Lessons from the Trees

Spirit of Life, Spirit of Courage and Connectedness:

Cold winds are blowing hard.
Massive cedars sway
as if they are no more than saplings,
their tops and branches whipping through the air
in a frightening dance:
if one fell it would crush the whole house.

But the cedars know a few things
as do the oaks and the pines and the willows too.

One is that when the harsh winds blow
the trees who bend and sway and dance in the storm
are the ones who live.
The ones who will not dance are the ones
whose trunks get snapped in two.

Another is that those whose roots
go deep into the earth
and join beneath the soil with the roots of others
are the ones who can bend and sway
and dance in the storm
without falling over.

A third is that a tree standing alone
is more vulnerable to the force
of the great winds
than one which lives in community.
Trees are stronger together.

Strength is not the ability to stand alone.
Strength is not the ability to rigidly resist.
Strength is the ability to remain rooted in the earth,
connected with others,
so we can bend and sway and dance
and thereby dissipate the energy of the wind.

Spirit of Life, Spirit of Courage and Connectedness:
In this time when the cold winds of fear and cruelty
blow unceasing through our lands,
open our hearts to these lessons
from the trees.

Blessed be.


The Life Abundant

Two years ago, my husband and I moved from Davis, California, to Grass Valley.  The first thing we did was plant fruit trees. One day last August, in the sweet early morning, I went to check on the trees, and found, to my delight, that one little tree had grown a single, perfect peach. It was fat and ripe and fragrant. I reached out to tug at it, and it dropped into my upraised hand.

This is my body, grown here for you. These are the words I hear any time I hold a fresh fruit or a vegetable. If there was ever a sign of a covenant between humans and the divine, it is this: we reach out our hands, and ripe fruit drops into them. The act of eating is a communion: we take into our bodies nutrients and water from the dust of long ago stars, distilled by the power of the sun, and the intentions of life itself, into delectable juicy flesh. We partake of the Body of God.

But wait a minute, who is this “we?” Does everyone get to join in this communion? Does everyone get to sit together at our table?

Of course the answer is no. Seven hundred and ninety-five million people are hungry in our world, many of them starving. Seven hundred and ninety-five million. That’s such a big number that it’s hard to make sense of. So let’s take it to a more understandable scale. Let’s imagine shrinking the entire human population to the size of one village of a hundred people. Who are the people and what are the conditions of their lives?

There would be 60 Asians, 14 Africans, and 11 Europeans. Fourteen people would be from the Americas, with only five from Canada and the United States. About half would be female, and half male. Only 16 would consider themselves White, with the other 84 having other identities. 30 would be Christian. The other 70 would not. One person would own over half of all the wealth, and that person would be from the United States. 17 people would be unable to read or write. 15 would be chronically hungry. 23 would have no shelter. 35 would have no sanitation facilities. 13 would have no safe drinking water. 22 would have access to a computer. Seven would have a college education.

Do you have a computer? Do you have a college education? If you do, you are one of the richest people in the world. Do you feel rich?

If we shrank the population of just the United States to a village of 100 people, one person would own 40 percent of the wealth. The richest 20 would own 93 percent. That’s right. Eighty percent of Americans share only seven percent of the wealth of this nation.

One of the worst things about the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few is that the “wealth” is “produced” from the exploitation of ecological and social systems to the point where they break down completely. This is happening everywhere in the world, but perhaps the most familiar example is Syria. Climate change caused by fossil fuel use dried farmlands to the point where they were unusable. So people began moving en masse toward cities, which couldn’t sustain them. This has resulted not only in the horror of war, but also in a global immigration crisis, as rich countries in the North refuse to take in the immigrants whose lives we’ve ruined with our profligate fossil fuel use.

The language we hear in the news about why we should not take in immigrants—why we should build a wall instead of a bigger table—has to do with scarcity. The story goes that there is not enough for all, and at worst, immigrants want to kill us to get our share, and at the very least they want to come take our jobs.

