Today is Earth Day, and along with millions of people around the world, I am praying for our blue-green planet, our common home. As part of Amherst Cinema’s “Science on Screen” film series, I recently gave a short talk before the screening of Leonardo DiCaprio’s film, Before The Flood. I and the other guest speaker, Professor Scott Jackson of Kestrel Land Trust, were asked to speak briefly about the roles that land conservation, faith communities, and individual action can play in fighting climate change. Below is the text on which I based my remarks.
I am grateful to have a few minutes to speak about the spiritual and moral call to heal and protect the Earth, and about the approach that communities of faith are taking as they become aware of the climate crisis.
I use the word “crisis” very deliberately, because despite the current unwillingness at top levels of government to admit the accuracy or relevance of climate science, the facts are clear and beyond reasonable dispute. Climate change is real. In just a century or two, a blink in geologic time, human beings have extracted and burned so much coal, gas, and oil and released so much carbon and other emissions into the air that we’ve altered the chemistry of the global atmosphere. With an average rise in global temperature of just one degree, and with more warming on the way, we are already seeing a cascade of effects, including rising seas, melting glaciers, acidifying oceans, massive droughts and floods, and dying coral. Scientists are usually known for staying calmly detached and objective, but they are now using words in public like “shocking” and “alarming,” and they are beginning to speak openly about their fear and grief.
The movie we’re about to watch together, BEFORE THE FLOOD, reminds me of the ancient story of Noah, the mythic figure in the Bible who was divinely inspired to understand that a wave of cataclysmic change was coming upon the Earth and that he was called to respond boldly – to do everything in his power to be of service and to save the life around him. You know the story: he built an ark, he invited in the animals, two by two, and he saved life on Earth from the flood.
The story of Noah is the story of every person who takes a keen look at the world, listens inwardly to the wisdom of his or her deepest spirit, and responds by taking action on behalf of others.
In a time of climate crisis, I want to give you two words that characterize people of faith, people like Noah: reverence and resistance.
Why reverence? Because we hope to cultivate in ourselves and in each other a deep respect for Earth and all its inhabitants, human and other-than-human. Because we want to remember that the land is holy, the water is holy, the air is holy, and life itself is a precious gift. Because we recognize that society too often treats people – especially poor people and people of color – and the whole natural world as if they were objects to dominate and exploit, instead of beings with intrinsic dignity and worth. Because we live in a society that too often pretends that human beings are separate from the web of life, not accountable to a law higher than the supposed laws of economics, and without a purpose greater than grabbing for riches, status, and power.
Reverence takes many forms. We are reverent when we walk the Earth mindfully, blessing it with every step. We are reverent when we pay attention to the beauty, mystery, and suffering in the world around us. We are reverent when we reduce our carbon footprint, walk and bike more often, or ditch the dryer and hang our laundry on a line. We are reverent when we try to encounter each person, each creature, each moment, with sincere interest and an open heart. We are reverent when we refrain from speaking harshly or with contempt, for reverence teaches us compassion.
Reverence is a stance of the spirit and a conscious practice: we intend to honor each other and the Earth. We intend to treat each other and the world around us with kindness and respect.
Why resistance? Because people of faith have a long history of rising up against injustice and speaking out against policies and practices that oppress, abuse, or cause harm. Because when we put our faith into action and stand in direct opposition to an unjust status quo, we follow in the footsteps of prophets and leaders of every religious tradition. Because we refuse to stand idly by while political powers ramp up their efforts to devastate the Earth. Because we live in a climate emergency: unless we rapidly reduce consumption of fossil fuels and make a swift, bold transition to clean, renewable sources of energy like sun and wind, we will leave a ruined and possibly uninhabitable world to our children and their children.
Resistance takes many forms. We resist climate catastrophe when we risk arrest and take non-violent action to stop new pipelines; when we lobby for a fair and rising tax on carbon; when we urge colleges and other non-profits to divest from fossil fuels. We resist climate catastrophe when we support our local land trusts and farms, plant trees and community gardens, and reuse, recycle, share what we have, and buy less stuff. We resist climate catastrophe when we march and join rallies, engage in public fasts and prayer vigils, contact politicians, vote, and even run for office ourselves – all for the sake of directing society away from the edge of the cliff of continuing business as usual and toward a more sustainable path.
Resistance is a stance of the spirit and a conscious practice: we intend to protect each other and the Earth. We intend to stand up for life over death, for love over hate.
I’d like to suggest three opportunities to express reverence and resistance:
Second, we can join a wonderful, local, grassroots, climate action group, right here in the Pioneer Valley: Climate Action Now.
Third, we can take part in a festive, interfaith, outdoor service that will be held on June 11 under a big open tent in Northampton. We’re going to pray and sing and speak on behalf of the Earth, and we’re calling the event “Public Prayers for the Planet: Reverence and Resistance.”
We live in precarious times. The word “precarious” derives from the word for “prayer.” For people of faith, this is a time for prayer, a time to seek God’s presence and guidance.
To circle back to the story of Noah: after the flood, God makes a covenant for all time with every living creature, and puts a rainbow in the sky as a sign of God’s unfailing love for all creation. When we act and advocate to protect God’s Creation – when we hold in our hearts the future generations who count on us to leave them a habitable world – I believe that we do so in the presence and power of a divine love that will never let us go.
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, April 2, 2017
Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at The Church of the Covenant, Boston, MA
“Lazarus, come out!”
A Christian response to the climate crisis
What a blessing it is to be here this morning and to join your Lenten exploration of “Fierce Love”! Thank you, Rob (Rev. Robert J. Mark), for inviting me to preach, and thank you for your steadfast witness to God’s love for the Earth and for all its communities, human and other-than-human. I was arrested with you last spring at an interfaith protest of the West Roxbury fracked gas pipeline, and just a few months ago, each of us felt called to make a trip to Standing Rock to stand with the Water Protectors. We are allies in the struggle for life, and it is good to worship with you and your congregation this morning.
I have the longest job title in the world. I serve in both the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Conference of the UCC as Missioner for Creation Care. This unusual joint position is a marker of good things ahead, for Christians of every denomination, and people of every faith tradition, are drawing together to proclaim with one voice that the Earth is sacred and that we intend to work together – boldly, lovingly, without swerving, without delay – to renew its health and to protect it from further harm.
Today’s Gospel reading brings us to the turning point in Jesus’ ministry. Raising Lazarus is the crowning miracle or sign that reveals Jesus as the giver of life, and that also precipitates his death. The raising of Lazarus provokes a meeting of the Sanhedrin, the official Jewish court, which reaches the decision that Jesus is dangerous and must be killed. And so next week we come to Palm Sunday and begin the anguish and ultimately the joy of Holy Week.
Today’s story begins in a place of desolation, loss, and despair. Lazarus has died; he has been dead for four days; and his sisters Mary and Martha are in distress, grieving with family and friends. The story begins right where we are: in a world that is full of death, full of grieving, full of loss. Mary and Martha taste the same bitterness that we taste when a loved one dies. They know, as we do, the pang of sorrow that can seize us in the middle of the night. They know the anguish that can empty life of zest or meaning.
This morning you and I may be in the very same place in which Mary and Martha begin this story, for there is plenty of death in the air these days. My particular concern is the climate crisis, and right now, even as I speak, burning fossil fuels is pumping carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere and further disrupting the delicate balance of the world’s climate. In just 200 years – a blink in geologic time – human beings have burned so much coal, gas, and oil and released so much heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that atmospheric levels of CO2 are higher than our species has ever experienced before. Last year was the hottest year on record, which crushed the record set the year before, which crushed the record set the year before that. As global temperatures rise, every living system of the world is affected and in decline. Sea ice is melting rapidly at both poles. Land ice is melting and sliding into the sea. Tundra is thawing. Storms are becoming more intense. Droughts are spreading in some areas, extensive floods in others. The ocean is absorbing heat and excess carbon dioxide, and in just decades has become 30% more acidic. Last month scientists reported that large sections of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef have died.
The climate emergency is not just a quote-unquote “environmental” problem. It’s not just about polar bears and coral. It’s about people in Southern Africa, where rains have failed, crops are withering, and starving families are “reduced to eating cactus and even rocks or ashes.” It’s about Pacific islanders whose homelands are already flooding. It’s about impoverished people here and abroad who are hit first and hardest by a changing climate, who have the fewest resources to adapt to it, and who are the least responsible for causing it. It’s about coastal communities and great cities the world over, including Boston, which face rapidly rising seas.
