Monday, February 20, 2012

In the Beginning (Evolution Weekend; February 19, 2012)

It matters what story you tell. In the beginning of the Hebrew scriptures there are, what most contemporary scholars think of as 2 creation stories. In the first one you will recall that God said “let there be light” and there was light. And God said that it was good. My Hebrew scripture teacher in seminary points out that this is an amazing way for the Jewish and Christian sacred texts to begin- with God calling the world into being with words. It gives power to the idea that those holy scriptures are important, that words are important, that words have the power to create and to shape. The second creation story in the bible is the one where God shapes Adam out of the dirt, forms Eve from Adam’s rib, and tells them to “fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:28 NRSV).

Now I come from a religious tradition that does not approach the scriptures as the literal word of God; I believe they are filled with poetry and symbol and metaphor. The stories found in the Judeo-Christian scriptures are ancient stories told person to person and occasionally edited and written down by different traditions of religious scholars. These stories have power because they are part of our shared meta-narrative. It doesn’t bother me that in the bible the whole of creation takes only seven days, when science currently estimates it took roughly 13.7 billion years. Here’s what does bother me -- that as a culture we have used this creation story as an excuse to fill the earth and subdue it. Creation stories have power. They tell us where we came from, and what role we have in this universe.

As a culture we have tended to separate the “science and how things work” part of our lives from the “religion and what does it all mean” part of our lives. So even someone who goes into a lab on Monday morning and works all week with hard data might still be living by a creation story that tells us that we are the pinnacle of creation, that it was all created just for us to fill and subdue. What if we didn’t leave science in the lab on Sunday, but brought it to church with us? Brought it right into the heart of the stories we tell one another to make meaning of our shared existence?

Brian Swimme, a mathematical cosmologist, and Tomas Berry a Catholic priest and cultural historian took on the daunting task of getting the story that science tells out of our laboratories and graduate level astrophysics classrooms, and into our hearts. They believe that we need a story that is compatible with the latest scientific truths that we can know by heart and tell our children when they ask at bedtime “where did we come from?” Says Swimme, “Every child should be told; you come out of the energy that gave birth to the universe. Its story is your story; its beginnings are your beginnings.” Swimme and Berry first attempted the daunting task of turning science into poetry and story in their ground breaking book the Universe Story and their work has spread. There is now a whole movement of storytellers who are telling stories about who we are and where we came from based on the science of evolution, the evolution of not only species but of the whole universe. Story tellers like Connie Barlow and Michael Dowd have dedicated their lives to telling and retelling the “great story” --the story of the universe. I propose that as UUs, as a people who believe in the power of science to shine a light on life, each of us needs to learn and tell this story. When I say “Adam and eve” a whole flood of stories and images come to our minds, everyone from the great painters of the Italian renaissance to the Simpsons. But when I say “the big bang” or “the Devonian extinction” my mind flashes back to some cramming I did late night before a science exam.

So today I want to tell you a few stories about who we are and where we came from that are rooted in science. This particular way of telling our story comes from Swimme and Berry in their “The Universe Story” and also from Starhawk in her book “The Earth Path.”

The first thing we were, was one. The beginning of our story, and indeed of all that is was the flaring forth from a singularity. As we heard in our children’s story this morning, all the energy that ever was and ever will be came into existence in an area smaller than the point of a pin, although that’s not really the right way of talking about it, since space and time were contained within that tiny singularity. The first thing that ever happened in this universe was emergence, birth, the unfolding and expanding of space. The foundational forces of our universe were a balance of expansion with the gravitational force which maintains a cohesion that allowed a balanced and sustainable unfolding.

The growing universe was in the beginning and to this day continues to be shaped by density waves which are amplifications of the subtle fundamental vibrations or aftershocks from the flaring forth. Within that first fraction of a second after that flaring forth photons were no longer able to leap into and out of being. The cooling universe entered a new level of stability as Neutrons and protons were able to bond and form lasting relationships. Clouds of all these newly formed particles and elements were shaped by the density waves and the first primal stars appear -- formed from cohesion of the first elements helium and hydrogen. When those primal stars died as supernovas releasing all those elements and energy, their death allowed second and third generation stars to come into being for the next 4 billion years. Even as the universe expanded and expanded, the gravitational force drew elements together to form galaxies and stars. Clouds of elements came together into billions of spiral galaxies, one of which what is now the Milky Way Galaxy. It was the death of the supernova Tiamat about 4.6 billion years ago that released nutrients that formed our own sun and planets, as she had, in turn, been born from the death of other stars.