A lot of progressive people scoff at what they consider to be the stupidity of this kind of rhetoric. It’s so obviously fear-mongering for political ends. Or they’re simply bewildered by all the vicious hatred. But there is a reason why some people respond to the rhetoric. Poverty in this country is deep and real and rapidly increasing. When eighty percent of the people have access to only seven percent of the wealth, when it says right on people’s paychecks that the money they are contributing to Social Security might not be available when they grow old, it’s not hard to understand why people are afraid.

And that makes it even easier for the richest one percent to say we can’t afford to stop using fossil fuels. We can’t afford to restore ecosystems or conserve water or clean up pollution or protect wildlife because that would shut down our economy and we need more jobs. We hear that we have to choose between jobs and the environment, one or the other. The economy or the environment. One or the other.

Why should this be?

Consider the Greek word “oikos.” It means “household” or “home.” From it we get the English prefix, “eco.” So ecology means the study of our household or home. Economy means the custom or rules of our home.

Now consider the word “environment.” “Environ” means “to surround,” so the word literally means “that which surrounds us.” Isn’t it interesting that the word that white Americans decided to use to refer to the interdependent web of existence is a word that places it outside of—separate from—ourselves? The fact that we use this is a legacy of Western culture. This culture has historically understood the world in a binary, dualistic way, in which humans are atomistic individuals, separate from and in conflict with each other and nature.

And this view is the foundation of our economy system. In a college economics class, my daughter was taught, as I had been 25 years before, that economics is the study of “the allocation of scarce resources among competing ends.” In other words, scarcity is assumed to be the basic condition of an economy, so that individuals must compete with each other for what they need. Economic growth is valued above all because as long as more wealth can be generated, more will be available to all. Nature is seen as a repository of resources for humans to use. When one resource is used up, others can be substituted, so there are no limits to growth.

Now, there are at least two good ways to understand what is wrong with these traditional Western ways of thinking.

One is to look at the shape and size of our planet. It is a sphere. It is finite. So infinite economic growth is simply not possible. To behave as if it is, is suicidal.

The second is to try and stop breathing. Can you do it? Think of all that is necessary for you to take a breath, all that happens in your nerves and muscles and lungs and bloodstream when you do. Think of how oxygen arrives in front of you.

We are embedded in and utterly dependent upon the ecosystems in which we live. WE ARE THE EARTH AND THE EARTH IS US. There is no separation and there can be no separation. We are temporary aggregations of atoms and molecules that are continually being exchanged with those of the atmosphere; every cell in our bodies is being continually remade from the food we eat and the water we drink and the air we breathe. There is no substitute for water. There is no substitute for oxygen. There are no substitutes for the basic nutrients our bodies need.

And we can only get these through the action of healthy communities of billions of other kinds of lives. We need them to fix energy for us and cycle water and oxygen and nutrients for us.

And we need the beauty and diversity and richness of a healthy world in order to feel whole and well and happy, because we evolved in a beautiful and diverse and rich world. We will feel ill as long as the earth, that larger body of which we are part, is ill. This is the reality of interbeing.

So it is no coincidence that global economic and ecological and social catastrophe are all arriving at the same time: we are living in one single interdependent oikos, one household, with one set of rules, which we cannot transcend.
How, then, do we live here?

Well, there is a different model of economics. It’s called ecological economics. Its goal is not growth, but rather sustainability and justice. An ecological economy starts at the local level with meeting people’s basic human needs: food, shelter, water, health care, education, meaningful work, safety, beauty. Each local community finds ways of providing for its citizens’ needs that sustain the supporting ecosystem. Only when there is a surplus does one community trade with another. Larger national and international economies develop then as communities of communities, partnerships of partnerships.

Ecological economists—the only economists who accurately predicted the economic meltdown of 2008—have written volumes on specific policies that would convert our failing, unjust, growth-based economy to a healthy, just, steady-state one.

So then the question becomes, if there is a different model available, and we know how to implement it, then what on EARTH are we doing trying to keep a growth economy going when it is killing us all? What keeps us in its thrall? Why do those of us who are not super-rich keep working so hard, and making wars, to protect the interests of the wealthiest one percent?

