There are countless reasons to lament and lose heart. Scan the headlines and take your pick: racism and torture; hunger and sickness; poverty and war; a web of life that is unraveling. I know a woman who heard one piece of bad news too many, and found herself walking around her house, howling.

I give thanks for her wails, for her willingness to be pierced by the suffering of the world and to let herself lament. It takes courage to lament. I dispute the injunction attributed to labor organizer Joe Hill, who reportedly said, “Don’t mourn, organize.” I advocate for both: let’s mourn and organize. It seems to me that allowing ourselves to mourn is a good way to keep our hearts supple and soft, and a good way to resist the pressure to go numb. Shedding tears is a way to water the soul. And mourning can be an act of resistance too, a way of shaking off the dominant consumer culture, which prefers that we stay too busy, distracted, and anesthetized to feel a thing.

From within our grief, a Spirit is moving among us, inviting us to dream big dreams and imagine new possibilities. Especially in this Advent season, Christians look ahead with hope for Christ to be born afresh within us and among us. What can you do – what can I do – what can we do together – to help this birth take place and to heal a hurting world? How is the Spirit inviting us to join the movement for justice and renewal that is already in our midst, sprouting like tender, new leaves on a tree?

Here comes a list of four sightings of the Spirit by just one person in just one week – and an invitation for you to take part.

#Light for Lima, First Congregational Church, Ashfield, MA, Dec. 7, 2104
#Light for Lima, First Congregational Church, Ashfield, MA, Dec. 7, 2014
  • In the hills of western Massachusetts, a small group of people gathers outdoors on a December night. Under a dark sky, we light candles. Surrounded by quiet, we sing. We are only a handful of intrepid souls as we stamp our feet and blow on our fingers to keep warm in the cold night air. But inwardly we are warmed by the knowledge that people all around the world tonight are doing just what we are doing: praying for the climate talks in Lima, Peru.

Our #LightforLima vigil on December 7 was one of scores of vigils that were carried out in more than 15 countries on four continents. For two weeks, world leaders met in Peru to lay the groundwork for the climate treaty that will be finalized in Paris in 2015. Coordinated by OurVoices.net, a multi-faith, global climate campaign, the global vigils responded to Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s call to kindle “a light for Lima.” Religious leaders and organizations were vocal at the Lima climate talks. Pope Francis directed a radio address to the President of the conference, calling climate change a serious ethical and moral responsibility. And Anglican bishops prayed and fasted for the climate.

Please commit to pray for the success of the U.N. climate talks as we approach the decisive Paris climate negotiations in December 2015.  As it stands right now, the deal that negotiators worked out in Lima is not sufficient to prevent the atmosphere from warming more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit over the pre-industrial average, the point beyond which the world would tip into perilous, irreversible effects. In the months ahead we will need the sustained, urgent, openhearted, and full-bodied prayers and political pressure of millions of people.

To add your name as a person who will pray, please sign up with OurVoices.net.

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me… [God] has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted…[and] to comfort all who mourn. (Isaiah 61:1-2)

  • Leaning forward in a circle of chairs and listening intently, seven Christian leaders from across New England meet in a Framingham retreat house to pray, dream, and strategize. How can the larger group to which we belong, New England Regional Environmental Ministries (NEREM) become a catalyst for societal change and a transformed church? How can we inspire a spiritual awakening in the face of climate change?

We ponder the fact that hearing a trusted pastor preach about climate change is often what moves churchgoers to accept that climate change is real and to take action to slow it. Yet many parishioners have never heard anyone preach about climate change. In my travels from church to church, I often meet with groups of parishioners and I often ask who has heard a sermon about climate change. In most such gatherings, not a single hand goes up.

I won’t disclose what NEREM envisions for next year, but now is the time to start preaching and hearing good sermons about climate change. One way for clergy to begin is to sign up to join the National Preach-in on Global Warming, sponsored by Interfaith Power & Light, which will be held on the weekend of Valentine’s Day, February 13-15, 2015. The Website is full of resources, with sermon ideas, prayers, discussion and activity ideas.  Or pick another date. The date doesn’t matter. What matters is conveying the urgency of the hour.

“…to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.” (Isaiah 61:3)

  • On a Wednesday night in the city of Springfield, Massachusetts, a diverse group of concerned citizens – Hispanic and white, wealthy and low-income – meets to strategize how best to implement and fund a climate action plan for the city. The leaders of this effort – Arise for Social Justice, the North End Organizing Network and Climate Action NOW – have organized the Springfield Climate Justice Coalition.

