Recently I preached about what Isaac might have said, if his voice had been part of the story of Abraham’s sacrifice. As we approach Easter Sunday, which, of course, focuses so much on Jesus’ voice and story, here is my imagining of how Simon of Cyrene (the bystander who helped Jesus carry the cross on his way to be crucified) might have described his experience on Good Friday.
You may have heard of a man named Jesus who lived almost two thousand years ago. He taught people to love each other and to, and he also said that he was the Son of God. I had heard of him, too, but at that time we only knew that he traveled around the countryside teaching, and that he had a large following. The leaders in Jerusalem thought that his message was very dangerous.
Early in the morning of the day that I arrived in Jerusalem for the holy feast of Passover, there were crowds and shouting, and many Roman guards in the square. I was in a huge and crushing throng of people, pushing and shoving, shouting and waving their fists. There were three criminals being led up the hill to be executed by crucifixion, which was the way they did things in those days—and this man Jesus was one of them. The Roman guards were impatient with him, because he kept stumbling—dropping the huge wooden cross he was carrying. Suddenly, they yelled into the crowd—and pointed right at me—perhaps because I was not from Jerusalem—I looked different than the other folks who were there—they called to me, and made me help Jesus.
I felt awful. I had stumbled upon the crowd—and the taunting and yelling made me uncomfortable in the first place—and now I was being forced to participate in it. There was something about this man named Jesus, though, an energy that radiated from him—a peace that made me feel lighter somehow, even as I trudged up the hill next to him. I still can’t quite find words to explain it. As soon as we reached the top of the hill, I left as quickly as I could—I did not want to participate any further in this violent act—especially during the most holy week of Passover.
I know that Jesus died later that day, and so did the two thieves, but I tried very hard to put the day’s events out of my mind. Sometimes it is just too difficult to think about how much violence and hurt there is in the world. A few days later, as I was leaving the city, I began to hear rumors about Jesus. They said he had been buried in a tomb—a cave outside the city—and a huge stone had been rolled in front of the opening to the tomb. They said that three days after he died, his body was no longer in the tomb—he had disappeared.
It took me a long time to understand what the events of that day meant to me, and even now, it is hard to find words to describe them. I know that Jesus was a great teacher. I know that I can never be sure of what happened in the cave when Jesus disappeared. I know that his followers stayed together and carried on his teachings. Some said it was a miracle—that he came back to life because he truly was God’s son, others said his friends had taken him and buried him somewhere else. There were so many stories, and these things like God and miracles and faith and justice can be confusing to think about. But I kept remembering how I had felt as I walked next to him, and I realized that it didn’t matter exactly what was true about the story—what mattered was that I might have helped a fellow human being as he walked a difficult path.
From the Fourth National Climate Assessment, US Global Change Research Program:
“Humanity’s effect on the Earth system, through the large-scale combustion of fossil fuels and widespread deforestation and the resulting release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, as well as through emissions of other greenhouse gases . . . is unprecedented. There is significant potential for humanity’s effort on the planet to result in unanticipated surprises and a broad consensus that the further and faster the Earth system is pushed toward warning, the greater risk of surprises. . . .
“The probability of such surprises – some of which may be abrupt and/or irreversible – increases at eh influence of human activities on the climate system increases.”
From Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
We are nature, long have we been absent, but now we return.
We become plants, trunks, foliage, roots, bark,
We are bedded to the ground in the openings side by side
We browse, we are two among the wild herds,
We are two fishes swimming
We are what locust blossoms are, we drop scents around lanes mornings and evenings
We prowl fang’d and four-footed in the woods
We are clouds driving overhead
We are seas mingling
We are what the atmosphere is, transparent, receptive
We are snow, rain, cold, darkness
We have circled and circled
till we have arrived home, again.
It was an early summer afternoon a year ago when my wife, Debbie, and I were touring the historic district of Charleston, South Carolina. I had seen dark clouds on the horizon, so I made sure to pack an umbrella for our walk.