One word: fear. The current model says scarcity is the basic condition of life. Scarcity. How does that word feel inside your body? Is there a tightening of your chest, a drop in your stomach, an acceleration of your heart? If I say resources are scarce, do you think people will share with you? Or do you want to run right out and grab all you can for yourself and your family?

This is a model grounded in fear. Fear that we are all alone, there is not enough, no one will share—and so we’ll die.

But what about the word abundance? What if I say, there is plenty for all? How does that feel inside your body? Is there some loosening, some relaxing?

Because there really is plenty for all, if we will just share. When we are willing to live within limits, and not take more than what we need, there is plenty for everyone. So the next question is, how do we learn to live in faith that there is enough? How do we calm our fears? How do those of us with wealth release our attachments to it? And how do those of us who live in poverty find the courage to stand up for what we need?

These are some of the central questions addressed by every religion of the world. And every religion of the world says similar things. One of these is that, for those people who have more things and money than we need, a really good way to release our attachments to them, is to release the things and money. Give them away. The less surplus we have, the more simply we live, the freer we are from attachment and fear. I have a friend from Grenada who tells me that her brother is a wealthy man who owns many things. He worries constantly that someone will break into his house and steal everything. But my friend owns very little. She leaves her house unlocked. She is free from worry. She is the most joyful person I know.

A second piece of wisdom from every world religion is that releasing our attachments to things does not mean we should become ascetics who revile the material world. No, in fact, the opposite is true; we should celebrate, revel in, lose ourselves in the beauty here, because simple beauty can fill us so full we need very little in the way of material things. What’s more, all the beauty we perceive, through smell and sound and sight and touch and taste, is a gift we are obligated to appreciate and participate in and share. Think of all the bread and wine Jesus and his friends ate together; think of Rumi wandering around, intoxicated by the moon; think of the erotic poetry of the Song of Solomon. Think of the Buddhist meditations on the lotus blossom, the bright colors of a Hindu festival, the dancing and drumming of a Salish potlatch. In the book Man’s Search For Meaning, Viktor Frankl describes a group of Jewish men in a Nazi concentration camp. One of the men could sing beautiful arias. The other men saved their meager rations of food to give him in return for his singing. This is how deep is the human need for beauty.

Then there’s a third teaching I want to share, from Unitarian Universalism.  To understand it, let’s return to the question of fear—that fear of scarcity we need to calm if we are to learn to live sustainably and joyfully on earth. And also that fear of what might happen to us if we claim our power and stand up for what we need.

Nineteenth century Universalist theologian Hosea Ballou said that fear—the kind of fear that keeps us from becoming our best selves—is located in the body. Ballou believed this fear stemmed from the religious understanding, prevalent in his time, that God’s love was scarce, and only the elect would be saved.  He countered that fear with the idea of universal salvation, the idea that God’s love is so abundant that all are saved.  We have transmuted this to the teaching that every person has inherent worth and dignity, that all are equally worthy of love. But what of the fear that still resides in our bodies? Contemporary Unitarian Universalist theologians John Buehrens and Rebecca Parker, in their book A House for Hope, remind us that religious community offers us experiences of beauty that train our bodies out of fear and into love. When we come together in community to experience beauty through ritual and ceremony, through song and dance, through shared food and drink, we are training our bodies to share with each other, to trust one another, to trust in a larger love that holds us all. If we do this well, our fallback behavior during adversity becomes courageous, creative love. If we are threatened with violence, we meet it with love. If we are threatened with scarcity, we find ways to create abundance.

And so here we are today, sharing the bounty of the earth. Here we are, filling ourselves with the beauty of all these fruits and flowers and vegetables, the beauty of our singing, the beauty of all these loving faces. In this way do we begin to restore the covenant between ourselves and the source of life. In this way do we begin to make the communion of eating available to all. In this way do we begin to create the life abundant.

May it be so. Blessed be.

