Just published!  A Prisoner and You Visited Me, ed. James Knipper, is a new collection of homilies and reflections for Year A from Clear Faith Publishing. Rev. Margaret contributed a sermon. Other contributors include Richard Rohr, James Martin, SJ, Jan Richardson, Brian McLaren, and many more. All proceeds from book sales go to nonprofits that serve and support people who are living on the margins.  Choose from the soft-covered book, the Kindle version, and the Apple iBook version.

Rev. Margaret was a guest columnist for Daily Hampshire Gazette, writing an article, “How to Close a Bank” (November 17, 2022). Click here to read it.

The first time it happened, we wondered if it was a coincidence.

Shortly before 3:00 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener and I walked to a branch of Bank of America located beside a highway in Springfield. Our plan was to hand-deliver a letter to the bank manager. We wanted to explain what was going to happen: we were part of a group of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faith leaders who were about to hold a multifaith prayer vigil for climate justice at 3:00 p.m. outside the bank, urging the bank to stop funding fossil fuel projects.

Our letter explained that we would not impede sidewalk traffic or interfere with access to the bank, but that we did intend to sing, pray, and speak about the moral call to address the climate emergency. We would be urging customers to reconsider where they bank and to sign a pledge to move their money out of Bank of America if the bank continues to fund the destruction of our planet. If the fossil fuel industry can’t borrow money from large banks like Bank of America, new fossil fuel projects can’t move forward.

As we neared the bank, Rabbi Andrea commented, “I’m counting on your courage.”

Surprised, I answered, “I’m counting on your non-anxious presence.”

It’s no wonder that Jesus sent out the disciples two by two. Even if you’re sure that what you’re doing is reasonable, peaceful, and necessary, you can expect to be nervous if you’re confronting someone in power or disrupting the status quo. It strengthens the heart to have an ally at your side.

Multifaith prayer vigil for climate justice, Springfield, MA, 10/21/22. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas

The bigger surprise was that, on a busy Friday afternoon, customers were waiting in line to enter the bank. For some reason, bank employees were examining each customer before allowing them inside and then locking the door behind them. Just as the rabbi and I finally moved up the line and reached the front door, a staff member announced that the bank was closed. No one else could enter. He didn’t look at us; he didn’t glance at the rabbi or comment on my clergy collar and stole; he simply declared to the disgruntled customers behind us that the bank had closed.

Rabbi Andrea and I were left to wonder: Was it sheer coincidence that the bank had closed just then or was it because they’d gotten wind of our prayer vigil?

We got our answer one week later. Our group was gearing up for a second multifaith prayer vigil for climate justice at 3:00 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, held this time outside a Bank of America in downtown Northampton. One of our vigil’s faith leaders, Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian, dressed in clergy collar and stole, arrived early. She went inside the bank to look around.

“We’re closing,” a bank employee told her.

“Why?” asked Andrea.

“We’re closing,” came the tight-lipped reply.

By 2:00 p.m. the bank had locked its doors and posted a sign out front: Due to circumstances beyond our control, we are temporarily closed. We apologize for the inconvenience.

Sign posted on front door of Bank of America, Northampton, 10/28/22. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas

We went ahead with our prayer vigil, as planned. In words and song, we expressed our moral outrage that Bank of America is one of the top four banks (along with Citibank, Wells Fargo, and JPMorgan Chase) that most heavily funds the fossil fuel projects which drive the climate crisis. Bank of America has financed such controversial new projects as the Line 3 and Mountain Valley pipelines. Despite giving lip-service to the Paris Agreement (adopted in late 2015), over the next five years Bank of America provided an eye-popping $232 billion in lending and underwriting to the fossil fuel industry.

Some quotes from our press release make our perspective clear.

“No religious tradition says that we should destroy the planet,” said Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener, who leads Temple Israel in Greenfield and who spoke, prayed, and blew the shofar at the vigil. “Yet this is exactly what governments, financial institutions, and major corporations are either doing or allowing – after knowing for years that fossil fuels cause climate change. It’s flat-out wrong.”

“As Muslims we believe the Almighty Creator has appointed humans as the stewards of earth. Thus, we have a sacred obligation to preserve it, and, in that spirit, we call for responsible and just climate action,” said Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, a member of the Muslim community and Executive Director of the Massachusetts chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “For the love of our neighbors, families, and all vulnerable communities, we call on Bank of America to immediately cease financing practices that are harmful and destructive to the earth and to take steps to correct the harm done.”