Sure enough, on leaving some music venue we were greeted by an intense rain shower. We waited for a while, hoping the storm would let up, but, if anything, it intensified. We needed to get back to the apartment we had rented. So, we just decided to hoof it and hope we didn’t get too wet.
After walking a few blocks, though, we were startled by what we found. Reaching Market Street, a central east-west street that marked the site of a historic slave market, we found not pavement, but a river. This is no exaggeration. The murky brown water was moving fast and had climbed over the curb onto the sidewalk.
We watched as some daring folks tried wading across, walking in water that was knee-deep, and deeper in places. As the rain began to let up, we decided to chance it, and slowly slogged across. In a bedraggled state, we eventually made it back to the apartment.
Now, sudden rainstorms are nothing new for Charleston. But what we experienced was something that is. Sea levels in the area have risen so high that street sewers that empty into the river get quickly overwhelmed in a strong rain, and the water has no place to go other than the streets.
These events are now common, and storm surges from hurricanes like Irma last fall regularly flood almost the entire district. Charleston, together with other low-lying cities like Miami and New Orleans, are ground zero for a great storm that’s rising: a storm that promises not just wet feet for tourists but the transformation of our country, of the world.
It is pointless now to argue about the truth of climate change. It is an established fact, as is the role that we humans have played, are playing to bring it about. The question before us now, the ethical demand, is how we, the inheritors of this legacy, will turn this juggernaut that has enriched us in so many ways and yet also threatens our very existence.
As you heard James read from the Fourth National Climate Assessment, published last fall, the urgency for action comes as much from what we don’t know as what we do. First, though, a few details.
The way that we humans are altering the climate, through the burning of fossil fuels and development that strips forests and other landscapes, the report says, “is unprecedented.” The result is that we are living in the warmest period in the history of modern civilization. Sixteen of the warmest years on record were the last 17 years.
But it’s not just average high temperatures that are the trouble. There are more extremes of temperature and precipitation – more heat waves and violent storms – that are playing havoc with agriculture, and damaging homes, cities, landscapes and infrastructure – things like the fire – flood cycle in California.
Also, the effects of warming vary dramatically. In the last 50 years, for example, average air temperatures in Alaska and the Arctic have risen twice as fast as average global temperatures. One result is that Arctic ice is melting at a rapid rate, having thinned by 4 to 7 feet since the 1980s and is melting at least 15 more days per year. It also results in the melting of permafrost, which adds heat-trapping methane to the atmosphere. Even more, it is disrupting massive weather patterns, such as the path of the jet stream and El Nino events.
And, since most of the excess heat we create – 93% of it – is absorbed in the oceans, it warms the water. That’s a problem because warming water expands, creating a 5- to 10-fold increase in coastal flooding since 1960. Warmer water also absorbs increasing amounts of CO2, making the ocean more acidic. That, in turn, endangers shellfish and other sea life.
All of this is so new, the scientists tell us, we’re not entirely sure what it’s effects will be. But there is, they say, “significant potential” that “unanticipated surprises” await us, and that, likely, “the further and faster” that we are pushed toward warming, “the greater the risk of surprises.”
What kind of surprises? Among the possibilities, the report says, are “shifts in the Earth’s climate system.” This could mean such worries as collapse of polar ice sheets, changes in ocean currents, widespread heat, drought and wildfires. None of these changes are academic. They would result in inundated coastal cities, massive extinction of species, agricultural collapse and, with it, starvation, epidemic illness, and, likely, war. Yeah, pretty darn gloomy stuff!
The problem is that we humans are not especially adept at responding to hazards that loom in the distance. We like our emergencies smack in the face, up close and personal, where we can save the day with heroic action.
The problem is that factors driving climate change take many years to build up. What scientists are telling us is that waiting until the worst effects are upon us will make it too late for our responses to have much impact. Instead of reducing the impacts of climate change, we will be left merely to respond to them, and meanwhile, endure the enormous losses they bring.