4.45 billion years ago the planets of our solar system were formed from collections of granules and gasses drawn together into 10 bands around our sun. And these bands in turn were drawn together to form planets. Our own bodies are made up, just as our planet is from Carbon, Oxygen and other elements that were ejected around that dying star Tiamat as it collapsed.

As earth formed and cooled, Aries, our first living ancestor emerged in the lightning storms and turbulent chemical interactions of earth’s oceans about 4 billion years ago. Many of this first generation of living cells, prokaryotes, became extinct quite quickly, but others are the ancestors of, for example, the bacteria alive today, because they carried within them DNA, the capacity to remember and pass on the blueprint of life. A mutation in one could be passed on for generations into the future. As they mutated they helped ensure the survival of life on earth. Because as the earth became less turbulent, the heavy mineral compounds which littered our seas and atmosphere provided a feast for our first ancestors feasted were not produced as quickly as the abundant new life could consume them. But life adapted to meet this shortage. Those early single celled organisms mutated to be able to eat the waste of their cousins, and others to eat the compounds from the decaying bodies of other life forms when they died.

But even so, they were eating and reproducing at a rate faster than the earth could produce new compounds. This would have lead to a great extinction, if it were not for Promethio, an ancestor who evolved the ability to photosynthesize 3.9 million years ago, (100 million years after life appeared on earth) to capture photons from the sun and turn them into energy. Some call it the most amazing technological advance in the history of life itself and this advance was made, say Swimme and Berry “Without a brain, without eyes, without hands, without blueprints, without foresight, without reflective consciousness.” (P. 90) and they were, moreover, though their DNA, able to remember and share this technological breakthrough.
All through this time, as the earth was giving birth to the first life, those life forms were changing the earth by what they took in and what they gave off. These earliest ancestors lived in a world where the oceans were brown and the atmosphere “a brownish orange” made mostly of nitrogen and carbon dioxide and methane (2.5 billion years ago).

For example, all those volcanoes threw off great amounts of Carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and therefore beings who could transform that Carbon dioxide into their living bodies would flourish. And whereas an atmosphere rich with carbon dioxide helps the earth to maintain heat, with all those little single celled organisms turning Carbon Dioxide into life, the whole temperature of the earth declined, creating the first major ice age about 2.3 billion years ago.

The earliest cells consumed hydrogen, which had been plentiful and air, and which had sustained life for so long. Soon, however, hydrogen was over-consumed by a growing single-celled population. Some mutated into blue-green bacteria and were able to take hydrogen from the seas, sending flinging out a toxic gas into the land and sea and air, fundamentally altering the balance of our biosphere. That toxic gas was called Oxygen, which was like poison to these early beings, breaking down fragile membranes. As the oxygen content became higher and higher, at first those cells who lived in water could survive, but soon oxygen penetrated every part of our biosphere and there was a great catastrophic extinction.

But then life mutated. A Cyano-bacterium we can call Prospero drew prosperity out of catastrophe 2 billion years ago , inventing respiration; the ability to use oxygen for fuel, using it for a kind of controlled combustion, giving it many times more energy than its ancestors. Because there was so much oxygen it prospered. This helped stabilize the balance of oxygen on the planet, but even so the atmosphere approached 21% oxygen, the level at which spontaneous combustion happens.. Imagine -- the early earth had only half a percent of oxygen, and now had 21%! Like the balance between the forces of outward propulusion and gravity whose miraculous balance allows our universe to exist, a special balance of the gasses on our planet allows life as we know it to exist.

