This essay is based on opening remarks by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at a Community Forum, “Tackling the climate crisis now,” held at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Sandwich, MA, on November 4, 2018. The other speakers were Dr. Philip B. Duffy (President and Executive Director, Woods Hole Research Center) and the Rev. Dr. Paul Minus (Co-Chair of the Cape & Island Faith Communities Environmental Network). The event was part of a new initiative in Massachusetts to bring together scientists and faith leaders in a shared effort to address the climate crisis.
I brought two props with me: a globe and an icon. The globe represents the world outside us: the precious living planet into which we were born, with its complex eco-systems, its lands and waters, its diverse multitude of creatures, and its delicate balance of gases that make up the global atmosphere. The globe represents the outer landscape – what science studies.
The icon represents the world we carry inside us: how we make meaning, what we value and consider important, what motivates us, what we feel, what we long for, how we choose to act. The icon represents the inner landscape – what religion explores.
Scientists have done their job – they’ve conducted research, carried out experiments – and now they are speaking with increasing alarm about threats to the web of life and to human civilization. In the last few weeks we’ve experienced a one-two punch. The World Wildlife Fund just reported that 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles have been wiped out since 1970. This massive annihilation of wildlife now threatens human civilization, which depends on a healthy natural world. And several weeks ago the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a major report that shows that planetary warming is well underway and that time is running out to avert climate catastrophe: we have maybe ten or twelve years. To avoid runaway climate change will require a radical transformation of society from top to bottom at a scale and pace that are historically unprecedented: never before in human history has our species changed its way of living that dramatically and that fast.
The question is how we will respond. This is where communities of faith have a vital role to play. In order to mobilize an effective response to the climate crisis, we need hard science and we need deep faith; we need facts and we need a moral compass; we need clear heads and we need open hearts.
We need the wisdom of our whole selves, and we need the help and skills of every sector of society if we are going to preserve a habitable planet for our children’s children.
I’d like to name four of the many roles that faith communities can play:
People who are secretly worried about climate change often don’t take action because they feel helpless and overwhelmed. It’s easy to shut down, throw up our hands and call it quits. “It’s too late,” we tell ourselves. “What difference can I make? It’s not my problem. Someone else will have to deal with it. Besides, the world is cooked. We’re done for. I might as well put my head down, go shopping, check the score, grab a beer.” It’s easy to collapse into fatalism or despair. Strictly speaking we may not be climate skeptics – we do respect climate science, we do understand that burning fossil fuels is disrupting the global climate and threatening the whole human enterprise – but most of us engage in a kind of everyday climate denial: we don’t want to talk about it, we don’t want to think about it, we don’t know what to do about it, and we surely don’t want to feel the emotions that this crisis evokes.
Faith communities address helplessness in many ways. When we gather for meditation or worship, we see each other’s faces, we hear each other’s voices, and we can take hold of each other’s hands. We feel the power of a community that longs, as we do, to create a better world. And we place ourselves in the presence of a Higher Power (Great Spirit, God, Creator) in whose presence we are uplifted and to whom we are accountable.
2) Offer rituals and practices of prayer and meditation that transform minds and hearts and set us on a good path Taking action is essential, but in order to discover what we are called to do – and to find the strength to do it – we need to open ourselves to a power and wisdom that is greater than our own. We need help. We need guidance.
In a time of climate crisis, we need rituals that address our fear of death and give us courage to trust in a life greater than death. We need rituals that ask us to name our guilt and regrets, that grant us forgiveness, and that give us strength to set a new course. We need rituals that remind us of our essential connection with each other, with the rest of the created world, and with the unseen Source of all that is. We need rituals that remind us of how loved we are, how precious the world is, and what a privilege it is to be born in a time when our choices and actions make such a difference.
We also need to meditate and pray, recognizing, in the words of Terry Tempest Williams, “that we exist by the grace of something beyond ourselves.” What we consider prayer can take many forms. In times like these, our prayer may need to be expressive and embodied, visceral and vocal. How shall we pray with our immense anger and grief? How do we pray about ecocide, about the death that humanity is unleashing upon Mother Earth – and upon ourselves? The climate crisis can make us go numb. But it is important to protect our human capacity to feel our emotional responses to the crisis, for that is how we stay inwardly vital and alive. What’s more, our emotions can become a source of energy for constructive action to address the emergency.
So I’ll tell a story. Over the past month a company has been cutting down trees in the woods behind our house, clearing space for a new co-housing development. I’m all for co-housing, and I’ve met some nice people who plan to live there, but, honestly, I grieve the trees. So I’ve taken to praying outdoors. I go outside, feel my feet on the good earth, feel the wind on my face, and I sing to the trees. I sing my grief to the trees that are going down, and my grief about so much more: about what we have lost and are losing and are likely to lose, making up the words and the music as I go along. I sing my rage about these beautiful old trees going down and about the predicament we’re in as a species, my protest of the political and corporate powers-that-be that drive forward relentlessly with business as usual, cutting down forests, drilling for more oil and fracked gas, digging for more coal, expanding pipeline construction, and opening up public lands and waters to endless exploitation, as if the Earth were their private business and they were conducting a liquidation sale. I sing out my shame to the trees, my repentance and apology for the part I have played in Earth’s destruction. I sing out my thanks, my praise for the beauty of trees and my resolve not to let a day go by that I don’t celebrate the preciousness of the living world of which we are so blessedly a part.
Our prayer may be noisy and expressive, or it may be very quiet, the kind of prayer that depends on listening in stillness and silence with complete attention: listening to the crickets as they pulse at night, listening to the rain as it falls, listening to our breath as we breathe God in and breathe God out, listening to the inner voice of love that is always sounding in our heart.
Experiencing our unshakable union with a love that is stronger than death guides us to actions commensurate with the emergency we are in.
3)Provide moral leadership
Climate change is obviously a scientific issue, an economic issue, a political issue, but it is also a moral issue, an issue of justice. The poorest nations and the poorest citizens in each nation are those most vulnerable to climate change, because of flooding, food shortages, and the loss of clean water. The front-line communities most affected by fossil fuel pollution are often low-income communities and communities of color.1 The poor are often the people least responsible for causing climate change, the people least equipped to protect themselves from its effects, and the people least likely to have a say in how decisions get made. Pope Francis’s landmark encyclical, Laudato Si, makes it crystal clear that healing the climate is closely connected with securing social justice, racial justice, environmental justice, and economic justice. And climate change is about intergenerational justice, too, for right now we are stealing a habitable Earth from our children. What is our moral responsibility to future generations? This weekend, Christians around the world are celebrating All Saints Day, and as I said in my sermon this morning, our task is to be a good ancestor.
4)Inspire bold action
Faith communities have a long history of leading movements for social and environmental justice, from child labor to women’s rights, peace, the abolition of slavery, and the civil rights movement. Faith communities tap into our capacity to dedicate ourselves to a cause that is greater than our personal comfort and self-interest. Faith in God (however we name that Higher Power) can inspire people to take bold actions that require courage, compassion, and creativity.
I’d like to mention one important new interfaith initiative: Living the Change. At LivingtheChange.net you can commit to making personal changes in the three key areas that most affect our personal carbon footprint: transportation, household energy use, and diet. (It turns out that eating less meat or no meat, and shifting to a plant-based diet, is one of the most climate-friendly things we can do.)
Faith communities can model best practices for “going green,” such as to get an energy audit, increase energy conservation and efficiency, look into installing solar panels, put in bike racks, replace lawns with community gardens, and so on. But taking care of our immediate buildings and community is just a start. An adequate response to the scope and speed of the climate crisis requires collective action and political engagement.
