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John Buttars (December 15, 2013)

Unitarian Universalist Principle #7

Well, thank you once again for inviting me to reflect on these seven principles, a task that has, in fact, turned into a joy for me personally. Sadly, at least for me, it ends today.

We started exactly 23 months to the day to work our way through these principles, beginning the 15th of January 2012 to today, the 15th of December 2013. For this one I want to be upfront about my two main sources which are both deeply rooted in Christianity. The first is this book, Teilhard de Chardin The Divine Milieu Explained: A Spirituality for the 21st Century. Teilhard de Chardin was a French Roman Catholic, a Jesuit who as a scientist wrote some profoundly significant books, all of them published after his death as his superiors would not permit them to be made public while he was alive. As a paleontologist, Teilhard saw our humanness evolving by a long journey starting from the first living cells and our very lives penetrated by influences from both within and without. The author of this book is an ex-Jesuit, Louis Savary who has been to Guelph twice now at the Ignatius Jesuit Centre. My second source will come from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel, the Christian Bible. 

The seventh Principle of the Unitarian Universalist community: Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. And I want to ask, what does it matter whether you affirm that? Interdependent web of all existence: so what?

I ask you firstly, when you screw up or when you see someone else mess up, do you point your finger at the individual first of all or at the system? Louis Savary uses a nursing situation as a test case. Suppose a hospital patient receives the wrong medication, a medical horror story at times. He argues that a systems person would not jump on the individual first of all but look at the design of the process. Yes, some person may have turned the wrong dial or pushed the wrong button or misread the instructions but a systems analysis would want to look at the procedures so that in the future this can’t happen again or at least the chance of it happening much reduced. “In other words, instead of focusing on what a person does or does not do, (system thinkers) focus on how people and machines can be designed to interact to perform any process in better and better ways.”

The interdependent web of all existence, this affirmation can remind us to be systems thinkers in all that we do, systems thinkers here in this congregation, in our families, in our work, in our political lives. Every human action is really an interaction and this congregation, as just one location, is an interdependent web. It matters that you are here this morning and it would matter if you weren’t here this morning for we each bring our own personal web of energy into this space. For years we held a longest night service at Harcourt Church, a service for those who just found Christmas hard or who were expecting to find Christmas hard because this was a first Christmas after a death, a divorce, a loss of a job, whatever. One year, one man walked in with a hugely heavy cloud hanging above his head. His body posture, his sighs were incredible for which he was totally responsible. Systems thinking does not deny personal responsibility but what was interesting for the community gathered that December night was that people who came in better space left carrying his burden, even though they had no idea what his burden was, and he left in better space, almost as if there had been an exchange of energy in the room. And as systems thinkers we were as the leaders invited not first of all to blame ourselves for how things had unfolded but to do some thinking about how, in the next Longest Night Service, we might encourage greater transparency so that people would be encouraged to share with each other in words, not just in unexplained psychic energy, what they were bringing to the circle.

So we are reminded to be systems thinkers and secondly, the interdependent web of all existence can remind us of the utter wonder of our humanity and the utter wonder of life and existence. Consider your hand – the story of our planet’s evolution.

In its first stages, the planet Earth was a fiery molten ball of metals and gasses. Some of those same metals and gasses are essential to the bones and blood in your hand – iron, copper, zinc, etc.

When, eons later, Earth cooled and formed its crust, many of the common minerals were formed. They are in your hand too – calcium for one.

Then Earth formed a protective atmosphere and oxygen in the air is in the blood of your hand, blood that carries oxygen to cells and removes carbon dioxide that you don’t need but which plants and trees need. Thus every action of one breath is actually an interaction with the world about, oxygen in and carbon dioxide out. And every time you exhale, scientists suggest that you exhale as many as 10/23 particles from your body, that is 10 with 22 more zeroes. So every action of breathing in, breathing out is an interaction with our environment. And, of course, we are breathing in the air that has been in each others’ lungs.

Earth gave birth to microscopic life forms and your hand is filled with such microscopic life forms – germs, viruses, microbes, on your skin’s surface and inside your hand.

Earth gave birth to thought and whenever your mind wants to express some thought or feeling you can use your hands -- type on the computer, cook a meal, shake someone’s hand, give an affectionate hug, slug someone in a fight, pull a trigger.

Earth gave birth to spirituality and your hand expresses the feelings of your spirit when you bless them or hold a person’s face to kiss them.

Louis Savary writes, “The entire history of the planet Earth is played out every day in your hand. Teilhard does not want you to take your wonderful hand for granted. Earth has worked its process for almost four billion years of evolution to create that hand of yours. It reveals and retells its whole story in your hand. Treasure that story as you treasure your hand.”

So the interdependent web of all existence can remind us to be systems thinkers and secondly, to cherish the utter wonder of our humanity, our existence on planet Earth and the – what is it? – the incredible13 or 14 billion year history that precedes us and thirdly, our inner life is inextricably connected to our outer life. According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5: 21-22). Now I know we squirm with the judgment in these lines, United Church people certainly but I have a feeling Unitarians even more, but consider this quote: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” Nelson Mandela, 1990: And let’s be clear that if Nelson Mandela had taken that bitterness and hatred with him out of that prison there would have been judgment, very likely civil war in South Africa. There would have been no Truth and Reconciliation Commission but there would have been blood in the streets, retaliation for every big and little injustice that whites had committed and, as well, every big and little injustice that blacks and coloureds had committed against each other. Just look at Syria. There is an interdependent web connecting what is within us, our attitudes, our feelings, our thoughts, our memories, with what we do externally through our hands and our voices and the whole of our bodies. As former hospital chaplain in the KW area, Ken Beal, used to say, “The body doesn’t lie!”

I am going to stop here. I have named three ways that the interconnected web of life affects us: Systems thinking; the utter wonder of our human existence and the billions of years of history that have led up to now and which is incarnated in our very bodies; our inner life profoundly influencing our outer life and vice versa. Maybe you have other ways in which the affirmation of the interconnected web of all existence impacts on your life and I hope you will ponder them, discuss them with each other or around the circle after the sharing time with some beverage in our hand in the other room.

Thank you!

[1] Louis M. Savary, Teilhard de Chardin The Divine Milieu Explained: A Spirituality for the 21st Century, Paulist Press, 2007, pg. 67.

[1] Savary, pp 71-72.

[1] Savary, pg. 68.

[1] Savary, pg. 72.

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