But this cycle of mass extinction and innovation continued. The Cambrian extinctions 570 million years ago saw the loss of 80-90 percent of species, yet in the aftermath of that extinction the Eukaryotic cell was born about 2 billion years ago, a cell with a nucleus, like the cells in our own bodies. Our earliest multi-celled ancestors - jelly fish, flat worms - filled the planet 2 billion years ago after the most vast glacial extinction earth has ever seen. Then life invented the shell, giving birth to life forms like trilobites, clams, and snails 550 million years ago, and vertebrates 510 million years ago. The cycle continued as 440 million years ago the Ordovician catastrophe was followed by the evolution of insects and fish with lungs. 370 million years ago the Devonian catastrophe was followed by a novel mutation where Lycopods developed wood cells, becoming the first plants who could defy gravity and stand upright on land and vertebrates came ashore in response to.

The Permian-Triasic episode [245 million years ago] was the greatest of all extinctions. It erased 75-95% of all species living on earth, especially those in the tropics. Coral reefs were wiped out in their place there was only a void for millions of years. This time the earth was very slow to repopulate, in part because that vast treasure trove of memory, the DNA of all those extinct species was gone forever. The great continent Pangea had drifted over the south pole creating a colder drier climate. In a life affirming response, the egg came into being, a less vulnerable way of reproducing evolved first in reptiles, who could migrate further inland now that they didn’t have to reproduce in water. Land animals evolved a way to retain their body heat in a cold climate) – the warm blooded reptiles that we believe were ancestors of the mammals like us to follow. As the Dinosaurs appeared these were the first era of animals to care for their young- to stay with the young after they hatched, and mammals who could nourish young outside the womb.

Placental mammals emerged in the wake of another devastation 114 million years ago [Aptian extinction] Earth grew cold. The mammals who could carry their young inside them- who could experience pregnancy and birth as mammals to day experience it, theses animals had an edge because their young started life outside the womb more developmentally advanced than the young of reptiles and dinosaurs. Many of the animals who now keep us company on this earth came into being: horses, rabbits, bats, whales, primates, lions, flowering plants and songbirds.

But then Antarctica split of from Australia, opening up a passage for currents of cold air, and the first ice began to form in the sea around Antarctica, an the temperature of the whole planet became colder.

The primates and other mammals had began to flourish in a vacuum left by a devastating extinction 67 million years ago which eliminated the dinosaurs and 70% of life on earth. This mass extinction may be the most famous. It is called the Cretaceous-Tertiary event [or K/T boundary] because it created such a clear boundaries between the era of the dinosaurs, and the eras without them the followed. This mass extinction eliminated the diversity of dinosaurs, marine reptiles, mollusks, fauna. There is some debate about what caused the extinction, but whether we believe it was caused by a great asteroid hitting the earth, a time of great volcanic activity, or the movement of tectonic plates, whether the extinction was dramatic and swift or happened over millions of years, we know that the climate changed drastically and could no longer support the old life forms, like the dinosaurs. Twice more the wealth of life and diversity of species swelled and died back, caused by environmental catastrophe caused by major shifts in the earth’s climate.

4 million years ago the first hominids were distinguishing themselves from other primates with a larger brain size and upright posture, though our ancestors still spent a lot of time in the trees. 3.3 million years ago the current ice ages began. 2.6 million years ago the Homo Habilis was the first hominid to make an abundance of stone tools. We can tell that Homo Habilis were hunters because the kind of tools they made -- developed for hunting and cutting apart their food. These were the first of our close relatives. 1 million years ago earth saw the peak of Mammals on our earth. Then during the following ice age many of the large many of the large animals such as the mammoths, the saber tooth tigers, and the mastodons as the glaciers advanced further and further south, shrinking the habitat and food supply for both animal and plant life. About 30,000 years ago the Neanderthals hit an evolutionary dead end. When the glaciers retreated, it was the smaller animals that took their place- the white tailed deer, wood mice and migrating birds; the abrupt climate changed began the most recent period of mass extinction. From that time, about 11,500 years ago, to this day we are part of the most recent mass extinction- including huge reduction in the other “mega fauna” that is- animals larger than ourselves such as elephants, giraffes, and rhinoceros. In fact hundreds and thousands of species have become extinct in our time; many scientists believe this to be from our own human actions- hunting and destroying habitat for perhaps hundreds of thousands of species, particularly in dramatically diverse communities like the rainforest.

