Telling a New Story


“It is a moral imperative for us to be good and responsible stewards of the earth.”

Fifty-three years ago today (April 17), the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) gave official recognition to a new fellowship in the movement: the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Bowling Green. The year was 1963. The President was John F. Kennedy. The UUA, uniting the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America was, itself, only two years old. Today we celebrate that day in 1963, our Founders Day, and look forward to our future with the official welcoming of new members.

Of the original seven founding members, only one remains living, Jean Thomason, age 87, and living independently still in Nashville. This building is called “Thomason Hall,” named after her and her late husband, Max. I had a chance to speak with Jean for forty minutes on Friday. I asked her why she and her friends thought that Bowling Green needed a Unitarian Universalist presence.

Her answer was that it was not so much what Bowling Green needed that prompted the movement, but what these seven individuals felt they needed. Jean said that she had visited several churches in town including the Methodist, the Episcopal, and the Disciples of Christ. Of the churches they attended, she and Max felt closest to the Disciples of Christ, but even that didn’t feel completely right. The center of the service there, as in most Christian churches, was the celebration of communion. I asked her if she did not find herself welcome at communion. She said it wasn’t that, it was that the ritual just didn’t feel meaningful to her.

All seven of the founding members had a connection to Western Kentucky University, either as a faculty member or the spouse of a faculty member. They were looking for a religious home that gave a high place to the use of reason and that valued questions at least as much as answers. In that, they are not so different from the religious seekers who make up this congregation today.

When I asked Jean to tell me about the culture of Bowling Green in 1961 when the group first gathered to explore the idea of establishing a fellowship, her references were all to the university culture. She and Max lived on State Street and attended many of the activities offered on campus, including several book clubs, one of which had been in existence since 1906. One of her friends even began a project researching the history of book clubs in Bowling Green. Now, if that is not a Unitarian interest, I don’t know what is. (My friend and former minister, the late Terry Burke, used to say that we are accused of seeking salvation through bibliography.)

Jean’s answer to my third question, I think, was very revealing. I asked her in what way this church made a difference in her life. She said “It gives me a basis for my beliefs; it’s sort of a cornerstone for everything.” I hope for some of you, at least— many of you— many of us— this church provides the same important role.

When I asked Jean if she thinks that our church has had an impact on this community, she said “I hope so. I hope we’ve opened some eyes to some things (people here have) never thought about.”

I hope so, too. In fact, when I think about some of the conversations I’ve had with ministers here in town, I can say that I’m sure of it. She is pleased, too, that there has been some liberalizing of views that were somewhat hidebound. She mentioned, in particular, being pleased with the presence of the Human Rights Commission in town.

As some of you know, Jean was a realtor and was instrumental in this church purchasing its first building on 31W Bypass, the present site of the Alive Center, which aims to provide a connection between WKU and the community. Just a year after that, the opportunity occurred for the group to purchase the building we are now in.

Last week, we talked about the Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams and the importance he placed on voluntary associations as vehicles for opportunity, change and growth. Well, we can say “Thank God for the Girl Scouts,” that exemplary volunteer association.

Jean Thomason was a Girl Scout leader, and one of the members of the Christian Science Church, who built this building and whose home this was until 2001, was also a Girl Scout leader. It was through that association that Jean was able to establish a connection to negotiate the purchase of this building from that group. The building, unfortunately, had not been kept up as well as it should have, and the Christian Scientists were aware of that. Once negotiations were complete, Jean relates how surprised and gratified the UU group was when the Christian Scientists made a gift to this church of $5,000 in recognition that more work needed to be done on the building.

How did Jean and the others know that this was the site that would work best for them? She says that when they walked into the building, it “felt like home.” And that’s always a good thing to feel about a place that you intend to be the home of your spiritual community. Home is where the heart is. It’s a place where you come to be fed, to be replenished, to be in fellowship with like-minded people, to feel like you belong to something larger than yourself. And, if you are a religious liberal in the part of the country that’s known as the Bible belt, that is likely to feel like enough. Your church is your refuge.

