This sermon was first preached at First UU in Brooklyn on January 24th, 2010. It looks at our 7th Principle in light of our covenantal promises. It engages UU, Islam and Native Spiritualities. And takes a mythic look at the movie Avatar.
I recently saw the sci-fi blockbuster Avatar. Some friends really wanted to see it. All I needed to hear were the keywords “blue,” “alien,” and “fey landscape” and I was on my way. One aspect of the movie focused on the alien world’s capacity to relate and communicate with it’s ecosystem. Imagine a world where the trees held our memories and their own. A place where living beings had enough a synthesis with one another that emotions, needs, and intentions were known by all the natural world. The sentient alien race similarly had the capacity to “upload” their thoughts, memories and feelings into this living matrix.
It completely felt fantastical down to the state of the art utilization of new filming techniques to transform human actors into alien CGI with remarkably emotive facial range. Stunning landscape visuals elicited an alternating sense of realism and other-worldliness. Ultimately, we went away feeling like we saw something completely other that was none-the-less readily relatable.
Upon reflection, I’m no longer sure that magical setting is all that different than our world. I grant you that on the whole, our world is less so vividly colorful, it’s no longer as pristine as this alien landscape’s forests and jungles were, and most notably, none of us have “upload” plugs coming out of our hair – please correct me if I’m wrong – particularly on this last point. What I believe is similar is the sense of memory and awareness. Maybe we do sense in the air the needs of one another. Call it mindfulness, synchronicity or actions of the Holy Spirit; I continue to be amazed at how fluidly needs, pains, joys and other “stuff of the heart and spirit” get communicated in human communities without words, and sometimes with barely a glance.
I frequently hear congregants and newcomers comment how a particular sermon or small group ministry topic hit home. Words and phrases like “right on the mark” or “timely” often come up. Or I watch the ebb and flow of conversation and recognize how despite our often seemingly endless capacity to feel “uniquely indisposed,” so many of us are going through the very same sorts of life experiences and challenges. Originating from radically different places, we all end up in this religious home at a time and a place where we have similar needs and common intention.
We could explore the how’s and why’s ad nauseam to identify the cause and effect of this very human phenomenon. I’ve had similar discussions with a close staunchly and avowedly non-religious and non-spiritual friend of mine who leans clearly on the side of the brains’ capacity to make intuitive connections from seemingly disparate information. I tend to lean more toward the Jungian notion of a collective unconscious. Millennia of humanity has endowed us with a substantial and subtle awareness of the world and psyches around us that’s not straight-forward. We’ve been doing this “human-thing” for a long time, and our connections run deep. Simply put, sometimes we just know.
However it is, I’m more concerned with “that it is.” I’m more interested in reflecting on our very human experience of that alien fey landscape’s magical intuitiveness. In the movie Avatar, I saw a glimpse of a powerful world of relation that I wished were here on this earth as well. I’m coming to realize that – it is. We see the fantasy as other and fey because we close ourselves off to the reality of it in the present. If it remains fantasy, we get to hold onto our sense of isolation, of loneliness, of the ego as an island amidst a crazy world.
There’s a Native North American word that doesn’t have an easy English spelling pronounced (Oh-tauk-we-ah-sen.) It translates as “all our relations.” It’s a sacred word that points to our interconnectedness. It reminds us that we are part of something more expansive than our lonely selves. It understands humanity in terms of relation. I find our 7th principle to echo this; where we covenant to affirm and promote the interdependent web of life of which we are a part.
Where our 1st principle begins the archetypal journey with the self — “we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person” (and I would add every being) the 7th principle integrates this valuing of the self in light of the truth of the world around us. If each person or being has inherent worth and dignity, and it is our religious promise with one another to strive toward making that expression a lived reality, then the 7th principle brings the saga of our principles back home. The world is full of meaning and value. We find a mirror of ourselves in the faces and lives of one another. We only truly live out our 1st principle by living into our 7th. We reflect the dignity of all around us by recognizing our places of connection. The relations matter.
Something is lost when we isolate ourselves. In the cinema of Avatar something was lost when the trees and stones were seen as commodities or obstacles. Even if you haven’t seen the movie – imagine any human story where we devalue the world around us while elevating money and power. The same is true for us living in this world. We replicate this in a million ways in our daily lives with less violence or extreme. It happens when the annoying co-worker is seen as simply the barrier between you and an otherwise good day. It happens when you hate your classmate because you believe them to be smarter, or prettier, or more athletic. It happens when we relate to our family or congregation as having obligations rather than having commitments.
The crux of the fantasy dilemma was the rare ore hidden beneath a rich world of interlaying connections. The rare metal worth millions an ounce was called “unobtanium.” A bit cliché a descriptor for that which we forever covet; but it’s aptness makes the sledge-hammer like title forgivable. If we’ve stopped wincing from the naming by now, I’d ask how that relates to our interdependent web of life? In your own lives, what is the thing or dream that lies out of reach? What is the object of discontent that keeps you from recognizing satisfaction? If you think back over your life, what were past things that fit this bill? Did they last?
I remember back when I was 2 years old, I left my stuffed animal lamb – who was aptly named Lamby, at the mall. (I know, I missed my calling as a Hollywood screen-writer) My mom and I scoured the department store for what felt like forever. He was never found. I was a wreck. It mattered acutely. My mom could do no right since Lamby was gone. The world didn’t care about me. I couldn’t see my family as “good” any longer. Feel free to heap on any other great tragedy and my two year old mind probably thought it up. My mom made her best effort by eventually finding another Lamby that was blue instead of beige. It sort of worked. Over 30 years later, it doesn’t even matter to me; except to recall that it was my oldest memory.