For further reading/viewing:

Buehrens, John, and Rebecca Ann Parker. 2011. A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-first Century. Beacon Press.

Cobb, John B. Jr. 2007. Sustainability: Economics, Ecology, and Justice. Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Kaza, Stephanie, ed. 2005. Hooked! Buddhist Writings on Greed, Desire, and the Urge to Consume. Shambhala Publications, Inc.

McFague, Sallie. Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril. 2000, Fortress Press. (An extremely clear and simple explanation of ecological economics from a Christian theologian.)


Know Your World: Facts About Hunger and Poverty



A homily for Membership Sunday

Did you enjoy junior high school?  Seventh and eighth grade?  Just thinking about those years makes me shudder.  One of the worst things was how mean people were to each other.  Even so-called friends constantly competed to see who could come up with the worst insults, who could win in a war of words. Looking back, I think it was the strategy of the utterly powerless, our way of trying on power, because the adults never taught us healthier ways of being together, or of using our power.  And so each day we all slunk home miserably after having all of our flaws pointed out in great detail:  the crooked teeth, the knobby knees or the dimpled ones, the acne or the dry skin, the body odor, the voice that changes pitch at the worst moment–all the agonizing bodily problems of adolescence.  Some kids got support and nurturing at home, and came back to school able to handle the taunts.  But some, like me, didn’t.  My alcoholic father didn’t speak to me except contemptuously, and during the small amount of time that my mother was home, she criticized the way I had done the laundry or the cooking.  So, what kind of self-image do you think I had, with those kind of mirrors?

Human beings are obligatory social mammals. We need to be physically cared for by others, and we also need to interact in loving ways with them. As babies, we need to be held and talked to and smiled at. Several dreadful experiments in the past few hundred years have demonstrated that if you do not do this with babies, they die. We are obligatory social mammals. We have a deep, innate need to belong, to belong to a group that cares for us.

Part of what enables us to belong, or perhaps what makes it necessary for us to belong, is our mirror neurons. These are cells in our nervous systems, spread throughout our bodies, that activate when we see another person doing something, or expressing a feeling: they activate just as if it were our own bodies doing that thing, or feeling the feeling. These mirror neurons give us our capacity for empathy, to feel what others feel. This is useful from a survival standpoint in at least two ways. One is that empathy is the basis for mutual care and concern, for love. When we know we are loved, when others reflect our own light back to us, we thrive. When we thrive we contribute to the well-being of the group, the whole, and in turn that well-being contributes to our own well-being. It’s a positive feedback cycle.

Another way empathy is useful for survival is that it enables us to make predictions about how the others in our group are going to behave toward us. If we see that someone is directing anger our way, we might change our own behavior to try to lessen the anger. We might placate the person. Or, we might show a greater display of anger than the other person, to try to make them back down.

So our mirror neurons help us survive. And they also make us vulnerable. Again, if the people in our group are positive and loving mirrors, we thrive. But if not…if the culture around us is angry and hateful and superficial, and the people in our close family group are unkind and the people we work or go to school with are uncaring or mean…well, we end up where I was in junior high. Where many people are in this world: lonely, fearful, believing we are ugly inside and out, believing we are unworthy of love and kindness.

It is no wonder that so many people are isolated and unhappy today. And that this isolation and unhappiness is causing our larger social systems to break down, which worsens the isolation…a different positive feedback cycle.

But what if we could break the second feedback cycle and substitute the first one? What if we could form communities where people loved and accepted each other and mirrored each other’s best qualities, where they encouraged each other’s growth toward their best selves? What if we could help people raise families in which children are loved and valued from the very beginnings of their lives, by many generations in the group? What if the people in such a community experienced so much love and caring in their own group that they could not help but act together to bring more love and caring into the larger world?

