Beauty and Advocacy

The intricate, beautiful natural world into which you and I were born is undergoing massive and unprecedented assault. Climate disruption, species extinction, population growth, deforestation, environmental toxins – it seems overwhelming. How should Christians respond? What can we do? Where should we begin? How shall we bear witness to the risen Christ who proclaims that life, not death, will have the last word, and who gives us power to roll away the stone of apathy, denial, and despair?

Last fall the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts celebrated its first annual Season of Creation, from October 4 (St. Francis Day) through the last Sunday after Pentecost (Christ the King Sunday). During this special season churches were invited to explore ways to reclaim the sacredness of the natural world and to respond to our God-given call to protect it (Genesis 2:15).

The wind of the spirit

Soon after convening a conversation about Creation care at St. James (Greenfield), I received an email from parishioner and long-time environmentalist, Elise Schlaikjer. She wrote, “How good it felt to have a sense of a community who care about the same issues. At times it has felt quite lonely, although giving up was never an option.” She added that it feels “like the wind of the Spirit [is] blowing through this diocese and the church at large, ridding us of old outworn patterns and uncovering new life ready to spring into full bloom. That has been my heart hunger for a long time. Although, like Moses, I probably will not see ‘the promised land,’ just being a part of the process is a real joy!”

I feel that Spirit, too, and I feel the joy. In this unprecedented period in human history when our choices and our moral witness make all the difference to the future of our children and our children’s children – to say nothing of the future of the planet – I hope that we will weave themes of Creation into every aspect of the Church’s life: worship services and prayers, Sunday School and adult education, outreach and advocacy – so that we praise and serve the Lord of all Creation not just during a special season, but every day.

The wind of the Spirit indeed blew through our diocese during our Season of Creation. An anecdotal survey of social media, emails, and personal conversations yielded glimpses of what different congregations decided to do.

Celebrate the beauty of nature

Retired priest Rick Bellows shared a stunning series of photographic reflections entitled “A Season for Creation,” viewers an opportunity both to admire God’s glory in the natural world and to absorb thought-provoking facts about Creation’s health and well-being. (The photos are at the bottom of the webpage.)

Beauty was also a theme at St. Mark’s (East Longmeadow), where parishioners were invited “to put on the eyes of St. Francis” and to look for God in the created world and in each other. Parishioners emailed photos, notes, sketches, and poems to the rector, Peter Swarr, for sharing with the whole congregation. The images I saw included a crackling fire, a beloved dog, and brilliant sun shining through autumn leaves.

Natural beauty made its way indoors at our diocesan convention, when we showed “God’s Creation, New England”, a video and soundtrack created by my husband, Robert A. Jonas, EdD, which integrates still and moving images of local wildlife and landscapes.

Deepen awareness through worship

Churches experimented with new forms of worship to deepen our awareness of God’s presence in redeeming and sustaining the natural world. For instance, St. Stephen’s (Westborough) marked Creation Season with special collects, prayers, and blessings, and organized Sunday services around such themes as Forest, Land, Wilderness, and River.

Christ Church (Rochdale) created an experimental, Creation-focused liturgy drawn from worship resources posted on our diocesan Website. The service received such an enthusiastic response that by popular request it was used on a subsequent Sunday.

Many churches – including St. Francis (Holden), St. John’s (Ashfield), St. James (Greenfield), and Grace Church (Amherst), to cite just a few — celebrated St. Francis’ feast day (October 4) with a blessing of the animals. St. Andrew’s (Longmeadow) included blessing animals in its festive event, “Pumpkins and Pets on the Hill,” and at all three services the Rev. Derrick Fetz preached a sermon called, “Why the World Needs St. Francis.”

Protect creation

Some folks rolled up their sleeves and focused on the essential, practical tasks of increasing energy efficiency and conservation. St. Mark’s (East Longmeadow) posted on Facebook: “Just replaced 18 incandescent bulbs in the Great Hall area with LED bulbs…that will save us 657 watts of electricity whenever the lights are on… Just think what will happen when Nov. 1 rolls around and we replace the rest of the Great Hall bulbs…all told that will be a savings of 4599 watts!”