The climate emergency is propelling people of different faiths to lobby for strong legislative action, such as putting a fair and rising price on carbon, and to join the divestment movement. In the footsteps of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., countless people of faith have been arrested in recent years in acts of non-violent resistance to fossil fuels. I have been arrested several times in interfaith protests against fossil fuels, and I consider those experiences some of the high points of my life. By engaging in civil disobedience, faith communities challenge the deathly status quo of “business as usual” and rouse society out of its apathy and inaction.
I am thankful for people who are willing to face squarely the most challenging, even devastating facts; who reach into their reserves of courage, faith, and hope; and who step out to take action — even if success is not assured — bearing witness to the presence and power of a love that abides within and around us and that nothing can destroy.
Saving Planet Earth: “Arise, my love, my fair one”
Friends, I feel blessed to be back in Vancouver, to see the mountains again and to ride a bike with my husband around Stanley Park. On our first day we took a boat trip out into the ocean, where we sighted humpback whales the size of a bus, lingering on the surface of the water, rolling, splashing and breaching in the waves. We also encountered a pod of transient orcas, which, as you know, are endangered. One of the orcas rose up out of the water to take a look at our boat, and, to our amazement, it and a second orca swam toward us very slowly and deliberately, right up to the side of the vessel. At the last moment they dove underneath, emerging a little distance behind us. It felt like a greeting, like a blessing, and some of us gasped with astonishment, some of us cheered and some of us were moved to tears. So before I do anything else I want to pass it on to you, that greeting and blessing from our orca kin, as we gather this morning to praise God.
The voice of God is speaking in our midst and in our depths, and it sings out clearly in our first reading, “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away” (Song of Solomon 2:10). I need to hear that voice. I need to dwell in its presence, for honestly, I came to this city with a heavy heart. Back in the United States, I serve as Missioner for Creation Care for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and for the United Church of Christ across the state. In this ecumenical role, I travel from place to place, preaching, speaking and leading retreats about the sacredness of God’s Creation and our call to protect the web of life entrusted to our care – especially the urgency of addressing climate change. (If you want to see what I’m up to, please visit my Website, RevivingCreation.org, for articles and blog posts.)
I love my job, but it’s tough these days to pay attention to what’s happening to Mother Earth and our fellow creatures, to our oceans, forests, and waterways, to the very air we breathe. My heart goes out to all of you who, a week or two ago, were choking on smoke from nearly 600 forest fires on the west coast, and facing an air quality advisory across most of the province that warned you not to breathe in the fine particulates. As I left Massachusetts, smoke from the fires raging here in the Pacific Northwest was causing a visible haze over New England.
What’s happening in Vancouver connects with what’s happening all over the world. Climate change caused by burning fossil fuels is raising temperatures, making heat waves more intense and more frequent, drying out soil and trees, and making wildfires spread. This summer, record-breaking temperatures gripped the globe from Japan to Algeria, from Canada to Greece. The global heat wave even set the Arctic Circle on fire. This year is on pace to be among the four hottest years on record, the other three being 2015, 2016, and 2017.
Despite these accelerating signs of distress, and with more scorching heat to come if we don’t change course fast, the powers-that-be relentlessly drive forward with business as usual, drilling for more oil, pushing to expand pipeline construction, cutting down forests, and generally acting as if the Earth were a private business and they were conducting a liquidation sale.
I don’t know about you, but I know what it’s like to feel alarm, anger, sorrow, and even despair. As a species we are hurtling willy-nilly down a suicidal path that risks bringing down not only our own civilization but also the web of life as it has evolved for millennia. That is why I am moved to hear those words from the Song of Solomon (also known as the “Song of Songs”), moved to hear God say to us: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” You probably recognize this passage as one that’s often read at weddings. The Song of Songs is a collection of sensual poems between two lovers who delight in each other and who long to consummate their desire, and it turns out that Christian mystics wrote about the Song of Songs more extensively than they did about any other book in the Bible, interpreting these poems as a passionate conversation between God and the soul.
In a precarious time – when many of us feel unsettled about the present and worried about the future, when many of us may feel anxious and alone, overwhelmed by challenges in our personal lives and doubtful that we can make a difference in the world around us – it is powerful to remember that God is a lover who is always reaching out to us, always speaking in our depths, always luring us to stay in relationship with each other and with God. For here is God, reaching out a hand to pull us into the dance of life. That’s one way of understanding the Holy Trinity: as a dance of love between the lover, the beloved, and the love that flows between (Augustine). “Come on in,” says God, “and join the dance!” “Arise, my love,” God says to our soul. “Arise, my fair one, and come away.”
The inner voice of love is quiet. We can hardly hear it amidst the roar and bustle of the world. We can hardly sense it when we’re gripped by depression, anxiety, or alarm. That’s why many of us reclaim a practice of prayer: we know we will hear the inner voice of love only if we practice stillness, only if we set aside some time in solitude each day to steady our minds and to listen in silence for the love that God is always pouring into our hearts (Romans 5:5).
As our minds grow quiet and as our stillness grows, a holy Someone – capital S – beckons to us in the silence: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” It’s the voice of Jesus, the voice of Spirit, the voice of God. “Arise, my love.” From what do you need to arise? Maybe the Spirit is saying: Arise from apathy, numbness, and fear. Arise from the agitation that holds you in its grip. Arise from hopelessness, for I will give you strength. Arise from loneliness,for I am with you, and I love you. You are my love, says the Spirit. You are my fair one. I see your beauty and you are precious in my sight. Arise and come away – away from the cult of death, away from the path of destruction, away from the lie that your efforts to protect life are useless. Come with me and join in the dance of life. I will help you find your place in the great struggle to protect life and to build a more just society.
“But,” we may protest, feeling helpless before the horrors of the world, helpless before its injustice and needless suffering. “Who am I? I have no power. I am so very small.”
“What can I do? What can anyone do? It is too late to make a difference!”
“I don’t have time. I don’t have energy. I’ve got other things to do.”
The voice of love is like that, right? It may be gentle, but it is persistent. It may be subtle, but it will never die. The love that created the universe, the love that stirs in our depths, the love that is being poured into our hearts – that holy love will never let us go, and it sends us out into the world to become beacons of light, and warriors for truth, and protectors of life. I may have a thousand and one reasons to dodge love’s call, but then it comes again, that voice:
Arise. I love you. I need you. I am calling from the trees, from the wind, from the very stones beneath your feet. I am calling from the orcas and the salmon, from the black bear and the mountains, from the fig trees and the vines. I am calling from the strangers who are not really strangers, but brothers and sisters you don’t yet recognize, those who are suffering right now from a wounded Earth and a changing climate. I am calling from the future, from the men, women and children who will inhabit this planet long after you are gone and who depend on you to leave them a habitable world. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.
When we stand in the holy presence of God we find fresh strength to renew the face of the Earth. And we arise, joining with indigenous leaders to protect the water and the land, joining with activists to stop new pipelines, joining with young and old to plant new forests. We cast our lot with people of faith and spirit who have been awakened – as we have been awakened – by a fierce longing to join the dance of life. What does it look like when we join God’s dance of life? Maybe we cut back strongly on our use of fossil fuels. Maybe we fly less, drive less, and eat less meat. Maybe we lobby for policies that support renewable energy and clean green jobs. Maybe we join the growing numbers of resolute and faith-filled people who carry out peaceful civil disobedience and put our bodies on the line. This Saturday, September 8, rallies and marches will be held worldwide in a global day of action called “Rise for Climate.” Several “Rise for Climate” events will be held right here in Vancouver, and I hope you will join one.