There is a danger, though, when you begin to think that that is enough. That danger occurs when you are satisfied with things the way they are, the status quo. As Henry Wieman has said and our roadside pulpit says today, “Every status quo is a prison to the human spirit.” The human spirit wants to grow, to soar, and is not satisfied with the prison bars, real or metaphorical, that confine it, that encourage us to worship things as they are because, well, just because it’s things as they are.

I think it was quite reasonable for the founders of this church, when they first met in 1961, to seek a refuge, a spiritual home for like-minded individuals. And I think that that desire is just as present and as real as it was in 1961. I just don’t think that it’s enough.

What does it mean when you say, “I go to church”? A description I came across recently suggests that it means something like this, “Church is seen as a dispenser of religious goods and services. People come to church to be ‘fed,’ to have their needs met through quality programs, and to have the professionals teach their children about God.” Or, in less traditional churches, to be taught about some form of higher power, some meaning-making vehicle. That’s what’s called the “consumer church.”

What’s the alternative? “A people… on a mission who gather in community for worship, spiritual encouragement and teaching… in addition to what they are…feeding themselves throughout the week.” This is the “missional church.” This sparks a different sentiment than “I go to church”; it is a claim of identity: “I am the church.”

The issues confronting us in 2016 are not the same as those confronting the world of 1963. We can celebrate a number of advances in civil rights. It was only in 1964, remember, that a civil rights act was passed in this country ending the legal practice of the segregation of the races. It was only in 1965 that the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery prompted the Voting Rights Act. And it was only in June of the year just passed that the Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage legal in all fifty states.

There are still battles to be waged for social justice. Some of us attended a recent City Commission meeting here in Bowling Green advocating that the commissioners consider a Fairness Ordinance that would prohibit discrimination against the LGBT community in jobs, housing, and access to public spaces among other things. The right of a woman to the autonomy of her own body is still consistently challenged by some, and only vigilance will ensure that that right remains in place.

But, even more basic than social rights is environmental stability, ecological integrity. If it’s time, in 2016, for telling a new story, that, I believe is the story that must be told. We need to be better informed about the consequences of global warming, and we need to commit ourselves to doing whatever we can to identify, act on, and evangelize about those things that will enhance the sustainability of ecological health on the planet.

News about global warming rarely makes the front page of the newspaper. The shock and sensation of a sudden event such as a murder or fire or violent act attract and hold our attention more readily than scientific reports filled with charts and statistics. Add to that the aura of gloom that saturates the stories and encourages despair of change, and we have a great challenge before us.

Some things we should be aware of and remember: “According to the National Climate Assessment, human influences are the number one cause of global warming, especially the carbon pollution we cause by burning fossil fuels and the pollution-capturing that we prevent by destroying forests. The carbon dioxide, methane, soot, and other pollutants we release into the atmosphere act like a blanket, trapping the sun’s heat and causing the planet to warm.” The ten years from 2000 to 2009 were “hotter than any other decade during the past 1,300 years.”

Natural disasters have always been and will always be a feature of life on this planet. One of the consequences of climate change is that the intensity of those disasters is increased. These include “severe storms, floods, drought, and wildfires.” We are accustomed to measuring damage by the amount it affects us financially. I don’t believe that that is the most valid form of measurement if we truly care about the fate of the planet as a whole, but if we do use financial cost as a measurement, the numbers are pretty staggering.

“According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in 2015 there were 10 weather and climate disaster events in the United States… that caused at least $1 billion in losses.” From 1980 to 2015, weather and climate disaster events cost the economies of the world $5.2 billion a year. If you focus only “on the years between 2011 and 2015, you see an average cost of $10.8 billion.” That’s more than double the cost as the severity of these disasters increases.

The greenhouse effect caused by the increase of carbon and methane in the atmosphere means that more moisture is captured and then dumped, causing “streams, rivers, and lakes to overflow.” Life is damaged; property is damaged; drinking water gets contaminated; there are spills of hazardous chemicals. Disease-carrying insects such as mosquitoes, fleas, and ticks flourish. Food-borne and water-borne illnesses increase.