So that’s where we find ourselves: on a beautiful, precious, but ailing planet, with the web of life unraveling before our eyes. When we hear bad news like this, it can be easy to shut down. It is difficult to face the grief, helplessness, and fear that our situation evokes. Most of us aren’t climate skeptics; most of us don’t deny outright the conclusions of science – but most of us do engage in a kind of everyday denial: we try to avoid the anxiety of thinking about climate change, so we change the subject and focus on more manageable things. When we feel helpless to imagine, much to less create, a better future, we just carry on with business as usual. It’s as if we fall under a spell and make what former U.N. Secretary General Ban-ki Moon calls a “global suicide pact.”
That’s where our gospel passage begins: in darkness, in the pit, in the valley of the shadow of death. Martha and Mary are bereft. And then – something changes. Jesus arrives. When he sees Mary weeping, and the crowds around her weeping, Jesus is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (John 11:33). As if the gospel writer wants to make the meaning perfectly clear, a few verses later we come to the shortest verse in all of Scripture, a verse that is often translated by just two words: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). He wept. Here is no distant God, no far-off deity untouched by grief, but a God who comes as one of us, a God who meets us in our suffering, a God who shares in our pain. When we feel anguish, it’s easy to look for someone to blame, to conclude that God isn’t real, that God is punishing us, or that God has abandoned us. But gazing at Jesus in this story reveals something different: when our hearts are breaking, God’s heart is breaking, too.
It is a heart-opening, mind-opening revelation to discover that when we weep for the Earth, when we feel outrage and protest, God is grieving with us and through us. God is bearing what we cannot bear alone. The fact that Jesus wept suggests that the first step in healing, the first step in birthing new life, comes when we step toward the pain, not away from it, and when we do so in the presence of God. The God who enters into our suffering knows that new life begins only when we are willing to feel pain. And when we grieve in God’s presence, we move out of numbness, out of inertia, out of the denial that pretends that everything is fine.
So, as the wise Buddhist teacher Joanna Macy puts it, “Don’t ever apologize for crying for the trees burning in the Amazon or over the waters polluted from mines in the Rockies. Don’t apologize for the sorrow, grief, and rage you feel. It is a sign of your humanity and your maturity… We are capable of suffering with our world, and that is the true meaning of compassion. It enables us to recognize our profound interconnectedness with all beings.”
I will ask you the same questions that I asked at yesterday’s retreat at Trinity Church on spiritual resilience and resistance: Where do you feel the pain of the earth and its creatures? Where do you hear the groaning of God’s creation?
And I will add this, too: the unjust powers of this world don’t want us to grieve or protest. They don’t want us to feel outrage and sorrow when we face the deathly patterns that are part of this society: the racism and militarism, the abuse of the helpless, the poisoning of air and water, the relentless assault on the web of life. The powers-that-be would much prefer that we stay numb – zombies who are too busy or bored or distracted, too defended to feel the pain that allows something new to be imagined, something new to be born. “Jesus wept,” and in that weeping begins the healing that leads to new life.
In the vulnerability of his open heart, Jesus opens to a power greater than himself. “Take away the stone,” he says to the astonished crowd. Can you imagine what the throng of people must be thinking just then? Probably something along the lines of, “Hey – is he nuts?” But reluctantly or eagerly, maybe shaking their heads in bemusement, maybe daring to hope against hope, some folks move forward. They lean their weight against the stone and push it away from the entrance of the tomb.
And then comes Jesus’ voice. In the midst of weeping, there comes a voice. “Lazarus,” he cries. “Come out.” It is a voice of power, a summons, a command, and it addresses us by name. You’ve heard that voice before, and I’ve heard it, too. Deep inside us is a presence, a voice, a Someone who calls us to quit hiding in a deathly place and to step out into fullness of life. We can go for a while, maybe quite a long while, not engaging with reality, not engaging with the climate crisis, and just laying low, hiding out, ducking from everything that seems too hard to face, too hard to bear. The powers-that-be want to keep it that way, and they murmur, “That’s OK. Get comfy in that little tomb. Make peace with it. Decorate it. Stay small.”
But then comes that insistent, disturbing voice, calling us by name. “Barbara,” it says. “Come out. Cindy, come out. Rob, come out. Margaret, come out.”
“I love you,” God says to us. “I want you to be fully alive, not just partially alive, not just going through the motions. I want you to grow up into your full stature in Christ. I loved you into being, I sent you into the world to fall in love, and I call you now to serve love without holding back. So come out of your hiding place. Come out of your helplessness. Come out of your fearfulness, and join the struggle to save life on this sweet Earth. The resurrection life that I give you doesn’t start beyond the grave. It starts right now. I didn’t create you to live in a tomb.”
When I look around, I see a planet at risk of catapulting into runaway climate disruption. But also see person after person hearing – and answering – a deep call to step out and to engage in the struggle to protect life.
On a practical level, what can we do? As individuals, we can drive less, use public transportation, put on a sweater and turn down the heat, ignore the dryer and hang our laundry out to dry, eat less meat, eat local foods, recycle, and so on. You know the drill.
But the scope and pace of the climate crisis require change on a much broader scale. Thanks be to God, coalitions are building among people of faith who care about the Earth, about poverty and economic justice, about racial justice, about immigration and human rights – for all these issues intersect. Right here in Massachusetts, a new group, Mass. Interfaith Coalition for Climate Action (or MAICCA, for short) is organizing very diverse communities of faith to work together on climate. I’ve put a MAICCA sign-up sheet in back so that you can connect.
At the end of this month, on April 29, the 100th day of this country’s new Administration, thousands of people – including countless people of faith – will converge on Washington, D.C., for the People’s Climate Movement “March for Jobs, Justice, and Climate.” You can sign up for the march at PeoplesClimate.org, and I hope you will come. A sister march will be held here in Boston on the same day, and that’s a good choice, too, though it may be particularly effective to carry out our witness in our nation’s capital.
The Church was made for a time like this – a time when God is calling us out of the tomb of inertia and despair and into the wholehearted, focused, joyful, justice-seeking, Spirit-led, unstoppable movement to protect the world that God entrusted to our care.
“Lazarus, come out!”
I am not a brave person. In fact, I am quite familiar with anxiety. I know what it’s like to wake up wide-eyed in the middle of the night, imagining the future with dread. Deciding to go to Standing Rock was not easy.
I heard in late November that Chief Arvol Looking Horse was urging people of faith to travel to Oceti Sakowin Camp for a day of prayer on Sunday, December 4, 2016. I considered this a holy invitation. It spoke to my conviction that the Earth is sacred. It spoke to my desire that we learn to live in peace with each other and with the Earth on which all life depends. It spoke to my longing to bear witness to our God-given hope that life and not death will have the last word.
I knew that the protest against the Dakota Access pipeline was historic. An extraordinary wave of solidarity was sweeping the world, as hundreds of once-estranged tribal nations and jurisdictions stood with the Standing Rock Sioux and proclaimed with one voice that water is sacred; water is life. Thousands of Native and non-Native people had already come to the camps near the Missouri River to resist construction of a pipeline that would endanger the river, Native lands, and the whole of Mother Earth.
What’s more, a showdown was now at hand. Energy companies had invested billions of dollars in the project; only one mile of pipeline remained to be built; the year-end deadline for completing the pipeline was just weeks away; and – though the announcement was amended almost as soon as it was issued – December 5 could be the day when the camp would be forcibly evacuated.
Strong emotions and commitments pulled me toward Standing Rock for the Interfaith Day of Prayer on December 4, but anxiety nudged me to say No. I talked it over with a friend – a religious leader and climate activist who had been arrested with me last May in a pipeline protest here in Massachusetts. We agreed that making a trip to Standing Rock was too risky. The brutal North Dakota winter was too cold. The night was too dark. The militarized police were too violent, armed with rubber bullets, guard dogs, pepper spray, and water hoses that the police willingly sprayed in frigid temperatures. Hundreds of unarmed “water protectors” had already been injured,
including one young woman so severely hurt that her arm might need to be amputated. In addition, thousands of veterans from across the country were also invited to show up that weekend. Although they pledged to carry no weapons and to serve as “human shields,” they were asked to bring body armor and gas masks. Military chaplains were likewise about to converge at Standing Rock to minister to the veterans. Everything was in place for the conflict to escalate. Would we be walking straight into a massacre? After talking with my friend on Sunday night, I hung up the phone, relieved that I was staying home.
The next morning I got a phone call from another friend, Unitarian Universalist minister and climate activist, Rev. Fred Small. He was going to Standing Rock that weekend. Would I join him?
