritual journey isn't necessarily something that you can choose to have. I think you just kind of get into it and stay open to where it leads. I figured it would take years for me to understand just what kind of spiritual journey I was actually getting into, so I redirected my energy back on the the logistics of the trip and moved ahead with the launch.
Finally, on July 4, 2007, this environmental road trip or should I say "spiritual journey" began. Ben, Julie, and I spent our days looking into the nature of nature, and the nature of humanity, and that invariably led us to discover clues about the nature of the spirit. We eventually interviewed over 800 people in all 50 states. Scientists, politicians, theologians, activists, and just ordinary people on the street. Or should I say extraordinary people on the street. In fact, at times, after we had finished certain interviews, we would all pile in the car and give each other a knowing look and ask out loud "did we just interview an angel?" We used that word "angel" as a crude way to identify a person we felt was tapped into something well beyond what we had ever imagined could be possible. Perhaps they had insights into human nature, or into farming, or world history. Sometimes those people made us cry. Sometimes we got shivers down our spines. Sometimes we just basked in the clarity of their thoughts and words, and wished that they were in charge of the world's governments.
Even before we met any of these "angels," we knew from the beginning of our journey that we couldn't properly assess sustainability in America if we didn't consider elements of faith and spirituality. And sure enough, the lessons and experiences came to us gradually in waves. The first wave came through a visit to the Bioneers conference, which celebrates the interconnectedness of all life
across time. It was at Bioneers that we learned that the environmentalists need to get on the social justice bus, not the other way around. It was at Bioneers that we were confronted by timeless wisdom and urgent calls to action from First Nation leaders working to defend their land not just for their own use, but for its sacred role in a global ecosystem that benefits us all.
And it doesn't just benefit us today. It benefits us through time. And suddenly the long-term perspective took on a whole new meaning when Julie made a very surprise announcement during the third month of the trip that she was pregnant. We could handle an intellectual responsibility for the future. We could handle some spiritualized reflections about interconnected life and cultural change. But could we handle a pregnancy? Now we had somebody who would be there to witness the actual effectiveness of our efforts to secure a healthy, happy life for future generations. The pregnancy also put a strain on our relationships in that tiny little car pitting my pre-conceptions about how the trip would evolve against the immediate and justifiable needs of a pregnant mother growing a giant belly in the back seat. Opportunities for spiritual growth surfaced more often than I cared to appreciate them.
We hit several more "spiritual waves" along the way, some through people, and others through events. We met Larry Littlebird in New Mexico, who is working to create an education center to share the wisdom of his First Nation heritage with a modern civilization in need of a different way. We met Dr. Michael Battle, President of the Interdenominational Theological Center or ITC in Atlanta, Georgia. The ITC has educated more than 35 percent of all trained black ministers in the world, and in 2007 launched a TheoEcology center with the help of powerhouses like Amory Lovins and David Orr, to bring about a transformation in the relationship of humans to the planet, beginning with communities of color who are often the first to experience the worst of environmental injustice. We met with Dr. Calvin DeWitt, evangelical Christian and professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He has been working for decades to highlight the cultural roots of sustainability as they are embedded in the Bible and the traditions of Christianity. We met with Dr. Ellen Davis, Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School who explained to us how the fragile fertility of the lands farmed by the ancient residents of what is now called Israel forced ecological wisdom into the hearts and minds and written words of the people who lived there, and now that wisdom brings profound insights to our modern ecological crisis through holy texts written more than two thousand years ago.
Then we met a student of Ellen's named Krista Tippett, who hosts a national radio show called "Speaking of Faith." Krista introduced us to new ways of articulating a spiritually-centered vision for a cultural transformation away from despair and disposal and towards beauty and renewal. Krista makes old ideas palatable to new audiences by harnessing the power of tenderly chosen words, then adding just enough modern context to leave us someplace entirely new and usually inspiring.
The energy and words from all of these people flowed into our pores and turned the little YERT mobile into a road-worthy pressure cooker of ideas crackling with conversation all year long. As soon as the trip ended we began the process of turning that pressure-cooked mass of ideas into something more tangible for people to chew on, and now, one year after beginning that process, it seems that three words can handily sum up what I learned about the importance of faith and spirituality to the sustainability movement. Those three words are:
The message: Faith traditions have in their roots strong messages of sustainability. I like to think of faith traditions as a pile of tools from the past, uniquely helpful to us in this vital moment in human history. Humanity has seen ecological collapse before just not on a global scale. And if there was ever a time to dust off and examine all the tools from that past, now would be a good time. Through words like stewardship, creation care, nurturing, and conservation, faith brings to us the message of sustainability and asks us to consider a higher calling in addressing our shared human experience and the long term consequences of our actions on this planet.
The medium: Faith traditions often have the social and physical infrastructure ready-made to act on those messages it finds important. You probably know a few of these quite well coffee hour? sermons? This building, evangelism, youth groups, and missionary work are all familiar ways in which ideas enter our lives in tangible ways.
The medicine: Once you have received the message, through the medium, and over-consumptive behaviors have been purged from your life, how do you heal the wound? Faith traditions have insights into deep meaning and lasting value in a persons life. Consider words like hope, connection, love, simplicity, beauty, and awe. These are the things that faith traditions offer to fill you up with once youve been converted away old consumptive habits. This is how you become whole again after youve gotten the message (through the medium).
Faith traditions and solid spiritual grounds are also vital for keeping our heads on straight and our our hope intact when facing the kinds of ecological crises that we do today.
And, it's quite fortunate that we have all these tools passed down to us from our tireless ancestors Our collective skill at subduing and destroying the natural world doesn't give us much time to put these tools into service. But I think we can, and I feel we must, if we hope to steer around all the corners that are quickly coming our way instead of painfully bumping into them. One by one. Or many simultaneously.
