This piece is based on remarks I made to the 117th Diocesan Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, asking delegates to pass a resolution entitled “Creation Care in Our Congregations: Living Lightly on God’s Good Earth.” The resolution was created in response to the 79th General Convention, which affirmed the Episcopal Church’s intention, “in the spirit of the Paris Climate Accord,” to make “intentional decisions about living lightly and gently on God’s good earth.” Among other things, the resolution calls on all parishes in the diocese to create a Green Team and to undertake an energy audit. To download the resolution, click here.
To stabilize climate change at a 1.5 degree Celsius rise above average global temperatures in pre-industrial times, society worldwide will have to undergo a radical transformation. The IPCC notes that the scale of change that is required to cap global warming at 1.5 degrees is historically unprecedented: never before in human history has our species changed its way of living that dramatically and that fast.
What I want to say is that this is the moment for which the Church was born. We were made for this challenge.
• Because we put our faith and trust in a God who creates and loves every inch of creation (Genesis 1:1-31);
• Because we put our faith and trust in Jesus Christ, who shares the pain and promise of the human predicament, shows us the path of life, and insists that life and not death will have the last word (John 10:10);
• Because we put our faith and trust in the Holy Spirit, who renews the face of the earth (Psalm 104:31).
I was touched by Bishop Doug Fisher’s convention address, especially his reflection on the power of turning from an old way of living to something new. He mentioned that St. Paul uses the phrase “but now” twenty-seven times in his Letters, as in: “For once you were in darkness, but now in the Lord you are light” (Ephesians 5:8). Once you were in darkness, but now you are light. Once you were dead, but now you are alive. Once you were far from God, but now you are near.
I started playing with that image of turning, and maybe we’re ready to say something like this:
“Once I took nature for granted as something to ignore or exploit, BUT NOW I understand that I must live more gently and mindfully on the earth.”
“Once I thought that climate change was someone else’s problem, BUT NOW I see that everyone must get involved.”
“Once I thought that I could keep going with business as usual and live my life as I please, BUT NOW I understand that business as usual is wrecking the planet and that we must change course fast.”
“Once I depended on fossil fuels, BUT NOW I’ll move as fast as I can to a low-carbon life and do everything in my power to help society make that turn with me.”
The IPCC report tells us that as a global community, we have only 10 or 12 years in which to make that turn. We want to give our children and our children’s children a habitable world. So let’s make a start. I move that we pass this resolution.
I am glad and grateful that our diocesan convention voted to pass the resolution. I look forward to seeing how we will move ahead quickly in the months ahead to honor the God who is making all things new (Revelation 21:5).
Today’s blog post, which is also on the Bishop’s Blog of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, is co-written by The Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas and Bishop Doug Fisher. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is coming to the Diocese of Western Massachusetts on Sunday, October 21, to celebrate an Episcopal revival, with events at 1:00 p.m. in Pittsfield and at 5:00 p.m. in Worcester. Everyone is invited! For more information, visit here. Both revival events will be livestreamed by The Episcopal Church. You can watch the Pittsfield revival livestream here. You can watch the Worcester revival livestream here.
Everyone (and we mean everyone) knows our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry as “the Royal Wedding Preacher.” He certainly touched souls around the world in his inspired message of the transforming power of love. But did you know that five days later he participated in a Vigil at the White House?
The Vigil was a witness that both rejected President Trump’s “America First” policies and urged bringing people of all political parties together for the sake of the common good. The Vigil was a follow-up on a declaration Michael wrote with other faith leaders several months before called “Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis.”
That document includes the powerful statement: “We reject domination rather than stewardship of the earth’s resources.”
As we gather together this Sunday in Pittsfield and Worcester for an Episcopal revival led by the “oh so much more than a wedding preacher” Michael Curry, let’s look at why this is a time of crisis for God’s creation.
The Earth is reeling under many pressures, from an explosive growth in human population and consumption to species extinction, habitat loss, and resource depletion. But our most urgent concern is how human activity is changing the climate. Our fears were confirmed last week when the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading international group that assesses climate change, released a major report. The IPCC report was stark: humanity is on the brink of catastrophe. The only way to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degree Celsius – the level that countries around the world have agreed is a safe upper limit for maintaining life as we know it on this planet – is for nations to cut their carbon emissions drastically and rapidly. In just over ten years – by 2030 – the world will need to have cut global emissions in half (45 percent below 2010 levels). To hold global temperatures to 1.5 degree Celsius will require rapid and massive transformation of every level of society. For example, the report calls for a total or near-total phase-out of the burning of coal by 2050.
The task ahead of us is daunting. The world has already warmed 1 degree Celsius from pre-industrial times, and without a massive global effort, the world will warm by 1.5 degrees in as little as 12 years. If we allow global warming to rise by 2 degrees Celsius – to say nothing of allowing business as usual to continue on its present track, which would raise global temperatures by 3.4 degrees by the end of this century – we will live on a planet that is extremely difficult not only to govern, but even to inhabit. The IPCC report warns that there is “no documented historical precedent” for making the sweeping changes in society that would be required in order to hold global temperatures to 1.5 degrees. Yet if we want to prevent massive crop failures and droughts, extreme storms and sea-level rise, and the migration of millions of refugees, and if we want to pass along a habitable world to our children and our children’s children, we need to tackle climate change.
The day of reckoning has come. As St. Paul exhorts, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 6:2). Today is a good day to put climate denial behind us. Today is a good day to reject the climate denial expressed in White House policies that promote fossil fuels and ignore, downplay, or even accelerate the climate crisis. Today is also a good day to admit our own everyday version of climate denial and to step up our personal efforts to reduce our use of fossil fuels.
What next steps can you take? For starters, does your congregation have a “green team” or “Creation care committee”? Whatever you call it, a team of parishioners concerned about climate change can take the lead in educating and organizing its community. You can download an article about how to start a “green team” here. At diocesan convention, delegates will vote on a resolution that asks every congregation to create a green team or liaison.