I have a dear friend whose group of college housemates wanted to create just such an intentional community. They spent months formulating a vision. Finally they invited all their friends and their extended families for a huge celebratory dinner, where they unveiled their plan. They said that at first they had thought about buying an apartment building or a really big house where they would all live and raise their children together, but they had rejected this. Instead, they had decided to live scattered throughout the city, so each could be a leader in their own neighborhood, coming together for inspiration at a common house a few times a week. In this common house they would share meals. They would teach their children. They would meet to explore new ways of living, ways that were sustainable and creative and full of beauty and love. They would make music and art. They would share their deepest longings and their biggest questions, their spiritual journeys. And they would organize for the kind of social change that would make a life of abundance and beauty available to all beings, everywhere.

Well, after the young people had shared their vision, one of their grandmothers stood up to speak. She said, “What you have described here tonight is beautiful. It is just what this world most needs. And it already exists. It is called church.”1

I went to many churches as a young person, longing for this kind of deep community. But I could not and would not accept the doctrine of Original Sin, the idea that people are born inherently wicked. I did not need more reinforcement of the idea that I was worthless. So I gave up on church and found solace in nature. By losing myself in communion with the hills and woods and water each day, I survived some truly terrible things. But like all of us, I am an obligatory social mammal. In order to do more than just survive—in order to thrive, to heal and flourish and make positive change in my world—I needed a human community. I needed a group of companions who would love me just as I was and inspire me to continually grow. I needed a community who would welcome my deepest spiritual longings and questions. After trying church after church, I finally walked into a church that was Unitarian Universalist.

That church embodied our UU theology about what it means to be human. The members there reflected my own worth and dignity to me and I reflected theirs to them. They loved and accepted me not despite my flaws, but because of who I was in my wholeness: a complicated, imperfect person with both gifts and problems, doing her best to muddle through. As I began to live into my own worth and dignity, I began to heal. I began to grow and to transform into a new person. I began bringing other hurting people into the congregation. I began participating in social activism. I began to contribute my own gifts to the congregation, which itself was then transformed. Something that had been very good became even better.

Then–oh, then–came my first congregational fight. It was a biggie. People shouted at each other. They accused each other of all sorts of nefarious dealings and motives.  It was so painful.  But then the congregation called for help from the district, and the conflict became a learning opportunity. After it was all through, we realized that our relationship had deepened. We now knew much more about each other. We had more confidence in our relationships because we had been through something difficult together. We knew how committed we were to working things through. We began to truly cherish one another.

But while the conflict was going on, some people left. Some felt profoundly disillusioned. They didn’t think UU’s should fight, that we were somehow different or better than the rest of the world. Or they thought that church shouldn’t have any unpleasantness. Or, they left because the conflict reminded them of conflicts in their families, and they just couldn’t deal with the pain.

Well, I would never dismiss the pain of another person. I respected those people’s need to leave. But as far as thinking church should never have unpleasantness, or that UU’s are different from everyone else….to be disillusioned means you had illusions in the first place. Congregations are made up of people, and I have never yet met a person who is perfect. Imperfection is the very nature of human life and so it is the very nature of congregational life.

Of course when we first fall in love, with a person or a faith community, we do have illusions. We project our ideal of what we think the person or congregation should be onto what is. And so that first fight, that first disillusionment, is all the more important. It is necessary, because it allows us to get behind our dreams of perfection, to what is real. And it is only when we are real together that our shared life has any meaning. It’s only then that genuine growth and transformation can take place. It’s only then that we truly embody our theology.

And that theology, our theology, says that each of us—each of you—is worthy. Whether you are 3 or 13 or 93, and whatever your self-image, you are worthy. And so is everyone else. And we are all connected in a vast interdependent web of life, so that everything we think and say and do in this life matters. It all matters.

So this is why what we do in church is so important, and why membership is so meaningful. We are forming an intentional community that embodies the revolutionary idea that human beings can live together in love; and not only that, that we can live together with the whole community of life, in love. We might disagree sometimes, we might fight, but when we are truly committed to the health of the whole, we can work it through and be transformed by the process. We can live together in love.

May it ever be so.

Blessed be.

1Rebecca Parker in Buehrens, John and Rebecca Parker, A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the 21st Century. Boston, Beacon Press. 2011.