Oddly, to remedy this, what they are asking for is something a little bit like faith. They are asking that policy makers and ordinary folks like us take the risk of trusting in the discipline of science that has brought humankind such bounty and act now to heed its warnings.
But we can’t expect that will be easy. It will require discomfort, sacrifice, and loss. Dialing back the fossil fuel economy and scaling back our heedless pace of development zero in on the engines of wealth of our time. And both those in charge and those who depend on those engines for their livelihoods will be loath to change. However earnest our pleas, however artful our science, we face a tough time turning the battleship of commerce.
But there is also a spark of hope: Many creative people are at work on technologies, spawning businesses and organizing communities in ways that help us live better in tune with the Earth’s living systems. We just need to be prepared for when the hard push-back comes. The current administration in Washington gives us a good picture of what that looks like.
Meanwhile, what is required of us, may be something like a Palm Sunday spirit: a willingness to enter challenging spaces – the marketplace of ideas, the halls of debate, heck, conversations with our neighbors – guided by our faith in a greater world and a greater love.
These are places where communicating our commitment to the web of life that embraces us, that sustains us, of which we are inescapably a part, is so important. So is our respect for human ingenuity that has helped us make sense of and make a home on Earth – in other words, science.
Think your words will make no difference? Don’t bet on it. Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist who is married to an evangelical minister and spoke recently in Asheville, was asked recently what was the most important action that people concerned about climate change could take. She said: talk about it. Most people don’t, she added. Maybe you don’t want to pick a fight or start an argument. But, she said, “there are lots of positive ways to connect with people on things they already care about and why it matters to us and what we can do about it.”
It’s hard to overstate the importance of this work. For what’s at stake truly is our salvation and the salvation of the Earth as we know it. None of this work is new to us as Unitarian Universalists. Respect for the natural world has been central to us for centuries.
One example who my colleague Susan Ritchie points to is the work of UU theologian Bernard Loomer. Loomer argued that interdependence is the condition of all life. And this interdependence, he said, is what gives rise to love. Love is sparked when we see how we are connected to another, and it grows as we see the unfolding interconnection of all things.
In time, we see that all of the ways that we have sought to insulate ourselves from the Web of life, to proclaim our uniqueness over and above it, have only done us damage.
With Walt Whitman, “we are nature”: joined with flowers and roots and foliage, with wild herds, fishes swimming, seas mingling, with snow and rain, with deserts and ice, with forests and plains. We have circled and circled till we have arrived home. And having arrived we are called to act. We are called to truly know the world and ourselves.
It is something, as Mary Oliver suggests, that we know we need. Little by little, she says, we let go of our fears, our misgivings. And we hear a new voice that we recognize as our own, one that keeps us company as we stride deeper and deeper into the world determined to do the only thing we can do determined to save the only life, the only world that we can save.
We want to try something new and awesome in our summer RE classes this year. But we need help.
As I write this, the snow is coming down outside as it has been all day, so it’s not unnatural to be daydreaming about summer breezes, drifting down a river, campfires, and fresh herbs and veggies from the garden. One of my other favorite things about the season is Summer Religious Education. First off, RE staff gets to sleep in a little later so that’s nice. We also have a lot more unstructured play time on the playground. There is definitely a more relaxed feel. We might spend time talking about what everyone is up to all summer. Among vacations, camp at The Mountain, sports camps, music camps, and day camps, our kids sure have a lot going on.
You may have noticed some changes to our outdoor spaces lately, including most recently, our new raised-bed garden planters! Jodi Clere has done a wonderful job coordinating and implementing much of this work and has taken the burden of worrying about where to go next with the playground off the shoulders of RE staff. Our kids love spending time outdoors and they especially love our playground. I’m betting they’ll be pretty delighted with the new garden, as it’s a much better and more friendly set up than our past two years of container gardening in an old sandbox.