Multifaith prayer vigil for climate justice, Northampton, MA, 10/28/22. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas

“Now is the time for bold and urgent action on climate change,” said the Rt. Rev. Dr. Douglas Fisher, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, who gave the vigil’s closing prayer. “Last year the International Energy Agency made it crystal clear that any new coal, oil, and gas projects are incompatible with avoiding catastrophic climate impacts. Bank of America must stop financing climate chaos. We need to stand and work together to bring our planet into balance and to renew God’s creation.”

Right now, the world’s eyes are on COP27, the next crucial round of U.N. climate negotiations, which will begin on November 6 in Egypt. In the lead-up to COP27, under the banner of Faiths4Climate Justice, a project of GreenFaith, people around the world of many different religions have been holding sit-ins and rallies, prayer circles and die-ins to call for bold, just action by corporate and political powers to address the climate crisis. Our two prayer vigils for climate justice were part of this growing worldwide movement of religious and spiritual communities to restore reverence for Earth and to protect humanity’s hope for a livable planet.

Watch this space: JPMorgan Chase Bank is expanding into western Massachusetts and just bought a large, vacant building on the main intersection of downtown Northampton. It plans to open for business in the first half of 2023. We plan to tell them what we’re telling Bank of America: unless they take rapid steps to stop funding fossil fuels and to promote a swift, just transition to clean, renewable energies, we will make our voices heard. We will protest banks whose policies accelerate climate chaos and desecrate the world that God entrusted to our care. We want banks to stay open, serve the community, and do the right thing for the future of our planet.

Bishop Doug Fisher, Rev. Dr. Jim Antal, Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian enjoy a laugh before the prayer vigil. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas

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For more information about how the biggest banks contribute to climate change, read Third Act’s “Banking on Our Future.” #Third Act

Here’s how to write a letter to your bank, with coaching from ThirdAct.org.

Here’s where to sign one of Third Act’s two “Banking on our Future” pledges: “If by the end of 2022, Chase, Citibank, Wells Fargo, or Bank of America are still funding climate-destroying fossil fuel projects, I pledge to close my account and cut up my credit card. If I don’t bank at these institutions now, I pledge I won’t do so in the future.”

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The faith leaders who led the prayer vigil in Northampton on October 28, 2022:

The Rt. Rev. Douglas J. Fisher (Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts)

Tahirah Amatul-Wadud (member of the Muslim community; Executive Director, Massachusetts chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations)

Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian (ordained minister, United Church of Christ; member of Ministerial Leadership Team, Alden Baptist Church, Springfield)

Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas (Episcopal priest; Missioner for Creation Care in Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts & Southern New England Conference, United Church of Christ, and Creation Care Advisor in Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts)

Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener (Temple Israel, Greenfield)

Amihan Jennifer Matias (lay leader, Haydenville Congregational Church, United Church of Christ; Associate Director, Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership)

Rev. Kate Stevens (ordained minister, United Church of Christ; recently President, Interfaith Council of Franklin County)

With a small team of Christians, I was blessed to help write a faith statement that was signed and released in Nairobi, Kenya, on October 21, two weeks before the next round of U.N.-sponsored climate negotiations, COP27, begins in Egypt.  The statement – “A Faithful Voice on Hunger and Climate Justice” – announces our deep intention to come together across boundaries of nationality, race, and class to address climate change and hunger.

The statement begins:
As Christians from Africa, Europe, and North America, we share a fierce resolve to stand and work together to end the hunger crisis made worse by climate instability, to renew God’s creation, and to bring our planet into balance, forming a beloved community in which all of creation can thrive. Climate justice is our means for furthering this resolve… 

Using the language of lament and confession, the statement frames the climate crisis as a moral and spiritual summons to Christians – and all people of faith and good will – to participate in the growing worldwide movement to restore reverence and justice for Earth and all her communities.

“Scenes from Ifo 2 Refugee Camp in Dadaab, Kenya” by United Nations Photo is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd-nc/2.0/jp/?ref=openverse.