The stored up water is not distributed evenly, so though some places will experience flooding, other will experience drought. Wildfires are harder to contain, and they sweep out of control. Dust storms occur. There are extreme heat waves.

When scientists say that climate change is the “biggest global health threat of the 21st century,” we are well-advised to pay attention. And it affects some more than others. As you would expect, children, the elderly, poor people, and minorities suffer disproportionately. “Ground-level ozone is the main component of smog, and the hotter things get, the more of it we have.” If you suffer from allergies, they will get worse because airborne pollen increases.

The effects of global warming, pollution, and deforestation on wildlife are extremely troubling. According to (a study by) the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2014, “Many land, freshwater, and ocean species are shifting their geographical ranges to cooler climes or higher altitudes, in an attempt to escape warming. They’re changing seasonal behaviors and traditional migration patterns, too.… A 2015 study showed that (animals with backbones) like fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles are disappearing 114 times faster than they should be… increased extinction due to climate change.”

Much of this is familiar to you, and as the list of negative consequences of global warming increases, you may begin to recognize that sense of paralysis that comes from being swamped by too much negative information. Reasonable enough, but not helpful. There’s no movement toward change when paralysis sets in.

(I remember reading a story a few years ago about graduate students at Harvard who were studying the effects of climate change. The professor working with them talked about how disturbed he was by their inclination towards despair and thinking that the best favor they could provide the planet was to die so as not to add to the problem. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.)

But, maybe you find yourself thinking, “Well, that’s them, not us” about some of this information. Whether or not that thought flits across your mind, it can’t gain much traction. Global warming is a condition that affects all of us.

I want to say a little more about the effects on our oceans as well as our landmasses, and then we can start a conversation about ways that we can address the problem. Oceans are becoming more acidic. The main reason is that they are absorbing a good portion of our excess emissions. Underwater life has become severely threatened. As you can imagine or as you already know, the excess acid has the greatest direct effect on “creatures with calcium carbonate shells or skeletons, including mollusks, crabs, and corals.” And because of the interdependent nature of the environment, when coral reefs begin to die, the homes and hiding places of other sea life die along with them. In terms of economic costs, “as of 2015, acidification is believed to have cost the Pacific Northwest oyster industry nearly $110 million.” The value of the annual harvest of clams, oysters, and other shelled mollusks is $1 billion. There are coastal communities in fifteen states that depend upon this industry for their livelihoods.

So, what can we do? We can begin by telling a new story. We can change our focus from the salvation of each individual to a salvation of the planet, the world community of interdependent beings, organisms, land, air and water. In short, we can begin to see the wisdom in putting less emphasis on the individual egocentric being and more emphasis on the health of the biosphere as a whole, our Blue Boat Home, as the hymn has it.

On the micro-level, we can make sure that our choices as consumers are in line with our values. If we use fossil fuels to heat our homes, as most of us do, we can be more judicious in its use. We can research ways to reduce our dependence on “the grid.” We can be careful in how much we use our cars. We can make wise choices in the vehicles we purchase, giving preference to hybrids and those with fewer emissions of global warming gases. We can reduce our consumption of meat.

The increase of greenhouse gases is caused by burning fossil fuels, yes. This kind of energy consumption and that used in transport and that used in building construction are all contributing causes to global warming. What is less known is this: “In three decades, emissions related to agriculture and food production are likely to account for about half of the world’s available ‘carbon budget’— the limited amount of carbon dioxide and its equivalents that can be poured into the atmosphere if we are to hold global warming to no more than 2C” (The Guardian).

What if everyone were to eat according to health guidelines? Scientists in the Oxford Martin School in England say that this alone would cut global food-related emissions by one-third by 2050. What would happen if a widespread vegetarian diet were adopted? The effect would almost double; cutting these emissions by 63%.