Here’s another idea: how about eating less (or no) meat? A new report confirms that shifting to a plant-based diet is one of the most effective actions we can take to reduce our carbon footprint, limit climate change, and allow the Earth to keep feeding the global population.
Michael Curry has made Creation Care one of his three priorities. (Racial Reconciliation and Evangelism are the others.) We have said many times that this Sunday is so much more than great speeches by Michael. It is an opportunity to commit to a revival of our souls, our church, our communities and our world. In a time of crisis, may we passionately recommit to fighting climate change and caring for God’s creation.
+Doug and Margaret+
Margaret’s sermon (October 14, 2018) about the IPCC report, “Ten years to avoid climate catastrophe? What do we do now?” is here.
Hundreds of people – including leaders and elders of Native American tribes from across the U.S. – assembled yesterday under a large tent at Agape, a Christian community in the woods of central Massachusetts that is dedicated to social justice, non-violence, and sustainable living. We were there to mark the 35th annual celebration of St. Francis Day at Agape, and it was a thrilling, even transformative day, a day of listening, drumming, and sacred ceremony, a day of mourning and celebration.
The keynote speaker was Chief Arvol Looking Horse, whom I had last seen in December, when I accepted the invitation that he extended to religious people across the country to come to Standing Rock for an interfaith day of prayer. A descendant of Sitting Bull, Chief Arvol Looking Horse was chosen at the age of 12 to become the 19th Generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe. Now in his 60’s, Chief Arvol carries his long, lanky frame with the sorrow and dignity of a person who has looked deeply into suffering and who finds hope in the wellspring of sacred ceremony and practice.
I was honored to join two other Christians representing the National Religious Coalition on Creation Care in giving the Chief an award. Bishop Doug Fisher of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, and my husband Robert Jonas, founder of the Christian-Buddhist prayer sanctuary, The Empty Bell, joined me in making brief remarks. We noted that members of the National Religious Coalition on Creation Care (NRCCC) come from the Abrahamic faiths, including Jews, Muslims, and Christians from various traditions – Roman Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, and Orthodox. Every year, the NRCCC bestows The Steward of God’s Creation Award on an individual who exhibits “courage and commitment in the caring and keeping of the earth in a heroic, distinguished and effective manner.”
The crowd erupted in applause when my husband announced, “This year, for the first time, NRCCC wishes to give its award not to a single person but to an entire people. In recognition of the spiritual and moral leadership of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota Nations, the National Religious Coalition on Creation Care would like to present its 2017 Steward of God’s Creation award to the Sioux Nation.”
Bishop Fisher and I exchanged a glance. The mood was joyful. Should we change the mood and press on with our planned remarks? We made the decision swiftly and without a word: Yes, we would keep going and say the hard stuff.
Bishop Fisher delivered his remarks with clarity and conviction: “We are painfully aware of the history of Christian participation in the oppression, marginalization, and murder of First Nations peoples. We recognize the tragic consequences of the Doctrine of Discovery, which gave the Church’s blessing when colonialists claimed the lands of indigenous peoples as their own. The Episcopal Church has formally repudiated and renounced the Doctrine of Discovery, as have several other Christian groups. Like Pope Francis, we grieve the ‘grave sins’ and ‘crimes’ of colonialism that were ‘committed against the Native people of America in the name of God.’
He went on to say, “Today the members of NRCCC come to you in humility, wanting you to know that we see your steadfast courage and that we cherish your spiritual vision of an earth-centered, earth-honoring life. Yours is a vision that we want to lift up across this country and around the world. It is an honor to give you this award.”
Then Chief Looking Horse stepped to the stage and accepted on behalf of the Sioux Nation the 2017 Steward of God’s Creation Award, which reads: “Presented in acknowledgment of your inspired courage, leadership and non-violence in protecting God’s sacred land and water.”
Later that day, Christians had another opportunity to express our deep respect for indigenous peoples and our deep repentance for the ways that Christianity has been used to commit and condone genocide. Racism has been justly called “America’s original sin,” and it began with the decimation of our land’s Native peoples. As Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote in Why We Can’t Wait (1963),
“Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race… From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles of racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its Indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or feel remorse for this shameful episode.”
Well, today was the day we would permit ourselves “to reject or feel remorse for this shameful episode,” an “episode” of racist domination that continues into the present, though more covertly.
After participating in a sacred water ceremony led by Beatrice Menase Kwe Jackson, the crowd gathered around the sacred fire and listened to a Mohawk explain the ceremony of the Great Tree of Peace. According to Iroquois tradition, the cycle of conflict between separate Nations was broken when a Peacemaker – whose actual name is sometimes considered too sacred to utter – persuaded the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas to unite as the Five Nations Confederacy. As a pledge of their intention to live in peace, the Nations buried their weapons under a tall pine tree.
We intended to carry out a similar ceremony of confession and reconciliation that very afternoon, this time between Christians and First Nation peoples. Facing the crowd, I stood on the edge of the small amphitheater, with six Christians of various denominations standing beside me. Behind us was a deep pit in the ground and a young white pine tree, its roots wrapped in burlap, which was ready to be planted.
Since there was no microphone, I called out loudly:
This small circle of Christians has gathered to pray for peace. We are painfully aware of the ways that Christianity has been used over the centuries as a weapon to justify violence against indigenous peoples and violence against Mother Earth.
We are here to express our remorse and regret for this painful history.
We are here to dedicate ourselves to a renewed quest for peace with Earth, peace with our neighbors, and peace above all with our First Nations brothers and sisters.
We are here to lay our weapons down.