We’ve been doing some thinking about what our plans are for Summer RE lately and we all agree that we’d like our kids to get the chance to spend as much time outside in our new “outdoor classroom” spaces as possible. What we really need now are some dedicated folks to help us develop a plan for nature-focused religious education this summer. People with knowledge of gardening, local flora and fauna, and other environmental subjects would be great! We have some ideas and have put together some resources to cull from, but we need some nature-minded volunteers to help make it happen! If you can help make this summer dream come true, please get in touch with Jen or me and let us know you’re in!
Kim Collins, Lifespan Religious Education Coordinator
As you probably know, the UU Asheville membership and Board of Trustees reviewed the congregation‘s overall purpose and reason for being over the last year. The result of this effort was a set of updates to the Mission, Core Values, and Ends Statements.
One of the things that we as a Board wanted to reinforce and which came up organically and repeatedly was that the congregation was a living community that needs your input and energy. It is not something that can be only passively enjoyed if we want to thrive (or even ultimately survive long term).
From what I can see, this refocusing on the active aspect of engagement with each other in the congregation is making positive change. With the annual budget drive being only the latest example, there seems to be more engagement in all aspects of our congregation. We have added the Wednesday Thing, the preparations for offering sanctuary are progressing, and people are taking part in a variety of roles who have never done so before.
I acknowledge that one of the challenges of our current society is being “too busy“ all the time. There are countless tasks and superficially interesting things constantly competing for our attention. However, when we can accomplish the feat of finding purpose rather than just being busy we can experience that paradoxical magic that happens where we come out of giving more energized than when we went in.
I thank you and the congregation thanks you for everything that you have done, are doing, and will do. As it has been said:
“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Mahatma Gandhi
From “Trees: Reflections and Poems” by Herman Hesse
“For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. . . . In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity, but they do not lose themselves there. They struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a tree.”
From Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
“Plant numbers are staggering: there are eight billion trees just within the protected forests of the western United States. The ratio of trees to people in America is well over two hundred. As a rule, people live among plants but they don’t really see them. Since I’ve discovered these numbers, I can see little else.
So, humor me for a minute, and look out your window. What do you see? You probably see things that people make, like cars and buildings.
Now look again. Did you see something green? If you did, you saw one of the few things left in the world that people cannot make. . . . Perhaps you are lucky enough to see a tree. That tree was designed about three hundred million years ago. The mining of the atmosphere, the cell-laying, the wax-spackling, plumbing, and pigmentation took a few months at most, giving rise to nothing more or less perfect than a leaf. There are about as many leaves on one tree as there are hairs on your head. It’s pretty impressive
Now focus your gaze on just one leaf. People don’t know how to make a leaf, but they know how to destroy one. In the last 10 years, we’ve cut down more than 50 billion trees. One-third of the Earth’s land used to be covered in forest. Every 10 years we cut down about 1% of this total forest, never to be regrown. That represents a land area about the size of France. One France after another for decades has been wiped from the globe. That’s more than one trillion leaves that are ripped from their source of nourishment every single day. And it seems like nobody cares. But we should care. We should care for the same basic reason that we are always bound to care: because someone died who didn’t have to.”
Something’s happening? Can you feel it? You can sure see it, though it’s not always obvious. In some places it appears as just a faint haze, in others, it’s an explosion of color that knocks your socks off. But wherever you look, there’s something going on: something opening, emerging, awakening.
It’s nothing new, in fact, it’s millions of years older than our very species. And yet each year it is fresh and vital and alive. The biblical prophet Isaiah captured its spirit: “For you shall go out in joy and be led back in peace; The mountains, the hills before you shall burst into song
And all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”
It is our way as humans to interpret the world through our own organs and appendages. So, it’s no surprise that we feel we must metaphorically append hands to the branches of trees to imagine how they might express joy. But at this time of year, it’s plain to see that they have no need of them. Take a look at the branch tips of the tree of your choice and watch how living tissue in the form of flowers or leaves emerges extravagantly from their tough winter cover. And tell me that isn’t something very much like joy.