In whatever ways we step out to heal God’s creation and to join the dance of life, we will take risks we never imagined we would take. We will connect with people we never imagined we would meet. And we will make more of a difference than we will ever know. I give thanks for the ways that the Spirit is speaking in our hearts, and for the ways that you are already responding to its call: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”
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?
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” (John 14:1)
It is a joy to be with you again. I had the pleasure of serving as your Priest Associate for nine years, and it is wonderful to be back. Thank you, Tom, for inviting me to preach. I feel a bit like the apostles whom Jesus sent out to heal and preach and teach, and who returned to Jesus to report back on what they had learned and how things were going. I will spare you a long report on what I’ve been up to over the past three-and-a-half years as Missioner for Creation Care in this diocese and in the Mass. Conference of the United Church of Christ. My Website, RevivingCreation.org, will tell you anything you want to know. But I will say that this has been a lively and rewarding time of building up the God-centered, Spirit-led movement to protect the web of life and to create a more just and sustainable future. I’ve been traveling around, preaching, speaking and leading retreats, aiming to mobilize a wave of religious activism to find solutions to the climate crisis. It’s been heartening to catch glimpses of the many ways that members of this congregation share in this mission with me. Just two weeks ago I met up with four of you – along with more than 200,000 other dedicated souls – at the People’s Climate March in Washington, D.C., and many others of you took part in local events on the same day here in the Valley. Thank you for that witness.
Today’s Gospel – and the Gospel readings for the next two Sundays – is drawn from the section of John’s Gospel called Jesus’ “farewell discourse.” Jesus is saying goodbye to his friends, telling them that even though he will soon leave them physically, his presence and power and spirit will come to them and remain with them always. “[Jesus said,] ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also’” (John 14:1-3).
I don’t know about you, but just now it is startling for me to hear “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” because naturally our hearts are troubled. On a personal level, all sorts of things may be troubling us: maybe financial worries, or a medical issue, or some conflict in an important relationship. Regarding politics, many of us are troubled by the extraordinary events now unfolding in our nation’s Capitol, from the firing of the Director of the FBI to growing concerns about Russian interference in the last election and possible collusion and cover-up by our nation’s top leaders: we may well be troubled by what looks like an assault on the institutions that maintain democracy.
And we have good reason to be deeply troubled by the ongoing and accelerating attack on God’s Creation, the Earth upon which all life depends. Our current leaders seem determined to develop more coal, gas, and oil, just when we urgently need to keep fossil fuels in the ground. They likewise seem determined to ignore climate science, to shut down climate Websites, to withdraw funding for climate research, and to abandon regulations that protect our health and environment, as if ignoring the climate crisis will make it go away. Last year was the hottest year on record, crushing the record set the year before, which in turn crushed the record set the year before that. As global temperatures rise, every living system of the world is being affected and is in decline. Sea ice is melting rapidly at both poles. Land ice is melting and sliding into the sea. Tundra is thawing and releasing methane – a serious greenhouse gas. Storms are becoming more intense. The ocean is absorbing heat and excess carbon dioxide, and in just decades has become 30% more acidic. Scientists recently reported that large sections of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef have died.
For all of us who feel anxious and unsettled in this turbulent time, today’s Gospel passage brings words of reassurance and hope. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” Here is the first great promise that Jesus makes to us this morning: our souls have a destination, a home in God. We may enter the fullness of that divine dwelling place only at the end of our lives, but anyone with sustained experience in prayer, especially contemplative prayer, knows that we’re also invited to enter that dwelling place now. God is found not just “somewhere out there,” in a distant place or time. God is found right here and now, in the intimate, unrepeatable present moment. Every ache in us, every bit of restlessness and striving, every desire that moves through us in the course of a day, is an echo of the soul’s deep hunger for communion with God. The longing for our sacred Home in God is at the root of all our other longings and desires.
But how do we find that Home in God? How do we get there? Even if, strictly speaking, there is nowhere to get to, even if in some sense God is already here, already alive in our depths and in our midst, how do we discover that truth for ourselves? What is the path? What is the way? That is the question that Thomas asks Jesus. You know how Jesus answers: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). That is the second great promise that Jesus makes to us this morning: there is a way into the heart of God, and Christ is the path. Christ is the way.
I am ashamed to say that Christians have too often wielded this statement as a cudgel against people of other faiths, holding it aloft like a fist: follow Jesus or else. Christians have too often interpreted this statement as Jesus speaking from his ego to our ego, as if Jesus wants to bolster the part of our selves that likes to have power, to dominate and be in control. But when Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” Jesus is not speaking from his ego to our ego. He is speaking from his soul to our soul. He is inviting us to trust him, to be devoted to him, to dedicate ourselves to following him so that we, too, are drawn, as he is drawn, into the divine life that circulates at the center of everything and that can never be destroyed. Jesus is the gateway to the great way: to a universal love in which no one is left out.
So Jesus speaks to the soul and says, “I am the way, the truth and the life. I am the indwelling presence of God, the creative Wisdom of God through whom all things were made, in whom everything is knit together, and toward whom all things in heaven and on earth converge. I make my home in you and in every person, whatever he or she happens to believe, and whether he or she is aware of it or not. You can ignore me, you can deny me, you can conceal me under all the worries and pleasures of your life, but if you open yourself to me in quiet prayer – if you listen attentively to my silent love – if you practice paying attention to my presence as you go through the day – if you lean on my love and trust in my power – what amazing things you and I will do together!” (c.f. Acts 17:6).
This is what distinguishes secular activists from activists who are led by faith: secular activists depend on people power, on their own power, on what human beings can accomplish by themselves. And this can be a lot! But Spirit-led activists depend on God’s power. They draw from a sacred power beyond themselves, from a source of love and strength far greater than anything they can ask for or imagine. In these troubled times, we need Spirit-led activists, people who take time to pray and to listen inwardly for the presence of the Spirit, people who resist the temptation to get so caught up in tracking the latest breaking news, the latest tweet, the latest post on social media, that we forget to tap into the wisdom that can only be found deep within, by patient listening in silence. In these troubled times, we need Spirit-led activists who step out to do what needs to be done, even if they have no assurance of success – activists who bear witness to the ongoing flow of love that God pours into our hearts through the power of the Spirit (Romans 5:5), even in a world often gripped by cruelty and fear.
Thanks be to God, people of all faiths are rising up the world over to proclaim the sacredness of God’s Creation and to express our refusal to stand idly by and let the web of life be destroyed. People of faith are lobbying, and advocating, and pressing our politicians to keep fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong. People of faith are blocking the path of new fracked gas pipelines, pushing for a fair price on carbon, and working to build a clean green economy that provides decent jobs and improves public health.
You never know where the Spirit will lead you. A UCC pastor and friend of mine, long-time activist Andrea Ayvazian, was recently praying as she rode a train to and from Texas, and the Spirit gave her a vision of a school that teaches people how to build the movement for eco-social justice. Thus was born the Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership. Launched just this month, it offers free classes from Greenfield to Springfield on everything from how to write for social change, to how to run for office, how to prepare for non-violent civil disobedience, and how to maintain a peaceful heart. The Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership is already on its way to becoming a model for how to start similar schools in cities across the country. Check it out online or pick up one of the brochures I’ve left at the door to the church. I’ll be teaching a class on spiritual resilience in a couple of weeks.