I didn’t know whether to laugh or groan. Not you again, Fred. Fred is my burning bush. Like the burning bush that stopped Moses in his tracks, Fred has interrupted me several times over the years to invite me to do something righteous but scary. Oh no, not again. I told him I would pray about it.
But I was too anxious to pray. I asked my beloved husband if he would listen to me talk through the pro’s and con’s. In his attentive presence I enumerated the reasons to go, including my desire to bear witness to the sacredness of God’s creation and my desire to stand with non-violent, unarmed people at the place where the struggles for indigenous rights, human rights, economic justice, climate justice and care for the Earth intersect.
In the end, the allure was simple: I wanted to pray. I wanted to pray with Chief Looking Horse and the other Native elders. The call to pray was in my belly, like a fire.
“OK,” my husband said. “The pro’s are clear. How about the con’s?”
To my surprise, a long silence followed. I had nothing to say. The reasons not to go to Standing Rock boiled down to a single one: Fear. I looked Fear over, top to bottom. I was not impressed. Fear did not seem a reliable foundation upon which to base a decision. Besides, compared to the strong, embodied pull to go, the fear that begged me to stay was as flimsy as mist: I could blow it away with one Spirit-filled breath.
I arranged a plane reservation for Bismarck, joined a conference call (hosted by Unitarian Universalist ministers) for clergy going to Standing Rock, and assembled winter gear. I hoped to meet Fred Small on Sunday for the Interfaith Day of Prayer, but the rest of the trip I would make on my own, since my husband did not feel called to come.
I refused to let fear stop me, but fear was still prowling about. I couldn’t chase it away, so I decided to accept it. “Be not afraid” may be one of the great messages in the Bible, but a worried person who is trying to do something difficult may not find these words especially comforting. Fear can’t always be so quickly dismissed. I took greater solace in remembering that Jesus himself felt anguish before his crucifixion (Luke 22:44), yet did not flee. He managed to pray through the fear and to keep his heart steadfastly fixed on what he felt led to do. Audre Lorde got it right: “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”
At night I slept as best I could, in fits and starts. A few days before the trip, a man I did not know sent me an email: he’d been on the conference call and knew that I was going to Standing Rock; could we connect on the ground in North Dakota? Sure, I impulsively replied – let’s share the rental car and travel together.
That night I tossed and turned and finally sat bolt upright at 3 a.m. Have you lost your mind? You know nothing about this guy. For all you know, he’s a serial rapist or an ax murderer. I leaped out of bed, turned on the computer, and launched a Google search. Michael Arase-Barham turned out to be an Episcopal priest from California who had received a Doctorate of Ministry in the spirituality of pilgrimage. That seemed a good sign. Plus he had the friendly, bearded face of a Friar Tuck. OK, I would risk it. Jesus sent out his disciples two by two, and I needed an ally along the way.
I packed my bags. I flew to Bismarck.
Faith and doubt duke it out
Michael turned out to be a stellar fellow pilgrim. In the course of the journey, we exchanged supplies: he gave me toothpaste; I gave him hand warmers. He peered into his cellphone and did the navigating; I peered into the darkness and did the driving. At one point, when the car got stuck in snow on the side of the road, he got out and pushed us to safety. And he loved to pray. I have never met a person more devoted to the daily round of services provided by our Book of Common Prayer. As we drove from Bismarck to Fort Yates (population: 195), he led us in Evening Prayer and Compline. That night, along with other pilgrims from far-away places, we slept on the floor of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. Early the next morning, on Sunday, December 4, we made our pre-dawn drive to the camp. Michael led us in Morning Prayer.
On the way, I asked him to read the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). When a great battle lies ahead or is already underway, nothing is more beautiful to pray than Mary’s song of praise to the God of justice and mercy who scatters the proud in their conceit, lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty. Mary bursts into song because she is bearing the Christ-child, the one whose long-ago birth we celebrate at Christmas and who is born among us every time we allow divine love to fill us, guide us, and act through us, making all things new.
Michael and I drove toward Oceti Sakowin Camp in the company of a long stream of cars. Rounding a turn, we caught sight of the camp, up ahead: hundreds of tents, tepees, and yurts sprawled across a field of snow, with tall rows of flags lining the dirt road that cuts through the center of the campground. We found a place to park inside the camp, and headed toward the sacred fire.
I soon learned that nearly everything of importance at the camp takes place around the fire, which never goes out: storytelling, singing, dancing, drumming and praying. Daily activities are steeped in prayer, rooted in appeals to the Creator and to Mother Earth, the grandmother of everything. As we arrived, Native people were taking turns at the microphone near the fire, welcoming newcomers, offering coffee, and reviewing the painful history of indigenous peoples in this country: devastating wars, land grabs, broken treaties, shattered cultures, murders, betrayals. For these Native people, the weight of the past is palpable, sorrowful, dark, heavy, and immediate. Their current fight to protect sacred lands and water (“blue gold”) and to stop the pipeline (the dangerous “black snake” that legend foretold) is an extension of their long struggle against genocide.
On that Sunday morning the interfaith prayer service began at 10 a.m., attended by a large crowd that included clergy from more than thirty religious traditions. Speaker after speaker came forward to speak or sing or pray. Rev. Karen Van Fossan, a UUA minister in Bismarck, led us in singing a rousing version of “As I went down to the river to pray,” concluding with a prayer to “Give us the courage we need, and the hope that comes from courage, and the courage that comes from hope.”
Rev. Victor Kazanjian, Executive Director of United Religions Initiative, came “in a spirit of sorrow,” acknowledging religion’s “atrocities” to the Native peoples, seeking forgiveness, and bringing with him thousands of prayers for the Standing Rock Sioux from 56 countries around the world. He also brought water collected from 167 sacred water sources. He noted that these waters mingled together without separating into ‘higher’ and ‘lower’; in this, he said, they expressed “the beauty of all humanity.” Water is essential to life and to the human body. “The struggle for water,” he said, “is the struggle for the essence of our being.”
Dr. Cornel West spoke with passion about prayer as a form of reverence and a form of resistance. “I call it revolutionary love,” he proclaimed, adding: “Justice is what love looks like in public.” He pointed out that this was an historic moment. The Dakota Access pipeline is a continuation of the war against our indigenous Native brothers and sisters that began more than 520 years ago and that is still underway. He argued that we should never say that the harsh treatment of Black people was America’s Original Sin. “The enslavement of Black people was the second Original Sin.”
Muslims, rabbis, Buddhist and Hindu leaders spoke, as did Methodists, Roman Catholics, members of the Society of Friends, local Native leaders, and Native leaders from distant countries. Lewis Cardinal, Chair of the Indigenous People’s Task Force of the Council for the Parliament of the World’s Religions, spoke for us all when he said, “We stand here together on this day, at this time, brothers and sisters all, and with our Mother.”
The service went on for hours – urgent and prayerful, scented with wood smoke and sage – yet we could never forget that we were standing in something like a war zone. A helicopter and a small plane kept buzzing noisily overhead, a constant harassment. For now, we ignored these reminders of the police, the corporate powers, and the politicians bought and paid for by the fossil fuel industry: we had our own healing work to do with each other. As one Native speaker put it, the Church had told his people that they were devil worshipers and that they would go to Hell. For now it was enough to absorb the miracle that people of every faith, including members and leaders of many Christian churches, were today standing as one with Native peoples, praying as one, cherishing the Earth as one, greeting each other as equals, as kin, and joining the shared struggle to protect our common home.
Another level of healing was going on, too: Native speakers were welcoming and thanking the thousands of U.S. veterans who had traveled to Standing Rock to stand with the Sioux. It astonished me to imagine the reconciliation of Native peoples with members of the U.S. military. I gasped when I heard a bugle play Reveille and other military calls, the sounds that had once preceded or accompanied attacks on Native communities. The former enemies of Native peoples were now inside the camp, seeking forgiveness, offering support, and no longer intending harm.
Near the end of the service, a Native speaker told the crowd that his grandfather had died in 1890 at Wounded Knee, the brutal massacre of Sioux warriors, women, and children by American soldiers on the Plains of South Dakota. The speaker added: “Crazy Horse said that the Sacred Hoop was broken at Wounded Knee.”
Then Chief Looking Horse stepped forward. It was time, he said, to mend the Sacred Hoop. The original plan for the afternoon had been for clergy to walk up to the police barricade, but now, he said, the plan had changed. Instead, everyone at the camp was going to move clockwise, on foot and on horseback, out to the far edges of the camp. There we would form a great circle, hold hands, and pray. People all over the world would be praying with us.