To address the hunger crisis made worse by climate change, we draw from the wellsprings of our Christian faith.  We recognize Christ’s suffering presence in the communities hurt first and hardest by climate change: those without adequate means to flourish, the historically underserved, and those least likely to have a voice at the table where policy decisions are made – the very people who suffer disproportionately even as their contribution to global emissions is almost negligible. We also recognize Christ’s liberating, life-giving presence in the individuals and communities who refuse to settle for a killing status quo and who rise up to affirm the dignity of all people and the sacredness of Earth…

The statement includes a call to action:

African faith leaders have invited faith leaders from high-income countries in Europe and North America to come alongside them with policies that align in establishing climate justice and ending hunger. Together, we seek public policies that yield measurable results and meaningful change for those disproportionately affected by hunger and climate change. We recognize that high-income countries have historically been the highest emitters of greenhouse gas emissions and have strategic roles to play in ending the dual hunger and climate crisis.

You can read the complete statement here.

The statement was released in conjunction with a “Convocation on Climate Hunger” organized by the U.S.-based Bread for the World and hosted in Nairobi by the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC-CETA). The press release, “Christian Leaders from Africa, Europe, and the U.S. Unify on Climate Change and Hunger Ahead of COP27,” is available here.  I didn’t travel to Kenya, but I am grateful to have contributed to this initiative.

 

This article by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas first appeared in the Volume 44 (2022) issue of Buddhist-Christian Studies, published by the University of Hawai‘i Press, pp. 69-83.  You can download a .pdf copy of the article here.

Facing climate crisis and ecological collapse requires courage and tenderness.  Courage, because it takes courage to see clearly what human beings are doing to our precious planet.  It takes courage to hold a steady gaze and to witness the melting glaciers and bleaching coral reefs, the withered fields and bone-dry reservoirs, the flash floods and massive downpours, the record waves of heat.  It takes courage not to look away but to hold a steady gaze as climate change makes sea levels rise and islands disappear, as oceans grow acidic and full of plastic, and as vast populations of our fellow creatures disappear.

Tenderness brings moments – maybe this is one of them – when we allow ourselves to feel our emotional response to what we have lost and are losing as climate change accelerates and as governments and financial institutions in thrall to the fossil fuel industry fail to take decisive action to address the crisis.

I am neither an academic nor a scholar. This paper will not report on research nor analyze sacred texts.  Instead, it will reflect on some of the spiritual practices and perspectives that guide my work as an Episcopal priest dedicated to mobilizing a Spirit-filled, faithful response to climate crisis.

At this hinge point of history, practitioners of every faith tradition must ask ourselves: What are the gifts that our tradition can bring to the table as the human community – and the whole Earth community – experience the rapid unraveling of the web of life?  What are we called to do?  In what spiritual practices shall we root ourselves so that we can rise up with determination, courage, and compassion to take effective action?  I’m very interested in what helps us to move beyond inertia, panic, and despair and to give ourselves wholeheartedly to the movement to address climate change – so interested, in fact, that a friend and I asked colleagues in the faith-and-environment movement to write about their sources of spiritual strength.  How do they maintain courage, empathy, and determination?  Our anthology of essays is entitled Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis.1

I speak as a Christian who is deeply indebted to the wisdom of Buddhism.  My late mother, Sarah Doering, was a devoted practitioner and teacher of vipassanā (insight) meditation and for seventeen years attended the three-month silent retreats at Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. Because of her teaching, counsel, philanthropy, and spiritual support, she is credited by IMS with playing a vital role in helping Buddhism to flourish in the West.2 My husband, Robert A. Jonas, has also had a long-standing interest in Buddhist practice. Years ago, he founded a small, contemplative Christian center for meditation and prayer, The Empty Bell,3 which has sponsored many Buddhist-Christian dialogues; he met His Holiness the Dalai Lama three times at Buddhist-Christian retreats in various parts of the world; and he is an active member of this society.  I am also deeply grateful for Joanna Macy, with whom I’ve studied and whose teachings have helped me and countless others to reflect on our human predicament and find a path to healing.  I bow to these important people in my life, and to everyone who is nourished by Buddhist teaching and practice.