Today we intend to burn the Doctrine of Discovery. The Doctrine of Discovery is a principle of law developed in the 15th and 16th centuries by Popes and European Kings, and eventually applied by our own Supreme Court. The doctrine held that Christian sovereigns and their representative explorers could take possession of lands that were held by non-Christians, and could do so with the full blessing and sanction of the Church. Much of the ongoing injustice and colonization suffered by Native Americans in this country over the past 500 years can be traced back to the Doctrine of Discovery.
The time has come for all Christians and all people of faith and good will to renounce this doctrine and its violation of the inherent rights that individuals and peoples have received from God.
Today we will deliver a copy of the document to the sacred fire and place its ashes at the base of our peace tree as a symbol of our intention to lay our weapons down.
Before we do, I invite everyone here, especially those who are Christian, to take a few moments to examine our own hearts, for it is in our hearts that we carry the seeds of violence that lead to injustices like the Doctrine of Discovery. It is in our hearts that we also carry the seeds of peace. So let us look well to our hearts, and open them to the Holy Spirit who searches for truth deep within us.
I invite you to join me in a spirit of prayer.
One by one, each Christian speaker offered a prayer, and the crowd responded by chanting, “Lord, hear our prayer.”
Gracious God, we have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. In your mercy,
Lord, hear our prayer.
We confess to you, Lord, all our past unfaithfulness, pride, and hypocrisy. In your mercy,
Lord, hear our prayer.
We confess our self-indulgent appetites, our greed, the idol we make of our wealth, and our economic exploitation of other people. In your mercy,
Lord, hear our prayer.
We confess our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty, especially the oppression and genocide of Native peoples. In your mercy,
Lord, hear our prayer.
We confess our waste and pollution of your creation and our addiction to fossil fuel that disrupts our climate and threatens our very life on earth. We confess our lack of concern for those who come after us. In your mercy,
Lord, hear our prayer.
Accept our repentance, Lord, and give us grace to amend our lives, that we may do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. In your mercy,
Lord, hear our prayer.
After praying Amen, I said, “Now with sacred fire we will burn the Doctrine of Discovery. As we watch and listen to the burning, we ask God to burn away everything in our hearts that is not love.”
The Rev. Nathan Beale unfurled and lifted up the Doctrine of Discovery, which was printed in Spanish on yellow parchment-like paper. Brayton Shanley, one of the founders of Agape, walked down the hill to the sacred fire, lit a torch, and walked back up. The three of us bent over the pit. A violin played. I watched as the fire bit into the paper, dissolving and destroying it before our eyes. It melted away into ash, and out of the corner of my eye I saw my fellow Episcopal priest, Nathan Beale, make the sign of the cross. I wished I’d thought to make that prayerful gesture, but it was too late: I’d already pumped my two fists in the air as a gesture of triumph: the sacred fire had consumed the Doctrine of Discovery.
I trust that both gestures are a faithful response whenever we lay our weapons down.
“Plant the tree!” Brayton cried, and at once several men set themselves to hoisting the pine tree and maneuvering its root ball into the pit. Down into the ground it went, to be fed from below by the ashes of a doctrine that was wielded as a weapon. May all our renounced and buried weapons turn into good compost, so that many trees of life can spring up and bear fruit!
After the peace tree was planted, hundreds of people streamed up the hill. One by one they knelt down to place a bit of sacred tobacco at the base of the tree, praying to release trauma and receive healing. Whatever race they belonged to, whatever language they spoke, whatever religion they held dear, I trusted that we shared a common intention: to become peacemakers and to head together toward healing and fullness of life.
VIDEOS of the day
Robert A. Jonas filmed the Christian ceremony of repenting the Doctrine of Discovery, setting it on fire, and burying its ashes under a pine tree. The 12-minute video is here.
David Legg created a photographic record of the day’s events, featuring flute music by his Native American friend, Standing Bear, and singing by Elisabeth von Trapp. The 11-minute video is here.
Stories like these pull us into prayer – grief for those who perished, anguish for those in harm’s way, gratitude for the people saving everyone they can, and a rising tide of anger and resolve: we will not stand idly by as people drown and are dislocated in extreme storms like these.
Part of a faithful response is concrete and immediate: if we live nearby and have a boat or clothes to spare, we can offer what we have. Wherever we live, if we have money to spare, we can donate to a disaster relief organization, including faith-rooted groups such as Episcopal Relief and Development and Church World Service.
Climate scientist Michael E. Mann of Pennsylvania State University likewise confirmed the connections between climate change and Harvey’s destructive power. In his article entitled, “It’s a fact: climate change made Hurricane Harvey more deadly,” Mann pointed out that, while climate change did not “cause” Harvey, “Harvey was almost certainly more intense than it would have been in the absence of human-caused warming, which means stronger winds, more wind damage and a larger storm surge.”
This week, author and social activist Naomi Klein also pointed out that Harvey “didn’t come out the blue”: it was just the kind of extreme weather event that climate scientists have long been predicting. Surely now is the time, she argues, to have a serious policy debate in this country about the host of questions that Harvey raises: What kind of energy should we rely on (a question, she points out, “with jarring implications for the dominant industry in the region being hit hardest: oil and gas”)? What kind of safety net do we need to provide for the poor, the ill, and the elderly, given their vulnerability in times of disaster and given the certainty that storms like Harvey are only a harbinger of the climate-related storms that lie ahead?
Journalist Wen Stephenson is also attuned to the links between climate change and social justice. In an article with the bold headline, “Houston’s Human Catastrophe Started Long Before the Storm,” he writes: “Our unfolding climate catastrophe… is rooted in social and economic inequalities that render most vulnerable the most marginalized and powerless… Decades of neglect, inequality, and disenfranchisement – to say nothing of heedless development and a lack of flood planning tantamount to criminal negligence – mean that Houstonians of all backgrounds, but especially the poorest and most vulnerable communities, primarily communities of color, have been left utterly undefended.”