He pulled out an eagle bone whistle. “I will call the eagle to come.”
He blew the whistle. “We are one heart,” he said. “We are one mind. One prayer. One spirit.”
Half expecting an eagle to appear, I looked up. I wanted an eagle to come upon us like a vision, like a sign, but nothing happened. The sky was empty of life. Instead of hearing the whoosh of wings overhead, or the cry of a bird of prey, all I could hear was the chop of helicopter blades.
The crowd began to disband. Dispirited, I began walking with Michael toward what I took to be the nearest edge of the camp. I had no clear idea where we were going or what we would do when we got there. Why had the chief entrusted the crowd with this ceremony? And what sort of ceremony could it be? As an Episcopal priest, I was used to leading orderly services carried out indoors with clear lines of authority, assigned seating, and probably a service leaflet. Sounding more disgruntled than I intended, I only half-jokingly muttered to Michael that if this were an Episcopal liturgy, we would hold a rehearsal and figure out in advance where to stand, where to sit, and what to do. By contrast, this thing was completely chaotic. We ran into stragglers who hadn’t heard about the prayer circle. Would they join us? We saw people pausing to stand in line for the Port-a-Potty or to grab a bite to eat. Would they get distracted, forget about the ceremony, and move on to something else? Would enough people stay faithful to our prayerful task or would people simply drift away and let the effort peter out?
I confess it: my doubt sprang not only from discomfort with a spontaneous, disorderly ceremony that involved hundreds of people. It also sprang from not wanting to depend on other people to get the job done. I didn’t want to depend on their goodwill, their capacity to pay attention, or their ability to follow directions. I didn’t think we could complete the ritual. I didn’t think we could pull it off. I had no faith in my fellows. I was filled with doubt.
Doubt is a terrible thing. It undermines hope and resolve. But the only way to get mighty things done is to do them together, learning to trust each other and to suspend our doubts. Fortunately I was as stubborn as I was doubtful. If I didn’t carry out my own part of the mission, why should other people carry out theirs? And if we didn’t finish this task together and today, would it ever be accomplished? Despite my doubts I stubbornly kept on walking, kept on heading to the edge of camp, kept on reaching out for hands to clasp. I wanted this prayer-circle thing to work.
So, it turned out, did everybody else.
It took a number of adjustments. Should we stand close to the Cannonball River or should we stand further away? Were we the only string of people holding hands in this corner of the camp? If so, should we stand still and wait for other people to find us, or should we search for another string of people to meet up with and join?
Young Native Americans trotted by on foot, offering words of encouragement, as good at their job as any Verger in an Episcopal cathedral. Don’t let go! We’re almost there! Step this way! No, not that way – this way! To your left! To your left! Don’t let go your hands! We’ve almost got it!
Our line of people stumbled sideways, laughing. We took careful steps backward until our arms were fully outstretched and our hands firmly clasped. Excitement rose. As we waited for other parts of the circle to form, strangers introduced themselves to each other. Here on my right was Michael, and then two Quaker women from upstate New York, both of them long-time activists; here on my left was Allison, a young Native American from Minnesota who was visiting the camp for the third time.
Person by person the circle was woven, until at last we could look out and see a distant line of people holding hands in what seemed like the far-off other side of the world.
We’d done it! The circle was complete! The Sacred Hoop was mended!
But, as if that weren’t marvel enough, it was just then that a young Native messenger came bounding past. “Denied! Denied!” he yelled. “The pipeline permit has been denied!” He was breathless with joy.
What? We fell into startled silence, looking at each other. Doubt arose. I murmured to Michael, “I need some kind of confirmation before I’m going to believe that.”
Someone else appeared and repeated the good news. Was it possible? What did it mean? Did we dare to trust what we were hearing? We released hands and headed back to the sacred fire, our jubilation growing as we drew closer and heard the drumming and singing that had already begun. The good news was true: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had denied the final permit that allowed the Dakota Access pipeline to go under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe.
This is what elation sounds like: drumming, chanting, singing. This is what elation looks like: a crowd of people swaying and dancing, with individuals – even strangers – looking into each others’ eyes, wiping away tears, and exchanging an embrace. I joined in the two-step dance around the sacred fire. We danced just as every soul dances when forgiveness, justice, and mercy extend in every direction. We danced because sight had been restored to the blind and captives had been set free. We danced because the mighty had been cast down from their thrones, the lowly had been lifted up, and strangers had become friends.
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the LORD,” sings Mary in the Magnificat. “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant…”
In between chants, drumming, and songs, Native speakers took turns at the microphone. Repeatedly they thanked the millions of people worldwide who had expressed support, the thousands who had visited the camps, the tens of thousands who had donated time and money to the struggle to stop the pipeline and protect the water.
Someone said, “Never before have we been at an intersection where everyone is here. It is a strange turn of history when the people taking care of us are the military of the U.S. government.”
Someone said, “We’ve come to this huge, giant ceremony being hosted by Mother Earth.”
Someone said, “I want to thank the person that loves spirituality. I want to thank the person that loves Mother Earth.”
Someone said, “We still have a lot of praying to do. We are not done yet. We are going to keep fighting. We will pray for the Governor” (and he named other individuals that want to build the pipeline). “They do not seek the Spirit in their hearts yet. We will pray for the ones who want to destroy.”
Someone said, “This is about more than a pipeline. This is the beginning of the world united.”
The celebration went on for hours. We knew that the battle was not over: the company behind the Dakota Access pipeline fully intends to complete the pipeline, and our President-elect seems hell-bent on extracting and burning every last ounce of fossil fuels. But for now it was enough – it was more than enough – to touch the deep truth that we belong to each other and to the Earth – to know in our bones that every person is sacred and every community is sacred, that the web of life is sacred, that the Earth is sacred.
It seems to me that we didn’t just mend the Sacred Hoop that day. We were becoming the Sacred Hoop that was no longer broken.
By the fire
On December 5, what I’d feared might happen – violence, forcible evacuation, even massacre – did not take place. Instead, a second ceremony of healing was carried out: the son of General Wesley Clark stood with the veterans and apologized for the centuries of genocide perpetrated by the U.S. military. Coming, he said, “as the conscience of a nation,” he knelt before Leonard Dog Crow, confessed the military’s sins, and asked for forgiveness. Forgiveness was granted. (A brief video is here.) In these dark times, when fear and doubt threaten to tear so many communities apart, a light shines out from acts of reconciliation like these!
Michael and I returned to the camp that morning. After agreeing to meet again at the sacred fire, we went our separate ways and explored on our own. I wanted first to go up high. Picking my way through patches of ice, I climbed the small hill overlooking the camp and gazed into the distance, looking out over the helter-skelter assortment of teepees and yurts, vehicles and flags. Here we all were – a diverse company drawn together by a fierce and spirited longing for justice and healing.
Carrying this image with me, I made my way downhill and walked back to the fire. Small logs were aflame in the shallow, circular pit. A few people were sitting on benches, talking quietly or sitting alone in silent prayer. Bundles of lavender were placed around the rim of the circle, and at the circle’s entrance were bowls of tobacco and juniper sprigs, along with a turtle shell, small skulls, feathers, and sage.
I don’t know the religious traditions of the Lakota Sioux. I was touched that an outsider like me was welcome to participate in their ceremonies. I knelt to take a pinch of tobacco, a bit of juniper. As I cradled these offerings in my palm, a prayer of gratitude gradually collected within me. When the time was ripe, I cast what I was holding into the flames. Then I sat for a while and watched the fire. Gazing down, I could almost see the fire extending deep into the Earth. I could almost see the fire reaching down like roots in every direction and catching up everything it touched. The longer I gazed, the more it seemed as if that strong and living fire could ground our every step on Earth, could be inhaled with every breath of air, and could bring warmth to every human heart.
On our way home
The first flakes of snow were falling. By early afternoon, when Michael and I began our trek back to Bismarck, a ferocious blizzard was beginning to roll in from the Arctic. Eventually the winds would gust up to 50 mph, wind chills would drop to nearly 20 below zero, and the camp would be buried in snowdrifts up to 7 feet deep. For now I simply kept a gentle, wary foot on the accelerator and squinted into the white landscape of driving snow, trying to locate the next piece of highway. When I heard the tires hit one of the rumble strips on either side of the road, I’d hazard a guess: should I make the correction by steering left or right?
“Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy,” I silently prayed, my fingers clutching the steering wheel. Which was worse – sliding into a ditch or into oncoming traffic? Sometimes it’s no small thing to keep to your chosen path.
Michael seemed unperturbed. “Shall I read Noon Day Prayer?” he asked, cheerfully, pulling out his prayer book.
“No, thanks,” I answered through clenched jaws. “You go ahead. I’ll just listen this time.”
Threading our way through love and fear, we prayed our way home.
Last Tuesday, Americans voted into office a Presidential candidate who has embraced fossil fuels, called climate change a hoax, and vowed to withdraw from the Paris agreement.
Yesterday, five days later, Christians from across Massachusetts gathered on a hillside to reaffirm our dedication to restoring God’s creation. Led by five of the top Protestant and Roman Catholic leaders in our Commonwealth, we prayed and sang under an open sky as the afternoon sun cast long shadows across the woodlands and fields. Heifer Farm in central Massachusetts is the perfect spot for an outdoor prayer service, not only because the location is inherently beautiful, but also because the mission of Heifer International – to end poverty and hunger through sustainable community development – so closely aligns with our mission as Christians to respond to the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor.
After listening to readings from the Book of Genesis, Meister Eckhart, and Wendell Berry, and after confessing our alienation from the Earth and receiving an assurance of God’s pardon, we listened as Christina Leano, a leader in the Global Catholic Climate Movement, read “A Christian prayer in union with creation,” from Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home.
Then it was time to renew our individual commitment to the Earth and to make our own personal pledge. I stepped to the microphone. Here is what I said.
“O Lord, seize us with your power and light, help us to protect all life…”
These words of Pope Francis express our deep yearning, as people of faith, to safeguard the world that God entrusted to our care. We didn’t choose the date for this prayer service because it was the first Sunday after a long and painful election process. We chose it because it happened to be the date when top Christian leaders from across Massachusetts were available to come. But I can’t think of a better day to reaffirm our steadfast commitment as Christians to be reconcilers and justice-seekers, people who are willing to take action, just as Noah did, to protect life on this planet.
I know that many of us feel tired and shaken to the bone. Yet here we are – sturdy, resilient souls sitting outside on a hillside on a November afternoon, in the company of five leaders of the Churches in Massachusetts: Bishop Doug Fisher (Episcopal Diocese of Western Mass.); Bishop Alan Gates (Episcopal Diocese of Mass.); Jim Antal (Conference Minister and President, Mass. Conference, United Church of Christ); Bishop Jim Hazelwood (New England Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America); and Fr. Richard Reidy (Vicar General, Catholic Diocese of Worcester), who is representing Bishop Robert McManus, away in Baltimore for the annual Fall meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
We represent different branches of the Jesus Movement, but we are united in a single Christian mission. We are here to say that we know who we are: people made in the image and likeness of God; people sent out into the world to bear witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ. We are not willing to settle for a world ruined by catastrophic climate change. We are not willing to stand by and let the seas rise and let the ice caps melt and let people’s homes and livelihoods be destroyed by extreme storms. We are not willing to keep burning fossil fuels at present rates, to let “business as usual” run its course and to leave a ruined world to our children.
We are here because we know we live in precarious times. The word “precarious” derives from the word for “prayer,” so first and foremost we are here to pray, to feel God’s presence and to seek God’s guidance. After the flood, God made a covenant with every living creature for all time, and put a rainbow in the sky as a sign of God’s unfailing love for all creation. When we act and advocate in service of God’s creation – when we hold in our hearts the future generations who are counting on us to leave them a habitable world – we do so in the presence and power of a divine love that will never let us go.
Today we have an opportunity to respond to God’s covenant. In a moment I will invite each of us to make a pledge, to make a commitment to stand up and stand together to protect God’s creation and to address climate change. We’ve created a pledge card to help you organize your thoughts about what you might feel led to do.
In a time when our country is so deeply divided, we intend to keep listening to each other. And we intend to keep listening to the Earth. As my husband, Robert Jonas, likes to say, “The critters are looking to you, and they are hoping for the best.”
After the homily, pledge cards with green ribbons were distributed to the congregation. Four religious leaders rose from their seats and took a stand at each corner of the congregation to express their support. Making promises is not easy when you intend to keep them.
I began the ceremony by reading the opening statement of the pledge: We are the Earth…I am the Earth…What I do matters…This is what I am called to commit to now.
Bishop Alan Gates read the section on prayer: I pledge to Pray… I will pray for the earth, for humanity, and for guidance in my own life and practice so that I live more gently on the earth. In particular, I pledge to….
Here he said aloud his own commitment regarding communal prayer. He pledged to encourage congregations in the Diocese of Massachusetts to include the additional question in our Baptismal Covenant that General Convention recently authorized for trial use. Whenever Episcopalians renew our baptismal vows – the vows that express our commitment to follow Jesus – we are now invited to name and accept a crucial aspect of our mission, our responsibility as baptized Christians to care for God’s creation. We are asked: “Will you cherish the wondrous works of God, and protect the beauty and integrity of all creation?” And we answer: “I will, with God’s help.”
Then followed a period of silence, as members of the congregation reflected on their own commitment to pray for the Earth.
Bishop Jim Hazelwood read the section on learning: I pledge to Learn… I will learn more about creation care, about the climate crisis, and about how my choices make a difference in my life, my community and the world. In particular, I pledge to…
Here he pledged to read a book about the climate crisis – and there are many fine options to choose from, such as Bill McKibben’s Eaarth and Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. In the silence that followed, the congregation bent over their pledge cards, jotting down their own commitments to learn.
Then Bishop Doug Fisher read the section on action: I pledge to Act… I will make changes in my own life to reduce my carbon footprint and to conserve natural resources. I will work in my community to join or create local opportunities to care for the earth. In particular, I pledge to…
He commented that he drives 35,000 miles in the course of a year, and he pledged to get a hybrid car. He also pledged to encourage and support the churches in our diocese to go green. Again, in the silence, we reflected on the actions that we felt led to take.
Jim Antal read the final section, on advocacy: I pledge to Advocate… I will participate in the civic and political process, and will vote and advocate in places of power for policies that protect and restore the earth. In particular, I pledge to…
In a ringing voice, Jim proclaimed his commitment to “hold elected leaders accountable when they fail to protect God’s creation by educating our congregations, unifying our members’ voices and mobilizing our bodies in ways that neither the legislators nor the media can ignore.”
At the end of the pledge ceremony, we turned to someone nearby and asked the person to tie a green ribbon around our wrist to help us remember our commitment. I found this small moment especially touching. It is difficult to change course, difficult to keep our word, difficult to lay aside patterns of thoughtless greed and waste. Just as we need someone’s help to tie a green ribbon around our wrist, so we need each others’ strong assistance and fierce encouragement if we’re going to change our ways as individuals and as a society. At the end of the service, led by Fred Small we joined hands and sang the rousing anthem, “The Tide Is Rising.”
Ten days ago, just a week before the election, I attended and spoke at a conference in Washington, D.C., on building human resilience for the climate crisis. Some of the strategies I learned at that conference seem eminently useful not only in a time of climate crisis but also in a time of profound social and political uncertainty. As Bob Doppelt, the lead conference organizer, explains in his book, Transformational Resilience: How Building Human Resilience to Climate Disruption Can Safeguard Society and Increase Wellbeing, we can develop two basic skills or “building blocks” that help us cope with adversity and use adversity as a catalyst to learn, grow, and increase well-being:
• “presencing” practices, such as mindfulness meditation, that ground us and stabilize our nervous system; and
• “purposing” practices that tap into the core values we want to live by.
Our task is to practice these skills and to build resilient communities – sturdy networks of relationship, communication, and trust that can withstand trauma and adversity.
It seems to me that yesterday’s prayer service, We Are The Earth, bears all the hallmarks of encouraging emotional and spiritual resilience: we practiced the presence of God as we sang and prayed, calming our minds and opening our hearts; we tapped into our deep purpose as Christians, as we made our pledge commitments to follow a God of love; and we strengthened our bonds of community through our laughter, hugs, and tears.
Yes, we live in precarious times. That’s why we intend to keep praying, to take every action we can to restore our beloved human and Earth communities, and to do so in community, leaving no one out.
With only a few days left before the Presidential election, the city of Washington, D.C., is humming with anxiety.
The taxi driver from Ethiopia asks, “Have you voted already?”
Two people jog toward me in a park north of the Capitol, deep in conversation. As they pass, I hear one of them say, with alarm, “….and the difference is only 3%!”
