Arise and Face the Day (Audio Available)

Sermon by Rev. Diane Rollert, 12 April 2015
(Click Read More for access to the audio file for this sermon)

In January, before I left for the Philippines, I participated in a workshop with the environmental activist and Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy.  Since the 1970s, she has been deeply involved in developing an understanding of ecology grounded in Buddhist principles. You could say that the people who know her work well worship the ground she walks upon — but that would be the last way she would ever want to be described.  

In all honesty, I had been exposed to some of her ideas in the past, but I was far from connected to her star.  I didn’t know what to expect.  What I found was an amazingly humble soul, an ancient soul, who has such love for humanity, for this earth, and who has so much hope for us all.  She is the keeper of the flame.  Now in her 80s, she says she is starting to slow down — and if she is, she has found ways to compensate, to keep running workshops, to continue sharing her message that we can awaken and save this earth. But to get there, she says, we have to allow ourselves to connect with our gratitude, our pain, our vision for the future and our determination to move forward in a new way.

The First Question

This morning, I invite you to engage in what Joanna Macy calls the Work That Reconnects.  Warning:  I am a total novice in this work.  I really don’t have a license to operate this vehicle, and there are those in this community who have and can lead you through Joanna’s work with greater skill than me.  We will only scratch the surface this morning.  But for now, I want to ask you to think for a moment in order to complete this sentence in your mind:

    “Some things I love about being alive on Earth are…”

    “Ce que j’aime de la vie sur la Terre…”

Now that you’ve had some time to think, I invite you to pair up with someone sitting nearby. We’ll let the person on the right go first…  Tell your partner some of the things that came to mind when you thought of what you love about being alive on Earth…

[Pairs share their thoughts…]

What if we were to arise and face each day with gratitude for what we love about this planet we call home? What if we began by recognizing our own place within the greater scheme of things?  What if we could find humility and gratefully see ourselves as equal to every other creature?

The Second Question

Wake up and choose life, Joanna Macy says.  Yes, the world is unraveling around us, but a Great Turning is happening and we are here as the first generations to witness its coming.  We have technical knowledge that can defuse the ticking time bomb of global warming. But we live in a society that believes the earth is “a supply house and a sewer.”  Think about that:  A supply house and a sewer.  We imagine that we can keep taking and taking limitlessly from this planet, and dumping our refuse and garbage without a care.  That’s what our economies are built upon.  We live in the Industrial Growth Society, a life-destroying, earth-destroying choice that we make together every day.   We live in a culture of death, but we could choose life.  We could become a Life-Sustaining Society.  It’s up to us to choose the story we tell ourselves.  

One story we can tell ourselves is that we can live with business as usual.  We can assume that we’ll always recover and even profit from the temporary difficulties of economic recessions, extreme weather conditions, and the like.

Another story we can tell ourselves is that we are are living in the time of the great unraveling. Maybe it will all be over soon.  I think of the words from the song Plus Rien by the group Les Cowboys Fringants — a lament sung by the last human on earth as the planet overheats, wildlife has disappeared along with the snow, and his friends have dropped like flies from hunger and thirst.

On m'a décrit jadis, quand j'étais un enfant
Ce qu'avait l'air le monde il y a très très longtemps
Quand vivaient les parents de mon arrière grand-père
Et qu'il tombait encore de la neige en hiver

En ces temps on vivait au rythme des saisons
Et la fin des étés apportait la moisson
Une eau pure et limpide coulait dans les ruisseaux
Où venait s'abreuver chevreuils et orignaux

Mais moi je n'ai vu qu'une planète désolante
Paysages lunaires et chaleur suffocante
Et tous mes amis mourir par la soif ou la faim
Comme tombent les mouches…
Jusqu'à c'qu'il n'y ait plus rien…Plus rien… Plus rien…

[They used to tell me, when I was a child,
What the world had been like very, very long ago
When the parents of my great-grandfather were living
And the snow still fell in winter

In those days we lived with the cycle of the seasons
And the end of the summers brought the harvest
Clean and pure water flowing in the streams
Where the deer and moose came to drink

But I’ve only seen a desolate planet
Lunar landscapes and sweltering heat
And all my friends die of thirst or hunger
Falling like flies ... Until there’s nothing at all...
Nothing at all... Nothing at all…]

It’s true that we have lots of evidence that shows that things are unravelling.  It’s easy to become overwhelmed, to give up and feel hopeless, or to simply ignore what’s going on.  What else can we do?  We can fill ourselves with guilt that we aren’t doing more.  We can tell others what they should do and then throw up our hands in frustration when they don’t listen.  

But what if we told ourselves a completely different story?  What if we were to realize that we are living at the time of the Great Turning.  What if, a hundred years from now, people will look back at us and say, ”Look, the earth was on such a terrible collision course, but these brave people woke up and took action.  They made it possible for us to be here, one hundred years later.  They paved the way to systemic changes so that we could choose life over death.  They chose to live in ways that would serve the common good, rather than the individual, and one day it just came to a tipping point and everything changed.”