My own experience of Buddhist meditation opened me to a deeper understanding of Christianity, the faith tradition in which I was born and raised, and which I fled after high school. Buddhist meditation not only facilitated my return to the church – it also gave me my first glimpse of the vocation that would become my life’s work. I began learning and practicing vipassanā meditation in the early 1980’s, when I was in my 30’s. I was just beginning to recover from a food addiction that had plagued me since adolescence, and just beginning to explore what it meant to pay attention to my inner and outer experience.  I particularly remember a ten-day silent retreat that I attended at IMS. As the teacher instructed, I followed the drill: You sit. You walk. You sit. You walk. That’s it. You do nothing but bring awareness to the present moment.

One day I left the retreat house for a walk in the woods. I paid attention to sensations as they came, the feel of my foot on the ground, the sound of birds, the sight of birches, hemlock, and pine. I was nothing but eyes and ears, the weight of each foot, the breath in my nostrils. At one point I stopped walking, overwhelmed by the sense that the whole world was inside me. I was carrying the round blue planet inside my chest. My heart held the world. I cradled it tenderly, weeping with joy.

I did not know it then, but that vision of carrying the world in my heart would become one of the core images to which I would return in prayer in the decades ahead, a place of consolation that renewed my strength for climate activism. Years later, someone gave me a contemporary icon of Christ bending over the world, his arms embracing the planet.4 I caught my breath in recognition. Yes, that’s right. That’s just how it is.

© “Compassion Mandala” by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM, Courtesy of Trinity Stores, www.trinitystores.com, 800.699.4482

Learning through vipassanā meditation to steady my mind and make contact with my actual experience opened me to a flow of love that I didn’t understand and couldn’t have predicted.  Time and again, as I sat in meditation, welcoming everything into awareness, clinging to nothing and pushing nothing away, an unexpected tenderness would rise up from within and gather me up like a child. Baffled, I went back to Sunday services in the church I had fled long ago, sat in the shadowy back pews, and marveled at the possibility that the preacher who claimed that God is love was not just a blithering idiot but might actually be on to something.  My recovery from addiction through the 12-Step program depended on daily surrender to a so-called Higher Power that was vaster and wiser than my fragmented, isolated ego-self.  I began to hope – and then suspect – that this “higher” power might be the power of divine love.

I finished what I was doing and headed to seminary, eager to know more about the God who had saved my life. I began to study and practice Christian contemplative prayer and learned about the mystics who encountered God in silence. I was ordained in the Episcopal Church in June 1988, the same month that NASA climate scientist James Hanson warned Congress that the extraction and burning of fossil fuels was disrupting the global atmosphere. It was the first time I’d heard about what was then called the “greenhouse effect.”  Stunned, I touched the newspaper with my fingers and breathed, feeling again the love for the world which had been so mysteriously revealed at that Buddhist retreat center. A question emerged that became the riddle of my life, a question that to this day fuels my vocation as a faith-based climate activist: If God can empower a crazy addict like me to make peace with her body, is it not possible that God can empower us crazed, addicted human beings to make peace with each other and the body of Earth?

For 25 years I served in parish ministry; on the side, I led retreats, taught seminary classes on prayer, and was a climate activist.  Finally, in 2013, I went to my bishop in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts and confessed that I needed to leave parish ministry: anxiety about the climate crisis was keeping me awake at night.  I asked if he could create a job in the diocese to let me focus full-time on mobilizing Christians to protect the living world that God entrusted to our care.  God bless him, Bishop Doug Fisher said yes, if funds for such a job could be found.  Lo and behold, just then a parishioner came forward who had sold his shares of stock in oil pipelines and wanted to donate the funds to the diocese to address climate change.  That became the seed money for my job – which quickly went ecumenical.  I now serve both of the Episcopal dioceses in Massachusetts, as well as the United Church of Christ in Southern New England, and I maintain a website, RevivingCreation.org.