My friend, an environmental lawyer with the Interior Department, meets us at the restaurant, pulls off her jacket, takes her seat, and bursts out, “Make me feel better about the election!”
The election cycle is one source of our collective sense of stress. Another is climate change. Of course, the two stressors are linked, since the outcome of Tuesday’s election will determine whether or not our next President pulls out of the Paris Agreement and effectively puts an end to global efforts to prevent runaway climate change.
The topic of stress and resilience is what brought me to D.C. as one of the panelists at a two-day conference on “Building Human Resilience for Climate Change.” Held on November 3-4 at the headquarters of the National Psychological Association in Washington, D.C., the conference was organized by International Transformational Resilience Coalition (ITRC). ITRC was launched in 2014, and is now a network composed of hundreds of mental health, faith, youth, and educational leaders that are focused on the need to prepare human beings to cope constructively with the psychological, spiritual, and psycho-social impacts of climate change. Even more ambitiously, ITRC seeks to help people “use climate adversities as transformational catalysts to learn, grow, and increase well-being.” ITRC recognizes that trauma lies ahead of us, as global average temperatures rise toward 2˚ Centigrade (3.4˚ Fahrenheit). Much suffering can be prevented if we address the risks proactively.
As you might expect – given the topic – the conference was intense, and addressed a range of challenging questions. How does climate disruption affect our mental health? What are the psychological impacts of flooding, droughts, extreme weather events, and rising temperatures? Where do we see “secondary trauma” associated with climate change, such as “moral distress,” “compassion fatigue,” helplessness, hopelessness, and burnout? How does climate disruption affect a community’s social health, contributing to a rise in aggression, crime, and violence? What is the difference between “disaster-preparedness” and “resilience”? What practices and policies help communities to foster robust social support networks? What skills help us to develop our personal resilience, our capacity as individuals to bounce back – and even grow – in the face of acute or chronic trauma?
In one of the afternoon workshops, I was a panelist alongside two other faith leaders – Hugh G. Bryne (who teaches meditation and works with people to cultivate mindfulness in daily life with the Insight Meditation Community of Washington (IMCW), and is cofounder of the Mindfulness Training Institute of Washington) and Imam Saffet Abid Catovic (who is a fellow at GreenFaith, Co-chair and founder of the Green Muslims of New Jersey, and a founding board member of the Global Muslim Climate Network). Moderated by Mark C. Johnson (who is Executive Director, The Center and Library for the Bible and Social Justice), the panel gave each of us a chance to reflect on the ways that the doctrines and practices of our faith contribute to building human resilience to climate change.
I was touched by the eager participation of members of the audience in the Q & A that followed. As one person exclaimed, climate change is the biggest pastoral and existential issue we’ve ever faced. She’s right. Her comment made me think of children who fear they have no future; of young adults who decide not to have children because they don’t want to bring new beings into such a world; of the elders who have confided to me that they’re glad to be old – they won’t have to endure what’s coming.
If post-traumatic stress disorder is real, so is “pre-traumatic stress disorder.” We’re living in it. That is what forensic psychiatrist (and one of the speakers at the conference) Lise Van Susteren said in an interview with Esquire last July, “When the End of Human Civilization Is Your Day Job.” Knowing that we can expect climate disasters in the years ahead makes us frightened, sad, and angry; we feel unsettled and obsessed.
I’m not going to spin you a cheery story that in fact all is well in the world outside us or in the world within us. It’s not. That’s why it is so important to develop initiatives that build resilience on a personal and societal level. I look forward to seeing how faith communities can lead the way.
In the meantime, I wish my readers a deep sense of ease, the kind of ease that comes from facing reality as it is, while keeping an open heart. In a stressful time, we can always take a good, deep breath and become present to the here and now (Ah! This breath!).
We can carry out actions that reflect our values. (If you read this before November 8 and haven’t yet done so, please vote on Tuesday.)
And we can renew our sense of purpose. My spirits lift whenever I read the note that my mother wrote out by hand and pinned to her bulletin board: Whenever you despair for the world, stop and ask yourself: What kind of world am I creating?
Asking – and answering – that question is an essential ingredient in every good recipe for resilience.
For more information about ITRC, contact: email@example.com
National Religious Coalition on Creation Care (NRCCC) recognizes the work and spiritual vision of Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas by giving her the 2016 Steward of God’s Creation award, on Sept. 12, 2016, in Washington D.C. After introductions by Connie Hanson, Rev. Tom Carr, and Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb, Margaret describes her three-part “framework of the heart” for spiritual resilience in a time of climate crisis.
Text of a keynote address for “An Interfaith Climate Justice Meeting” organized by Springfield Area Interfaith Climate Action Network (SAICAN), held at First Church of Christ, Longmeadow, MA, on October 30, 2016
Thank you for inviting me to speak. I am excited by what you’re up to as a coalition, and very interested to see what emerges from today’s meeting.
I have worked with some of you. Some of you I haven’t yet met. But I greet all of you as friends. I am an Episcopal priest and a long-time climate activist, and I now have the world’s longest job title. I work as “Missioner for Creation Care for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and for the Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ.”
I am not a “missionary,” a term that can evoke imperialist, colonial-era associations of forcibly converting someone to a religion, but rather a “missioner”: someone who is sent out on a mission, serving a purpose greater than herself, out of the box, outside the boundaries of a building. And I’m a missioner for “Creation care,” a term, it turns out, that some people confuse with “creationism,” the belief that the universe originated from acts of God that are literally described in the Bible. Being a missioner for “Creation care” (not creationism) means that I’m trying to protect the beautiful world that God created. My Website is RevivingCreation.org, where you can find blog posts, sermons, articles, and more – including an article on how to start a green team, and an article on the roles that communities of faith can play in a time of climate crisis.
My job is like a swinging door: on the one hand, I preach, speak and lead retreats for people of faith, saying that we need to place the climate crisis at the center of our moral and spiritual concern and we need to take action. Then I turn, and I speak to activists who may have no particular faith tradition. I thank them for engaging in the struggle to protect the web of life, which is such urgent and difficult work. I tell them that the only way to keep going, without burning out or going off the rails, is to draw from inner resources of spiritual wisdom, from spiritual practices, and ideally from the support of a spiritual community.
Today the swinging door is an open door: people of faith and climate justice activists are here together in one place! How sweet it is! I hope we can break down (or at least soften) the false split of people into two camps: “spiritual” people (people who pray, meditate, and take time to contemplate beauty of the world; people who give thanks and who attend to their inner lives) and “active” people (people on the front lines who are serving, helping, organizing, advocating). I hope we can keep working to heal that false split, because right now we need people who can do both: people who can tap into their deep inner wisdom and who can also step out to take bold, creative action on behalf of life on this planet.
Christians often say that we need to be good “stewards” of the planet. That’s true. But sometimes the word “steward” can sound rather wimpy, as if it’s enough for us to recycle a can once in a while, or to turn off a light. I think we need a term that is more robust, more full of juice. Maybe we need to be “spiritual warriors” engaged in “sacred activism.”
More than ever we need wise people, bold people, dedicated people, because we’re in the midst of an emergency. The house is on fire. Through burning fossil fuels like coal, gas, and oil, in 200 years – just a blink in geologic time – we’ve pumped so much heat-trapping CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the air that atmospheric levels of CO2 are higher than they’ve been for millions of years. In a TED talk a few years ago, climate scientist James Hanson explained that the added energy (or heat) that we’re pouring into the atmosphere is equivalent “to exploding 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs per day, 365 days per year. That’s how much extra energy Earth is gaining each day.” Not surprisingly, this is having a profound effect on planet. In his book Eaarth, Bill McKibben writes: “Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen.” Scientists tell us with increasing alarm that unless we change course fast, we’re on a fast track to catastrophic, runaway climate change that would render the world very difficult to inhabit, perhaps in the lifetime of our children.
I’ve been a climate activist for many years, but I have never felt the rising tide of commitment and momentum that I now feel. I’m deeply thankful for that, even as I am keenly aware that we have a long struggle ahead. Every religion has issued some kind of statement about the moral and spiritual urgency of addressing the climate crisis – here is just one collection, Faith-based Statements on Climate Change, collected by Citizens Climate Lobby volunteers.
