Saturday, March 22, 2014

Reverence for Life - Bringing Our Principles to Life

Today's Guest Author:  Rev. LoraKim Joyner, DVM
Community Minister in Multispecies Ministry and Compassionate Communication
UU Metro NY District Right Relations Consultant

We are here on this earth to prey.  I don’t mean the calling of sacredness into our lives kind of praying, but preying as in the predator prey relationship. 
We are all in the club called the predator prey cycle.  It is well and alive.  It is a beautiful thing we evolved to do to take care of ourselves, which means harm to others.  I've always thought we needed another principle in our Unitarian Universalist tradition: We must harm to survive.  We were born to compete.  Albert Schweitzer called this truth, "the necessity of life," and he says it lays a burden on all of us to benefit at others expense, for every species and every being has a “will to live.” 

Yes we evolved to take advantage of others and for violence. Every culture has sexual violence, rape, which indicates that it is hardwired or at least very easily accessible in our human behavior repertoire.   Murder, killing, and tribal conflict runs deep in our social DNA.  But just because we "can" doesn't mean we "do."  Slowly over the centuries, violence as a whole recedes because cultural evolution and expectations can override biological mechanisms.  As a species we have become increasingly aware of the inherent worth and dignity of each other, and even more importantly, how to act more compassionately towards others given this growing awareness.

Part of the growing awareness includes how we understand human behavior.  We are a plastic species.  Human plasticity means we can choose how to act so we can reduce harm for we also evolved to nurture one another.  This sense of care and empathy extends not just to our own species, but others.  We evolved to collaborate in part because we need each other to survive.  Our human communities need healthy ecological communities.  We are learning that animals can't make it without humans, and vice versa.  We depend on each other.

Affirming this interdependence of all things as in our 7th principle requires wisdom and reverence.  To touch on reverence together this morning and experience the miracle of commitment that our species can rise too let me share this story.

I work in Honduras with the indigenous communities.  My goal is to help support their efforts to preserve the last 150 Scarlet Macaws left in this country that fly over their ancestral lands. There used to be thousands of them throughout the country, but no more. People want to steal the birds to make money, and so take the young chicks from their families to sell them to people with power and privilege.  There is terrible pressure from without on not just their ecological community, but also their human community. People with money and power are coming in stealing their land, and willing to kill the indigenous people to take what they want.

Tomas, and elder of the village, tried to stop the illegal poaching, logging, and cattle ranching.
For his efforts, he made enemies who ambushed him one day, and he was shot 4 times.  He nearly died. His whole village had to flee because they were likewise threatened with their lives. Yet, 4 months later he returned to the ghost like village to work with me and others on parrot conservation.  We had to hire a squad of soldiers from the Honduran military to accompany us and keep us safe.  I asked him why he was willing to risk his life. He replied, "Everything is at risk so I am willing to risk everything. If we lose the parrots, we lose our way of life."

He is not alone. This year more people have returned to his village, and the death threats have not stopped, nor has the illegal poaching.  When we shared our year's research results with them I told the leaders that if any more parrot chicks were lost, even one more year of it, I didn't know if their parrot population would  make it. So the leaders held a community meeting and decided, on their own, to mount up daily parrot patrols to protect the remaining nests. They have very little resources, and their lives are in danger, but they elected to spend their resources to protect parrots.

And they did. Though many chicks were taken from their nests, the patrols were able to confiscate the chicks and raise them in the middle of nowhere with no electricity and no training in avian husbandry, and barely enough food for themselves. Eventually sixteen of the giant, red, long tailed parrots were released and they now fly free in the wilds where the parents, grandparents, and cousins too fly free.

Every day the juvenile birds return to eat rice and beans in the village. A few years ago an armed group of 10 men came to the village and robbed it of all valuables. Well, not all.  The people are still there not giving up, and the birds are still flying free. They know if the birds can remain free, they can too. Liberating the birds is liberating themselves. Saving the birds is saving themselves.

These villagers are like us. There is no need to romanticize them. They fuss with each other, strain their relationships, and give into desires that cause harm. But what they have learned is that there is no special place of privilege on this planet. We are all in it together, and if one doesn't make it, none of us do. They aren't saints, they are just looking after themselves.