Climate change has never been only about polar bears. Stabilizing the climate is about social, racial, and economic justice, too – about treating Earth and each other with reverence and respect. How many more floods need to drown or displace our citizens and destroy our homes before we wake up to the climate crisis and take urgent steps to keep fossil fuels in the ground? How many more vulnerable communities are we willing to sacrifice in order to keep dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and keep enriching fossil fuel industry billionaires?
Meanwhile, as Harvey brings devastation to our Gulf Coast, a record-breaking strong monsoon season in Southeast Asia has caused over 1200 deaths this summer. Thanks to Harvey, Americans are newly aware of the suffering caused by floods exacerbated by climate change. Perhaps now we can look with greater empathy at similar images coming from India, Nepal, and Bangladesh – images of other mothers wading through flooded areas, carrying their children in their arms; images of other homes destroyed and other communities cut off, with no food and clean water for days.
Perhaps now, after seeing what Harvey is doing to Houston, we can look ahead and grasp more clearly – more viscerally – what it means when scientists predict that sea level rise will flood hundreds of American cities in the near future. A new report published by The Union of Concerned Scientists shows that by the end of the century, chronic flooding – defined as flooding so unmanageable that it drives people to move away – “will be occurring from Maine to Texas and along parts of the West Coast. It will affect as many as 670 coastal communities, including Cambridge, Massachusetts; Oakland, California; Miami and St. Petersburg, Florida; and four of the five boroughs of New York City.”
Cambridge, Massachusetts? I was born and grew up there. By the end of the century? I do the arithmetic, figuring the ages of my children and grandchildren. I imagine the social chaos, the streams of refugees, the abandoned buildings.
Will we look back on Harvey (and Katrina and Sandy) as the first in a relentless wave of storms that eventually brought down many of America’s great cities? Or will we look back on Harvey as the storm that finally got the attention of the American public and showed us the urgent need to take action on climate?
Climate change is neither distant nor abstract. It is real, present, and personal. Our country’s President denies the existence and human causes of climate change, and his environmental policies surely make matters worse, but people of faith, and people of good will, refuse to abandon the Earth entrusted to our care.
Tomorrow, on September 1, Christians will mark a World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. Whatever your faith tradition, I invite you to join in this planet-wide pause to hold our troubled world in our hearts. I invite you to go outside and appreciate the living world around you – the trees, soil, water, birds, and clouds. I invite you to acknowledge your own grief, anger, and fear about the Earth’s unraveling web of life, and I invite you to seek the guidance, resolve, and courage that come from listening to our deepest inner wisdom, the place where Love dwells.
For millions of Christians worldwide, September 1 marks the first day of the Season of Creation, a season dedicated to lifting up the sacredness of the natural world. Creation Season generally ends on October 4, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the man often called the patron saint of ecology. (For resources to mark this day of prayer and the whole Creation Season, visit Creation Justice Ministries.)
Here in Massachusetts, Episcopal congregations will mark their own Season of Creation, from October 4 through the end of November. In the Diocese of Western Massachusetts, we have assembled a mass of resources to help individuals and communities of faith to mark Creation Season. I hope that you will take a look, and decide how you and your community of faith will act, advocate, learn, and pray on behalf of God’s good Earth. How will you celebrate Creation Season this year? Will you design an outdoor worship service at a place of environmental degradation? Offer prayers to bless solar panels? Preach about the climate crisis? Carry out non-violent civil disobedience to protest a new gas pipeline? Organize a study group?
How will the extraordinary suffering and tragedy of Harvey – much of it endured beyond the reach of TV cameras and crew – strengthen your intention to become an agent of healing and hope?
An ecumenical statement from Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ, responding to the President’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord.
President Trump’s decision to abandon the Paris Climate Accord violates the values and vision that are basic to Christian faith. Our Judaeo-Christian heritage teaches that the Earth and its web of life are precious in God’s sight (Genesis 1-2:3), that the Earth belongs not to us but to God (Psalm 24), and that we are entrusted with loving the Earth as God loves it (Genesis 2:15). As followers of Jesus, we are committed to God’s mission of reconciling people with each other and with the whole of creation.
Withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord is a tragic mistake, and we applaud the Parliament of the World’s Religions strong condemnation of the President’s decision. We concur that this decision is scientifically, economically, medically, politically and morally wrong. With heartache we recognize the devastating toll of suffering that will be exacted by this Administration’s refusal to address the climate crisis. We are appalled by the Administration’s unwillingness to join with other nations in protecting and stabilizing the atmosphere upon which our species – and so many other forms of life – depend.
This historic moment provides Christian communities with a powerful opportunity to bear witness to the sacredness of God’s creation and the urgent call to preserve it. This is our chance to be the church. Episcopalians and other members of the Anglican Communion recognize Five Marks of Mission. The Fifth Mark is “to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.” The United Church of Christ affirms this vocation in its new mission initiative known as the three great loves, one of which is love of creation. If we listen carefully, the voice of our still-speaking God resounds above the jeers and cheers in response to Trump’s decision. God is calling our congregations and clergy to rise to the occasion and to become bold witnesses to the creative power of God.
Now is the time to bear witness to the Christ who rises from the tomb and who proclaims that life and not death will have the last word.
We call upon our congregations and clergy to embrace this moment of opportunity in three ways:
Accept the mantle of moral leadership
Now is the time for clergy to speak from their pulpits about the moral obligation of our
generation to protect God’s creation. Let the world know that whatever the current American administration may say or do, the Jesus movement will not back away from God’s call to protect our common home.
Now is the time for congregations and for every person of faith to set a moral example through our own words and actions. As individuals and as communities, we can commit to making decisions of integrity in our energy choices, and to holding our leaders accountable to do the same.
Proclaim truth in the public square
Now is the time for communities of faith to be bold and courageous in proclaiming truth in the public square. It is now abundantly clear that the Federal Government will not address the greatest moral challenge that the world has ever faced. It is up to us.