Back in October we held a march through the city’s streets, gathered 200 people for a rally on the steps of City Hall, and rejoiced when the City Council unanimously passed a resolution to adopt a Climate Justice Plan for the city and to establish a staff position to carry it out. Now comes the hard work of building a grassroots base to ensure that the mayor, Dominic J. Sarno, implements the resolution. Over pizza and oranges we exchange ideas, jot notes on newsprint, and start to divvy up tasks.

At the end of tonight’s meeting, I invite everyone to stand up and take each others’ hands. I feel awkward. This coalition seems so fragile and new. Can we, should we, pray together? I look around the circle of friends and strangers, take a breath, and speak briefly about the traditional Christian virtues of faith, hope and love. In fighting for this city, we express our faith that we can imagine a better future; we share our hope that we can build that future together; and we manifest the love that gives us strength. I ask God’s blessing on our work, and pray that our work will be a blessing for the city.

If you would like to join the Springfield Climate Justice Coalition, please contact Michaelann Bewsee (michaelannb (at) gmail.com) of Arise for Social Justice, or Susan Theberge (susantheberge (at) comcast.net) of Climate Action Now.

“They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.” (Isaiah 61:4)

Diana Spurgin, Lucy Robinson, and Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at No KXL rally, Dec. 13, 2014
Diana Spurgin, Lucy Robinson, and Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at No KXL rally, Dec. 13, 2014

A creative spirit is at play among us: the rally features a tuba and an enormous black plastic pipeline, placards full of pointed messages (“There is No Planet B”), and opportunities for singing, chanting, and banging pots and pans to make noise. We mark four-and-a-half minutes in silence, too, remembering that the body of Michael Brown, a black teenager, apparently lay on the ground for four and a half hours after he was shot by a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri. The movement for climate justice is intimately linked to the quest for social and racial justice.

The climate rally’s most combative moments are provided by a loud-mouthed, fat-cat banker who wears a top hat and a suit festooned with fake money. She strides up and down the sidewalk, carrying a mini-pipeline on her shoulder, from which dangles a cloth doll, several small stuffed animals, and the placard “R.I.P.” She launches into a rousing debate with a 7-foot-tall polar bear.  Is the Keystone XL pipeline safe? Will it make us energy independent? Will it create lots of jobs? Will it protect the climate?

Street theater: face off between a banker and a polar bear
Street theater: face off between a banker and a polar bear

Despite the sneers of Mr. Money-Bags, the patient arguments of the polar bear win the day. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would run from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast, would carry toxic tar sands that would then be shipped for export overseas. The pipeline would allow the most polluting oil on earth to reach world markets. Mining this oil is already destroying the land, water, and health of the people and wildlife of Alberta. The new pipeline creates a risk of spills – the first Keystone pipeline spilled 14 times in its first year of operation. Experts estimate that the pipeline would provide only 50 permanent jobs. And according to NASA scientist James Hansen the pipeline would propel us into a catastrophic level of climate disruption.

Thousands of citizens across the country have signed the Keystone XL Pledge of Resistance. Please consider adding your name and pledging to join in non-violent direct action to stop the pipeline.

If you wish to participate in and to receive updates about events in western Massachusetts tied to the national Pledge of Resistance campaign – including a training meeting on January 3 – please email Dave Roitman (droitman1(at)verizon.net). We expect to carry out an act of non-violent civil disobedience sometime between mid-January and March. It will be timed so that it happens on the same day that 97,000 other people take action, as part of the national Keystone XL Pledge of Resistance. A short fact sheet about the pipeline by Friends of the Earth can be downloaded here.

“For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.” (Isaiah 61:11)


In the face of the confusion, brutality, and violence of the world, we grieve and mourn. And we also mobilize, strategize, and organize. In our longing for a just and peaceful world, we trust that we share in God’s longing to bring forth “a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 1:1). As Brian Swimme writes in his “Canticle of the Cosmos”:

The longing that gave birth to the stars
The longing that gave birth to life
Who knows what this longing can give birth to now?

 

Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent (Advent 1B), November 30, 2014. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Trinity Episcopal Church, Ware, MA. Isaiah 64:1-9 Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 Mark 13:24-37

Fatalism about the end of the world?

Here on the First Sunday of Advent we are beginning a new church year, embarking on a new season, making a fresh start. Now is the time, as our opening Collect says, “to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light.” During these four weeks that lead up to Christmas we prepare to celebrate the first coming of Christ, when God became incarnate in Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. And we prepare for his second coming, too. We look ahead to that last, great day sometime in the future when Christ will come again, when everything will be gathered up in love, when all that is broken will be healed, all that is estranged will be reconciled and forgiven, and the Lord of life will return at last to reign in glory.

