Some people named the week beginning September 21, 2015, the Week of Moral Action for Climate Justice. Others called it Pope Week. I want to call it Watershed Week: the week when Americans streamed to Washington, D.C., New York City, and Philadelphia, like rivers pouring through a watershed, eager to hear Pope Francis speak about our call to love each other and all Creation. The week was a watershed in another sense, too: a turning point where everything changed.

Doug Hendren and Dave Pruett express the spirit of the climate rally on the National Mall
Doug Hendren and Dave Pruett express the spirit of the climate rally on the National Mall

I spent most of that week in D.C., swimming through crowds and participating in prayer vigils, concerts, strategy sessions, and rallies. On Monday I gave the opening prayer at the National Prayer Breakfast on Creation Care, an annual event organized by the National Religious Coalition on Creation Care (NRCCC). NRCCC is composed of members of all the major religious groups in America, including Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Muslims, Evangelicals and Orthodox Christians.  Joined in prayer, and united with people of every religious tradition, we advocate for a right relationship to God’s creation.

Over the summer I’d taken the lead in composing letters from NRCCC to President Obama and to members of Congress about the moral and religious call to address the climate crisis, and on Monday we officially released the letters and began delivering them to members of Congress. (The NRCCC press release is here.)

The Open Letter to President Obama focuses on actions he can take without approval of Congress, such as becoming an advocate for a carbon tax, modifying the Trans-Pacific Partnership, rejecting the Keystone XL Pipeline, and rejecting new coal leases on public lands. The letter urges the President to adopt the language of “emergency” whenever he speaks about climate change, and “to mobilize the nation with the same focus and determination with which we mobilized during World War II, so that we reach 100 percent renewable energy in two or three decades.”

The NRCCC team gathers for a meeting at the State Dept.
The NRCCC team gathers for a meeting at the State Dept.

We were gratified to hear from the Council on Environmental Quality that the letter was shared widely with the White House climate team. Maybe it will make some waves.

On Tuesday a group of NRCCC members headed to the State Department to meet with Karen Florini, Deputy Special Envoy on Climate Change, and Amy Willis, in the Secretary’s Office for Religion and Global Affairs. With only two months to go until the crucial international climate talks in Paris, we wanted to express in the strongest possible terms our desire for bold leadership by the United States. Ms. Florini welcomed our faith-rooted advocacy – she herself is a person of faith – and we talked about how to push for effective climate action both at home and abroad in the midst of an obstructionist Congress. As she put it, “We are under active political assault.” (Learn more about the visit here.)

Sharing our Open Letter to President Obama with Ms. Karen Florini
Sharing our Open Letter to President Obama with Ms. Karen Florini

From the State Department we headed to the Senate Building to meet with the legal counsel of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. We gave him an earful about the moral mandate to tackle the climate crisis, citing science and Scripture, ethics and economics. In turn, we listened to his concerns about unemployment in Kentucky and the future of coal. A member of our group pointed out, “Coal is over.” So the question becomes: can Republicans and Democrats work together to make a swift and just transition to a new economy based on clean energy? That is something to work and pray for.

Wednesday began with an interfaith coalition of climate leaders meeting over breakfast with the staff of ecoAmerica. EcoAmerica has been instrumental in developing best practices for climate communication, and its Blessed Tomorrow campaign is mobilizing faith communities to engage in the struggle to stabilize the climate. The offices of ecoAmerica happen to be directly across the street from St. Matthew’s Cathedral, where Pope Francis spoke for one hour to Roman Catholic bishops and cardinals. We relished having the chance to see the Pope as he entered and left the sanctuary.

Praying at Multi-faith Prayer Vigil, with Rabbi Mordechai Liebling
Praying at Multi-faith Prayer Vigil, with Rabbi Mordechai Liebling

On Wednesday night I joined a large group on the steps of John Marshall Park near the National Mall to mark the end of Yom Kippur. At the start of Yom Kippur the night before, Rabbi Mordechai Liebling had delivered a powerful sermon that called for atonement – At-One-Ment – with the Earth and each other, a watershed moment that can only take place when we “feel in our hearts and know in our guts that what happens to the oceans, to the forests, to other species, to other people is also happening to us.”