Climate change is obviously a scientific issue, an economic issue, a political issue, but it is also a moral issue, a justice issue. The poorest nations and the poorest citizens in each nation are those most vulnerable to climate change, because of flooding, food shortages, and the loss of clean water. As we see in Flint, Michigan, and right here in Springfield, the front-line communities most affected by fossil fuel pollution are often low-income communities and communities of color. The poor are often the people least responsible for causing climate change, and the people least equipped to protect themselves from its effects. As the Pope’s encyclical makes crystal clear, healing the climate is closely connected with securing social justice, racial justice, environmental justice, and economic justice. We can see that very starkly in the struggle going on right now at Standing Rock in North Dakota, in the resistance to the Dakota Access pipeline. And climate change is about intergenerational justice, too, for right now we are stealing a habitable Earth from our children.
So climate change is a justice issue. And it’s a spiritual issue, too. I titled these remarks “Climate change: An emergency of the heart,” because in the face of the climate crisis, it’s so easy to get emotionally overwhelmed, to go into panic mode and be flooded by anxiety, or to shut down entirely, go numb and not feel a thing, because we don’t know what to do with our fear and anger and grief.
Each of you probably has your own favorite “go to” strategy for avoiding your feelings. Here are a few popular methods. Some of us get into our heads and give all our attention to mastering the facts – we intend to stay on top of every last fact about the rate of melting ice, every last bit of awful climate news, every single detail about the terms of a Senate bill. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for mastering essential facts and for educating ourselves and staying informed. But sometimes we can get so busy using our wonderful brains to analyze, memorize, conceptualize, and so on, that we lose touch with our inner landscape. Then we wonder why we’re so short-tempered or why we woke up with insomnia or why we got into a car accident. It’s only when we’re connected with our feelings that we have access to our emotional intelligence, to our intuition and moral imagination. When we get into our heads and lose contact with our greater intelligence, we forget who we are and we act, as Joanna Macy puts it, like “brains on a stick.”
Another strategy to avoid our feelings is to get really busy. If I stay super busy, if I have an endless list of things to do, if I try to cram in more tasks in a day than any human beings could possibly accomplish, then I won’t have to feel the clench in my belly or the ache in my heart.
Addictive behaviors are another “go-to” strategy. Don’t like what I’m feeling? Maybe it’s time to do some shopping, eat another cookie, have a smoke, have a drink – there are lots of ways to go numb and repress what’s going on inside.
Yes, we are in a climate emergency. We’re also in an emergency of the heart. We need to learn to be “first responders” to ourselves and to each other. We need to be gentle with ourselves and with each other. We can’t think our way out of anxiety. So I will share three remedies, three spiritual practices for responding to the cry of the heart.
I invite us to pray. I invite us to explore practices that quiet our minds, bring us into the present moment, and help us listen to our deepest wisdom. This could include practices of mindfulness, practices of gratefulness, practices of meditation and contemplative prayer. Practices like these help us to open to the deep inner wisdom that is always speaking in our hearts. Practices of prayer and meditation help us to listen to the inner voice of love.
Here’s a quote from Thomas Merton, the 20th century Trappist monk and prolific writer who practiced contemplative prayer: “If we descend into the depth of our own spirit and arrive at our own center, we confront the inescapable fact that at the root of our existence we are in immediate and constant contact with God.”
That’s a very different image of God than the one we may be used to. God is not “out there,” far away in the heavens. God is “in here,” closer than our next breath.
I invite us to allow ourselves to grieve. We have lost so much, and there is more loss ahead. I invite us to let ourselves feel the pain so that we are able to move forward and to be fully alive. Until we allow ourselves to grieve, parts of ourselves will stay numb, even dead.
A couple of weeks ago I attended a climate summit in Washington, DC, and I happened to be seated beside the Executive Director of the US Climate Action Network. Our task at each table was to do a go-round and to name the top three things that need to be done in order to tackle climate change. The first suggestion from this activist was: Grieve.
Let me add that there are two ways to grieve: one is to grieve alone, in a state of despair – the kind of grief that does not bring healing. The other way to grieve is to grieve within the embrace of love. If we believe in God, we do this when we pray our grief: we grieve in the presence of a loving God who embraces and shares in everything we feel. But whatever our religious beliefs, we can grieve with each other and we can hold each other with love.
Finally, I invite us to discover who we really are. I brought in this icon of St. Francis, who is often called the patron saint of ecology. You can see that Francis didn’t think that that he was alone and that his identity stopped with his skin. He is interpenetrated by other creatures – by wolf, bird, turtle, and snake – and even by elements like wind and fire. He spoke of Brother Sun and Sister Moon.
Francis’ daily prayer was “Who are you, God, and who am I?” Pray that prayer for a while and see what happens! Our identity does not stop with our skin!
When we experience ourselves like that, as interpenetrated with all of life, then we know that when we take action to save life on earth, we do so in the company of the trees, of the earth and sky. When we stand up for life – when we get arrested in a protest against fossil fuels, when we divest, when we take whatever actions we’re called to take – the trees are thanking us. The animals are thanking us. We are not alone. The whole creation is offering its support.
Thank you for the work you’re doing to re-weave the web of life. I may have the title, “Missioner for Creation Care,” but I only hold that title on your behalf. Each of you – everyone in this room, every single one of you – you too are missioners for Creation care.
A brief presentation to lay and clergy deputies of the 115th Annual Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, delivered on October 29, 2016. The three missional priorities of The Episcopal Church are evangelism, racial reconciliation, and environmental stewardship. This talk about environmental stewardship in our diocese came after talks on evangelism (by Rev. Nancy Strong) and racial reconciliation (by Rev. Harvey Hill).
Thank you for inviting me to say a few words about this ministry. A full report of what I’m up to is available online in your convention materials, so I’ll keep this short. Before I say anything else, I want to thank you for approving just moments ago a resolution to express our diocese’s support of the water protectors at Standing Rock. Clergy are being invited to go to North Dakota next week to offer their witness and support, and I just read on Facebook that seven clergy from the Diocese of Massachusetts are planning to make the trip. I hope that some of you will feel moved to join them.
Serving as your Missioner for Creation Care has not been boring. Not once. The job challenges me, provokes me, and asks me to be creative and resilient and get out of my comfort zone. It keeps me on my knees, depending on the power of the Holy Spirit, and it keeps me on my feet, heading out to do things I’ve never done before.
What calls me to this ministry? On the one hand, I have a deep, sweet sense that God is with us, that God’s love is unfailing and powerful and real, and, on the other, I live with a painful awareness that the web of life is unraveling before our eyes. If we keep burning fossils fuels like coal, gas, and oil at anything like present rates, we will push the global climate to a level of disruption that will render the planet difficult to inhabit, perhaps in the lifetimes of our children. Last year we set a new record for heat, crushing the record set the year before, and this year is right on track to be hotter still, generating extremes of weather, droughts, floods, storms, uncertain seasons for planting and harvest, the spread of infectious diseases, rising and acidifying seas, and more troubles than I care to name.
Where do we find the courage to face this new reality and to muster an effective response? What do we do with our anger, fear, and grief? How can our faith in the crucified and risen Christ help us to break out of our inertia and denial and to rise to the occasion, so that we join hands with each other and with other people of good will, and take action?
These are questions I tackle every day when I preach at churches, large and small; when I offer workshops; when I speak at rallies and prayer vigils; when I write blog posts and articles; when I lobby; when I lead retreats. This past year I’ve sometimes felt like the character in that book by Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!. I’ve found myself in all kinds of places.
I’ll mention five.
Last December I scrambled onto the back of a pickup truck parked on the Boston Common outside the State House and spoke to more than two thousand people gathered for the biggest climate rally in Boston’s history about the ways that faith can guide our efforts to build a more just and sustainable future.
In April, I traveled to Delaware to lead a retreat for the clergy of that diocese. We prayed and talked and wept together, acknowledging our grief about the climate crisis and re-dedicating ourselves to protect God’s Creation.
In May, I sat on the edge of a pipeline trench in West Roxbury beside fifteen other clergy from a variety of faith traditions, our legs dangling in the pit, as we sang, prayed, and prepared to be arrested for blocking construction of a dangerous and dirty fracked gas pipeline.
In June, along with hundreds of other people, I traveled to Washington, DC, for the annual conference of Citizens Climate Lobby. I spoke on an interfaith panel about the roles that faith communities can play in a time of climate crisis, and I spent a day lobbying members of Congress for a fair and rising price on carbon.
In September I returned to DC to join other members of the National Religious Coalition on Creation Care in a meeting with the White House Council on Environmental Quality. We talked about what climate change is doing to the oceans, and how faith leaders can support the President to take bold steps before he leaves office. When the meeting ended, we stood up and joined hands, and I prayed out loud for the day when the Earth shall be filled with the glory of God, as the waters cover the sea.