Christianity is full of hope about where we are ultimately heading – into the loving arms of God – but it is also bracingly realistic about the suffering and turmoil that will take place in the meantime. Today on the first Sunday of Advent, as we do every year, we must grapple with the Bible’s portrayal of the end-times, which include frightening predictions of social breakdown and cosmic turmoil. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus foretells “wars and rumors of wars” (Mark 13:7); he speaks of earthquakes, famines, and persecution. As we heard in today’s passage, when the Son of Man comes at the end of time, we can expect that “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken” (Mark 13:24). It’s scary stuff. So what do we make of apocalyptic passages like these? How do these biblical passages about the end times help us to live with faithfulness, confidence, and hope? As you know, I serve the diocese as your Missioner for Creation Care, so I do a lot of speaking and preaching about climate change and about the urgent need for human beings to change course and to take action to protect and cherish the world that God entrusted to our care. According to a new poll about American attitudes to religion and the environment, about half – 49% – of the respondents believe that recent natural disasters are evidence of biblical end times. Apparently, about half of Americans believe that climate change caused by human beings is somehow preordained, part of God’s plan.
Fatalism...and the Seeds of Doubt (by Jack Ziegler). Used with permission.
Fatalism…and the Seeds of Doubt (by Jack Ziegler). Used with permission.
Could this be true? Should biblical accounts of the end times evoke and amplify a sense of fatalism about climate change? Should Christians settle for a helpless shrug of the shoulders as we consider the devastation that climate change is already causing or likely to cause, if it continues unchecked? I recall a cartoon in which a mother, father, and their young son huddle around a toaster. Two smoking slices of bread have just popped up, burned to a crisp. The mother looks mournfully at the burned toast and declares, “It is God’s will.” The father intones, “Had the toast been destined to be edible, it would be so.” The small boy grips the table with his two hands, looks up at his parents, and says, “B-b-but…” I admit it: I’m standing with that child and saying “But!” I refuse to believe that it’s God’s will that human beings burn the Earth to a crisp. I refuse to believe that destiny, fate, or the biblical end times give human beings permission to unravel the web of life and to destroy the world that God created and proclaimed “very good” (Genesis 1:31). I believe that God’s presence fills and sustains our precious, living planet, and that all of it belongs to God – meadows and rivers, soils and seeds, animals and oceans. As the psalmist says, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (Psalm 24:1). And the first task given to human beings is to care for the earth and to exercise a loving dominion as stewards and caregivers. We’re having some difficulty with that assignment. Climate change caused by human activity is already having drastic and far-reaching effects around the world. In only two centuries – just a blink in geologic time – human beings have pumped so much heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the air that levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are higher today than they’ve been for hundreds of thousands of years. I heard a climate scientist remark, “We are breathing from an atmosphere that none of our ancestors would recognize.” When we burn fossil fuels such as coal, gas, and oil, we release vast quantities of carbon and heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, as if the atmosphere were an open sewer. This practice could raise worldwide average temperatures between 5 and 11 degrees Fahrenheit in this century, which would make the world an extremely difficult place for humans and other creatures to inhabit. Already our planet is changing before our eyes: oceans are heating up and becoming more acidic as they absorb some of the carbon dioxide released by power plants and cars; tundra is thawing, ice caps are melting, sea levels are rising, coral reefs are dying, massive droughts are spreading in some places and heavy rains are intensifying in others. Last spring we learned that the huge West Antarctic ice sheet is starting to collapse and slide into the sea in a way that scientists call “unstoppable.” The Pentagon recently issued a report asserting decisively that climate change poses “an immediate risk to national security” and is a so-called “threat multiplier,” increasing the likelihood of terrorism, infectious disease, global poverty and food shortages. The latest climate report from the United Nations warns of waves of refugees and of the mass extinction of plants and animals, if we keep to our present course. Of course, here in this country and around the world it is the poor who are hit first and hardest by the impacts of climate change. How serious is the threat? As environmental lawyer Gus Speth puts it: “…all we have to do to destroy the planet’s climate and [organisms] and leave a ruined world to our children and grandchildren is to keep doing exactly what we are doing today… Just continue to release greenhouse gases at current rates, just continue to impoverish ecosystems and release toxic chemicals at current rates, and the world in the latter part of this century won’t be fit to live in.”