Christianity is my root tradition and the one I know best, but obviously there are many ways to construct Christianity.  Some versions of Christianity have inflicted, and continue to inflict, enormous harm on human beings, the land, and the other creatures with whom we share this planet.  Christianity has been used to justify slavery and white supremacy, patriarchy, homophobia, colonialism, and a definition of “dominion” that permits and even encourages a wholesale assault on Mother Earth.  Christianity has been hijacked to bless the Doctrine of Discovery and the unjust claims of Manifest Destiny. Who knows how many Black, brown, and indigenous peoples – as well as people of different faiths – have been enslaved, dispossessed, or killed in the name of Jesus?  What’s more, growing up in the 1950’s, I heard nothing in my church about God’s love for or participation in the natural world.  The God I grew up with had no body.  God was pure spirit and, as far as I could tell, essentially disconnected from the material world.  Among the myriad life-forms that God created, God apparently cared about only one, Homo sapiens – all the other creatures and elements of the natural world were, at best, scenic backdrop and bit players in the only drama that mattered to God: the human drama.  Even now, as Rev. Cameron Trimble points out, the pews of conservative Christian churches are filled with people who believe – mistakenly – “that nature is available for our endless consumption, that short-term profit outweighs plenary survival, access to resources should be owned by a few rather than available to all, and in the end, technology will save us.”5

A socially just, ecologically wise, and spiritually mature Christianity must begin with an act of repentance and humility.  In the face of climate emergency and species extinction, every religious tradition, beginning with Christianity, must reckon with the aspects of its heritage that no longer serve life and must critique, discard, or transform the practices and perspectives – however ancient and long-standing – that do not meet the challenge of this planetary crisis.  At the same time, every religious tradition, including Christianity, must sift through its teachings, practices, and rituals to locate the gold, the elements of deep ecological wisdom that the human community so desperately needs.  Every religious tradition, including Christianity, must also ask itself: How does this unprecedented moment in human history challenge us to evolve so that we truly serve the common good?  Now is the time to ask and address these questions, for scientists tell us that we don’t have much time to avert a catastrophic level of suffering and to preserve a habitable world for our children, our children’s children, and all the other creatures with whom we share this planet.

The world around us is dying.  How can we – teachers, students, and practitioners of spiritual wisdom in a variety of contexts – be of use?

Here’s an image to consider.  There is a puzzle6 that consists of nine dots on a page, lined up in rows of three. The goal is to connect the dots by making four straight lines without once lifting your pencil from the page or retracing the same line. The only way to connect all nine dots with just four straight lines is to go outside the borders of the box.  Solving this puzzle is an example of “thinking outside the box,” of moving beyond a given paradigm in order to perceive or accomplish something that otherwise couldn’t be perceived or accomplished.

That’s what religious and spiritual traditions are meant to do: to help confused, isolated, and fearful human beings to think, feel, and understand outside the box of our little ego-selves so that we can experience our connections to each other and to a sacred Reality greater than “I,” “me,” and “mine.”  Imagine that we live in a world in which everything feels fragmented, divided, and falling apart, a world in which a beloved landscape can go up in flames, a flash flood can drown people in a subway, a mass shooting can take place in your local grocery store, and starving birds can fall dead from the sky. Imagine a world in which people feel helpless, frightened, and alone, more tethered to their cell phones and social media than to each other, more ready to arm themselves and stock food in their basement than to reach out to help a neighbor, and perfectly willing to douse their lawns with herbicides and to eat cheap beef from a factory farm because the fate of other creatures is of no concern.  Imagine isolated dots, trapped in an increasingly hot, harsh, and violent world that could well tumble into social and ecological collapse.

Imagine now that we find four lines of thought or four arrows of prayerful intention that disclose an underlying wholeness and unity. What if those isolated dots – what if all of us – discovered that we were held together in a sacred reality, that we were embraced by a love that created all things, connects all things, and sustains all things?  On the surface, in the realm of our senses, we might notice only differences, what divides us from each other, but in the deep center of reality we would sense common ground that holds everything together, drawing us into community with each other and drawing us into communion with the sacred Mystery that some of us call “God.”  Now we would be living outside the box.  And from this place we could begin to heal ourselves and an ailing world.

Here are four lines of thought, four arrows of prayerful intention that help me step out of the box and into a larger, wilder place where I can envision social and ecological healing and find strength to take action.

