"For the Beauty of the Earth, for the splendor of the skies, for the love which from our birth over and around us lies. Source of all, to thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise." This lovely hymn by Foliott Sanford Pierpoint is a prayer of gratitude for this planet which birthed us and sustains us. How often do we look out at the plants, soil, sky, and sing a song of grateful praise? How often do we really look out at nature and are struck by the idea of reverence for life, as Schweitzer experienced while traveling down a river in Africa? How often have we reviewed how we are living out our commitment to heal our planet and renew all life? Have we thought about how our 7th Unitarian Universalist Principle is expressed in our daily interactions?
When asked about Unitarian Universalism, many Unitarian Universalists refer to our theology as a reverence for life. Our UU seventh principle—respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part—expresses the importance that many of us feel for the sacredness of all life and our planet earth. And honestly, these are beautiful words. But what do they mean? What do they mean to you?
Albert Schweitzer (theologian and a minister, and one degree in medical school to become a physician. He was also an author--The Search for the Historical Jesus, etc.--a missionary, a lecturer, a teacher at many colleges and universities, a laborer (helped build a hospital in Africa), a philosopher, and a Unitarian) wrote: “Reverence for life means being seized by the unfathomable, forward-moving will which is inherent in all Being. It raises us above perception of the world of objects and makes us into the tree that is safe from drought because it is planted by the water.” I think that's an interesting image and has the potential to be a deeply effective passage to reflect on as a personal meditation. We might also image ourselves as a humming bird flittering before a trumpet creeper, drinking in the rich nectar from the bright red flowers. Such a reverence for life connects us with something ineffable and sustainable. This holy connection is intangible, yet even so it can affect our behavior.
I use the word holy intentionally. I have been speaking with Reverend Michael Malcom, the Executive Director of The People's Justice Council. He has invited this congregation to help energize the Southeastern United States for energy justice through the Southeast Climate and Energy Network and the Southeast Faith and Energy Network. He describes helping people of color and the poor to make their homes more energy efficient. We talked about his holy work of caulking windows, installing energy efficient shower heads, adding insulation to homes. You might ask, "what makes this work holy, that's just practical?" Michael experiences this work as lifesaving. I mean literally saving lives, right here, right now, not saving them for heaven. His clients will have more money in their pockets, their homes will stay warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer with less energy, they will need less water; they are literally more likely to survive. His work expresses his reverence for life, reducing the strain on our planet supporting us and expressing love and compassion for our fellow humans.
Schweitzer also wrote: “…Reverence for life contains within itself the rationale of the commandment to love, and it calls for compassion for all … life.” He goes on: “I must interpret the life [around] me as I interpret the life that is my own. My life is full of meaning to me. The life around me must be full of significance itself. If I am to expect others to respect my life, then I must respect the other life I see, however strange it may be to mine. And not only other human life, but all kinds of life: life above mine, if there be such a life; life below mine, as I know it to exist…We need a boundless ethics which will include [all living things].”
A good example of this can be found in the gardens at Lambarene Hospital, now called Hospital Albert Schweitzer in French Equatorial Africa. A hospital that Schweitzer established. This is an image of the guest houses at the hospital. Schweitzer did not like gardens where flowers are grown for the adornment of the house. He believed that to cut a flower needlessly was a violation of his fundamental ethical principle of reverence for life. The flower, he believed, has the same right that we have to fulfill its natural life cycle. He respected its life. He let it grow.
Last week during the Indigenous Peoples History of the United States study group, Dina Gilio Whitaker mentioned the international movement for the “Rights of Nature”. In other words, giving legal rights to aspects of nature. Rivers, trees, mountains would have rights just as human beings have rights. Since corporation have rights, why shouldn't our planet? There is a global network of organizations and individuals committed to supporting legal systems that recognize, respect, and enforce Rights of Nature. Jonathon Porritt, one of the United Kingdom’s leading environmentalists, said: “Ecuador was the first nation to include the Rights of Nature in its constitution. It could now become the first nation to protect large swathes of biodiversity, based upon this constitutional innovation. This would set an invaluable precedent worldwide." And the Indigenous Peoples of Ecuador were instrumental in the development of this constitution innovation.