Let us commit to resist all expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure and demand new sources of renewable energy that are accessible to all communities. As people of faith, we can and we must change America’s understanding of the story that our generation is writing. We must begin a new story – a story that is not dependent on fossil fuel or on wealth for the few and misery for the many.
In the streets, at the State House, with our phones and emails, by committing our time, financial resources and prayers – it is up to us – we the people – to bend the moral arc of justice. And we will.
The Rev. Dr. Jim Antal
Conference Minister and President
Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ
The Rt. Rev. Dr. Douglas John Fisher
Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts
The Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas
Missioner for Creation Care
Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts & Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ
This statement sprang from a discussion among The Rev. Dr. Jim Antal (Conference Minister and President, Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ), The Rt. Rev. Dr. Douglas John Fisher (Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts), and The Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas (Missioner for Creation Care, Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts & Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ). We are glad to make it available to the wider Church.
Faith and fear duke it 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.
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.
“Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:19)
I am blessed to be with you this morning. Thank you, Molly, for inviting me. As some of you know, after a good 25 years in parish ministry I now work for the diocese as your Missioner for Creation Care, a job that recently expanded to include working for the United Church of Christ in Massachusetts. I travel from church to church, preaching the Gospel and speaking about our call as Christians to protect and heal God’s Creation. Just a few days ago, on Tuesday, October 4, the Feast Day of Francis of Assisi, our diocese launched its third annual Season of Creation, so here on the very first Sunday of Creation Season I’d like to say a few words about the sacredness of the world that God entrusted to our care.
What’s been striking me lately is the power of nature to heal. Since August my husband and I have been living in an old farmhouse in the hills of Ashfield, not too far from Turner’s Falls. We’re building a house in Northampton that won’t be ready until sometime this spring, so between now and early March we have a rare opportunity to live closer to the natural world. In the mornings I’ve been walking outside to watch the mist as it floats above the pond. I’ve been breathing in the cool air as the sun rises, and studying the array of spider webs that sprang up overnight in the grasses. I’ve been listening to the occasional cry of a blue jay and watching the birches bend over the pond, dropping their yellow leaves one by one into still water.
I know you know this for yourselves: when we immerse ourselves in trees and wind and birdsong, our minds grow quiet. Spending prayerful time outdoors confirms all those research studies that show what intuitively we already knew: conscious contact with the natural world can be healing. Our blood pressure returns to normal, our racy minds slow down, our breathing becomes deeper and more even, and our anxious worry and striving fall away. Being in nature can restore our capacity to see and hear, to connect and relate: we start to notice the multiple shades of green; we spot bugs and plants we’ve never observed before; we may even be graced by the visit of a blue heron that lands on a rock beside the pond and stands motionless for a time out of time, as if ready to dissolve into sunlight and shadow.
Thanks to that contemplative gaze – to a long, loving look at the real – the barrier dissolves between us and the living world around us. The longer we look, the more clearly we understand that everything is connected, everything is alive with Spirit, everything is held together by a divine presence that sustains and upholds all things. Moment by moment God is giving God’s self to us in the natural world, and it becomes obvious that nature is not a machine; nature is not a commodity; nature is not just an object or “resource” for us to exploit, consume, and dominate – nature is a living mystery, a sacred, living web of life that reveals God’s glory.
That’s the vision of Francis of Assisi, who spoke of Brother Sun and Sister Moon.
That’s the vision of poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins, who wrote, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
That’s the vision of theologians like Martin Luther, who said, “God writes the Gospel, not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and the flowers and the clouds and stars.”
That’s the vision, I believe, of Jesus himself, a man who lived close to the Earth, whose ministry began by immersion in a river and who 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 the ten people in today’s Gospel story who suffer from leprosy, many of us could use some healing right around now. “Leprosy” comes in many forms. Maybe we are eaten up by malice or resentment, or gnawed by self-doubt and insecurity, or plagued by worry and stress. Heaven knows this year’s presidential campaign is keeping many of us by turns agitated, excited, appalled, and on edge. Yet God in God’s generosity is always pouring out God’s self to us at every moment and in every place, always ready to heal us, to restore us to sanity, and to make us whole. There is nowhere we can go that God is not, and it’s in nature that many us experience the divine touch afresh.
When, in the midst of our agitation or anxiety, our grief or stress, we feel again our kinship with our Creator and with all created things, when we are caught up again in the healing flow of divine love that connects us to ourselves, to each other, and to everything that is, we experience a deep response. Like the tenth leper who turns back, “praising God with a loud voice” (Luke 17:15), we, too, want to fall on our knees and give thanks. We, too, want to prostrate ourselves, for we are filled with gratitude. Thank you, Jesus.
And then comes that magnificent last line of the story, when Jesus says, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well” (Luke 17:19). “Your faith has made you well”: all ten lepers were physically healed, but the one who gave God thanks experiences an even deeper, more complete level of healing and wholeness. He is spiritually alive, and well, and awake – perhaps on a path to enlightenment, for such is the power of the gratitude. “Get up and go on your way”: there is work to be done, says Jesus. Yes, stop to give thanks and praise, and then get up and go: you are healed, you are well, now go out into the world and join in my mission of healing, justice, and mercy.
Just as God brings us healing, so does God call each of us to become healers, too. We know that we are living at a time when the natural world is under extraordinary stress. The web of life is unraveling before our eyes. We’re on the edge, or in the midst, of what some experts call the sixth major extinction event on this planet. And 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. That extra CO2 is forcing the average global temperature to rise, and what’s so worrisome to scientists is that this process is happening very fast. 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. 2016 is the hottest year in history.