As we once again alter the delicate balance of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere we risk another dramatic unbalancing of life on our planet- the 6th great extinction. As we look back over billions of years of our story, it may remind us with trepidation of the great extinction when our atmosphere was unbalanced so many billion years ago, or it may remind us of the triumph of Prospero, who turned toxic waste into the stuff of life. This story of extinction and adaptation is a sometimes tragic story, but it is also a story of hope. Hope for life on our planet and for life itself. Life finds a way.

It seems it may be up to we Homo Sapiens to make a change, a breakthrough on the level of respiring oxygen or turning light into energy to restore a new balance to our biosphere. Say Swimme and Berry “While the human cannot make a blade of grass, there is liable not to be a blade of grass unless it is accepted, protected and fostered by the human.” (p. 247)

One thing that has been true of Unitarians since we called ourselves by that name is a value of science and reason. And Science has given us a new story of who we are and where we come from.

We live in the eon of geologic time in which all 5 kingdoms of life have blossomed on earth. We live in a time of war, of competition for resources, of technological achievement. We live in a time of massive species extinction and changes to our biosphere.

A story that helps us understand our place in the order of things must be a big story, a story that reminds us both that we are new- coming as we do after 13 billion years after the first flaring forth, and 4 billion years after the first life appeared on this earth. Our human history is just the latest chapter in a long, long story. The Universe Story also shows us that we are deeply intertwined with all that is. We were there in the very first moments and there in the dramatic end story of the supernova Tiamat, in the triumph of Arius, of Prospero. The story of their tragedies and successes is our story as well. Let us call on all those billions of years of wisdom and memory lest we miss whatever part of the story that will help us shape a bright future for our selves and our biosphere. The collected wisdom in our culture, in our bodies, in our DNA, in our ecosystem is a remarkable inheritance.

Who better than a faith that values science and reason to appreciate such wisdom? Who better than a faith which affirms we are all on the same path, to heed that wisdom in shaping a just and vibrant future. Who better than this very community to be students and teachers of this, our whole story? Who better than the Universalists and the Unitarians to remember that in the beginning all was one?

Monday, February 6, 2012

Feed What you Want to Grow (February 5, 2012)

(This sermon is part of an ongoing series on the Principles of Permaculture. The 8 principles we are using come from Starhawk's "Principles of True Abundance")

Have you ever had aphids in your garden? Aphids are tiny little light green bugs eat the sap out of a rosebush or a tomato plant. I know when I see them in my garden I tend to panic. They reproduce like crazy- I heard that aphids can actually give birth to female offspring that are already pregnant! Conventional wisdom is to spray everything with insecticide -- to kill them all because if you let even a couple survive they will reproduce quickly and your garden will be covered with aphids again in no time. Moreover, each generation of aphids that survive are increasingly resistant to those insecticides.

Last year about this time I went to a workshop led by writer and Activist Starhawk about the “Principles of True Abundance” she called this the “nuke what annoys you” plan, and said that true abundance comes instead from “feeding what you want to grow.” Pests like aphids have natural enemies. In the case of aphids, one of their enemies is ladybugs. So in theory it is best to leave your aphid problem to the local ladybug population. Here’s the tricky part: predators of all kinds breed more slowly than their prey. They are slower to respond to changes to the ecosystem. This is a good thing, because it keeps predators from completely wiping out their own food sources. But when you spray insecticide all over your garden, you are killing not only most of the aphids, but most of the ladybugs. And because aphids reproduce so much more quickly than ladybugs, they will recover faster.

In this case, in our garden full of aphids, what we want to grow is ladybugs. So if we are thinking long-term, we can plant Marigolds, or dill, or fennel which are favorite foods of ladybugs. Ladybugs overwinter under rocks and in leaf litter, so we feed what we want to grow by letting a layer of fall leaves lay on the garden all winter, instead of “tidying up” as many of us have been taught to do.

