"...of Which We Are a Part"

Submitted by Ben on Sun, 10/31/2004 - 16:08

Presented by Ben Stallings at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bartlesville, Oklahoma, October 31, 2004

This church service is offered online in the hopes that you may find it useful. If you perform or reprint it, please let me know. Hymn and reading numbers are from Singing the Living Tradition. Rather than reprint these documents here, I have linked to other sites that quote and discuss them.

FYI, The congregation was already aware that I was nearly three months into a year-long bicycle trip around the country, so I didn't spell that out in the sermon, but it may help to know that before reading what I had to say!

Order of Service

* rise as able



Opening Words - J.R.R. Tolkien, from The Fellowship of the Ring

text and commentary

* Call to Service - #381


* Covenant Affirmation


* Opening hymn - #123, "Spirit of Life"


Responsive reading - #576, "A Litany of Restoration"


Sharing of Joys and Concerns


Children's Story

Note: the following is a paraphrase of what I ad-libbed for the children.

Today is Halloween, so I have a scary story for you! The poem we started with this morning is from a book called The Lord of the Rings, which was so long it was made into three movies, and so scary I bet none of you have seen it. But I think I can tell you a short version of the story without scaring you too much.

Once upon a time, in a land called Middle Earth, there was a hobbit named Frodo. A hobbit is like a person, but smaller, so that even though Frodo was as old as your parents, he was about your size. Frodo lived in a village called the Shire, and everything there was just the way he liked it: he didn't want anything to change.

But one day, Frodo's uncle gave him a gift. It was a magic ring! If you put the ring on, you would turn invisible, and you could play tricks on people. Frodo's uncle thought it was just a toy, but when Frodo's friend Gandalf the wizard saw it, he said, "This is no toy! This is a powerful weapon. It belongs to the evil lord Sauron!" Sauron had been killed thousands of years before, but his ghost was still around, and if the ghost ever got his hands on the ring, Sauron would return to life and enslave all of Middle Earth!

Gandalf told Frodo that he must travel all the way across Middle Earth and throw the ring into a volcano, to destroy it, so that Sauron would never get it back. What do you think Frodo said to that? Did he say, "Forget it! Sauron can have his stupid ring! I'm staying right here!"? No, because if he stayed, Sauron would come looking for the ring and destroy the Shire. The only way for Frodo to save the home he loved was to leave it.

Pretty soon, Frodo met up with other people who wanted to help him. There was Boromir, a Human, whose country was already being threatened by Sauron's followers. Did he stay home with his friends and family? No! he joined Frodo to destroy the ring. There was Gimli, a Dwarf, whose people lived deep under a mountain and were not in danger... yet. Gimli knew that if Sauron got the ring back, not even the Dwarfs would be safe, so he joined Frodo to destroy the ring. And there was Legolas, an Elf. The Elves were tired of fighting for Middle Earth and were going to leave it so they could live forever. Legolas could have gone with them and been safe, but he stayed to help Frodo destroy the ring!

Sometimes we wish everything could stay the same in our lives, but nothing ever stays the same for long. The question is, will we stay home and let our world slip out from under us, or will we work together to fix the problem?

I don't have time to tell the whole story, but Frodo did reach the volcano, and he destroyed the ring, and Sauron was defeated. A lot of people died, but not as many as if Sauron had gotten his ring back.

One last thing: when Gimli and Legolas met each other, they didn't like each other at all. Elves and Dwarfs had never been friends, because Dwarfs lived far underground and Elves lived way up high in the trees and mountains. But Gimli and Legolas traveled together and fought side by side, and soon they were good friends. So remember that when you see ghosts and goblins and monsters tonight: under their costumes, they might just be your friends!

Children's Recessional - #413

"Go Now in Peace"



Offertory - "Blue Boat Home" by Peter Mayer


Meditation - Daniel Quinn, "What Does 'Saving the World' Mean?" from Beyond Civilization


Sermon - "...Of Which We Are a Part"

Ben Stallings, guest speaker

When I was invited to speak here today, I was supposed to present a sermon I gave three months ago in Minneapolis. That sermon was called "saving the world," and in it I tried to prove that the story of the impending end of the world that we're hearing from environmentalists is not all that different from the Biblical Book of Revelation. What's more, the change in attitude necessary to save the world from environmental destruction is not all that different from what Christianity asks of us. So if environmentalists and fundamentalists can agree on both the problem and the solution, we should be well on our way to saving the world, right?