This week we watched a massive hurricane, fueled by unusually warm seas, roar through the Caribbean and up the southeastern coast of the United States, killing hundreds of people and forcing millions more to evacuate. I hope you will join me in making a donation to Episcopal Relief & Development, which has set up a special fund for hurricane relief. Hurricane Matthew has been described (by May Boeve of 350.org) as “exactly the kind of stronger, wetter, more dangerous storm [that is] produced by an overheating planet” As we see in Haiti’s suffering, it is often the poorest people and poorest countries that are hit first and hardest by the effects of a changing climate. And according to the World Bank, unless we quickly rein in greenhouse gas emissions, climate change will drive 100 million people into extreme poverty – extreme poverty – in the next 15 years. We have only a short time in which to avert a level of climate disruption that would render the world ungovernable and possibly uninhabitable within the lifetimes of our children and our children’s children.
When I look around, I see a planet in peril, but – thanks be to God – I also see person after person reaching deep into their souls and then standing up to join the struggle to re-weave the fabric of life and create a just and sustainable future. I see a wave of religious protest and activism rising up around the world, propelled in part by the release last year of Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’, which makes a powerful connection between the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. I see people rising up for life, refusing to settle for a killing status quo, and proclaiming with one voice that climate change is a spiritual and moral issue that must be tackled without delay.
Just think of all the signs we see of a new social order being born. We see people blocking the path of new fracked gas pipelines and being arrested for civil disobedience as they read aloud from Pope Francis’ encyclical. We see people lobbying for a fair price on carbon, so that we can build a clean green economy that provides decent jobs and improves public health. We see our own Episcopal Church deciding to divest from fossil fuels, since it makes no financial or moral sense to invest in companies that are ruining the planet. We see new coalitions being formed as people realize that the environmental crisis is closely connected with the social crises of poverty, income inequality, and racial injustice. We see unexpected alliances taking shape. A few weeks ago I joined a group of religious leaders that met with the White House Council on Environmental Quality to press President Obama to take bolder action on climate. We ended the meeting in a powerful way: we stood up and joined hands around the table, and I prayed for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
But you don’t have to go to Washington, D.C., to join the climate movement. Right here in the Pioneer Valley we have an unusually strong grassroots group, Climate Action Now. If you sign up for the weekly newsletter or attend a meeting, you’ll be hooked into a vibrant local effort. After today’s service I’d be glad to share a handout of other actions we can take as Christians to become healers of the Earth. Along with so many others, we are fighting to keep fossil fuels in the ground and to accelerate a transition to clean, safe, renewable sources of energy like sun and wind that are accessible to all communities, including those that are low-income or historically under-served. As climate activist Bill McKibben has pointed out, “The fight for a just world is the same as the fight for a livable one.”
The Church was made for a time like this – a time when God calls human beings to know that we belong to one Earth, that we form one human family, and that God entrusted the Earth and all its residents to our care.
Like the ten lepers in today’s Gospel story, you and I experience God’s healing presence. We know that God has power to save. All the lepers had faith in Jesus and all of them were healed, but only one of them, the tenth, knew the joy of turning back to say thanks, and the joy of being sent out to bear witness to God’s power to heal. May that joy be ours as well.
I am blessed to worship with you this morning. Thank you, Cricket, for inviting me back to preach. The last time I was here, I served the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts as your Missioner for Creation Care, but since then my job has expanded: now I also serve as Missioner for Creation Care for the United Church of Christ in Massachusetts. As far as I know, I’m the only person who holds the same job in both the Episcopal and UCC Churches. To me, this joint position, is an emblem of good things to come. As we awaken to the climate crisis, Christians of every denomination – in fact, people of every faith – have a precious opportunity – even in the midst of our wonderful and colorful diversity – to pull together and to speak with one voice about the urgent need to safeguard the world that God entrusted to our care.
Today’s Gospel text gives us a way to reflect on our call to protect and heal “this fragile Earth, our island home.” In a story from the Gospel of John, Jesus heals a paralyzed man whom he finds lying beside a pool. It is a quick little story – no more than nine sentences – so let’s pause to visualize the scene. The pool, called Beth-zatha, is located near one of the gates into Jerusalem. Years ago archaeologists actually located and excavated the pool. Apparently it was quite large and had four sides. Stairways were built in the corners of the pool, so that people could descend into the water, which may have been fed by springs that welled up at intervals. The bubbling waters were thought to have healing powers, and sick people – the blind, the lame, the paralyzed – came to the pool, believing that whenever the waters were stirred up, the first person to enter the pool would be cured of whatever sickness he or she had.
That’s the scene. Here’s the story. A man who has been ill for thirty-eight years is lying near the pool on his mat. The story doesn’t say how long he has been waiting to get into the water, but it does say that he has been there “a long time” (John 5:6).
What do you imagine this man is going through, as he lies paralyzed for so long beside the pool? As I imagine it, he feels helpless. The waters that can heal him are close by, but out of reach. What can heal him is way over there, separated from him, at some distance away, and he can’t move toward it. He can’t reach it. He can’t get there. He is cut off from the source of healing, and he is utterly paralyzed. What’s more, he is cut off from the people around him, too, as he competes with the crowd to be the first to get into the pool when the waters bubble up. Who knows what he is feeling, but I would guess anxiety, frustration, desperation, even despair – all those painful, negative feelings that get stirred up when we feel helpless, vulnerable, and alone.
Now of course we can take the story literally, as a story about physical illness, but in John’s Gospel every story has an imaginative or symbolic dimension, too. When I imagine my way into this story and hear it in the context of climate change, all kinds of connections start playing in my mind. I start thinking about the ways the world’s web of life needs healing – about the alarming levels of carbon dioxide now pouring into the global atmosphere as coal, gas, and oil continue to be burned, about the oceans heating up and becoming more acidic, about the rising seas that could flood, disrupt, and even take down our country’s coastal cities within the lifetime of our children. I think about the new report saying that continued burning of fossil fuels could cause great swaths of the Pacific Ocean to suffocate from lack of oxygen in only 15 years. I think about the 93% of coral reefs that just bleached in the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. March 2016 was the hottest month ever recorded, which crushed the record set in February, which crushed the record set in January, which crushed the record set in December. A recent article in the Washington Post bears the title, “Scientists Are Floored by What’s Happening in the Arctic Right Now.”