[1] So – is this the end times? I don’t know. No one knows. Jesus repeatedly told his followers, as he does in today’s Gospel, not to speculate as to when the end times would come (Matthew 24:3-8; Mark 13:3-8; Luke 21:7-11) – even Jesus himself did not know. But what we do know is that at some unexpected moment, the last day will come – whether it be the last day of our lives or the last day of the world. Until that day, Jesus urges us to be faithful witnesses to the enduring love of God. The biblical end time passages and their frightening imagery of chaos and distress were not given to us so that we can indulge in helplessness, resignation, or fatalism, but just the opposite: in order to sustain our hope and perseverance even in the midst of crisis. Again and again, in different ways Jesus came to say, “Fear not” (see, for instance, Matthew 6:25-34, Matthew 8:26, Matthew 10:31, Matthew 14:27). In Advent he summons us not to faint from fear and foreboding, nor to let our love grow cold, but rather to stay awake and be alert for the small but telling signs that God is in our midst, bringing forth something new. Just as the branch of a fig tree becomes tender and puts forth its first, soft leaves, assuring us that summer’s abundance is near, so Jesus urges us to trust that even in the midst of chaos, violence, and endings, God’s kingdom is drawing near.  In the very midst of endings, something new is being born. Will we take part in that birth? Advent and its end-time readings tell us that in the face of climate change, we should not give ourselves up to apathy, indifference, or despair. In this perilous time, God calls us to stand up, raise our heads, and bear witness in word and deed to God’s never failing love. “It is like a man going on a journey,” Jesus says in that tiny parable concealed in today’s Gospel. The man leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, “each with his work” (Mark 13:34). Each of us has our own work to do, as we keep faith with the God who is faithful to us. And when it comes to healing Creation, there is so much we can do! We can recycle more, drive less, and be sparing in our use of water. We can turn off lights when we leave a room. Maybe we can eat local, organic foods and support our local farms and land trusts. We can install insulation and turn down the heat. If you don’t yet have a green team or a Creation Care team (whatever you want to call it) here at Trinity Church, you can form one. If you’d like to join a network of people in the diocese who care about Creation, I hope you will give me your name and contact information. I’d be glad to support you in any way I can. As individuals we should do everything we can to reduce our use of fossil fuels, but the scope and speed of the climate crisis require action on a much broader scale, too. We need to join with other people and make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. We need to push our leaders to make a swift transition to clean, safe, renewable sources of energy, such as sun and wind. We need to quit our addiction to fossil fuels and to bring down the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to a level that allows life as it has evolved to continue on this planet. Here in western Massachusetts we are blessed to have a strong grassroots group, Climate Action Now, which is involved in many local campaigns. I hope that you will sign up to receive weekly emails, read the news, and connect. Tomorrow an important U.N. climate change conference will begin in Lima, Peru, and I hope that you will join me in praying for its success. (I invite you to take part in #Light for Lima, a series of vigils that will take place around the world on December 7, right in the middle of these crucial climate talks.) Now is the time to clean up our act, to sort out our life, to cast away the works of darkness and to put on the armor of light. Now is the time to abandon whatever stupefies us and puts us to sleep – whether it be the call of consumerism or a fondness for cynicism or helpless resignation. Now is the time to look ahead and to embody a robust hope, for, as Paul says, “the night is far gone, the day is near” (Romans 13:12). It’s as if we were standing in the doorway of a dark house, looking out to the hills beyond, and in the sky we can see the first glimmer of sunrise. Behind us is darkness, but ahead of us, light. Christ has come, so the dawn is shining on our faces. Christ is here, so we know we are not alone. Christ will come again, so we step out boldly through the doorway, leaving everything less than love behind.
1. James Gustave Speth, The Bridge on the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008, p. x (Preface).  