I see the Spirit at work in the climate action network here in the Pioneer Valley, Climate Action Now, which is engaged in campaigns to accelerate a transition to clean, safe, renewable sources of energy, such as sun and wind. The monthly meetings of Climate Action Now begin and end with silence, prayer, or singing, and if you sign up for their weekly newsletter, you’ll be joining a vibrant local effort.
The Spirit also inspired the formation of another group, the Massachusetts Interfaith Coalition for Climate Action, or “MAICCA” for short, which is bringing together Christians, Jews, Quakers, Unitarians, and people of all religious traditions to push for legislation in Massachusetts that supports climate justice.
Here’s my last invitation. I’d love to see you on Sunday afternoon, June 11, when we hold a festive, outdoor, interfaith service in Northampton called “Prayers for the Planet: Reverence and Resistance.” We’ll have two powerful guest speakers, Rev. Mariama White-Hammond and Jay O’Hara, along with Gospel music, singing, prayers, and leaders from a range of world religions, as we join together to refresh our spirits and renew our resolve. Thank you, Grace Church, for being a sponsor of this unusual event. I hope that many of you will come.
Yes, we live in troubled times, but the Jesus movement was made for times like these. If you knew that Jesus was with you, if you knew that he believes in you and in what you can accomplish, if you knew that his Spirit was guiding you, sustaining you, and giving you strength, what would you do next? What new step would you take? You may not know the answer right off the bat, but if you ask the Spirit to guide you, She will.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”
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.
Last Tuesday, Americans voted into office a Presidential candidate who has embraced fossil fuels, called climate change a hoax, and vowed to withdraw from the Paris agreement.
Yesterday, five days later, Christians from across Massachusetts gathered on a hillside to reaffirm our dedication to restoring God’s creation. Led by five of the top Protestant and Roman Catholic leaders in our Commonwealth, we prayed and sang under an open sky as the afternoon sun cast long shadows across the woodlands and fields. Heifer Farm in central Massachusetts is the perfect spot for an outdoor prayer service, not only because the location is inherently beautiful, but also because the mission of Heifer International – to end poverty and hunger through sustainable community development – so closely aligns with our mission as Christians to respond to the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor.
After listening to readings from the Book of Genesis, Meister Eckhart, and Wendell Berry, and after confessing our alienation from the Earth and receiving an assurance of God’s pardon, we listened as Christina Leano, a leader in the Global Catholic Climate Movement, read “A Christian prayer in union with creation,” from Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home.
Then it was time to renew our individual commitment to the Earth and to make our own personal pledge. I stepped to the microphone. Here is what I said.
“O Lord, seize us with your power and light, help us to protect all life…”
These words of Pope Francis express our deep yearning, as people of faith, to safeguard the world that God entrusted to our care. We didn’t choose the date for this prayer service because it was the first Sunday after a long and painful election process. We chose it because it happened to be the date when top Christian leaders from across Massachusetts were available to come. But I can’t think of a better day to reaffirm our steadfast commitment as Christians to be reconcilers and justice-seekers, people who are willing to take action, just as Noah did, to protect life on this planet.
I know that many of us feel tired and shaken to the bone. Yet here we are – sturdy, resilient souls sitting outside on a hillside on a November afternoon, in the company of five leaders of the Churches in Massachusetts: Bishop Doug Fisher (Episcopal Diocese of Western Mass.); Bishop Alan Gates (Episcopal Diocese of Mass.); Jim Antal (Conference Minister and President, Mass. Conference, United Church of Christ); Bishop Jim Hazelwood (New England Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America); and Fr. Richard Reidy (Vicar General, Catholic Diocese of Worcester), who is representing Bishop Robert McManus, away in Baltimore for the annual Fall meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
We represent different branches of the Jesus Movement, but we are united in a single Christian mission. We are here to say that we know who we are: people made in the image and likeness of God; people sent out into the world to bear witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ. We are not willing to settle for a world ruined by catastrophic climate change. We are not willing to stand by and let the seas rise and let the ice caps melt and let people’s homes and livelihoods be destroyed by extreme storms. We are not willing to keep burning fossil fuels at present rates, to let “business as usual” run its course and to leave a ruined world to our children.
We are here because we know we live in precarious times. The word “precarious” derives from the word for “prayer,” so first and foremost we are here to pray, to feel God’s presence and to seek God’s guidance. After the flood, God made a covenant with every living creature for all time, and put a rainbow in the sky as a sign of God’s unfailing love for all creation. When we act and advocate in service of God’s creation – when we hold in our hearts the future generations who are counting on us to leave them a habitable world – we do so in the presence and power of a divine love that will never let us go.
Today we have an opportunity to respond to God’s covenant. In a moment I will invite each of us to make a pledge, to make a commitment to stand up and stand together to protect God’s creation and to address climate change. We’ve created a pledge card to help you organize your thoughts about what you might feel led to do.
In a time when our country is so deeply divided, we intend to keep listening to each other. And we intend to keep listening to the Earth. As my husband, Robert Jonas, likes to say, “The critters are looking to you, and they are hoping for the best.”
After the homily, pledge cards with green ribbons were distributed to the congregation. Four religious leaders rose from their seats and took a stand at each corner of the congregation to express their support. Making promises is not easy when you intend to keep them.
I began the ceremony by reading the opening statement of the pledge: We are the Earth…I am the Earth…What I do matters…This is what I am called to commit to now.
Bishop Alan Gates read the section on prayer: I pledge to Pray… I will pray for the earth, for humanity, and for guidance in my own life and practice so that I live more gently on the earth. In particular, I pledge to….
Here he said aloud his own commitment regarding communal prayer. He pledged to encourage congregations in the Diocese of Massachusetts to include the additional question in our Baptismal Covenant that General Convention recently authorized for trial use. Whenever Episcopalians renew our baptismal vows – the vows that express our commitment to follow Jesus – we are now invited to name and accept a crucial aspect of our mission, our responsibility as baptized Christians to care for God’s creation. We are asked: “Will you cherish the wondrous works of God, and protect the beauty and integrity of all creation?” And we answer: “I will, with God’s help.”
Then followed a period of silence, as members of the congregation reflected on their own commitment to pray for the Earth.
Bishop Jim Hazelwood read the section on learning: I pledge to Learn… I will learn more about creation care, about the climate crisis, and about how my choices make a difference in my life, my community and the world. In particular, I pledge to…
Here he pledged to read a book about the climate crisis – and there are many fine options to choose from, such as Bill McKibben’s Eaarth and Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. In the silence that followed, the congregation bent over their pledge cards, jotting down their own commitments to learn.
Then Bishop Doug Fisher read the section on action: I pledge to Act… I will make changes in my own life to reduce my carbon footprint and to conserve natural resources. I will work in my community to join or create local opportunities to care for the earth. In particular, I pledge to…
He commented that he drives 35,000 miles in the course of a year, and he pledged to get a hybrid car. He also pledged to encourage and support the churches in our diocese to go green. Again, in the silence, we reflected on the actions that we felt led to take.
Jim Antal read the final section, on advocacy: I pledge to Advocate… I will participate in the civic and political process, and will vote and advocate in places of power for policies that protect and restore the earth. In particular, I pledge to…
In a ringing voice, Jim proclaimed his commitment to “hold elected leaders accountable when they fail to protect God’s creation by educating our congregations, unifying our members’ voices and mobilizing our bodies in ways that neither the legislators nor the media can ignore.”