I’d guess that we all have our unobtanium’s and our Lamby’s of various stripes and sizes. They ever distract us from the beautifully woven networks of human and natural mutuality that are deeply rooted in our lived experience. We uproot our homes in search of what is not. We give up the most precious stuff we have – our realization of our place in this living world – in the hopes of grabbing the precious rock of the hour; whatever it might be this time.
I sometimes find our beliefs or thoughts about things to be similarly divisive; certainly when they’re centered on us. Our Muslim story of Nasrudden is like this. His belief that the pumpkin ought to grow from the strong branched tree and the walnut ought to grow from the weak thinly vines, makes a certain sense to the human eye. For a time, Nasrudden denigrated these plants for making less sense than they should. As if the world centered around our sensibilities or predilections; and yet we so often act in exactly this fashion. Even the humorous resolution to the story, of the walnut landing on his head and Nasrudden now being very glad that pumpkins didn’t grow on trees, is very human centered.
We see a glimpse in the tale that the world is not about our singular perceptions or preference; while it’s humor makes light of that very assumption. The “way things are” has a pattern that’s not always obvious and reminds us that we may not always notice. The connections and meanings we make or find rely in part upon our awareness; but the connections are there, regardless of our acceptance. When we metaphorically place ourselves under the walnut tree with a commitment to wonder and humor; when we remind ourselves that we are part of the tale and have a role to play, we come closer to the Ah-Ha! moment that hits us on the head because we’re finally paying attention to our own real story; then we rejoin our sacred covenant. The promise we made to affirm and promote the interdependent web of life of which we are a part.
Although I’ve spoken a bit about trees, nature and the natural world, I’ve skirted around the environmental aspects of our 7th principle for a reason. The 7th principle, I believe, does call us to act for the well-being of our earth. But I’m not convinced that we’ll ever learn to treat this world with a life-saving and life-affirming spirit until we learn to apply those teachings to our world of human relations. The Native North American precept of (Oh-tauk-we-ah-sen) or All Our Relations is as environmental as it is sociological. We replicate in the natural world how we interact in human society. The two are intrinsically connected. I believe that transforming our environmental stewardship, something implicit to the call of our 7th principle, can only be done by first living with this intention in mind when interacting with all our relations; beginning with our classmates, and siblings, and co-workers and parents. Why would we live more perfectly with the natural world than with our own human world? Why would we be able to get it right there, if we can’t get it right here?
We minimize and objectify the human world around us. How many of us living and studying in NYC have heard, “You should really go to that benefit, or that talk; you’ll get to meet the movers and shakers. It might get you a job, or help you into that school!” I remember so many times in studying at the graduate school for public service (of all schools) this very statement regarding why a function was worth attending. Even, or especially, in the not-for-profit world — who you know matters more than what you do. Human connections serve the utility of personal advancement. …But it’s for a good cause…
Even in the more classically noble professions, it’s the mode of doing things. How do we transform our human relations to reflect our higher aspirations? Yesterday, I was up in Boston for a executive staff planning meeting for Star Island’s annual Religious Education retreat week. I was asked to implement a Small Group Ministries that integrates people of all ages. The theme talks for the lifespan faith development retreat are centered around “Ministries across the generations.” One person on the team mentioned in passing how it’s sometimes best to go to Star to learn how to be in an intentional religious community. You see, at a retreat week like this, you spend about 6 days in a cloistered community of about 200 people of all ages that seeks to live out our principles and purposes every step of the way. We don’t always succeed, like all things in life, but there’s an accuracy to the aim there that I don’t always notice elsewhere. I mention this because everyone around the table easily nodded to the assessment of the intentional religious community on an island 6 miles off the coast of New Hampshire for 1 week a year. My own head was nodding too.
As I was reflecting upon it on my train ride back to NYC last night, I realized that I readily believed that it’s easier to do this sort of thing far away from our normal day to day. Being intentionally religious in community – building that “sense of here” – is easier when we’re not distracted by the creep of normalcy. It’s why fantasy and sci-fi writing like Avatar are so successful in transforming human perception. We go away (either to a retreat in the woods or a retreat into our imagination) to remind ourselves of how to be human, and to be closer to the natural world. It’s telling that these two things are connected and seen often as far from home — being human in community and being back in the living world. In fact, our respect for the living world does improve. So many of these retreat centers are on the cutting edge of water treatment and recycling, composting, waste management, energy efficiency and the list goes on. You see it at so many summer camps too – places where kids finally get to be kids in what’s often viewed as safer environments than where they otherwise might live.
Earlier, I suggested that healing the earth must begin with our own human ties. I do believe this to be the core challenge. I should give space that in all likelihood, it will take a little bit of both, to move either forward. Environmental stewardship mirrors stewardship of our own humanity. All are related. And we need both to heal either.
Our second reading this morning ended with the words, “For the listener, who listens in the snow, And, nothing himself, beholds Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” The promise of our 7th principle is fulfilled when we make space for the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is. When we clear away the fumbling perceptions and projections of our maddened discontent with whatever human relation seems to be ailing us this hour. When we stop turning our connections solely into advancements that are “worth our time.” When we carve out room for substance rather than merely stuff to do; we may come to see the breathing world as worthy of encounter. The “nothing that is” is an openness to experiencing this living world as receptive members with intention rather than competitors acting from reaction. We are connected; we are reliant; we are dependent through and with. The religious promise reminds us that this is so; and calls us to seek to make it a realized presence in our lives and of those lives around us. And it begins at home.