A multi-faith prayer vigil completed the marking of Yom Kippur, and I gave the opening prayer, lifting up Jesus’ cry from the cross as the cry of the Earth-community.

“Why have you forsaken me?” We hear that cry
in the din of collapsing glaciers as they tumble into the sea,
in the crash of forests as they are felled,
and in the blast of mountaintops as they are blown open for extraction of
coal.

“Why have you forsaken me?” We hear that cry
in the murmur of refugees searching for water in lands scorched dry,
in the diminishing bleats and roars and chirps worldwide as species go extinct,
one by one,
and in the silence of dying coral reefs as they bleach in acid seas.

At the foot of the cross, we hear the cry of all humanity, and especially the poor, as the climate crisis unfolds around us.
We hear the groaning of all Creation: “Why have you forsaken me?”

The prayer ended with an appeal for divine mercy, asking God to empower us not to forsake each other, but instead to stand with the vulnerable, the poor, and the living world around us. Receiving God’s forgiveness and accepting our interconnection with all Creation can be a watershed moment. The dusk drew shadows around us; above us, the stars began to shine. (The complete prayer is here. )

Rev. Dr. Jim Antal, Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Rev. Stephanie Johnson
Rev. Dr. Jim Antal, Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Rev. Stephanie Johnson

On Thursday morning, I joined thousands of people at a reserved area on the lawn in front of the Capitol Building, to listen and watch on large screens as Pope Francis addressed a joint session of Congress. Eventually I moved further back on the National Mall to participate in the Moral Action on Climate Justice Rally, which featured lively music, speakers, and a diverse throng of activists. On either side of the stage stretched two long banners in English and in Spanish, quoting from the papal encyclical: Hear the cry of the Earth. Hear the cry of the poor.

A hush settled over the crowd as the Pope began to speak. In a world where so many leaders speak rapidly and evasively, bending the truth to suit their needs and using their words to dominate opponents, defend a narrow, partisan agenda, and push for power, it was rare and sweet to hear a leader speak slowly, truthfully, and from the heart, excluding no one and welcoming everyone. Here was a person whose humility evoked our own basic goodness as human beings, reminding us that in fact we are connected to each other, we do care about the Earth and each other, we do have the capacity to be good, we do have the power to work together and to do the right thing. Was I the only listener moved to tears? I doubt it.

Pope Francis stands at the balcony
Pope Francis stands at the balcony

After the Pope left Capitol Hill, I lingered for a while at the rally to meet with friends, old and new. Activist and writer Ted Glick was on the penultimate day of an 18-day, water-only Fast for New Permits, organized by Beyond Extreme Energy. The fast targeted the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which essentially rubber-stamps approval for gas pipelines. Ted, looking tired but resolute, cited Gandhi’s insight that “fasting is the sincerest form of prayer.”

That night I made my way on foot to the National Cathedral (forget driving – roads were closed because the president of China was on his way into town). “Coming Together in Faith on Climate” brought together Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and other national religious leaders to express interfaith and ecumenical support of the Pope’s call to action on climate and Creation care. The Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop spoke eloquently, and, with the other faith leaders, committed to five initiatives to address global climate change.

As leaders of many faiths were endorsing and amplifying the Pope’s message in Washington, D.C., so, too, countless communities beyond Washington, D.C., were also bearing witness to the moral imperative to create a just and sustainable world. Take, for instance, Springfield, Massachusetts, where, on the same day that the Pope addressed Congress, a rally was held at City Hall to support funding for a climate justice office. Bishop Doug Fisher of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts gave a rousing speech.

I’ve been part of the religious climate movement for many years, but I’ve never experienced as deep and wide an awakening to the urgent call to stand up for life as I did last week. In order to give our children a livable planet, we need the vision and passion of people of faith – people who can see the long view, not just short-term quarterly or annual reports; people who care about the homeless, hungry, and poor, not just about elites; people who understand that the web of life is a gift to be protected, not a commodity to be exploited and destroyed; people who place their hope not in the promise of success but in the faithfulness of God.

People like that are rising up on every side. The image of a watershed may fit this moment in history, but, so, too, does the image of a rising tide. I look back on last week as a watershed moment, because around me and within me I sense a rising tide of activism, resolve, and love.