Not to be outdone, diocesan staff-members expanded recycling efforts in their office. Incandescent light bulbs in desk lamps were replaced with more energy-efficient models.

Massachusetts Interfaith Power & Light offered a Sustainable House of Worship (SHOW) workshop in early November, and stands ready to help congregations save money and increase energy efficiency and conservation. For a modest financial pledge, scaled to your church’s budget, congregations in Massachusetts can join MIP&L, receive help with environmental stewardship, and build the religious environmental movement. Other branches of Interfaith Power & Light are active across the country in almost every state.

Several churches in our diocese are exploring the possibility of installing photovoltaic panels on their roof or grounds. I look forward to the diocese’s first ceremony to bless solar panels!

Study the science

Churches created opportunities to learn about the science of climate change and the theology of Creation care. At Christ Church (Rochdale), St. James (Greenfield) and St. Andrew’s (Longmeadow), I presented and discussed the slideshow “God so loved the world,” available for free download at RevivingCreation.org. I encouraged parishioners to watch the short videos and read the report by American Association for the Advancement of Science, “What We Know”, and to subscribe to a free daily summary of current news about climate science and clean energy (send requests to: info@climatenexus.org).

Public action and conversation

Because political engagement is essential to caring and advocating for Creation, many of the diocesan faithful got an early start on Creation Season by participating in the historic People’s Climate March held in New York City on September 21. Some folks rode the special bus, “Episcopalians on a Journey of Hope,” celebrating a Eucharist on wheels during the journey from western Massachusetts to Manhattan. Others rode by train or car-pooled to New York to join 10,000 people of faith and a total of 400,000 people who took to the streets in a peaceful, sober, and joyful call for effective action on climate change. I wrote, “I saw an ocean in New York,” a blog post about the march on my website.

Our brothers and sisters in Christ also participated in a second climate march, this one held on October 20 in Springfield, Mass., as an extraordinary coalition of low-income Hispanic, African-American, white, and immigrant communities joined together to push for a climate action plan for the city. Two hundred people from within and beyond Springfield joined the march to City Hall, including members of Grace Church (Amherst), Trinity (Ware), and St. James (Greenfield), as well as the Jim Munroe, dean of Christ Church Cathedral. Tom Callard, priest and the cathedral’s Hispanic missioner, launched the rally with an opening prayer, and our bishop, Doug Fisher, was one of the speakers. Shortly thereafter, City Council members discussed the resolution and passed it unanimously. Now the push is on to get the resolution funded and implemented.

Caring for Creation affects what we buy and what we refuse to buy, how we spend our money, and how we choose to invest it. At our diocesan convention delegates passed a resolution calling on the Church Pension Fund, the Investment Committee of the Executive Council, and the Episcopal Church Foundation to divest from fossil fuels and to reinvest in clean energy. A few months before our convention, the diocese had decided to reduce its own exposure to fossil fuels and to redirect funds to companies that produce renewable energy. The trustees’ decision was the result of a thoughtful, prayerful, and sometimes difficult 18-month process of research and discussion that was carried out with the full support of the bishop, the Douglas Fisher. The Diocese of Western Massachusetts now takes its place among the growing number of religious groups that have made a commitment to reduce or eliminate holdings in fossil fuel companies.

Now is the time

Making a swift transition to a more just and sustainable way of life is urgent and daunting work. With only a single degree rise in average temperatures worldwide – and with more heat on the way – the earth is already melting, flooding, drying, acidifying, and burning in ways that no human being has experienced before. 2014 was the hottest year since record keeping began, and nine of the 10 hottest years occurred in the 21st century. Species are going extinct at record rates. Low-income communities suffer first and hardest and are the people most vulnerable to climate change’s effects. Never before has our voice as Christians been so needed in the public square as we bear witness to a God who loves every inch of Creation and who longs for healing and justice, and to make all things new.