When we hear news like this about our ailing planet, it’s easy to stop listening. It’s too much to take in, so we shut down. We may feel paralyzed by anxiety or paralyzed by grief. Like that man beside the Beth-zatha pool, we may feel immobilized and overwhelmed. How can this dire news be true, and how can we possibly respond? Where can we turn for help and healing when our planet is on track to catapult into climate chaos caused by an ever-expanding economic system that runs on fossil fuels? People the world over can become so gripped by fear, anger, and despair that they feel unable to imagine, much less create, a better future, so they just carry on with business as usual. It’s as if we can fall under a spell and make what U.N. Secretary General Ban-ki Moon calls a “global suicide pact.”
So please turn with me again to our Gospel story. Jesus comes upon this scene of the blind, lame, and paralyzed beside the pool, and, the story tells us, “When Jesus saw [the man] lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be made well?’” (John 5:6). That single sentence says a lot. The first step in this miracle of healing is that Jesus saw the man and knew him. John’s Gospel underscores again and again that when Jesus sees us and knows us, he sees and knows us through and through, more widely and deeply than we know ourselves. He looks deeply into us with eyes of love, with eyes that see the whole truth of who we are, and that perceive everything in us, everything about us, with loving-kindness and compassion. When we open ourselves to Jesus or to our Creator God in prayer, we open ourselves to the One “unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid” (Collect for Purity). In prayer, we turn toward the Holy Presence who searches for truth deep within and whose loving embrace encompasses everything we are, everything we feel.
That is the first step in today’s healing miracle: Jesus sees and knows. The second step in healing is his question, “Do you want to be made well?” That is a surprising question. We might have expected Jesus to take one look at the situation, pick up the man without a word, carry him straight to the pool of healing water, and slide him in. Why waste time? Why bother asking such an obvious question? When someone is hungry, you offer food to eat; when someone is thirty, you offer drink. Why mess around asking questions?
But Jesus’ question reveals something important. The God we meet in Jesus does not force or push, even when it comes to healing. The God we meet in Jesus is deeply respectful of our freedom and gives us space in which to choose. It seems that in order for real healing to take place and new life to spring forth, God’s desire to heal us must meet our own desire to be healed. Do you want to be made well? It is not just a rhetorical question with a pro forma answer. The question invites the man paralyzed beside the pool to explore his desires and to clarify what he truly wants.
Regarding the climate crisis, do I really want to be made well? Well, yes and no. Part of me prefers to stay blind, to close my eyes, duck my head, and turn my attention to more manageable things. Part of me prefers to come up with lame solutions: OK, I’ll change the light bulbs, but that’s it, I’ve done my part. Part of me feels paralyzed: I’m no expert; I’m too small to make a difference; surely someone else will take charge and figure this out.
How does the man by the pool reply to Jesus? “‘Sir,’ [the man says,] ‘I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me’” (John 5:7). Jesus’ response is powerful and short: “‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’ And at once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk” (John 5:8-9).
What just happened? How did the healing miracle take place? I can’t explain it. But as I imagine it, as Jesus gazed on the man with those piercing, loving eyes that saw and knew and loved him through and through, and when Jesus asked him the probing question, “Do you want to be made well?,” in a flash of insight the man could admit his own halfheartedness and mixed motives and the ways he’d been holding back. I imagine that he felt his deep-down desire to be whole and free, his longing to love and be loved, his longing to draw close to God and to serve God “with gladness and singleness of heart.”
So I imagine him claiming his deepest desire and turning to Jesus to say, “Yes, I want be fully alive. I want to fall in love with life, to give myself in love to each moment without holding anything back. I want God’s healing power to flow through me, so that I heal others and so that I, too, am healed.” The Gospel does not record that conversation, but I imagine it happening non-verbally by glance and gesture, as the sick man looked up at Jesus and said, without words, “Yes, I want to be made well.”
“Stand up,” Jesus said, “and walk.”
And he did.
And so can we.
Amazing things happen when we join our deep desire for healing with God’s deep desire to heal. When I look around, I see a planet in peril, but – thanks be to God! – I also see people shaking off their paralysis, reaching deep into their souls, and accessing their deep, God-given desire to love and serve life. I see people standing up to join the struggle to maintain a habitable planet and to create a just and sustainable future. I see a wave of religious protest and activism rising up around the world, as people refuse to settle for a killing status quo and declare that climate change is a spiritual and moral issue that must be tackled boldly and without delay.
Just think of all the signs we see of a growing movement that is pushing for a new social order. We see people blocking the path of new fracked gas pipelines and being arrested for civil disobedience as they read aloud from Pope Francis’ encyclical. We see people lobbying for a fair price on carbon, so that we can build a clean green economy that provides decent jobs and improves public health. We see our own Episcopal Church deciding to divest from fossil fuels, since it makes no financial or moral sense to invest in companies that are ruining the planet. We see new coalitions being formed and new alliances being forged, as people realize that the environmental crisis is closely connected with the social crises of poverty, income inequality, and racial injustice.
Right here in Massachusetts we have a strong grassroots climate action network, 350Mass for a Better Future, which has a node right here in the Berkshires. I’ve left a clipboard at the back of the church, and if you sign up for the weekly newsletter or attend a node meeting, you’ll connect with a vibrant local effort. I’m also part of a new group, Massachusetts Interfaith Coalition for Climate Action, or “MAICCA” for short, which is bringing together people of different religious traditions to advocate on Beacon Hill for legislation that supports climate justice. I hope you’ll sign up for MAICCA’s newsletter, too, for we are fighting to keep fossil fuels in the ground and to accelerate a transition to clean, safe, renewable sources of energy, such as sun and wind, that are accessible to all communities, including those that are low-income or historically underserved. As climate activist Bill McKibben points out, “The fight for a just world is the same as the fight for a livable one.”