The most inspiring climate song I’ve yet heard was written by Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman and Yotam Schachter, and first performed by Rabbi Shoshana and Rev. Fred Small on September 20 – just in time for that pivotal week. They also went on to perform it at the National Cathedral on Thursday night.

The song is called: “The tide is rising and so are we.”

Citizens Climate Lobby 2015, Capitol Building
Citizens Climate Lobby 2015, Capitol Building

On a sultry summer morning this week, with the temperature already climbing past 97˚ and a heat index of 102˚, I paused on the steps of the Capitol Building to pose for a quick photograph. As volunteers with Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL), nearly one thousand people had traveled from near and far to lobby for a carbon fee and dividend in Washington, D.C.

Being a first-time volunteer, I had recently attended CCL’s basic training in how to lobby members of Congress about climate change. Here is how I usually prepare to lobby, especially when facing people whom I consider adversaries: Do research. Assemble talking points. Brace for confrontation.

 

By contrast, here is what Citizens Climate Lobby advises: Do research. Assemble talking points. Search for connection.

The group from Ashfield, MA included Allen Gabriel, Kate Stevens, Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Ron Coler, Bruce Bennett, and Richard Prée
The group from Ashfield, MA included Allen Gabriel, Kate Stevens, Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Ron Coler, Bruce Bennett, and Richard Prée

This is harder than it sounds. As I surveyed the voting records of the four Republican members of Congress to whom I’d been assigned, my heart sank. What connection could I possibly have with these conservative men? I am an ardent, long-time climate activist who lives in Northampton, a particularly liberal city in liberal Massachusetts. These House members hail from Kentucky, Florida, Illinois, and Texas, all of them states that have a strong interest in protecting the coal, gas, and oil industries. Just about everything these men had voted for, I was against. Just about everything they had voted against, I was for. Politically, we stand on opposite sides of the aisle. In one portfolio or another, I read phrases like these: Supports fracking and Keystone XL pipeline. Prohibits use of funds by the Administration to conduct a climate change agenda. Opposes and votes against any effort to increase taxes. Voted to gut the E.P.A’s ability to limit carbon pollution from power plants. Voted to open the Outer Continental Shelf to oil drilling.

To my consternation, it turned out that CCL asks its volunteers not to browbeat members of Congress but instead to build relationships and to find common ground. CCL maintains that if you can’t find something to respect and admire in a politician’s life or work, then you should not lobby that person. So I forced myself to slow down. I looked more carefully at the voting records and I tried to exercise some empathy and imagination. What could I appreciate about each person? What did this person seem to value, and why? How might I connect with him?

Spiritual traditions tell us that human beings are essentially inter-related. When we are spiritually awake, we can see the dignity, even the beauty, of each person. Despite whatever may divide us, in fact we are more similar than different. For starters, all of us are mortal, all of us we want to be happy, and all of us want to love and to be loved. It is easy to forget such basic truths when you are caught in the heat of political struggle. It is easier to demonize than to humanize, easier to seek safety behind the walls of righteous judgment than to meet ones “enemy” with an open heart.

This does not give us license to be naïve and sentimental – far from it. Jesus urges us to be “wise as serpents” as well as “innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Yet if we are to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44) – to say nothing of praying for those whom we want to persecute – then we must stay grounded in a transcendent love that embraces all beings, even the person we might want to condemn as a villain or a fool.

Who knew that lobbying could be a spiritual practice? Not I.

Office of Rep. Ander Crenshaw
Office of Rep. Ander Crenshaw

My first meeting was with an aide to Representative Ander Crenshaw, an Episcopalian from Florida. I introduced myself as an Episcopal priest who believes that climate change is the great spiritual and moral issue of our time. I told the staff member that I’d left parish ministry in order to focus all my efforts on building a wave of religious activism to address climate change. She listened politely, courteous but reserved. I could feel the distance between us.