The rising of the sap! It’s a capacity that I must admit I almost envy: Imagine looking forward to this moment each year when your being is suffused with new energy arising from your very rootedness in life. How would that feel? Would you not also seek out that capacity within to put forth new life, new hope, new being?
As Hope Jahren puts it, we all live among plants but many of us don’t really see them. They are ornaments to our living space or a source of raw materials for our many projects. But there are times of year – emergent spring being one – when they are in our faces demanding attention. So, let us take advantage of this moment to let go of our focus on the human for a bit and turn our thoughts, our senses, our respect to one group of our fellow beings: the trees.
Living in Asheville we are blessed with such awesome beauty and variety when it comes to trees. And even this, we know, is but a shadow of what we once had: before lumber workers cleared our forests, denuding mountainsides, losing many layers of topsoil, before pests that we humans introduced extirpated towering chestnut groves, and even now are infecting elm, hemlock, beech. And still, trees return, finding niches amid the crags to sink their roots and seek out the sun.
Many of us find our fascination sparked by favorite trees. I can think of a few: the larch planted by our porch with its soft green needles that flame bronze before cascading to the ground in autumn; the Russian elm towering some 70 feet over our yard, home to families of woodpeckers, and especially in spring the cherry outside the window of my home office that someday soon will erupt into pinkish white blossoms.
Yet, our fascination with individuals can mean that we literally fail to see the forest for the trees. David George Haskell, an acclaimed botanist at the University of the South in Tennessee, spent time tracking trees in locations around the world, and he found a common theme at each location.
Virginia Woolf, he said, had it right when she wrote that real life is the common life, not the “little separate lives which we live as individuals.” For trees, this means their survival depends on relationship – with other trees that they communicate with through roots but even more important a whole ecosystem of fungi, bacteria, insects and more.
Electrical and chemical signals are generated that nourish and protect roots as they grow, that discourage diseases and diffuse sunlight on leaves. It isn’t a stretch, Haskell says, to say forests “think,” so complex are the many connections among the organisms that contribute to the health of the whole.
Peter Wohlleben, a German forester, pushes the metaphor even further, speaking of the “hidden life of trees.” Trees, he argues, are fundamentally “social beings.” They have been shown to communicate in ways that we arguably could call scent, taste, and sound.
Beeches, spruce, and oak, he says, register pain when a caterpillar munches their leaves, then emit a compound that makes the leaves distasteful. Elms and pines can defect the saliva of harmful insects, then emit pheromones that attract other insects that devour the pest.
The salicylic acid in willows, precursor of aspirin, works the same way to discourage insect attackers.
Wohlleben describes what others have called a “wood-wide web” of roots and fungus filaments that links trees via electrical signals that while pokey compared to computers – moving only about one-third an inch per second – is incredibly dense, with one teaspoon of forest soil containing many miles of filaments.
What all these connections help accomplish are ways for trees to take care of each other. The rugged individualist ethic that echoes among humans has no place among plants.
For trees, it begins in their relationship to fungi. The threads of fungi that nourish the tree are in intimate partnership with it. They actually grow into the soft root hairs, creating a partnership that neither can leave.
This is how the tree connects with the web of life that sustains it and how the fungus finds a source of food. That network assures that the tree will endure, even if it is damaged or invaded by pests because the web can direct nutrients from other trees to help the weaker tree survive.
We, too, get drawn into this web, though in ways that are a little less obvious. Forests are huge shapers of our weather and climate. Simply by their presence trees shape landscapes. As Wohlleben tells it, for every square yard of forest there are 27 square yards of leaves or needles of trees, and all of that greenery captures a lot of rainfall. Some of it is absorbed by leaves, some filters down to roots, and some is evaporated back into the air. All those processes keep much of the water in the forest, rather than running off the land.