But looking after ourselves and others is not easy.  I was just in this village in September and the people and parrots are struggling. The birds aren't getting enough to eat because  the people aren't doing well.  They get sad when they hear the hungry birds calling in the tall pine trees - and anguish having to choose whether to feed themselves, or their children. How do we decide whom to feed?  Whom to nourish?  What if there is a way to nourish others, as many as possible, and nourish ourselves, as much as possible?

Writes Albert Schweitzer, author of the Reverence for Life ethic,  By having a reverence for life, we enter into a spiritual relation with the world. By practicing reverence for life we become good, deep, and alive.”

Life is good for us when we have reverence for others.

But living with reverence, even though we evolved to do so, does not mean that such a life comes automatically or easily, for there is a huge amount of cultural influence that impacts us to not see the worth and dignity of life.  Writes Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, President of Starr King School of Ministry,  We must learn again to live with reverence.  [Reverence} respects the complexity, the beauty and the magnitude of creation and does not presume to undo its intricate miracles.  Instead, it gives life reverent attention – seeking to know, understand and cooperate with life’s ways. Reverence for life has to be learned.  It is not just a feeling – it is a way of life that is manifested in more than an isolated moment of appreciation for nature or awe before its destructive as well as creative power.  Reverence involves full-fledged devotion enacted in deeds of care and responsibility.  It involves knowledge, study and attention.  Reverence is a form of love that needs to be learned and affirmed.   And this is what congregations are for:  to teach us to give reverent attention to life. The task given to us here and now is to do what we can to advance reverence for life and deepen the promise of love.”

To help us learn and advance reverence together we need a call to promises and to commitment, which can in part be accomplished by affirming that our covenant is with all life, such as in the 7th principle, but we need more.  We are called to have reverence not just for the abstract notions of communities, ecological and human, but for the individuals within.  We do this in part through our Principles as they stand now, but we can be more powerful in how we dedicate our shared lives to the beauty of this earth and all her beings. By changing the First Principle to “We covenant to promote and affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every being” we clearly state that all bodies matter and have, as Albert Schweitzer wrote, a “will to live.”  Paying attention to the well being of individuals cannot be cleaved from living with reverence. To life in such a way we do for the sake of others, and we do it for ourselves.

Albert Schweitzer tells us how. “With Reverence for Life in everything you recognize yourself again.  Reverence before the infinity of life means the removal of the strangeness, the restoration of shared experiences and of compassion and sympathy.

We are healed with a sense of belonging when we have reverence for life, and our compassion grows. One way we can grow in wisdom, reverence, and compassion is to slow down enough so that we can recognize the gifts of life.

In my work in Honduras as a wildlife veterinarian, I also encourage us all to slow down so we have time for reverence.   We take time to connect with each other and this beautiful, tragic world.

One day we were in the middle of the village, sweating, standing under tall trees where once hundreds of parrots flew, and now only a few.  I offered my favorite poem, Wild Geese by Mary Oliver, except they don't know what wild geese are, so please forgive me Mary, I substituted macaws instead.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the savanna, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the savannas, and the deep pines, the jungles and the rivers
Meanwhile the macaws, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.

Just then we heard the calls of macaws, five of them, a rare family in a time when most chicks don't make it to fly free because of poachers who take them for pets.  They flew directly over head with their deep cries as I finished.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild macaws, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

We wept - those of us of so many nations and ethnicities. For the birds had told us we belong, and in that knowing, we committed ourselves once again to the life around us, in us. 
Such commitment is fueled by reverence, which is a form of love that allows humans to work under extraordinary conditions with extraordinary results. 

This is the dream of congregational life.

Dr. Schweitzer knew we could not escape harm and the necessity of life, but with reverence we can face who we are and reduce our harm while increasing benefit. 

Fueled by reverence we receive life, the greatest gift of all.
Healed by reverence, we give back the gift of life to as many as we can.
Each of us finds reverence in our own way - through birds, walks in the woods, a child at play. But whatever it is, stalk reverence relentlessly.

We are fierce predators, so let us prey/pray for reverence in our lives for the flourishing of all.

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