The Church was made for a time like this – a time when God calls human beings to know that we belong to one Earth, that we form one human family, and that God entrusted the Earth and all its residents to our care.
One last word about our Gospel story: notice that the man didn’t need to be immersed in the pool of Beth-zatha in order to be healed. In Jesus’ presence, the man discovered that the healing spring was not outside him – it was inside him, just as it is inside us. As Jesus told the woman at the well (John 4:1-26), Jesus gives us water that becomes in us a “spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14). Even in troubled and scary times, we have everything we need. The healing pool is within us; the spring of healing is already bubbling up; and Jesus will nourish us with his presence in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. In the strength of that bread and wine and through the power of the Spirit, we can be healed from paralysis and become healers and justice-makers in a world that is crying out for our care.
1. The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John (I-XII), introduction, translation, and notes by Raymond E. Brown, S.S., Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1966, pp. 206-207.
A presentation to clergy and lay leaders in the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts that was given on Parish Leadership Day, March 5, 2016. A handout of suggested action steps is available for download here.
Friends, I’d like to take a page from writer Anne Lamott, who wrote a book a few years ago called Help, Thanks, Wow. She calls these our three most basic prayers, and they make a good framework for these remarks about caring for God’s creation, though I’m going to shuffle the deck a bit and take them in this order: Thanks, Wow, and Help.
“Thanks” comes first.
Thank you to every congregation that is exploring how to live more lightly and sustainably on the Earth.
Thank you to you churches that have joined Massachusetts Interfaith Power & Light and gotten an energy audit, maybe even looked into solar panels. I look forward to seeing which church in our diocese will be the first to go solar.
Thank you to you folks who have switched your homes to clean renewable energy from local sources – a step that is easy and inexpensive to take, thanks to an outfit called Mass Energy.
Thank you to everyone who is reining in your own consumption of fossil fuels by walking more and driving less, by turning out lights and turning down the heat.
Thank you to all who are “fasting” from wasteful over-consumption and from actions that pollute.
Thank you to everyone who is looking for ways large and small to “go green,” so that in our individual lives and in our communities we truly bear witness to the God who loves every inch of Creation and who entrusted the Earth to our care.
A special thank you to you clergy who are preaching about the climate crisis. I know that some fine preaching is going on, for some of you have sent me copies of your sermons. I also want to thank you lay leaders who encourage your clergy to preach about climate and who assure them of your support. Because it’s not easy to preach about climate. All kinds of voices tell us that the topic is too controversial, too political, and, besides, who are we to speak about climate – we’re not experts on the subject, we’re not scientists.
So thank you to everyone who sees through that fear and who understands that preaching and teaching and acting boldly on climate is not a political issue – we don’t care about the climate crisis because we’re Democrats or Republicans or members of any particular party.
We care about the climate crisis because we’re human beings, because we want to pass on to our children a habitable and healthy world, a world with clean air to breathe and clean water to drink.
We care about the climate crisis because we refuse to wipe out life as it has evolved on this planet and because we know the situation is grave – record heat, record levels of atmospheric CO2, record melting in the Arctic, a precious web of life on the brink of – or already – unraveling.
We care about the climate crisis because we’re Christian – because God’s love is being poured into our hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit and because we have chosen to follow Jesus’ way of love, justice, and truth. So thank you to all you good folks who in so many ways are expressing God’s love for our precious blue planet and for all its inhabitants, human and other-than-human.
That was Thanks. Here comes Wow. Wow is my response to what happened last year as a surge of religious energy rose up all over the world to safeguard life. How many of you have read or heard of the Pope’s encyclical Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home? Released last June, it was greeted with admiration by religious leaders around the world and elicited statements on climate action by Anglicans and Evangelicals, Muslims and Jews, Hindus and Buddhists. Never before have so many faith groups spoken out so strongly and so unequivocally about our moral responsibility to the poor, who bear the brunt of a changing climate, and about our spiritual responsibility to honor the sacredness of “this planet Earth, our island home.”
By the end of last year, faith groups of all kinds – including our own diocese and the Episcopal Church, at last summer’s General Convention – helped build the fossil fuel divestment movement to reach a combined total of $3.4 trillion in assets committed to divestment. Wow. And faith groups helped generate the momentum that brought us to the landmark climate agreement in Paris last December, when 196 countries came together through the U.N. and pledged to change the course of the global economy and to cap global temperature increases at 2º or ideally 1.5º degrees Celsius.
To all of this, I say: Wow. The wind of the Holy Spirit is blowing.
Here comes my last word to you: Help. I need your help. The Earth needs your help. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment, for the only way to avoid shooting past that 1.5º or 2º degree Celsius cap that protects us from runaway climate change is to keep 80% of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground. We simply cannot burn all that oil, coal and gas. We must transition quickly to clean sources of energy like wind and sunshine. This is a struggle, and we need your help.
I am grateful for your help, and glad to offer you mine: all are welcome to sign up for blog posts at my Website, RevivingCreation.org, and I’d be glad to come to your parish to preach or teach or lead a retreat about caring for God’s creation.
So to God we say:
Thank you. Thank you for your marvelous Creation and for giving us ears to hear the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor.
Gracious God, we say “Wow” when we see your awesome power transforming people’s lives and inspiring us to stand up for life.
And please help us, God – help us to stay grounded in your purpose for us and to become the people you created us to be, people who are a blessing to the Earth.
All this we pray in the presence and power of Christ Jesus, whose way we follow and whose guidance we trust. Amen.