At the end of the pledge ceremony, we turned to someone nearby and asked the person to tie a green ribbon around our wrist to help us remember our commitment. I found this small moment especially touching. It is difficult to change course, difficult to keep our word, difficult to lay aside patterns of thoughtless greed and waste. Just as we need someone’s help to tie a green ribbon around our wrist, so we need each others’ strong assistance and fierce encouragement if we’re going to change our ways as individuals and as a society. At the end of the service, led by Fred Small we joined hands and sang the rousing anthem, “The Tide Is Rising.”
Ten days ago, just a week before the election, I attended and spoke at a conference in Washington, D.C., on building human resilience for the climate crisis. Some of the strategies I learned at that conference seem eminently useful not only in a time of climate crisis but also in a time of profound social and political uncertainty. As Bob Doppelt, the lead conference organizer, explains in his book, Transformational Resilience: How Building Human Resilience to Climate Disruption Can Safeguard Society and Increase Wellbeing, we can develop two basic skills or “building blocks” that help us cope with adversity and use adversity as a catalyst to learn, grow, and increase well-being:
• “presencing” practices, such as mindfulness meditation, that ground us and stabilize our nervous system; and
• “purposing” practices that tap into the core values we want to live by.
Our task is to practice these skills and to build resilient communities – sturdy networks of relationship, communication, and trust that can withstand trauma and adversity.
It seems to me that yesterday’s prayer service, We Are The Earth, bears all the hallmarks of encouraging emotional and spiritual resilience: we practiced the presence of God as we sang and prayed, calming our minds and opening our hearts; we tapped into our deep purpose as Christians, as we made our pledge commitments to follow a God of love; and we strengthened our bonds of community through our laughter, hugs, and tears.
Yes, we live in precarious times. That’s why we intend to keep praying, to take every action we can to restore our beloved human and Earth communities, and to do so in community, leaving no one out.
Text of a keynote address for “An Interfaith Climate Justice Meeting” organized by Springfield Area Interfaith Climate Action Network (SAICAN), held at First Church of Christ, Longmeadow, MA, on October 30, 2016
Thank you for inviting me to speak. I am excited by what you’re up to as a coalition, and very interested to see what emerges from today’s meeting.
I have worked with some of you. Some of you I haven’t yet met. But I greet all of you as friends. I am an Episcopal priest and a long-time climate activist, and I now have the world’s longest job title. I work as “Missioner for Creation Care for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and for the Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ.”
I am not a “missionary,” a term that can evoke imperialist, colonial-era associations of forcibly converting someone to a religion, but rather a “missioner”: someone who is sent out on a mission, serving a purpose greater than herself, out of the box, outside the boundaries of a building. And I’m a missioner for “Creation care,” a term, it turns out, that some people confuse with “creationism,” the belief that the universe originated from acts of God that are literally described in the Bible. Being a missioner for “Creation care” (not creationism) means that I’m trying to protect the beautiful world that God created. My Website is RevivingCreation.org, where you can find blog posts, sermons, articles, and more – including an article on how to start a green team, and an article on the roles that communities of faith can play in a time of climate crisis.
My job is like a swinging door: on the one hand, I preach, speak and lead retreats for people of faith, saying that we need to place the climate crisis at the center of our moral and spiritual concern and we need to take action. Then I turn, and I speak to activists who may have no particular faith tradition. I thank them for engaging in the struggle to protect the web of life, which is such urgent and difficult work. I tell them that the only way to keep going, without burning out or going off the rails, is to draw from inner resources of spiritual wisdom, from spiritual practices, and ideally from the support of a spiritual community.
Today the swinging door is an open door: people of faith and climate justice activists are here together in one place! How sweet it is! I hope we can break down (or at least soften) the false split of people into two camps: “spiritual” people (people who pray, meditate, and take time to contemplate beauty of the world; people who give thanks and who attend to their inner lives) and “active” people (people on the front lines who are serving, helping, organizing, advocating). I hope we can keep working to heal that false split, because right now we need people who can do both: people who can tap into their deep inner wisdom and who can also step out to take bold, creative action on behalf of life on this planet.
Christians often say that we need to be good “stewards” of the planet. That’s true. But sometimes the word “steward” can sound rather wimpy, as if it’s enough for us to recycle a can once in a while, or to turn off a light. I think we need a term that is more robust, more full of juice. Maybe we need to be “spiritual warriors” engaged in “sacred activism.”
More than ever we need wise people, bold people, dedicated people, because we’re in the midst of an emergency. The house is on fire. Through burning fossil fuels like coal, gas, and oil, in 200 years – just a blink in geologic time – we’ve pumped so much heat-trapping CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the air that atmospheric levels of CO2 are higher than they’ve been for millions of years. In a TED talk a few years ago, climate scientist James Hanson explained that the added energy (or heat) that we’re pouring into the atmosphere is equivalent “to exploding 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs per day, 365 days per year. That’s how much extra energy Earth is gaining each day.” Not surprisingly, this is having a profound effect on planet. In his book Eaarth, Bill McKibben writes: “Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen.” Scientists tell us with increasing alarm that unless we change course fast, we’re on a fast track to catastrophic, runaway climate change that would render the world very difficult to inhabit, perhaps in the lifetime of our children.
I’ve been a climate activist for many years, but I have never felt the rising tide of commitment and momentum that I now feel. I’m deeply thankful for that, even as I am keenly aware that we have a long struggle ahead. Every religion has issued some kind of statement about the moral and spiritual urgency of addressing the climate crisis – here is just one collection, Faith-based Statements on Climate Change, collected by Citizens Climate Lobby volunteers.
Climate change is obviously a scientific issue, an economic issue, a political issue, but it is also a moral issue, a justice issue. The poorest nations and the poorest citizens in each nation are those most vulnerable to climate change, because of flooding, food shortages, and the loss of clean water. As we see in Flint, Michigan, and right here in Springfield, the front-line communities most affected by fossil fuel pollution are often low-income communities and communities of color. The poor are often the people least responsible for causing climate change, and the people least equipped to protect themselves from its effects. As the Pope’s encyclical makes crystal clear, healing the climate is closely connected with securing social justice, racial justice, environmental justice, and economic justice. We can see that very starkly in the struggle going on right now at Standing Rock in North Dakota, in the resistance to the Dakota Access pipeline. And climate change is about intergenerational justice, too, for right now we are stealing a habitable Earth from our children.
So climate change is a justice issue. And it’s a spiritual issue, too. I titled these remarks “Climate change: An emergency of the heart,” because in the face of the climate crisis, it’s so easy to get emotionally overwhelmed, to go into panic mode and be flooded by anxiety, or to shut down entirely, go numb and not feel a thing, because we don’t know what to do with our fear and anger and grief.
Each of you probably has your own favorite “go to” strategy for avoiding your feelings. Here are a few popular methods. Some of us get into our heads and give all our attention to mastering the facts – we intend to stay on top of every last fact about the rate of melting ice, every last bit of awful climate news, every single detail about the terms of a Senate bill. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for mastering essential facts and for educating ourselves and staying informed. But sometimes we can get so busy using our wonderful brains to analyze, memorize, conceptualize, and so on, that we lose touch with our inner landscape. Then we wonder why we’re so short-tempered or why we woke up with insomnia or why we got into a car accident. It’s only when we’re connected with our feelings that we have access to our emotional intelligence, to our intuition and moral imagination. When we get into our heads and lose contact with our greater intelligence, we forget who we are and we act, as Joanna Macy puts it, like “brains on a stick.”
Another strategy to avoid our feelings is to get really busy. If I stay super busy, if I have an endless list of things to do, if I try to cram in more tasks in a day than any human beings could possibly accomplish, then I won’t have to feel the clench in my belly or the ache in my heart.