Know who else likes to eat aphids? The Chickadee and the titmouse. Birds are some of the best insect eaters there are. If we want to make our garden bird friendly, we can add not only a birdfeeder to help get them through the lean times, but we would also make sure there are dense shrubs and trees to nest in as well as branches to perch on. To make our garden a home for birds we would also need a source of water. Now if you’ve ever been in an airplane, you remember flying over what looks like a quilt – but those quilt blocks are actually huge fields of neat rows of crops. If you drive by such fields they stretch on as far as the eye can see. You don’t see this as much on the roads I take to work, the fields on my commute are not so vast, and usually bordered by wild uncultivated patches of trees and shrubs. But in those big huge fields of mono-crops, there is no place for our bird friends to live and hide and nest. Most conventional fields are sprayed with expensive insecticide which kills all the natural insect predators in the process of killing the aphids and other bugs which would do harm to our crops. The thing is -- this method is not working. Apparently the USDA has been keeping track of the numbers and you can see from their figures that 50 years ago, before our newfangled high-tech farming methods, crop loss to pests and disease was a bout 7 percent per year. Now that we have all these patented insecticides and high tech farming methods, or crop loss has gone up to 14%. This is compelling proof to me that the “nuke what annoys you” approach to pests is not as effective as we might believe.

This idea of “feeding what you want to grow instead of nuking what annoys you” can be extrapolated into our personal lives as well. I believe the usual phrase is “you get more flies with honey than with vinegar.” When I was reading every parenting book I could get my hands on this strategy was called “positive discipline.” This school of thought suggests that instead of focusing on punishing mistakes, we focus on catching our kids doing it right, and making sure they know what “doing it right” looks like. So if you see your child at the sink wet from head to toe and surrounded by a puddle of water, we all know what our first gut instinct would be, but we could also reply “oh, you remembered to wash your hands! Looks like you are doing a very thorough job. Now let me show you how to clean up all that water on the floor.”

I have found over the years that often my son when does something “wrong” he actually was never taught how or doesn’t have the resources to do it “right”. Sometimes a few minutes together at the sink is all a parent and child would need to prevent a hand washing catastrophe.

When it comes to relationships, often the most effective thing we can give them to help them grow is our attention. For example, when we adopted our rescue puppy Trey, he had just about every behavior problem there is. He was so timid and afraid that he spent most of each day curled up in one spot on the sofa. But part of the reason I had chosen to adopt a high needs dog was that my job as your minister allows me to work from home during the day, so I knew I would be around a lot. After that first month Trey could be in the same room with humans, and if I let him go to his special safe spot and cower, he would let me pick him up. Because he was afraid of the stairs, every time I went upstairs to my study to work I would scoop him up from his safe spot and bring him with me so he could spend the time in his bed by my desk, or peaking out the window.

We were supposed to go out of town that first Memorial Day weekend, but because Trey was still very tenuous in his behavioral gains, we decided to stay home and just spend time together as a family. All 3 humans and 2 dogs puttered around the house. I played a little mandolin, mopped the kitchen, and taught my son a new card game. I started to remember that when we spend a day together just hanging out at home, good things happen. Our new dog even forgot himself and took a biscuit out of my hand instead of waiting for me to put it on the floor a safe distance away!

Finally it got to be bedtime, and Trey, who was really feeling like part of the pack, looked wistfully up the stairs after us as we ascended. I decided it was worth a try and carried him up. He went first to his bed by my desk but wasn't sure where to go when I headed to the bedroom. He paced and explored until I decided he was just too excited to sleep, so I carried him back downstairs to hang out with my partner.

Imagine my surprise when I woke some hours later and saw Trey curled up at the foot of our bed. He had climbed the stairs all by himself, and found himself a place to sleep. And that was that. He goes up and down the stairs now whenever he must and sleeps with the rest of the pack. Something huge changed for him that weekend, and I learned once again that good things happen when the family just spends time together. Our relationships grow when we feed them with time and attention.