Of course, this would have the additional benefit of saving our own lives, not an insignificant consequence. An imbalanced diet is one that is low in fruits and vegetables and high in such things as processed meats. According to the same Oxford Martin School scientists, these imbalanced diets “are responsible for the greatest health burden (both) globally and in most regions.

“Intensive livestock rearing is a major cause of greenhouse gases, in part because of the methane produced by the animals and the massive slurry pits that accompany large farms. It also diverts water and grains to animal-rearing, which is less efficient than directing the grains to direct human consumption.”

Some of us have gardens; many of us purchase most or all of our produce from community farms. The choices that divert money from large-scale farm operations and place it in the hands of small farmers provide a shift in the right direction.

What can we do on a larger scale? We can give financial support to agencies such at the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) and EarthJustice, who then actively work on our behalf. The NRDC and others do the scientific research that provides the information that fuels change in attitudes and behaviors.

They also litigate. Without the efforts of such non-profits, we would not now have the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, as well as other laws that protect the environment. We can become part of a network of advocacy, calling our elected representatives, making our voices heard through our votes and our actions. We can support candidates at every level who understand the pressing need for real change in the way we structure our industries, fuel our vehicles, feed our families, provide our energy. We can advocate for clean and sustainable energy production.

And we can look reality in the face. The online journal Resilience published a story in 2014 entitled “Six Myths About Climate Change that Liberals Rarely Question.” I encourage you to seek it out.

Perhaps the most salient point in the piece is this: the lifestyle that we in the United States have convinced ourselves is necessary for a happy or satisfying life is not sustainable. We have become accustomed to a level of “comforts, luxuries, privileges, and pleasures” that contributes greatly to the problems we’ve been talking about. For a very short period of time, little more than 150 years, we’ve exploited the resources available from fossil fuels that took millions of years to accumulate. We created a false sense of what is sustainable because the fuel is running out and the damage that burning it is doing is literally frying the planet.

All churches are in some way, I think, “consumer churches,” in that we come together to get certain needs met, and quality programs help satisfy those needs for individual growth and the community of shared values. But, the more mature, advanced and evolved version of church is one that is propelled by its mission and seeks to transform the world according to the values it holds most high. That’s the church that meets on Sunday to renew and refresh and reinforce the values we live in our individual lives throughout the week.

I believe that we want to be good and responsible stewards of the earth. I believe that it is a moral imperative, and I think that you do, too. So, we need to start telling a new story.

The story for our time is that humanity has been granted stewardship over the fate of the biosphere through the evolution of our intelligence, our creativity, our cleverness and our ingenuity, and that means that we have a responsibility.

All of these human resources have to be used in service to the cause of planet preservation. It’s the only one we’ve got, so it deserves our love and dedication. To live according to our values means to not succumb to cynicism and despair, but to believe in the “redemptive, transforming power of love” that James Luther Adams spoke of, a love that we owe and wish to freely offer to the earth that we all call our home.

What change can you make in your life that will make you a more responsible steward of our common natural resources? The news about the destructive effects of our meat-based diet has impressed me and made me want to make some changes. I probably eat meat every day of the week. It’s central to our culture, whether we eat out or cook at home. Clearly, I can make a choice to cut my meat consumption. My commitment today is to eat meat no more than four days a week. What change can you make?

As a church community, we’ve committed ourselves to more ecologically sound management of our land. Can you join us on Saturday for our first workday of the season? We’ll be meeting here at 9 o’clock. You know there’s a great satisfaction in doing this kind of work together. The church would like to start a composting program. We need some leadership for that to make sure we’ll be in line with city regulations, to make sure we’re well informed. That’s a project that can involve everyone single one of us, as we all generate organic waste that can regenerate the soil. Help us as we come together to create a new story of preservation through love and dedication.

In the words of Edward Everett Hale:

I am only one

But still I am one.

I cannot do everything,

But still I can do something.

And because I cannot do everything

I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.

Presented by the Rev. Peter Connolly at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY, on April 17, 2016




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