Addictive behaviors are another “go-to” strategy. Don’t like what I’m feeling? Maybe it’s time to do some shopping, eat another cookie, have a smoke, have a drink – there are lots of ways to go numb and repress what’s going on inside.
Yes, we are in a climate emergency. We’re also in an emergency of the heart. We need to learn to be “first responders” to ourselves and to each other. We need to be gentle with ourselves and with each other. We can’t think our way out of anxiety. So I will share three remedies, three spiritual practices for responding to the cry of the heart.
I invite us to pray. I invite us to explore practices that quiet our minds, bring us into the present moment, and help us listen to our deepest wisdom. This could include practices of mindfulness, practices of gratefulness, practices of meditation and contemplative prayer. Practices like these help us to open to the deep inner wisdom that is always speaking in our hearts. Practices of prayer and meditation help us to listen to the inner voice of love.
Here’s a quote from Thomas Merton, the 20th century Trappist monk and prolific writer who practiced contemplative prayer: “If we descend into the depth of our own spirit and arrive at our own center, we confront the inescapable fact that at the root of our existence we are in immediate and constant contact with God.”
That’s a very different image of God than the one we may be used to. God is not “out there,” far away in the heavens. God is “in here,” closer than our next breath.
I invite us to allow ourselves to grieve. We have lost so much, and there is more loss ahead. I invite us to let ourselves feel the pain so that we are able to move forward and to be fully alive. Until we allow ourselves to grieve, parts of ourselves will stay numb, even dead.
A couple of weeks ago I attended a climate summit in Washington, DC, and I happened to be seated beside the Executive Director of the US Climate Action Network. Our task at each table was to do a go-round and to name the top three things that need to be done in order to tackle climate change. The first suggestion from this activist was: Grieve.
Let me add that there are two ways to grieve: one is to grieve alone, in a state of despair – the kind of grief that does not bring healing. The other way to grieve is to grieve within the embrace of love. If we believe in God, we do this when we pray our grief: we grieve in the presence of a loving God who embraces and shares in everything we feel. But whatever our religious beliefs, we can grieve with each other and we can hold each other with love.
Finally, I invite us to discover who we really are. I brought in this icon of St. Francis, who is often called the patron saint of ecology. You can see that Francis didn’t think that that he was alone and that his identity stopped with his skin. He is interpenetrated by other creatures – by wolf, bird, turtle, and snake – and even by elements like wind and fire. He spoke of Brother Sun and Sister Moon.
Francis’ daily prayer was “Who are you, God, and who am I?” Pray that prayer for a while and see what happens! Our identity does not stop with our skin!
When we experience ourselves like that, as interpenetrated with all of life, then we know that when we take action to save life on earth, we do so in the company of the trees, of the earth and sky. When we stand up for life – when we get arrested in a protest against fossil fuels, when we divest, when we take whatever actions we’re called to take – the trees are thanking us. The animals are thanking us. We are not alone. The whole creation is offering its support.
Thank you for the work you’re doing to re-weave the web of life. I may have the title, “Missioner for Creation Care,” but I only hold that title on your behalf. Each of you – everyone in this room, every single one of you – you too are missioners for Creation care.
Imagine there is a fire in your house. What do you do? What do you think about? You do whatever you can to try to put out the fire or exit the house. You make a plan about how you can put out the fire, or how you can best exit the house. Your senses are heightened, you are focused like a laser, and you put your entire self into your actions. You enter emergency mode.
These are the opening lines of a fascinating essay that every climate activist and every faith leader should read.
“Leading the Public into Emergency Mode: A New Strategy for the Climate Movement” recognizes that when we face an existential or moral crisis, we can pull back into paralyzed inaction or rush about in panicked, ineffective, chaotic action. But choosing between paralysis and panic is not our only option. Instead, we can enter a state of consciousness in which we become highly focused and purposeful, pour our resources into solving the crisis, and accomplish great feats.
Margaret Klein Salamon, author of the article and the Founding Director of The Climate Mobilization, calls this “emergency mode.” She considers emergency mode a particularly intense form of flow state, which has been described as an “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.” She cites Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who pioneered the study of flow and who described it as: “Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one… your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
When we enter emergency mode, inertia or panic are replaced by focused, productive action toward a few critical goals. Non-essential functions are curtailed. Failure is not an option.
In ordinary times, a country is governed in what Salamon wryly labels “normal political-paralysis mode.” We experience a lack of national leadership, and politics is “adversarial and incremental.” By contrast, when a country is in emergency mode, “bipartisanship and effective leadership are the norm.” People work together because they face a shared and urgent threat.
Salamon accurately calls the climate crisis “an unprecedented emergency.” She writes: “Humanity is careening towards the deaths of billions of people, millions of species, and the collapse of organized civilization.” Her article and her organization, The Climate Mobilization, are devoted to developing strategies to mobilize an emergency response. Although I don’t agree with all her policy recommendations, I believe that her basic framing of the challenge is just right.
Most faith communities do not recognize the climate crisis and are not in emergency mode. Yet when faith communities enter this heightened state of awareness about our planetary emergency, we have significant gifts to offer.
I. When faith communities understand the climate crisis and enter emergency mode, what roles do we play? We…
• Address helplessness
People who are secretly worried about climate change often don’t take action because they feel helpless and overwhelmed (“The situation is dire. What difference can I possibly make?”). Faith communities address helplessness in multiple ways, both directly and indirectly. For instance, gathering for worship can be understood as turning toward a Higher Power (God, divine Mystery, Creator, Source) in whose presence we are uplifted, and feel our strength renewed. Entrusting ourselves to God can release within us unexpected power “to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).
• Face facts
A person of faith is someone who is committed to the search for truth. A Zen Buddhist might speak of facing reality as it is. A Jew, Muslim, or Christian might speak of relating to an all-seeing, all-knowing God who is truth and who leads us into all truth. At their best, the Abrahamic faiths believe that God has given us the capacity to learn about the created world through the lens of science. Science is one important avenue to discovering what is true. People of faith try to see through self-deception and illusion in their quest to discover what is true and to live their lives in accordance with the truth.
Truth includes both material and spiritual realities. By definition, facts are true until proven otherwise. We do not have any right to our own facts.
Science has established that climate change is real, largely caused by human activities, already inflicting widespread damage, and, unless humanity swiftly changes course, on track to make it difficult or impossible for civilization to continue to exist. We know that 80% of known fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground, lest we plunge past the point of no return. We know we must make a just and swift transition to a clean energy economy.
Such facts are difficult to face and absorb. But faith communities have the capacity to face facts, tell the truth, and dismiss denial. We trust, and are accountable to, a sacred reality that includes and transcends the material world. From this vantage point, faith communities are uniquely positioned to see through the lies of climate denial. Thanks to our commitment to the truth, we can let go the comfortable fibs and fantasies we may be tempted to tell ourselves (“I don’t need to change; I can continue with business as usual; climate change is someone else’s problem”). We also seek to uncover the confusion, misinformation, and lies about climate change that are deliberately spread by the fossil fuel industry and by the political leaders they fund. Not to do so is to participate in idolatry and to betray our own commitment to bear witness to the truth.
As a Christian, I believe that a religion that directs our gaze to a suffering, dying man on a cross is a religion that can face painful facts. As a Christian, I also believe that perceiving God’s presence in the very midst of suffering and death is a gateway to transformation and new life.
• Provide vision “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18, KJV).