When we think about climate change, we often focus on the outer landscape, such as how the rising level of greenhouse gases affects the planet’s oceans and continents, its animals, plants and human societies. Gazing at the landscape outside us, we know that the news is grim. The web of life is unraveling. As Bill McKibben succinctly puts it, “Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen.”[1]

But what about our inner landscape? That’s the question that interests me here. Given what we know about the crisis in which we find ourselves, what happens to the emotional and spiritual dimension of our lives? How do we face our fear and grief without being overwhelmed? How do we move out of denial and despair into a life that is filled with purpose, even joy? What will sustain our spirits as we struggle to sustain the Earth?

We need people – in fact, we need lots of people – who are willing to face the most challenging, even devastating facts, people who are learning how to enlarge their reserves of courage, faith, and hope, people who will step out to bear witness in very concrete ways to the God in whom we live and move and have our being, and who entrusted the world to our care.

So here is a 3-part framework for the heart, a way of “holding” the climate crisis in a way that helps us to respond wisely and creatively to the challenges we face. I’ll sketch a spiritual journey in which we cultivate an awakened heart, a broken heart, and a radiant heart.

We begin with an awakened heart. What is an awakened heart? It is a heart that is more and more deeply, more and more frequently, more and more consciously attuned to love. A person with an awakened heart is someone whose heart is repeatedly touched by a boundless love that seems to well up from nowhere or that unexpectedly shines out in the world around. A person with an awakened heart is someone who is learning to see themselves, and others, and all creation, with eyes of love in each and every present moment. This is when we perceive the beauty and preciousness of God’s creation. We experience gratefulness, wonder, amazement, awe. We discover how cherished we are as creatures that are part of creation.

Experiencing our God-given preciousness is a powerful antidote to the messages we hear that human beings are “a cancer on the planet,” a “virus” taking down life. I understand the anger and deep frustration behind such statements, the anger that is evoked by the enormous damage that humans are doing to the ecosystems on which all life depends. It’s true that our industrial economy, based on fossil fuels, is acting like a cancer that takes down life. But the only way forward is not to feed the voice of self-hatred, but instead to listen to the inner voice of love that is always sounding in our hearts and that alone can guide us on a new path. As I see it, all the world’s religious practices, from mindfulness meditation to practicing gratitude, are disciplines we’ve been given to help our hearts awaken.

As we walk forward with awakened hearts we experience a broken heart. Of course none of us wants to move into this second stage of the journey, and there are many reasons we fear and repress our grief. As Joanna Macy, the Buddhist ecophilosopher, points out, we don’t want to feel pain; we don’t want to look morbid; we don’t want to bring other people down; we don’t want to seem weak and emotional. And yet we do feel pain for the world. We can’t help it. No one is exempt from it, because we’re part of the whole, and suffering in one place ripples across the planet.

So, as you consider the suffering caused by climate change, where do you feel the grief? What are the tears you need to shed? What is breaking your heart? And how do we open to the pain of our precious world without drowning in the pain? The divine love in which we participate does not close itself off from suffering, but enters it, shares it, and touches it with love. For Christians, the symbol of that divine sharing in our suffering is the cross of Christ. So, as a Christian, I go in prayer to the cross, where I believe that everything in us – our pain and anger, our grief, our guilt – is perpetually met by the mercy and love of God. One way or another, all the world’s spiritual traditions teach that there is no escape from suffering and that, paradoxically, a broken heart can be the gateway to hope and even joy.

Now comes the third part of this spiritual framework. Filled with love, because day by day our heart is awakened, and wide open to our suffering and the suffering of the world, we want the love that is flowing into our lives to pour out into the world around us. We have been cultivating an awakened heart, we are accepting a broken heart, and now we want to express what I’m calling a radiant heart. We want our lives to bear witness in tangible ways to the love that has set us free.

What we feel sent out to do can take many forms. Commitment to care for the earth will affect what we buy and what we refuse to buy, what we drive and what we refuse to drive, how we heat our homes, how much we re-use and re-cycle, and how ardently we join hands with other people to push for the enormous systemic changes that are required if we’re going to save life as it has evolved on this planet.

Yet just because we’re very busy doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re manifesting a radiant heart. For example, sometimes I get super-busy because I’ve lost touch with my basic preciousness: I think that I must prove my worth, demonstrate my value. Then I say to myself, “Margaret, remember that you’re cultivating an awakened heart. Let yourself rest in God’s goodness. Breathe in God’s love, recall how loved you already are, and let that energy carry you into the next situation.”

Or I get busy because I want to stay one step ahead of my feelings — I don’t want to feel the pain or grief; I’d much rather keep moving. Then I say to myself, “Margaret, remember that you’ve accepted a broken heart. Go back to the cross of Christ. Let yourself stop for a while and bring whatever you’re feeling to the crucified Christ, where everything in you – like it or not – is met with love.”

When we know that we’re cherished to the core and when our anguish is met again and again by the ever-merciful love of God, then our actions are more likely to spring from wisdom than from fear or compulsion, and we live with a new sense of spaciousness and freedom, unattached to results.

Attending to our inner landscape while we tend to the outer landscape can heal our souls and our communities, as well as the Earth itself.

 


 

Margaret gave this talk at “Spiritual and Sustainable: Religion Responds to Climate Change,” an interfaith conference held at Harvard Divinity School on November 7, 2014, which focused on addressing the issues and challenges of maintaining a sustainable planet. Other panelists included Rev. Dr. Jim Antal, Tim DeChristopher, Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman, Lama Willa Miller, and Munjed M. Murad, with Professor Prof. Dan McKanan serving as moderator.