As we look back on our first Creation Season – and look ahead to the next – I am thankful for the ways that our diocese is beginning to mobilize to protect life as it has evolved on earth. Our new diocesan banner, “Love God, Love your neighbor: Stop climate change” has already had quite a workout. I truly believe that the Holy Spirit is at work among us, and that God does not give us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power and of love and of self-control (2 Timothy 1:7).

Try This:

1. Imagine your sacred place: A group exercise

Read this aloud slowly to the group: Close your eyes and let your mind grow quiet. Recall a place in nature that you love. It may be a place you knew as a child or a place important to you now. It may be a place you have visited only once, or one you’ve seen many times. Choose a place in nature that is easy for you to love, and abide there for a while… Let it become as vivid as possible in your imagination… What is the season? What is the time of day?… Notice all the details — the colors, sounds, and smells… Take some time to enjoy your place. Let yourself rest for a while in this sanctuary… Let your affection for it become very clear… How do you respond to being here? How does this place affect you? Express your gratitude or whatever other feelings arise. Is there anything you’d like to say to God? Express that, too… Rest again in your sacred place. When you are ready, open your eyes.

Invite everyone briefly to describe his/her sacred place (if you have a large group, you might ask people to pair up and take turns describing their sacred places, and then ask a few people to tell the whole group about their places). Notice the range of landscapes that are probably “in” the room – probably oceans and mountains, trees and hills – all kinds of places, humble and grand. Notice the warmth in the room – the affection that is evoked when we recall places in nature that we love. If anyone expresses sorrow or anger about the degradation or disappearance of the place that came to mind, make room for those feelings, too – sorrow and anger in the face of loss are also expressions of love.

Commentary: Our love for Earth and the community of life is actually quite close to the surface, although, in our distracted, busy lives many of us lose touch with that relationship and never give it sustained attention. Connection with the natural world has power to heal the heart, to renew our strength, and to restore us to the larger, living world to which we belong. Our ministry to God’s Creation is sustained by allowing God to minister to us through Creation. As Martin Luther once put it, “God writes the Gospel, not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and the flowers and the clouds and stars.”

2. Encounter God in nature: An individual exercise

Sometime this week, turn off the computer. Leave your cell phone behind. Go outside for a contemplative walk in a place with some trees, grass, water, or other signs of life. Walk slowly and in silence, letting each step draw you into the present moment. Notice smells, sounds, textures, and colors. Bless the ground with each step. Feel the wind. Breathe. If you like, invite Jesus to walk beside you. What do you experience together? How does God want to encounter you in the natural world?

Commentary: Like Moses, who discovered that the place where he was standing was holy ground (Exodus 3:5), when our eyes are opened to the sacredness of Creation, we, too, begin to sense the holiness of the living world in which we participate. The ecologist and Roman Catholic priest Thomas Berry urges us to move from a spirituality of alienation from the natural world to a spirituality of intimacy. How would your life change if you knew that you were kin with all Creation? Find out.

This article is adapted from one originally published in Abundant Times (the official news publication of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts), Fall 2014.

Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, PhD, is an Episcopal priest, retreat leader, author, and climate activist. After 25 years in parish ministry, Margaret now serves the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts as Missioner for Creation Care. Her most recent book, Joy of Heaven, to Earth Come Down (Forward Movement, 2012, 2013), is a collection of daily meditations for Advent/Christmas on the sacredness of the natural world. She is particularly interested in the dynamic interplay between contemplative prayer, connection to the land, and prophetic action for climate justice. Her website: RevivingCreation.org.

Resources

  • Daily summary of current news about climate science and clean energy: send request to: info@climatenexus.org
  • Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts resolution and related news article calling for divestment from fossil fuels and to reinvest in clean energy and “God so loved the world” slideshow by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas

“Beauty and Advocacy” is part of the March 2015 issue of Vestry Papers, “Inspiring Advocacy.”  Vestry Papers is produced by the Episcopal Church Foundation.This article is also available in Spanish here. / Este artículo es disponible en español aquí.

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