Pressing ahead, I said that I appreciated Rep. Crenshaw for working tirelessly – for eight long years – to secure passage of the ABLE Act, a significant piece of legislation that protects disabled Americans. I said that I appreciated his concern for the vulnerable, his persistence in accomplishing something difficult, and his capacity to stay focused on an issue to which he was passionately committed. By now the aide was smiling, and I was smiling, too. I was surprised by my own happiness as we looked at each other: it is a pleasure to express and to receive sincere appreciation. It is like striking a chord of kinship: we feel the resonance. Dimly or clearly, we remember our shared humanity.

I went on to propose that, just as the representative was a champion for the disabled, maybe he could also become a champion for the poor, who are affected first and hardest by climate change. Maybe he could apply his passion, his persistence, and his capacity to get a difficult bill passed, to becoming a leader on tackling climate change. The aide listened and took notes. By the end of the meeting, after everyone on our team had had a chance to speak, to listen, and to share some facts about CCL’s proposal, I sensed the possibility that Rep. Crenshaw might now see a way to take effective action on climate change in a way that is consistent with his own values.

I left the meeting with renewed hope that people on opposite sides of the aisle can come together – before it’s too late – in the race to stabilize the climate and to create a just and habitable future. That vision is not just pie in the sky. The carbon fee and dividend proposed by CCL is a way of pricing carbon that has potential to unite people of very different political persuasions. According to an independent study conducted by REMI (Regional Economic Modeling, Inc.), CCL’s plan to place a steadily-rising fee on the carbon dioxide content of fuels at the source (such as a well, mine, or port of entry) and to return all revenue to American households on an equal basis would cut carbon emissions by half within 20 years while adding 2.8 million jobs to the economy. Under this plan, about two-thirds of all households would break even or receive more in their rebate checks than they would pay in higher prices due to the fee, which means that low-income and middle-class folks would be protected.

If you hate taxes, the CCL proposal should be acceptable: the fee is not a tax, since revenue is not spent by the government but instead is returned directly to the people. Nor does this carbon-pricing plan add layers of bureaucracy or additional regulation. It simply allows the free market to do its work, because carbon-based fuels would become increasingly expensive, and clean, renewable sources of energy, such as sun and wind, would become increasingly cheap. This process would unleash entrepreneurial energy and investment in clean energy.

The CCL proposal is no magic wand, but it has power to bridge the political divide and to appeal to our shared desire for economic prosperity, a healthy environment, and homegrown, affordable energy production. It’s an approach to stabilizing the climate that is embraced not only by Dr. James Hansen, the renowned climate scientist, but also by George Schultz, Secretary of State during the Reagan Administration. Both of them serve on CCL’s Advisory Board, along with Bob Inglis, who spent 12 years in the U.S House as a Republican representative from South Carolina, and Dr. Catharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist and evangelical Christian. (For a 2-minute video about carbon fee and dividend, visit here.)

Those four days of CCL training and lobbying have changed me. I am still an ardent climate activist. I am still prepared to go to jail to stop the Keystone XL pipeline. I am still convinced that we need a complete overhaul of how we live on Earth, and that Pope Francis and Naomi Klein are on target when they call for the deep transformation of our social, political, and economic systems. I still want to build a powerful grassroots movement to address the climate crisis, to re-weave the web of life, and to protect a habitable world for future generations. As Jonas Salk once said, “Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors.”

What has changed is that I have found a fresh path forward. I am excited about CCL’s proposed carbon fee and dividend, which I believe is an idea whose time has come. What’s more, thanks to my training with CCL I also feel a renewed commitment to constructive dialogue and to the spiritual discipline of moving beyond “them” and “us.” My experience with CCL draws me to prayer, especially to the prayer for the human family that is found in the Episcopal prayer book. I pray that God will “look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth…” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 815)

If anyone asks what I learned this week in D.C., here is what I will reply: together we can build a low-carbon future, and, when carried out in the right spirit, lobbying can be work that is good for the soul.


 

P.S. To participate in workshops that teach you how to open up a space for “constructive dialogue where conflicts are driven by differences in identity, beliefs, and values,” visit Public Conversations Project. To see how this kind of approach is being put into action internationally, visit Karuna Center for Peace Building.

Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 18, 2015. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Northampton, MA. 1 Samuel 3:1-10                                         1 Corinthians 6:12-20 Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17                                 John 1:43-51

    Martin Luther King, Jr. and the climate movement

Friends, it is good to be with you this morning. Thank you, Cat, for inviting me to preach. I serve the diocese as your Missioner for Creation Care, so I travel from church to church, preaching the Gospel and speaking about our call as Christians to heal the Earth. I am blessed by the timing of this invitation to speak, for across the U.S. this weekend Americans are celebrating the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who gave his life, quite literally, to the quest to heal our country’s great racial divide, and who dreamed of a world in which men and women of all races could live together with justice and mutual respect. Racism and racial justice is of course a vital issue in our country right now, a topic of intense debate as we observe in several cities the tragic tensions between some white police officers and the people of color that they were sworn to protect. Across the country people are exploring hard questions about white privilege and institutionalized racism, about how far we have come as a society and how much farther we have to go before we finally manifest what Dr. King called the Beloved Community.

Dr. King recognized that race relations do not exist in a vacuum. He understood that racism intersects with other patterns of violence, including poverty and militarism. If he were alive today, I believe that Dr. King would add a fourth item to what he called the “triple evils” of poverty, racism, and militarism. To that list I believe that he would add environmental destruction, especially human-caused climate change. For unless we stabilize the global climate and rapidly reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases, we will unravel the web of life and destroy any possibility of Beloved Community for human beings and for most of the other beings with which we share this precious planet. The struggle to end racism is linked to the struggle to end poverty, the struggle to end war, and the struggle to protect life as it has evolved on Earth. Racial justice, social and economic justice, environmental justice, climate justice – all these struggles intersect. In the end we share one struggle, one dream, one deep and God-inspired longing: the desire to build a peaceful, healthy, just, and sustainable world. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is God who whispers that dream into our hearts, God who plants  that longing in us like a seed that grows into a mighty oak, God who stirs us out of our complacency and sends us into action. It is God who gives us a heart to care, and strength to keep fighting the good fight. For it can be difficult to keep going, difficult to keep the faith in the face of sometimes brutal opposition and the sheer inertia of business as usual. There is a wonderful scene in the movie Selma, a movie that I hope you will see, if you haven’t already. The movie is set during the turbulent three months of 1965, exactly fifty years ago, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was leading a campaign to secure equal voting rights. Early in the movie we see David Oyelowo, the actor playing Dr. King, awake at home late at night, restless, anxious, and acutely aware of the threats against his own life and against the lives of his wife and children. Should he keep going and head to Selma? He is resisting the powers and principalities of this world and he has reached the limit of his strength. In that late-night hour he picks up the phone, dials, and says to the person on the other end of the line: “I need to hear the Lord’s voice.” The friend he has phoned is the legendary Gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, and into the phone receiver she begins to sing very tenderly, “Precious Lord, take my hand.” It is an intimate moment, as intimate as the moment recorded in this morning’s first reading, when late at night the boy Samuel hears the voice of God speaking his name in the darkness (1 Samuel 3:1-10). When God speaks to us in that intimate way, often without any words at all, we feel mysteriously addressed. In that quiet, intimate encounter we feel known by name, touched very personally by a loving power that sees us, knows us through and through, loves us to the core, and gives us strength to carry on. This is the experience of the psalmist who writes – marveling and full of wonder – “Lord, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar” (Psalm 139:1). This is the experience of Philip, who hears Jesus call him to follow, and of Nathaniel, who realizes that Jesus saw, and knew, and thoroughly understood him even before they’d met (John 1:43-51). As Christians, we open ourselves to be seen and known, loved and guided by an intimate, divine presence that will never let us go. That is what prayer is, and it gives us strength. And when we’ve lost touch with that divine presence, when we feel frightened, despairing, or overwhelmed, we rely on each other to help us find our way back to God, just as Philip helped Nathaniel, as Eli helped the boy Samuel, and as Mahalia Jackson helped Dr. King. As people of faith, we are in this together, and when any of us lose heart, we try to help each other, as individuals and as a community, to turn again to God and to make our appeal: Precious Lord, take my hand. I feel as powerfully as ever that call to prayer, that