 

1. Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, New York: Henry Holt and Company, Times Book, 2010, p. xiii and book jacket.

I have been speechless for the past three days.

OK, not exactly speechless. I have been immersed in email, so that counts as words.

Episcopal Diocese of WMA at People's Climate March
Some of the Episcopalians from the Diocese of WMA who came to NYC for the People’s Climate March (l. to r.): the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas (Missioner for Creation Care), Maria Dye, Mary McCarthy, Lucy Robinson, Mary Hocken, Jonathan Wright (partially hidden), Suzannah Fabing, Meg Kelsey Wright (partially hidden), Miriam Jenkins, Bob Hawley (partially hidden), Sandy Muspratt, Maryann Dipinto.

But after the weekend’s “Religions for the Earth” conference in New York City, which brought together more than 200 religious and spiritual leaders from around the world to voice our concerns and commitments regarding climate change; after the conference’s powerful multi-faith service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine; after the People’s Climate March on Sunday, which surpassed all expectations when 400,000 people surged through the streets of Manhattan; and after Flood Wall Street the next day, in which perhaps 2,000 demonstrators poured into the financial district and more than 100 people were arrested in a peaceful, passionate uprising to protest carbon pollution and carbon profits – after participating in all these events, any one of which would be enough to change a life, something deep within me fell silent. At a soul level, I had nothing to say. I wanted only to marvel in silence.

Years ago someone told me that when Leo Tolstoy saw the ocean for the first time, all this man of words could say was: “It’s big.”

I’m no Leo Tolstoy, but I understand such reticence. When for the first time you see something as deep, wide, and alive as an ocean, words fail. You want to gaze in silence. You want to bow with amazement and respect.

Here’s what I can say, three days after coming home: I saw an ocean in New York.

It was deep: deep in prayer. Deep in grief, conviction, and resolve.

I heard an indigenous woman keen a lullaby to the children of the future who may never be born.

I heard an elder from Greenland tell a hushed crowd at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine that when he was a child, the ice was 5 kilometers thick. Sixty-seven years later, the ice is 2.5 kilometers thick. “I carry the wisdom of the ice,” he told us. “It is too late. The big ice is going away. Our only hope is that you begin to use your vast knowledge wisely. We must melt the ice in the heart of man.” It was time now, he said, to call upon the ancestors. He pulled out two thin circular drums, placed them against his cheeks like a megaphone, and began to wail. His long, deep call echoed through time and filled every space. From where I was sitting, his face was hidden. He was nameless, ego-less, as anonymous as the psalmist who cries, “Out of the depths have I called to you, O LORD” (Psalm 130). His ardent plea carried the universal prayer of every heart that longs for life as we know it to continue on this earth. “Lord, have mercy,” I prayed in union with his plea. “O God, make speed to save us. O Lord, make haste to help us.”

I heard the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change appeal to the world’s religions to speak boldly about the most urgent moral issue of our time. “This power has to be a spiritual power. This has to be an ethical force.”

I heard a man who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960’s and who spent his long life dedicated to the struggle for justice tell a group of Christians that the time has come for everyone who cares about stabilizing the climate and building a livable future to “Organize. Strategize. Mobilize.” At the Cathedral service, I heard his resonant declaration: “The civil rights movement and the human rights movement have now joined the climate movement. We are the rock of this movement. We will never stand down.”

It was wide: brimming in size and wildly diverse.

Four hundred buses headed to New York from all over the country, including more than 50 buses from my home state, Massachusetts, and a bus of Episcopalians from western Massachusetts and Connecticut who celebrated Holy Communion along the way (thank you, the Rev. Stephanie Johnson, for helping me organize that bus!). Also arriving in New York were people from the world’s front-line communities, the regions suffering most from the initial effects of climate change, among them Micronesia, Guatemala, India, New Zealand, and the Philippines. So many people filled the streets of Manhattan that the preliminary count of 310,000 marchers had to be revised upward, to 400,000 – certainly the largest climate march ever. Over the same weekend, more than 2,800 solidarity events were held in over 160 countries around the world. (To view some of those beautiful march pictures, click here.)

It wasn’t just the numbers that took my breath away – it was also the diversity. There were scientists and students, anti-fracking and anti-war groups, indigenous people and urbanites, grandmothers and children, medical doctors and social justice activists, celebrities and people from historically under-served communities – waves of people from every walk of life, all of us united in the urgent call to governments and the U.N. to take strong action for climate justice and sustainability.

The signs that people carried were as diverse as the people carrying them: funny and poignant, angry, sad, and quirky. At least two writers created poetry from the signs’ messages, including Terry Tempest Williams (The Orion Blog: River Walkers) and a local friend, Nick Grabbe (Adventures in the Good Life: Climate Change Kills Kittens).