We often give our attention to troubles and obstacles, to things that annoy us. Instead, feeding what we want to grow means that we give our attention to things that we want to have in our life. Many years back my partner and I were watching the now famous Bill Moyers interview with Joseph Campbell in a series called “The power of Myth”.
Campbell says to Moyer: “I always tell my students, go where your body and soul want to go. When you have the feeling, then stay with it, and don't let anyone throw you off.”
MOYERS asks: “What happens when you follow your bliss?”
CAMPBELL replies : “You come to bliss.”
I heard that remark at a powerful turning point in my life. I had just dropped out of grad school where I was studying to become an opera singer, and it seemed like the most important thing to do was to get a good job that would bring in a steady income and maybe even health insurance. I should get an office job like normal people, I thought. (whatever that means.) Can you imagine if I had done that? If what I had decided to feed was “being normal” and “getting a paycheck?” Instead I decided to feed that part of me that was curious about why things are the way they are, and what it all means. I fed it by carefully choosing the books I read, the adventures I had, and eventually with 4 years of seminary education. That part of myself that I fed eventually did grow, and became a minister. I am still feeding it, and it is still growing.

A woman came to me long ago for pastoral counseling. She told me that a co-worker was driving her CRAZY. You know how sometimes in your job situation or family, or maybe even here at the fellowship sometimes there will be a person who just rubs you the wrong way? My parishioner came and met with me several times about her conflict with this other woman. I asked her each time “what is good in your life? What are you doing to take care of yourself?” By our 3rd meeting on the topic of her difficult work relationship my parishioner could think of nothing good at all. She fed so much of her energy to this difficult relationship that it had grown and grown until there was room for nothing else in her heart. By counseling this woman I was able to see this tendency more clearly in my own life. When I get obsessed with, for example, how someone else in my house does or doesn’t do the dishes, this is a sign to me that there is probably something in my own life that I am not feeding. Whatever you feed will most likely grow- so be very careful about what you feed.

It’s not too hard to make the leap then to global politics. When Starhawk introduced this concept to us she asked “what if we had responded in this way to the events of 9-11 instead of responding with military might” in what she characterizes as the “nuke what annoys you” response. She asked- “what if instead of pouring resources into armed conflict, what if we had put that same amount of energy and support into our relationships with moderate Muslims and allies in those areas where terrorism had taken root?”

Going back to the garden she explained that in the Permaculture school of design you really want to avoid weeding. Usually the weeds serve some purpose, and if we plant the right plants and feed what we want to grow, the weeds won’t have an opportunity to take over. We asked her, thinking of movements like Occupy Wall street, and about the structures of power that are oppressive to many “don’t you sometimes have to weed?” Yes, she said, sometimes you do. But we must differential between people and structures. Sometimes structures need to be torn down, but there are people within them that we don’t have to demonize. When we weed we make room for new things to grow, and liberate energy and resources. When we tear down, she said, we must be careful of how we use the materials that made up the old structures, like when you tear down an old house.

She told us about the Gaza Freedom March she had attended in Egypt in the first days of 2010. They were supposed to enter Gaza through the Rafah border to meet with human rights groups to “bear witness to the continuing devastation” in Gaza. When they were not allowed to cross the border, they continued their protest in Egypt. There organizers were training grassroots communities in a school of organizing based on Gene Sharp’s work on non-violent struggle. Starhawk points out that when the people of Egypt rose up a year later everyone supposed it was just another protest, but in fact that organizing had been going on for years, starting in the poor neighborhoods and calling others to join them. Different news outlets calculate that somewhere between 500-800 folks died in the Egyptian uprising. But contrast those tragic deaths to these staggering numbers: over 4000 US service men and women and over 100,000 civilians who died in the Iraq war based on the Iraq war logs compiled by the US military.

The idea of “feeding what you want to grow” is that if we feed violence, what will grow is violence. If we feed nonviolent uprising and grassroots organizing, what will grow is non-violent uprising and grassroots uprising. You can see that this is a radical and subversive idea; it is not one adopted widely in our society. But the hope is that if you feed what you want to grow, what grows will be the very thing you wanted. Don’t take my word for it, try it in your life, and see what happens. Try it not just once, but consistently and patiently as you would care for a young child or a seedling in a garden. Notice what you are feeding and what is growing. May ladybugs and nonviolence, love, and harmony flourish in all our gardens.