And the tons water vapor that results – whether evaporated from the surface of leaves or transpired from the trees themselves – create clouds that release rain in neighboring areas. So, clearcutting forests not only disturbs the immediate area, it also changes weather patterns, leaving widespread areas much drier and subject to wide temperature swings. There are other benefits, too. Cities plant trees for more than just aesthetic pleasure. Trees draw out soot and other pollutants from the air. Living in well-planted neighborhoods we find that we can breathe easier than in treeless ones.
More importantly, forests are also among the most efficient collectors of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Over the course of its life, the average tree collects about 22 tons of carbon dioxide in its trunks, branches, and roots. Some of it returns to the air when the tree dies, but most is locked up in in the ecosystem, as creatures munch it into smaller and smaller pieces that filter down into the soil, forming humus, and, if it is left alone long enough, coal.
Today, though, Wohlleben says, very little coal is being formed. With the rapid clearing of forests, fallen trees don’t get to rot, and disturbed humus is heated up and consumed, sending more carbon dioxide into the air. The filling of swamps closes off another carbon sink.
As beneficial as trees are, you’d think we’d do more to protect them. Sadly, the trajectory is not good. David Haskell took a look at data from the Landsat satellite, which has been tracking the Earths vegetation and terrain. He found that the area of land covered by forests is plunging. From 2000 to 2012, he said, 2.3 million square kilometers of forest were lost and only 800,000 regrow.
In the Boreal area – the Northern temperate forests where we live – losses outstripped gains by more than 2 to 1. These regions are also warming faster than elsewhere and experiencing more frequent fires. All this turns these forests from one of the most important carbon sinks – where carbon is absorbed and stored – to carbon sources that add carbon to the atmosphere. Warming also stresses trees by disrupting their leafing patterns, and milder weather allows pests to thrive.
Here’s where we humans might reenter the story: What are we to make of all this? What does it call for from us? It’s plain that global trends on which we have some influence are radically influencing what is happening to life on Earth. Changing conditions, of course, are nothing new. Earth’s climate and the distribution of life have evolved in many ways over time. And Darwin’s theories tell us that life will respond: some things will prosper, others will disappear depending on how well adapted they are to new conditions.
One response to all this might be: so be it! We’ll just see how it comes out. We’ll lose the hemlocks, but maybe the maples will come on. And what if one of the species on the chopping block is us? Rising sea levels, advancing deserts, resistant superbugs. Any number of trends could spell big trouble.
No, we need to find a better approach. David Haskell suggests we explore an ethic he calls “unselfing.” Essentially, it means centering our concern not in our individual interest but in the context of relationship. It’s an approach that, he says, “breaks the barrier between humans and the rest of life’s community.” And, Haskell argues, it rests in an appreciation of beauty.
Beauty, he says, is not something ephemeral. Consider that mathematicians use beauty as a guide. The best equations are those that are simple and elegant, and that points to beauty as a guidepost for truth. It is not a quality we impose on something; it is something that is inherent to it.
And it’s something, Haskell says, that scientists recognize, too. “Someone who listens to a prairie, a city, a forest for decades can tell when the place loses its coherence, its rhythms. Through sustained attention, beauty and ugliness, in their intermingled complexity, become heard.” So, he argues, “if some form of objective moral truth about life’s ecology exists and transcends our nervous chatter, it is located within the relationships that constitute the network of life.”
Once we attend to relationship – the relationship among different beings, between them and us, our thinking becomes “unselfed,” our gaze focused no longer inward but outward. And it leads to an ethic of belonging, a sense that we are part of a larger reality, which is the true context of our lives.
This is the spirit that calls people like Emerson to declare: “Nature never wears a mean appearance. Neither does the wisest person extort its secret or lose curiosity by finding out all its perfection.” Beauty speaks to us; it calls to us.
So, as David Haskell puts it, “We unself into birds, trees, parasitic worms, and sooner or later soil: beyond species and individuals, we open up to the community from which we are made.” And what better time than spring to do so: to unself into bark and bud, into flower and root, all these fellow beings linked with us in the thin veneer of life that we occupy on this rocky planet hurtling through space.