About 10,000 people marched in our interfaith contingent. So many different faith groups were represented that a thoughtful volunteer created 38 small flags for each group to carry, alphabetized from A-Z (Agnostic to Zoroastrian). All of us marched together: Greek Orthodox and Pagan, Jew and Muslim, Pentecostal and Sikh, Buddhist and Mennonite. A handmade Noah’s ark was stationed alongside an inflated replica of a mosque. (For a photographic essay about the Ark’s journey through the streets, visit “A priest, a rabbi, an imam, and a unicorn got on an Ark to save our planet”).

It was alive: filled with energy and generating new possibilities.

The march was timed to coincide with the U.N. climate summit in New York, and a host of significant events rose up alongside, like mighty ocean waves.

Flood Wall Street protesters gather at Battery Park
Flood Wall Street protesters gather at Battery Park before marching to the financial district

The protesters and the acts of non-violent civil disobedience on Wall Street gave voice this week to everyone who wants a fossil-free economy and an economic system that heals the chasm between rich and poor.

The Rockefeller family, whose legendary wealth flowed from oil, announced its decision to divest its $860 million philanthropic fund from fossil fuels.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and more than 80 of the world’s leading theologians, ethicists and religious leaders released a statement supporting fossil fuel divestment and clean energy reinvestment by faith communities. “To serve as custodians of creation is not an empty title,” Tutu said in a video released this week. “It requires that we act, and with all the urgency this dire situation demands.”

A Pastoral Message on Climate Change was issued this week by the heads of the Anglican Church of Canada, The Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. Worth reading carefully, the statement declares: “God, who made the creation and made it good, has not abandoned it. Daily the Spirit continues to renew the face of the earth. All who care for the earth and work for the restoration of its vitality can be confident that they are not pursuing a lost cause. We serve in concert with God’s own creative and renewing power.”

Meanwhile, there are things that all of us can do right away. I invite you to add your voice to a new initiative, OurVoices.net, by which millions of people around the world can register their commitment to pray for the success of the 2015 U.N. climate talks in Paris. The U.N. climate leader, Christiana Figueres, is asking for everyone’s spiritual and moral support of this initiative.

Those of us who live in western Massachusetts have an opportunity on Monday evening, October 20, to march to the steps of City Hall in downtown Springfield and to urge City Councilors to pass a resolution calling on the city to create a strong climate action plan (for updates, please check Climate Action Now).

Faced with a crisis that threatens all living beings, human and non-human alike, will humanity unite at last to create God’s dream of Shalom and to form the beloved Earth Community? Will we respond at last to the call to organize, strategize, and mobilize?

I take heart from the prophet Isaiah, who perceives God as coming to us from the future, making all things new. God speaks through Isaiah, saying: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18-19).

The planet is rapidly warming. Species are going extinct. Sea levels are rising. But another kind of ocean is rising, too: an ocean of love and concern, an ocean of commitment and resolve that is bringing together all kinds of people who are willing to engage in the struggle for a just and habitable world.

Al Gore, one of the Cathedral speakers, quoted the Wallace Stevens poem that begins:

After the final no there comes a yes
And on that yes the future world depends.

I will remember September 21, 2014, as a day when humanity said Yes. In the days ahead we will have plenty of opportunities to repeat that Yes, again and again, with our lips and in our lives.

We have a long struggle ahead of us. I hope that all of us will discover what it’s like to rise up like an ocean, deep and wide and alive.


To view some of the plenary sessions and workshops from the conference “Religions for the Earth,”held at Union Theological Seminary from Sept. 19-21, 2014, and sponsored by Union Theological Seminary, the World Council of Churches, and several other major religious organizations, go here.

To view the multi-faith service held on Sept. 21, 2104, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, which served as the finale of the “Religions for the Earth” conference, go here.

At the service, religious and spiritual leaders from around the world joined with activists, artists, scientists, community leaders, and government officials in a ritual of covenant and commission to protect and care for the Earth. Speakers included Former Vice President Al Gore, Rev. Jim Wallis, Chief Arvol Looking Horse, Dr. Vandana Shiva, Rabbi Ellen Bernstein, and more.

The man who prayed to the ancestors is Uncle Angaangaq Angakhorsuaq, Founder, IceWisdom International/Eskimo-Kalaallit Elder. The man dedicated to civil and human rights is the Rev. Dr. Gerald Durley, Pastor Emeritus, Providence Missionary Baptist Church.

 

“I want to sink back into a certain innocence.”