Well, I'm not giving that sermon today. Today I'd like to spend some time with the other end of the story, the Garden where everything is in harmony, or at least in a sustainable equilibrium state.

The Biblical creation story is an important myth in our culture, but I wouldn't be the first to say that it separates us from the world around us. It tells us that creation happened before we got here, when in fact creation is an ongoing process, and we're part of it.

I recommend a book called The Universe Story and a Web site called The Great Story, both of which aim to tell the story of creation -- as we know it through science -- as a myth, complete with characters and drama.

But though it's all well and good to learn that we're all made of starstuff from supernovas billions of years before the sun was born, it doesn't seem very relevant to everyday life, because supernovas are not part of our daily experience. I think the story gets compelling when living creatures appear on the scene.

When I was in high school, here in Bartlesville, and I tried to explain Unitarian Universalism to my friends, I usually left off the last part of the seventh principle: "We affirm and promote the interdependent web of all existence... of which we are a part." Well, of course we're a part of all existence -- where else would we be?

It's taken me years to understand that this phrase means that there's more than one interdependent web. The sun and planets hang in gravitational balance with each other, yet even at our most destructive we humans could have no measurable effect on the orbit of Jupiter, let alone the rest of the Universe. Nor could we affect the Earth's core, which will go right on spinning for billions of years regardless of what we do.

No, the interdependent web of which we are a part consists of five layers on the outside of the Earth, which taken all together are proportionately as thick as the skin of an apple. First is the lithosphere, the solid crust of the earth. Then there's the hydrosphere, all the water that sits on and in the crust, and the atmosphere. All the living creatures of Earth make up the biosphere, and all its consciousness constitutes the noosphere or mindsphere.

If we're feeling poetic, we can call these the bones, blood, breath, pulse, and thoughts of Gaia.

Now, with apologies to Jesus and Krishna, here's a higher power I can relate to: Gaia has a skeletal system I can walk on, a circulatory system I can drink, a respiratory system I can breathe, a living pulse I can feel and interact with, and thoughts that I can share. Hers is the Spirit of Life that blows in the wind, rises in the sea, and moves in our hands.

Unlike the omnipotent, omnipresent God of the Universe, whom I could never imagine needing our praise or thanks, Gaia is very sensitive to the way we treat her. Although she existed long before us and is almost certain to outlast us, her character changes each time we dig a quarry, bulldoze a forest, or drive a species to extinction.

For example, here's a myth from the book of Geology that sounds like one from the book of Genesis:

Long, long ago, the Earth was a garden. There was just enough food for the creatures who lived here, and there were just enough creatures to consume the food. Then, one day, one species discovered a way to tap into a powerful source of energy -- which had been there all along -- and use it to make unlimited quantities of food. This new technology made the species flourish, but it also released pollution into the air -- a chemical that was toxic to all life on Earth!

At first, the oceans were able to absorb and neutralize the pollution, keeping it from building up in either the air or water. But at last the oceans could hold no more, and the toxic chemical began to fill the air and the sea. Wherever it went, life caught fire, creatures literally burned up from the inside. Entire species began to die. It was the biggest crisis that had ever faced life on Earth in all the billion years of its history.

The garden was destroyed... and all because of this new technology, photosynthesis, and its toxic byproduct, oxygen.

Fortunately we know how the story ends. Just in the nick of time, a new species evolved that could use oxygen to release even more energy. These new aerobic bacteria eventually became the mitochondria that live inside each of our cells today. The concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere stabilized -- some of it becoming the ozone layer that allowed life to venture onto land -- and some of the old anaerobic bacteria even survived, living today wherever deadly oxygen can't be found.