This image is Nemonte Nenquimo, Waorani leader and president of the Coordinating Council of the Waorani Nationality of Ecuador-Pastaza and she is one of the founding members of the Ceibo Alliance, which brought together four different ethnic groups to work on Ecuador's Rights of Nature constitution change. Rights of Nature is about balancing what is good for human beings against what is good for other species, what is good for the planet. It is the holistic recognition that all life, all ecosystems on our planet are deeply intertwined.
Over Schweitzer’s life, his ethic of reverence for life continued to expand. He came to view good and evil through the lens of reverence for life. He wrote in a letter to one of his friends: “The essence of Goodness is: Preserve life, promote life, help life to achieve its highest destiny. The essence of Evil is: Destroy life, harm life, hamper the development of life.” So as the cold war broke out, Schweitzer, now an old man, saw the essence of evil, as he defined it, in atomic weapons. He believed war and atomic weapons were a threat to reverence for life. The only purpose of atomic weapons was to harm life in all its forms. He became so incensed by weapons of mass destruction that he wrote to President Kennedy on April 20, 1962. Schweitzer suggested to President Kennedy that there should be an international agreement for disarmament. Schweitzer felt this commission would end the cold war and “give each [country] the right to know, through international inspection of each other’s territory, that each country meets its obligations to disarm according to the agreement. The same international control will see to it that no tests can be carried out.” Schweitzer’s determination to stop proliferation of atomic weapons is still alive now, almost 60 years later in our struggles with the same type of disarmament/proliferation issues we see now with Iraq and Korea. Schweitzer’s understanding of and commitment to an abiding reverence for life grew from his experience as a small boy who didn't want to hurt birds. That profound childhood experience led to him becoming an activist for peace and disarmament, whose ideas and principles still inform our own ideas and principles to this day.
What about mine, your, our congregation's commitment to reverence for life, for healing this planet and renewing life upon it. Schweitzer, Reverend Michael Malcolm, and the government of Ecuador all embody different aspects of the commitment to reverence for life. Each person's understanding of reverence for life and resulting commitment to it evolves over a lifetime, shaped by their own growth and the circumstances they find ourselves in.
The same is true for Unitarian Universalists and how we approach reverence for life. The Unitarian Universalist Association promotes the Seventh Principle Project Green Sanctuary Certification Program to support congregations in maximizing their impact on environmental challenges. How this work is done varies widely from one congregation to the next. When I was an intern at Emerson Unitarian Church in Houston, Texas, the congregation voted to explore the Green Sanctuary Certification Program and decided to start with an Environmental Justice Covenant Group—a small group of people who met regularly, ate together, developed friendship, discussed environmental justice, and over time began to make tangible commitments to Environmental justice. At the time, Emerson Unitarian Church was involved in a building project. The Environmental Justice Covenant Group lobbied hard to keep the beautiful trees on the property and campaigned for environmentally friendly buildings—considering ways to reduce energy usage and building a structure that would have the least impact on the grounds. All of the members of this group also made personal commitments to be ecologically conscious; for example, some of them elected to purchase their electricity from Green Mountain Energy—which generates its power from windmills located in Texas. The group also worked for the preservation of Gulf Coast Ridley Sea Turtles through a letter writing and advocacy campaign. They also provided a monthly meditation centered on Web-of-Life spirituality through the Emerson Church website.
As Unitarian Universalists, we are called to live out our reverence for life. The Unitarian Universalist Ministry for the Earth says this work is about respecting life, restoring the Earth, and renewing our spirits. My friends this work is holy work, work for the soul and well as work for our planet. How we each live that out will vary from person to person and congregation to congregation. Some of us might let our pristine lawns and ornamental gardens grow wild and stop using pesticides. I actually had neighbor years ago who wouldn’t mow parts of his lawn where wild flowers grew—this got him in trouble with our homeowner’s association, but he was committed to keeping his piece of the earth wild. Some of us might give aid to a bird with a broken wing or participate in community clean-ups at an area waterway—many Unitarian Universalist Congregations have adopted portions of waterways to keep clean. Some of us might chose to eat foods that are sustainably and mindfully sourced. Not all of us—really not many of us—can be a modern-day Albert Schweitzer, but we can keep our impact on our planet in the forefront of our mind and consider our every action through the lens of ‘Reverence for life’.
There is a proverb from the Malagasy tribe of Africa: "Words are like newly hatched eggs—they already have wings." Let "reverence for life" be more than mere words as you leave today. May these newly hatched words spread their wings in your heart and through your hands.