My friend Ruth is describing what leads her to visit a place of natural beauty and to walk among trees. For the first time in her life she has been doing the kinds of things that social activists do: gather information about an issue, make phone calls, organize meetings, distribute leaflets, hire a lawyer, talk to reporters, voice opposition, articulate a vision. Never before has she been so acutely aware of the need for ordinary citizens to band together and to work for a better future, and never before has she participated in that effort with so much vigor.

Yet she also notices that the more active she becomes, the more she needs the solace of prayer. The more she moves forward to engage with other people in the effort to heal the world, the more she needs to draw back into periods of silence and solitude, of gazing and reflection. What Ruth so wonderfully calls “sinking back into a certain innocence” means being willing to relinquish for a while the impulse to figure out, plan, and analyze, to assess, define, and control. When we sink back into a certain innocence, we invite our hearts to be unguarded. We let go our agenda, drop our defenses, and open in childlike trust to the present moment. We allow ourselves to gaze, to rest, to be encountered, and to be changed.

I know that spending time alone doing nothing is anathema to most Americans. In unstructured moments, many of us whip out our cell phones, snag a cigarette, grab a snack, or get busy with the next task. A remarkable article published last month in the journal Science reports that, in one study, when participants were left alone in a room for a while, most of them chose to administer painful electric shocks to themselves rather than to sit silently, in solitude. Clearly it goes against the cultural grain if we recognize and honor our deep need for solitude, stillness, and contemplation.

This week I spent a couple of days on retreat with my husband Robert Jonas at our old farmhouse in Ashfield, in the hills of western Massachusetts. For two days it rained heavily. Clouds rolled and churned across the sky. Wind tossed the branches of the trees and blew wild patterns across the pond. Torrents of rain kept falling. For a long time my husband and I stood on the back porch, taking it all in. We weren’t alone, but we were quiet together, absorbed in watching and listening as rain pounded on the roof overhead and as it poured in sheets over the field and pond and woods beyond.

Standing on the porch, I noticed two ways of paying attention to the rain. One was to think about it. For instance, I could reflect on the fact that intense deluges seem to have become more frequent in my corner of the world. I could think about climate change, and how some places are flooding while other places are going dry. I could think about the fact that because of carbon dioxide emissions, the atmosphere now holds 5% more moisture than it used to, and that extreme downpours are another sign of a warming world. Thoughts typically generate more thoughts: I could then start thinking about the condition of the gutters or the roof; I could look to the past and reflect on my memories of rain; I could look to the future and start making plans for the next climate rally.

Thank God for thoughts and for the capacity to think. It is good, even essential, to know such things and to think such thoughts. Having a basic grasp of facts is a prerequisite to knowing what actions we need to take. But on that rainy day in Ashfield I didn’t want to think about the rain, to analyze or strategize – I wanted to perceive it with imagination and intuition and with all five senses, to encounter it in the present with the innocence of a child. What are you saying? Speak, Rain – I am listening.

Standing on the porch with my husband, I remembered the words of Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and social activist, who wrote:

What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself over the ridges, and the talk of the watercourses everywhere in the hollows! Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, this rain. As long as it talks I am going to listen.

In the midst of the storm, Jonas and I listened to the rain’s “wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech,” and watched as rain splashed all over the deck. The rain’s song was wild and wordless, an insistent oratorio. Patiently we listened. Eventually I grinned at my husband and pointed out how the water was dropping on the horizontal wooden boards, landing quickly like notes upon a staff. “It’s like reading a piece of music.”

Jonas took up the idea and before long he’d created a short video. I don’t know what he plans to name it, but I’m calling it Sonata for Deluge and Porch.

When it comes to addressing climate change, I want to speak up for the need for concerted, smart, and effective action. But I also want to speak up for the need for prayer and contemplation. Creativity, playfulness, and a fresh perspective arise in the space beyond thought. Wisdom emerges as we learn to sit quietly with ourselves and with the world around us, open to reality, just as it is.

I grew up dividing the world into two camps: “spiritual” people and “activists,” people who pray, and people who actively pursue social and environmental justice. Of course that is a bogus split. Contemplation and action are both necessary if humans are to flourish on this planet. Moving gracefully between them is as essential for life as breathing in and breathing out.

Back in the 14th century, the Christian mystic John Ruysbroeck described God as “absolute repose and fecundity reconciled.” Rusbroeck goes on to say: “The Spirit of God breathes us out that we may love, and do good works; and draws us into [God’s] self, that we may rest in fruition, and this is Eternal Life… Action and fruition never hinder, but strengthen one another… They are the double wings… that take us home.”