call to community, and that call to active, faithful service and advocacy. I don’t usually carry a newspaper into church – actually, this is the first time I’ve ever done it. But I want to show you the front page of yesterday’s New York Times, which gives a map of the world colored in shades of red to indicate all the areas that were above average in temperature last year. The year 2014 broke the record for the hottest year on Earth since we started keeping records. But hey, we may be saying to ourselves, it’s been so cold in New England! It turns out that below-average temperatures in our region may be indirectly linked to climate change. Some scientists are studying the likelihood that the unusual dips they are noticing in the jet stream are connected to the rapidly warming Arctic and the exceptionally warm waters of the Pacific Ocean. Bottom line is that the phrase “global warming” is probably much too simple – a better term might be “global weirding.” As the world grows warmer we can expect more erratic and extreme fluctuations in local weather, and some places will sometimes become unexpectedly cold. Yet all the while the average global temperature is heading in only one direction: up. In just two centuries – a blink in geologic time – we have burned so much coal, gas, and oil and released so much heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are higher today than they’ve been for hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of years. I heard a climate scientist say, “We are breathing from an atmosphere that none of our ancestors would recognize.” Sticking to business as usual could raise average global temperatures between 5 and 11 degrees Fahrenheit in this century. That may not sound like much, but in fact it would make the world extremely difficult for humans and other creatures to inhabit. Oceans are already heating and becoming more acidic; tundra is thawing; ice caps and glaciers 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 latest climate report from the U.N. warns of food shortages, waves of refugees, and the mass extinction of plants and animals, if we keep to our present course. This is the sort of news that wakes me up at night and pulls me into prayer: precious Lord, take my hand. It is also the sort of news that propels me out of bed in the morning, eager to find a way to be of use. Once we have grasped what the bishops of the Episcopal Church call “the urgency of the planetary crisis in which we find ourselves,”1 there is so much we can do, so many ways that we can contribute to the healing of Creation. Thank you for the work you’ve done here at St. John’s to conserve energy, switch to efficient light bulbs, and use cloth rather than paper napkins. Our individual actions add up: we can recycle more, drive less, be sparing in our use of water, quit using bottled water. We can turn off lights when we leave a room. Maybe we can eat local, organic foods and support local farms and land trusts, maybe even leave them some money in our wills. I hope you’ll form a “green team” in this parish, and name a Creation Care Minister. I hope you’ll sign up to join a network of people in the diocese who care about Creation. I’d be glad to support you in any way I can. I also hope you’ll sign up to receive a weekly newsletter from the grassroots group, Climate Action Now, which is centered right here in the Pioneer Valley. If we work as isolated individuals, our success will be limited, for the scope and speed of the climate crisis require action on a much broader scale. So we link arms with other people and we join the movement to make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. The climate movement is gaining momentum, and many of us are inspired by Dr. King and the civil rights movement. Last week I spent a day in Amherst with other local climate activists, studying the principles of non-violent civil disobedience as practiced by Gandhi and Dr. King. Along with more than 97,000 people across the U.S., I have signed a pledge of resistance, a pledge to risk arrest in non-violent direct action if the Keystone XL pipeline is approved. Stopping that pipeline has become a powerful symbol of the urgent need to keep 80% of the known fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong. Fossil fuel companies now possess five times the amount of coal, gas, and oil that, if burned, would force the average global temperature to rise far higher than the 2 degree threshold that gives us a 50-50 chance of preventing runaway climate change. So now is the time to make a swift transition to clean, safe, renewable energy, such as sun and wind. In this unprecedented time, many of us feel called anew to listen to the tender voice of love that God is always sounding in our heart, and then to embody that love in the world as bravely and clearly as we can. 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. Archbishop Desmond Tutu fought for racial justice and against apartheid in South Africa, and now he is one of the world’s champions of climate justice. Reconciling human beings to each other, to God, and to the rest of Creation is what Tutu calls the “supreme work” of Jesus Christ. Thank you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, for joining me in that supreme work.
1. In 2011 the bishops of the Episcopal Church issued a pastoral teaching on the environment that begins with a call to repentance “as we face the unfolding environmental crisis of the earth.” For the full text of “A Pastoral Teaching from the Bishops of the Episcopal Church,” meeting in Province IX, in Quito, Ecuador, September 2011, visit here.  

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.”