Of course there were other gardens, later... for example, when homo sapiens appeared on the scene, there were more species on Earth than ever before in history. We too have tapped into new sources of energy to increase our food supply and released new chemicals that are deadly to all life. But the lesson of the Oxygen Crisis is that the end of one era is the beginning of the next. If oxygen hadn't built up in the atmosphere, killing all those thousands of species, life as we know it would never have been possible. And whatever survives us here on Earth will live not in spite of the environment we've created, but because of it, We are creating the starting conditions for the next era of life on Earth, a new interdependent web which we will make possible, but of which we will no longer be a part.

So as the meditation reading pointed out, the challenge we face is not to save the world per se, nor even to preserve life on earth, but to preserve the interdependent web of which we are a part.

Having narrowed this definition, I'm now ready to expand it again. I've spent most of my adult life doing community organizing, both in my day jobs and in my volunteer work at church and in my neighborhood. When I started talking about taking off and traveling for a year, none of my friends and coworkers questioned my apparent change of heart, but my own conscience asked, how could I just pull up my roots and hit the road, after all the time and energy I'd invested in building community in Minneapolis?

The best answer I can give is that I'm not turning my back on my community, I'm broadening the definition of my community. Other species are part of my community, because many of them were here first, and because my friends and neighbors can't live without them. So are other ecosystems besides the Great Plains, and the very living systems of Gaia. And other regions of the country are part of my political community, as evidenced by our voting in the same election on Tuesday. So I felt that in fact I would be turning my back on my community if I didn't go visit the coyotes, the bayous, and the Georgians at least once.

When I think back on all the things we say about communities and why they're desirable and wholesome, I can't help thinking it's all true of the environment as well, and many of the techniques we use to build healthy communities for people could be profitably applied to building healthy ecosystems. We've ignored our neighbors for too long.

Now, I'm aware that few people have the opportunity to do what I'm doing and take the time to go live with the raccoons and the floodplains and the snowbirds. But there must be lots of other ways for people to get back in touch with the web that surrounds them. And it turns out, there are.

As I bicycle around the country, I've made a point of visiting "ecovillages," communities where people are attempting to live sustainably with their environment. Many of these ecovillages are making encouraging progress, but what's striking is that each one is very different from every other one, not only in the technologies they've implemented but in the outlook and attitude of the people who live there.

Unfortunately, this difference often means that, like the rest of us, the residents of one ecovillage can foster negative opinions of the residents of the ecovillage next door. Even though they share the same goals and have everything to gain from working together, any little point of disagreement can shut down communication and cooperation.

Meanwhile, I hear that some folks in Minneapolis are standing on streetcorners offering "free, non-partisan hugs" to passersby! Who is doing more good, during this contentious election season? I'm not sure I can say.

We all know that the election on Tuesday is one of the most important in history. But regardless of how the dust settles, this will still be our country, our state, and our city. We can't just turn our backs and move away, because we're all part of the same interdependent web.

Regardless of how the war in Iraq develops, the Middle East will still be part of the world we must save, and the United States will still be part of the world that Al Qaida must save, and the sooner we start looking for common ground the better, because we're all trying to live here.

"Now far ahead the road has gone, and I must follow if I can, until it joins some larger way where many paths and errands meet, and whither then, I cannot say." I like to think that the "larger way" where our paths meet is the point when we realize we are part of something greater, that we are interconnected. It's not an ending point but a decision point: we have to choose "whither then."

People ask me how I can travel alone, but I don't see it that way. My solitary path across the country is interwoven with the paths of hundreds of thousands of other people, not to mention other creatures. Since most of those interactions have been positive, we are weaving a fabric that holds us together. If I were traveling around the country robbing convenience stores, I'd be cutting that fabric apart instead.

We are all weaving the interdependent web all the time: every time we interact we either strengthen or loosen a bond. The challenge is to recognize and realize the great work we're doing rather than focusing on just our individual strands.

"If, recognizing the interdependence of all life, we strive to build community, the strength we gather will be our salvation." If you are older and I am younger, it will not matter. If you are progressive and I am conservative, it will not matter. If you are a dwarf and I am an elf, it will not matter. If you are human and I am coyote, it will not matter.

May it be so!

* Closing hymn - #207, "Earth was Given as a Garden"


Extinguishing the Chalice

Spirit of life, come unto each one of us. Blow in the wind, rise in the sea, move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice. Amen.