Climate science has done its job, giving us essential facts about the potentially catastrophic consequences of continuing to burn fossil fuels. But facts alone are not sufficient to persuade people to take meaningful, concerted action. For that, we need vision – a shared goal, purpose, and values. This is what faith communities can do: lift up a vision of people living in just and loving relationships with each other and with the whole Creation, a vision energized by a deep desire for God’s love to be fully manifest in the world. Faith communities have a vital role to play in inspiring action to safeguard the world that God entrusted to our care.
As Antoine de Saint Exupery observed, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Simon Sinek makes the same point in his terrific TED talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” when he says, “Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the ‘I have a dream’ speech, not the ‘I have a plan’ speech.”
• Offer hope
Human beings hope for so much: we want a good future for our kids; we want a livable world; we want the web of life to remain intact. The climate crisis challenges these cherished hopes. It renders uncertain the future of the whole human enterprise.
Faith communities offer a context in which to explore and take hold of the kind of hope that does not depend on outward circumstances but that emerges from a deep and irrepressible place in the human spirit. Animated by a radical, God-given hope, people of faith throw themselves into healing the Earth and its communities, human and other than human. Active hope – actively embodying ones deepest values and being ready at every moment to welcome and build the longed-for future – is a path to joy.
• Renew love
Climate change is a “threat multiplier” that exacerbates existing problems, such as poverty, hunger, terrorism, refugees on the move, and the spread of infectious diseases. Racism, militarism, and xenophobia – the fear of what is perceived to be foreign or strange – are likely to increase as the planet warms and as various groups battle over depleted resources, such as arable land and clean drinking water. Religious groups, like every other group, can be hijacked by fear and become sources of discord and violence.
Yet the deep message of all the world’s religions is that we are interconnected with each other and with the Earth on which all life depends. Faith communities can help to restore our capacity to love God and our neighbor. The climate crisis is already bringing together leaders and members of many faiths in a unified call to protect Earth and all its inhabitants, human and other than human. Pope Francis’ landmark encyclical on climate justice, Laudato Si’, generated an ardent and enthusiastic response from diverse faith communities around the world.
In a sermon, a D’var Torah, or a dharma talk, in prayer circles, worship services, and meditation groups, in pastoral care, outreach, and advocacy, faith communities can renew our intention and deepen our capacity to act in loving ways, to respect the dignity of every human being, and to cherish the sacredness of the natural world.
Faith communities speak to the heart of what it means to be human. When people are going mad with hatred and fear, only love can restore us to sanity.
• Give moral guidance
The climate crisis raises existential questions about the meaning, purpose, and value of human life. What is our moral responsibility to future generations? What does it mean to be human, if human beings are destroying life as it has evolved on this planet? How do we address the anger, self-hatred and guilt that can arise with this awareness? How can we live a meaningful life when so much death surrounds us? How determined are we to radically amend our personal patterns of consumption and waste? What does living a “good” life look like today, given everything we know about the consequences of over-consumption, inequitable distribution of resources, and being part of (and probably benefiting from) an extractive economy that depends on fossil fuels and unlimited growth?
Faith communities provide a context for wrestling with these questions, for seeking moral grounding, and for being reminded of such old-fashioned values as compassion, generosity, self-control, selfless service, simple living, sacrifice, sharing, justice, forgiveness, and non-violent engagement in societal transformation.
Maybe we should think of the climate crisis as our doorway to enlightenment. The climate crisis challenges us, individually and collectively, to expand our consciousness and to live from our highest moral values. As Jayce Hafner points out in an article published in Sojourners, “I’m Ready to Evangelize…About Climate,” “The act of confronting climate change calls us to be better Christians in nearly every aspect of our lives.”
I expect that this is true not only for Christians, but for people of every faith.
• Encourage reconciliation and seek consensus The coal miner who just lost his job… the CEO of a fossil fuel company who is making plans to drill for more oil… the woman whose home was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy… the farmer watching in despair as his crops wither from a massive drought… the construction worker laying down pipeline for fracked gas… the activist arrested for stopping construction of that pipeline… these are just some of the people who probably have wildly divergent views about the climate crisis and who may feel harmed by and angry with each other.
The climate crisis includes both victims and offenders. To some degree (though to quite different degrees) all of us bear some responsibility for the crisis. At the same time, all of us have a part to play in healing the damage and contributing to a better future. As we work to transition to a clean energy economy whose benefits are available to all communities, we need all hands on deck. Entering emergency mode requires that people work together toward a shared and deeply desired goal, and we need the participation and input of every sector of society as we try to protect our common home. As an African proverb puts it, “Two men in a burning house must not stop to argue.”
Faith communities can provide settings for difficult conversations, active listening, and “truth and reconciliation” groups modeled on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was formed in South Africa in the 1990’s after apartheid was abolished. By expressing compassion while also holding groups and individuals morally accountable, faith communities can create possibilities for reconciliation and collaboration that would otherwise never exist. What’s more, because of their historic commitment to the oppressed, marginalized, and poor, faith communities can give voice to the needs of people and all creatures who are generally ignored or exploited by the people in power.
• Allow emotional response The climate crisis can make us go numb. Why think about the enormous stretches of coral reefs in Australia that just died in less than two months? What can we possibly feel in response to the acidifying ocean, the children choking from asthma in our inner cities, the rising seas, the ever-increasing droughts and floods, and the cascade of species going extinct?
It is hard enough to face our own mortality or to mourn a loved one’s death. How do we begin to explore our fear and grief in response to the ecocide going on around us – much less express it? How do we move beyond despair?
Faith communities can give us practices, teachings, and rituals that allow us to feel, express, accept, and integrate the painful emotions evoked by climate change.
To ignite and sustain an emergency response, society needs to overcome what Salamon calls our “affect phobia,” our tendency to repress our feelings and to react to climate change only in terms of intellectual analysis and facts (How many heat records were broken last month? How many parts per million of CO2 are in the atmosphere now?). With the support of communities of faith, we can protect our human capacity to feel our emotional responses to the crisis without being overwhelmed by grief. Our emotions can also become a source of energy for constructive action to address the emergency.
(For a comprehensive overview of the psychological impacts of climate change, take a look at “Beyond Droughts and Storms,” prepared by ecoAmerica and the American Psychological Association.)
• Offer pastoral care Faith communities can provide practical and spiritual assistance during climate-related disasters such as hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. Congregations can make “disaster preparedness plans,” prepare a response in collaboration with local agencies, and develop networks of communication. One leader involved in this kind of preparation comments that congregations can be “sanctuaries of hope in times of disasters.”
Faith communities can also provide comfort and solace day by day. We can develop networks of pastoral care and spiritual outreach to address the rising rates of depression, anxiety, and other psychological challenges that are associated with climate change, being mindful that low-income communities may be particularly vulnerable to climate-related stressors.
• Heighten reverence for nature In a society that treats the natural world as an object to master, dominate, and exploit, faith communities can call us back to the sacredness of the Earth. Faith communities can support the efforts of land trusts to preserve farms, woods, wetlands, and open space (to locate your local land trust, visit Land Trust Alliance); can partner with organizations to bring inner-city children into natural settings; and can sponsor retreats and hikes that explore the wonders of Creation. Faith communities can learn, and help others to learn, what a stone or cloud or bird can teach (see, for instance, “Opening the Book of Nature,” developed by National Religious Coalition on Creation Care). They can help people from different religious background to become environmental leaders (see, for instance, the programs of GreenFaith and of The Center for Religion and the Environment at Sewanee). Some communities of faith gather for spiritual practice outside. For instance, Church of the Woods in Canterbury, NH, founded by the Rev. Steve Blackmer, is a new kind of “church”: “a place where the earth itself, rather than a building, is the bearer of sacredness.”