We need these tools now because the other two other institutions that have resources up to the task are devoting most of those resources to preventing us from steering. I see the other two institutions as the "market" or business world, and the government. Our government seems all too willing to support the business and social institutions that keep it in power with money and votes. And the market? Sure, the market helps us steer around some forms of resource scarcity in a collective and often efficient way, and businesses around the world are getting the message that they need to change, but the market alone cannot steer us around human induced climate change. And the market alone cannot help us avoid the concept of "overshoot." Overshoot is what happens when the growth of a population exceeds the ability of its environment to support it. Depending on how many resources you extract or damage in the process of supporting the overpopulation, you can have a steep or gradual return to sustainability. Steep = bump into natural limits = deaths and suffering. Gradual = steering around natural limits = self-inflicted hardship and rationing but still opportunity for a good life. We choose today whether our children will bump or steer their way into the future.
And so where do we go if we want to steer, when our markets are insufficient and our government supports that insufficient market? We go to social institutions that can make a difference, and the most powerful, best organized social institutions in the world are those based on faith and spirituality.
About halfway through the trip we decided that we weren't going to get to the bottom of the "are we doomed" question unless we started asking people directly. "Are we doomed?" The answer we got from most people, including a number of well respected scientists and people who should know, was "no, we are not doomed, but we have to move quickly." How quickly? My guess is as good as yours, but I think we can all agree that every minute counts. It would be foolish to rush ahead without planning, but I think now would be a good time to examine the tools left by our ancestors: the message, the medium, and the medicine, and determine for ourselves if they are suited to help us bring about grass-roots change in our communities, then our government, and ultimately the business marketplace as a whole.
It may also be helpful to quietly reflect on the roles that your body, mind, and soul can play in this transformation. The challenges we face require each of us to tap into our deepest, fullest, most courageous selves, but it's hard to get to know that person if we don't give them a quiet place from which to emerge. And there's nothing to stop you from doing it except for simply not stopping to do it.
Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson once referred to the creation, our beautiful, life-sustaining planet, as "a gift." When we met with Calvin DeWitt, he expanded upon that idea, and I'll paraphrase from a video I'll show you after the service
"I think that all of us have some sense
we didn't deserve this. Somehow, it's given to us, and it's a remarkable gift, because what it does is
sustain life. And
it does this in a remarkable system that I think of more like a symphony of interrelationships than something like a machine. It's more beautiful than that. It's really a symphony of symphonies."
If you were given a gift that you didn't deserve, mysterious and beautiful beyond measure, and handed down from generation to generation since the beginning of time
what would you do with it?
What would your deepest, fullest self do with it?
-- END OF SERMON --
–>Click here to listen to the guided meditation.<--
-->MP3 Audio File for Guided Meditation<–
I would like everybody to sit back in your chair. Take a deep breath
and slowly out. One more all the way in
and release. All the way out. Now, gently reach out and join hands with your neighbor. Everybody has a neighbor. Now give your neighbors hand a squeeze to let them know youre really there. Take another deep breath, feeling your neighbor breathe with you
and close your eyes.
Imagine yourself lying down outdoors in a favorite place. Perhaps on a patch of grass beside a waterfall. Or in a large field of flowers. Or resting on the ground beneath a large tree. Wherever you are, this place infuses you with feelings of peace, security, joy, and love. Peace, security, joy, and love. And as you lie there, begin to notice some of the details of the world around you. Maybe the ground is a little bit damp. Or a calming breeze drifts across your face. Or the sun sparkles through the leaves of a tree nearby. Just take a moment to notice what’s in this place with you.
Now, as you’re lying there in your favorite place, you see the sun shining down onto the world around you. (1:52) Notice how the sun’s energy flows gracefully into the plants, feeding them and helping them to grow. Then, notice how the little bugs and animals around the plant live together with it, feeding off the fruits, or the leaves of the plant, and then those animals in turn feed the soil beneath the plant. You begin to notice the cycle of energy returning from the soil back into the plants, fed by the sun, and that energy continues around and around through all the plants, all the soil, the animals, and the trees. Now feel yourself becoming a part of this cycle. Notice how your food, and then you, are connected to all parts of this graceful cycle. Enjoy this feeling of connection for a moment.
Now you notice a figure start to emerge from behind some plants. (2:57) You didn’t notice them before, but they’re walking towards you with a warm smile. This person reminds you of a loving uncle or grandfather, and it takes you a couple moments before you realize that this person is your ancestor from long, long ago. They have come to give this favorite place to you. They had been preparing it for you long before you were born. Now it is yours, and they are happy, and you are happy. You share a few stories across generations, but soon the figure begins to leave, again with a smile, back behind the plants.
Then, from a different part of this favorite place, a small child emerges from their hiding place behind a rock. The child’s eyes are filled with playful smiles and she runs up to you and grabs your hand, pulling on it with giddy anticipation. This is your descendant many generations after you are gone. You feel a surge of joyful opportunity and tell the child that you will preserve this favorite place for her, as it had been preserved for you. She can rest assured, you will keep it perfect for her. The child laughs and giggles, then runs back to the rock, revealing a twinkle in her eye as she drops back into her hiding place.
You rest in your favorite place for a few moments longer, enjoying its beauty and your connection to all of the lives and energy that sustains it. And as you try to imagine how many generations passed between that loving ancestor and the small child, you find yourself slowly coming back into this room, gradually opening your eyes, permanently connected to this world, to your neighbors, to your past and to your future, and to your most secure, joyful, peaceful, and loving self.