Business as usual, the great unravelling, or the great turning.  Here’s my second question for you.  Complete this sentence:  

“When I think of the world we will leave our children, it looks like…”

“Quand je pense au monde qu’on laissera à nos enfants, il ressemble…”

Once again, I invite you to pair up with the same person you spoke to earlier. This time, let the person on the left go first…  Tell your partner some of the things that came to mind when you thought of what you imagine the world that we will leave our children will look like.

[Pairs share their thoughts.]

What if we were to arise and face each day recognizing the pain we feel about the changes that are happening to our world?  What if we were to face the pain of our worries about what we may leave behind for our children to clean up?  

Too often, we avoid facing the pain we feel about the future of this planet.  We are afraid that facing that pain may destroy us.  We’ve lost touch with the true meaning of compassion.  In Buddhist terms, compassion means “to suffer with,” to be present to the pain of all living creatures, ourselves included.

This is the most important lesson that I learned from Joanna Macy.  Feeling pain, feeling compassion, is not the greatest danger in our lives.  The greatest threat to our future is to sink into apathy.  Apathy literally means “non-suffering.”   It means being unable or refusing to experience pain.  Yet for for us and every living organism, pain is a warning signal that demands that we respond in order to survive.  When we face the pain, we begin to see ourselves as part of the whole. If we allow ourselves to feel pain when a forest is destroyed, when the sea levels rise, or when a species is lost, we start to see ourselves as part of a whole, rather than separate from this living, breathing organism we call Earth.

So, we begin with gratitude and we allow ourselves to feel the pain of what is getting lost. When we feel the pain, we discover we are part of a whole, and then our perspective changes.  We start to see with new eyes.  We can see the world as it could be for future generations.  We let go of apathy and nihilism and we start to care about creating a life-sustaining future. That’s when the great turning, the great awakening begins — and it’s already happening.  Not as fast as we wish, but you can see the seeds being planted every day.  You can see people making changes in their own lives, pressuring their governments, marching for climate change, rethinking what we value.

The Third Question

I have a third question for you, but this time, I’m only going to ask you to think to yourselves. Close your eyes.  Imagine a person living on this earth 100 or 200 years from now.  Somehow this person in the future knows about you.  It doesn’t matter how, but they have a message from the future that they need to deliver to you.  What do they want to say to you?  Open your mind and listen.  Imagine writing a letter to yourself on behalf of this person from the future.  What would that letter say?  

If we had time this morning, I’d ask you to reflect and write that letter to yourself and then I’d invite you to share it with all of us.  But for now, I simply invite you to write that letter in your imagination.

Here’s the letter I hope I would receive from the future:

Dear Diane,

I have an image of you sitting at your computer trying to find compassion in your heart to say the right words.  I can see how much you struggled over the years as a minister.  How you wondered whether you needed to speak to the individual pain in your community, or the global pain of the world.  You were always seeking a balance, knowing that sending your people to go forth without having done the inner work yourself would have been wasted effort.  You imagined that people wanted you to be the sacrificial lamb sometimes, the one to speak out so that others could feel absolved of their inaction.  You often worried that you didn’t do enough.  Some days you lived with gratitude and hope.  Other days you lived with fear and worry.

You were grateful for the beauty that surrounded you.  I like how you chose to bring a dog back into your life so that you’d get outside to see sunrises, sunsets and moonrises over the city.  I love how you marvelled at clouds no matter where you were and how you photographed reflections on water. You loved your life, you loved people, you loved animals and everything growing and blossoming and you were grateful for the luxuries in your life and the freedom you had to fly all over the world.

You also mourned for what you knew was happening to the earth.  You knew it wasn’t some story made up by anxious scientists and insane radicals.  You knew that you benefited from the suffering of others who made your clothes in dangerous factories, who inhaled pesticides so you could eat.  You knew that you couldn’t stop the snows from melting in the North, or the oil rigs from spilling oil into the St. Laurence.  You knew your freedom to connect across the globe came at a treacherous cost. You mourned the loss of connection to the true rhythms of the earth.

Should you have focused on individual needs, responding to the personal pain of the people in your community?  Should you have focused on your own needs to be spiritually grounded?  Or should you have served the world, calling for action and taking action?  You learned, didn’t you, that neither the individual nor the world can heal without the other?

I am grateful to you for finding others who would mourn alongside you, who would feel compassion for the suffering of the earth.   You became part of the great tidal wave that turned the tide and redirected the trajectory of the planet.  200 years later, we know that you loved us enough to care about our future.  You didn’t give up and wallow in your self-pity and your ego.  You were there for us.

If I could go back in time, I would tell you that it was all worth it.

Signed with gratitude,
Your friend from the future

Amen. Blessed be.  Namaste.

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