• Inspire bold action
Faith communities have a long history of leading movements for social and environmental justice, from child labor to women’s rights, peace, the abolition of slavery, and the civil rights movement. Faith communities tap into our capacity to dedicate ourselves to a cause that is greater than our personal comfort and self-interest. Faith in God (however we name that Higher Power) can inspire people to take bold actions that require courage, compassion, and creativity.
Faith communities can model best practices for “going green,” such as to get an energy audit, increase energy conservation and efficiency, look into installing solar panels, put in bike racks, replace lawns with community gardens, and so on. But taking care of our immediate buildings and community is just a start. An adequate response to the scope and speed of the climate crisis requires collective action and political engagement.
In the footsteps of trailblazers such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., hundreds, maybe thousands, of people, including countless people of faith, have been arrested in recent years as non-violent resistance to fossil fuels continues to grow. With fifteen other religious leaders, I was arrested on May 25 at a prayerful protest against construction of Spectra’s West Roxbury Lateral pipeline in Boston. On June 29 twelve faith leaders – Buddhist, Jewish, Protestant, and Unitarian Universalist – were among 23 people arrested in another protest of the same pipeline. In solidarity with the hundreds of people who recently died from deadly heat waves in Pakistan and India and were buried in mass graves, the clergy led a climate ‘mass graves’ funeral, featuring eulogies, prayers, and mourning, with some of the resisters lying down in the grave/trench for nearly two hours.
By inspiring significant action, such as divesting from fossil fuels and engaging in civil disobedience, faith communities can challenge the deathly status quo of “business as usual” and rouse society out of its apathy and inaction.
For religious leaders who want to network with colleagues to engage in visionary and prayerful civil disobedience, sign up at ClergyClimateAction.org.
To join an epic march, July 14-18, against new gas pipelines that will go all the way to the Massachusetts State House, visit People Over Pipelines.
II. When faith communities understand the climate crisis and enter emergency mode, what tools do we offer?
• Storytelling The myths, tales, parables and stories of religious traditions give us powerful ways to re-imagine our selves and our situation, and to absorb deep (not necessarily literal) truths. Stories speak not just to our rational mind but also to our affections, will, and imagination. From the Judaeo-Christian tradition, stories of Moses confronting Pharaoh and of Jesus healing, teaching, suffering, dying, and rising again – all these and more can be brought to bear to address the climate crisis and to give us courage, guidance, and motivation to act. Recently I learned that activists fighting to stop construction of a trash-burning incinerator in a low-income neighborhood of Baltimore are using the story of Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21:1-21a) to illuminate their own experience of social and environmental injustice and to inspire their own acts of resistance.
• Prayer and silence
Every faith tradition offers practices that teach us how to move out our habitual narrow orbit of self-involvement and to connect with a larger, sacred reality. The climate crisis invites people who until now have felt immune from any desire to pray, to explore practices of prayer and meditation.
Expressive forms of prayer empower us to move beyond denial and numbness and to acknowledge the full range of our feelings. My article, “Feeling and pain and prayer,” originally published in Review for Religious, presents four ways that Christians can pray with difficult feelings. The article also describes how expressive prayer can change us over time, deepening our sense of intimacy with God, our experience of a peace that passes understanding, and our capacity to move from helplessness and hopelessness to effective action.
Contemplative forms of prayer (such as Centering Prayer and mindfulness meditation) strengthen our capacity to sit in silence with the unknown, to accept impasse, and to keep listening and trusting even in the darkness. Practices that lead the mind into silent awareness offer more than a respite from thinking about the climate crisis. They can open us to an intuitive, non-verbal experience of communion, even union, with others, with the natural world, and with ultimate reality. Experiencing our unshakable union with a love that is stronger than death is the great gift of contemplative prayer. Rooted in that fierce and openhearted love, we are guided to actions commensurate with the emergency we’re in.
• Rituals Faith traditions offer a range of ceremonies and rituals that seek to awaken our awareness and revive our relationship with a sacred presence or power beyond the limited world of “I, me, and mine.” In a time of climate crisis, people need rituals that address our fear of death and give us courage to trust in a life greater than death. We need rituals that ask us to name our guilt and regrets, that grant us forgiveness, and that give us strength to set a new course. We need rituals that remind us of our essential connection with each other, with the rest of the created world, and with the unseen Source of all that is. We need rituals that remind us of how loved we are, how precious the world is, and what a privilege it is to be born in a time when our choices and actions make such a difference.
Faith communities have a heritage of holy days, festivals, days of atonement, and liturgical seasons that gain fresh meaning in light of the climate crisis.
• Sermons It takes courage to preach about climate change. If you’re a faith leader who speaks or preaches frequently about the climate emergency, then yours is a rare and much-needed voice. If you’re a member of a faith community whose leaders speak rarely, weakly, or never about climate justice, then please give them steady encouragement to say what needs to be said.
As my climate activist friend and colleague, Rev. Dr. Jim Antal (Conference Minister and President, Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ) often says, if clergy don’t preach about climate change every few weeks, then in ten or fifteen years every sermon will be about grief.
• Public liturgies and outdoor prayer vigils Over the years I’ve led or participated in many outdoor interfaith public liturgies about climate change. In the wake of environmental disasters such as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill or Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, or on the eve of significant environmental events, such as Pope Francis’ visit to Washington, D.C. or the U.N. climate talks in Paris, people of all faiths often feel a need to gather so that we can express our grief, name our hopes, and touch our deep longing for healing and reconciliation. Faith communities can lead the way in providing public contexts for renewing our spirits, both indoors and outside.
III. What does this add up to? Faith communities can become agents of transformation.
Humanity stands at a crossroads. As individuals and as a species we face a decision of ultimate importance both to our souls and to the future of life. “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19).
This is not a fire drill. This is an actual emergency. Martin Luther King, Jr. got it right: we face “the fierce urgency of now.” “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 6:2).
Armed with this knowledge, faith communities can enter emergency mode. Speaking as a Christian, I envision a church in which every aspect of its life, from its preaching and worship services to its adult education and Sunday School, from its prayers to its public advocacy, grasps the urgency of protecting life as it has evolved on this planet. That is the kind of Church that the world needs today.
I am thankful for all people who are willing to face squarely the most challenging, even devastating facts; who reach into their reserves of courage, faith, and hope; and who step out to bear witness in very tangible ways – even in the face of suffering and death – to the ongoing presence and power of a love that abides within us and that sustains the whole creation.
“The huge West Antarctic ice sheet is starting to collapse and slide into the sea in a way that scientists call ‘unstoppable.’ …If ever there were a time to bear witness to our faith that life and not death will have the last word, now would be the time. If ever there were a time to take hold of the vision of a Beloved Community in which human beings live in right relationship with each other and with all our fellow creatures, now would be the time. The collapse of the ice sheet in Antarctica may be ‘unstoppable,’ but so is the love that calls us to stand up for life.”
— Excerpt of my sermon, “Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Climate Movement,” January 18, 2015
NOTE: I was prompted to write this essay after serving on a panel of faith leaders at the 2016 conference of Citizens Climate Lobby in Washington, DC. The panel’s moderator, Peterson Toscano, asked two questions: What role(s) do you see faith communities take on in times of crisis? What tools does your faith tradition offer that can be used to address climate change? The four panelists included Dr. Steven Colecchi (Director of the Office of International Justice and Peace, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops), Rachel Lamb (National Organizer and Spokesperson, Young Evangelicals for Climate Action), Joelle Novey (Director, Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light), and me. The hour was over well before we’d finished exploring the topic. This essay is a bid to extend the conversation.