When you’re on a mission, you never know where God will send you.
If you’re near Springfield tomorrow, please join me at 2:00 p.m. at First Church of Christ in Longmeadow, for a gathering of faith communities and climate activists looking for ways to work together. I’ll give a keynote entitled “Climate Change: An Emergency of the Heart.”
Please mark your calendars and spread the word about an outdoor worship service for Creation care that we’ll hold at Heifer Farm in Rutland, MA on Sunday afternoon, November 13. This will be a big, ecumenical, family-friendly outdoor prayer service led by our bishop and by all the other leaders of Protestant denominations in Massachusetts – Episcopal, Lutheran, and UCC. Look for us on Facebook: the event is called “We Are the Earth: Public Prayer for the Planet,” and please let us know you are coming.
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7)
It is a joy to be with you this morning. Thank you, Tom, for inviting me to preach. As you may know, I serve as Missioner for Creation Care for this diocese and also for the United Church of Christ in Massachusetts, which means that I go from church to church, preaching the Gospel and speaking about our call as Christians to love and protect the Earth that God entrusted to our care. This is a great day to be visiting the Cathedral, the center of worship in our diocese, for we are right in the center of Creation Season, which began several weeks ago with the Feast Day of St. Francis on October 4 and will extend for several more weeks, until the first Sunday in Advent.
As I pondered the readings for this morning, that line from Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy leaped off the page: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). What’s the context? Paul is apparently in prison, probably in Rome, and he is facing imminent death. As he says in the reading’s first line, “I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come” (2 Timothy 4:6). Paul is preparing to die and he is doing what most of us tend to do when we face our death: he’s looking back over his life, carrying out a life review; he’s glancing into the future, to the life beyond death; and he’s trying to convey what really matters to him.
Maybe it’s because I celebrate a birthday tomorrow – and not just any birthday, but a milestone birthday – that I find myself drawn to this passage. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, when we’re on our deathbed, to be able to look back on our lives and to say: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith!” I imagine the satisfaction that someone who is able to say that must feel. Through his teaching and ministry, through his presence and words, through his death and resurrection, Jesus showed us that love sent us into the world, that love is what we’re made for, that love is what roots and grounds our lives and gives them meaning and purpose. So when we reach the end of our lives and look back, wouldn’t it be wonderful to know that, as best we could, we made that love real in the world around us – that we lived our life in a way that made people as sure of love as they are of sunlight. Now that is a fight worth fighting; that is a race worth finishing; that is a faith worth keeping!
Maybe, at the end of our lives, we will hope what Paul hopes – that God has reserved for us “the crown of righteousness” (2 Timothy 4:8) – but today’s Gospel makes it clear that it won’t be a crown of self-righteousness. Two men stand before God in prayer, and it’s not the good man, the man who has done all the right things, who goes home justified with God, in right relationship with God, but the other man, the sinful man who honestly confesses his guilt and beats his breast in repentance, praying “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13) It seems that God sees deeply into the heart. What matters to God is not just outward behavior – that we do good things – but also what goes on inside us: that we don’t exalt ourselves and don’t regard other people with contempt.
I find this is a particularly poignant parable in light of this year’s combative and divisive election season, which, across our country and in our own living rooms. is arousing so much anger, fear, and even hatred. Wherever we are on the political spectrum, it’s easy to get caught up in the general mood of self-righteousness, mockery, and contempt. So, as I consider today’s Gospel passage, I imagine the vast tenderness of God, the God who says it’s OK, right here in this sanctuary, to quit all our defensive posing and posturing, to drop all our efforts to promote ourselves, to put ourselves forward and to make ourselves look good at someone else’s expense. I imagine the gentleness of God, who wants nothing more than to come to us, as God came to that wretched tax collector, and to touch that place within us where deep down we know that we can do nothing without God and that in fact we are nothing without God.
It’s when we put down our weapons and come before God with an undefended heart that we finally discover how loved we are. Whenever that happens – when we let God’s love reach us in that place where we feel most vulnerable and afraid – a great answering love rises up in us, a love for ourselves and for our neighbors and for the beautiful, fragile Earth upon which all life depends.
Jesus knew a love like that, a love that encompasses the whole Creation. Jesus obviously lived close to the Earth: his ministry began by immersion in a river and he prayed and lived and walked countless miles outdoors. In his parables and stories, Jesus talked about God in terms of natural things: seeds and sparrows, lilies and sheep, rivers, wind, and rocks. Jesus was deeply aware of the sacredness of the natural world and it’s no wonder that in our sacraments we, too, make contact with simple earthy things, with bread and wine and water. We trust that God is in these things – that when we take in the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist, we take in God’s presence.
Like most Christians, I didn’t grow up hearing very much about how God’s love extended to the natural world. But because of the ecological crisis in which we now find ourselves, as Christians we need as never before to renew and reclaim our care for God’s Creation. The web of life is unraveling before our eyes. In just 200 years – a blink in geologic time – human beings have burned so much coal, gas, and oil and released so much heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that atmospheric levels of CO2 are higher today than they have been for millions of years. Scientists warn with increasing alarm that our atmosphere is warming more rapidly than expected and that climate disruption is already evident worldwide. Already oceans are heating and becoming more acidic; tundra is thawing; ice caps are melting; sea levels are rising; coral reefs are dying; massive droughts are spreading in some places and heavy rains intensifying in others. We’re on the edge or in the midst of what some experts call the sixth major extinction event on this planet. 2015 was the hottest year on record, shattering the record set just the year before, and 2016 is right on track to set a new record for heat.
The world community is beginning to grasp that the situation is urgent. Last December nearly 200 countries pledged in the Paris Agreement to reduce their carbon emissions, agreeing that the Earth must be prevented from warming more than an average of 2˚ Centigrade (or 3.6˚ Fahrenheit) above pre-Industrial levels – and ideally much less than that. That agreement is a start, but the pledges are voluntary, and even if they were carried out, they would be insufficient to avert catastrophe. So, as I’ve said before in other contexts, if we’re serious about wanting to preserve life as it has evolved on this planet, then we’re going to have to work for it – to organize, lobby, vote, pray, invent, create, protest, and push – to do this together and do it fast.
If, at the end of our lives, we hope to say with St. Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith,” then we need to place care for the Earth at the center of our spiritual and moral concern.
For there is a good fight to be fought: we are fighting for a habitable planet and for a safe and healthy world for our children and our children’s children. We are fighting to keep fossil fuels in the ground and to transform our economy so that we are free at last from dirty fuels and are set on a path to a better future.
There is a race to be won: we are racing against time, racing to make a swift transition to clean renewable sources of energy, like sun and wind, in time to avert climate chaos.
And there is a faith to keep: faith in ourselves and in each other; faith in the God who entrusted the Earth to our care; faith in Jesus who walked and loved this Earth and who reconciled all things in heaven and on earth through the blood of his cross (Colossians 1:20; and faith in the Holy Spirit who guides and sustains our efforts and who makes all things new.
On a practical level, what can we do? As individuals, we can drive less, use public transportation, put on a sweater and turn down the heat, ignore the dryer and hang our laundry outside to dry, eat less meat, eat local foods, recycle, and so on.
But the scope and pace of the climate crisis require change on a much broader scale. Thanks be to God, coalitions are growing among people who care about the Earth, about poverty and economic justice, about racial justice, about immigration, about human rights – for all these issues intersect. I’m excited by the work of local groups right here in Springfield, such as the Springfield Climate Justice Coalition and the Springfield Area Interfaith Climate Action Network. I’d be glad to talk with you after the service about efforts like these. Maybe some of you would like to join me next Sunday at 2 o’clock when I give a keynote address at an interfaith climate forum at First Church of Christ in Longmeadow that will draw together people from all over Springfield. Maybe some of you will join me a couple of weeks later, on Sunday afternoon, November 13, for a special outdoor worship service to celebrate God’s Creation and our Christian call to protect it. Our own Bishop Doug Fisher will lead the service, along with all the other heads of Protestant denominations in Massachusetts – Episcopal, UCC, and Lutheran. We’re calling the service “We Are the Earth: Public Prayer for the Planet,” and Tom and I just posted a flier in the hall.
Whatever you feel drawn to do for the Earth, as individuals and as a community of faith, I hope that we will keep encouraging each other to follow Jesus in his mission of justice, mercy, and hope. And I hope that at the end of our lives, each of us will be moved to say, “With God’s help I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”