1. First arrow: We cultivate an interior relationship of love.  In ways that resonate with Buddhism, one of the great promises of Christianity is that in silence and solitude, through practices of contemplative meditation, we can learn to listen to the inner voice of love that is always sounding in our hearts.  Christians imagine Jesus in many different ways, but one of the most compelling is expressed by the 18th-century Methodist, Charles Wesley: “Jesus, thou art all compassion, pure, unbounded love thou art.”7  Like filings to a magnet, we may be drawn to that love, yearning to receive, experience, and embody it more fully every day. We may be drawn to imageless forms of prayer, such as Centering Prayer or the Jesus Prayer, which use a sacred word or two to guide our longing to encounter the Divine, the ultimate mystery beyond words, thoughts, or feelings. We may pay attention to each breath, consciously breathing in the love of God and breathing it out into the world. One of the earliest Christians, a Desert Father named Anthony, advised, “Always breathe Christ.”8  Or we may simply wish to rest in God’s loving gaze and to pray the simplest of prayers: I gaze at God, and God gazes at me.  That is how the 17th-century Carmelite monk Brother Lawrence describes what he calls the practice of the presence of God.  He writes, “I… concentrate on being always in [God’s] holy presence; I keep myself in [God’s] presence by simple attentiveness and a loving gaze upon God… to whom I often feel myself united with greater happiness and satisfaction than that of an infant nursing at his mother’s breast; also for the inexpressible sweetness which I taste and experience there, if I dared use this term, I would willingly call this state ‘the breasts of God.”9

Similarly, in words that recall the practice of mindfulness meditation, the 18th-century French Jesuit, Pierre de Caussade, speaks of what he calls “the sacrament of the present moment.” In my tradition, sacraments are special ceremonies that convey the grace and presence of God – outward forms that convey inward spiritual realities.10  De Caussade argues that every moment should be received with the reverence with which we receive a sacrament.  Since every moment is filled with God’s infinite holiness, every moment should be honored.11

What I’m trying to describe is how we can move through our days with a deep inner stability, a confidence that moment to moment we are resting within a relationship of love.  The accent is relational – we turn toward a holy You (capital Y) whose presence is with us wherever we go.  Human beings thrive in the context of loving relationships, and whether sitting or standing, walking or waiting, we can tune our awareness to an intimate Someone (capital S) whom we may name and experience in different ways but in whose usually subtle but sometimes vivid presence we feel seen, known, and loved.

Why is this relevant to facing ecological collapse and climate change?  Because when people are in the grip of collective trauma, they need practices that steady the mind, calm the nervous system, and restore a sense of inner safety and accompaniment.  Because drawing from a sacred, inner wellspring is a source of solace and strength for anyone facing a difficult present and the likelihood of an even more difficult future.

What’s more, as climate change intensifies, we are increasingly likely to hear messages such as “The world would be better off without human beings” or “Human beings are a cancer on the planet.”  I understand the bitterness and grief in statements like these, and I recognize that, in some ways, these messages are accurate: economic systems that depend on dirty fossil fuels, endless expansion, and relentless extraction of natural resources are indeed taking down life on Earth. But the only way forward is not to feed the voice of self-hatred, but instead to listen to the voice of love.  Only love can empower us to imagine new possibilities, relinquish a killing status quo, and set out on a different path. When people are going mad with hatred and fear, only love can restore us to sanity.

2. Second arrow: We awaken to the love that is everywhere.  Falling in love with Jesus or with the God we find within does not lock us into a private world of our own.  On the contrary, when we follow Jesus, we follow him straight into the wide-open heart of the Father/Mother of our souls, the Creator who loves every inch of the created world and who, according to the mythic story, at the beginning of time pronounced everything “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Participating in the flow of divine love means that our tightly gripped sense of self must dissolve and expand. Our little ego didn’t invent this love; we didn’t create it, we can’t control it, and it’s a lot bigger than we are – or to be more accurate, bigger than who we think we are. In truth, it is the essence of who we are, what Thomas Merton would call our True Self.  Even if we’d like to hoard God’s love for ourselves or our own little tribe, when we are drawn into the heart of God, we discover that everyone else is there, too.  As Fr. Henri Nouwen would say,12 when I know deeply that I am the beloved – when God breaks through my layers of resistance and self-doubt and reveals that I am cherished to the core – then I discover that everyone is the beloved.  Everyone is cherished by God.  No one is left out.

This is a radical, out-of-the-box message in a dog-eat-dog world of frenzied competition, where people elbow each other in a zero-sum game for status, possessions, and power, and where nations and corporations too often run roughshod over the needs of the land and the needs of the poor.  By contrast, a love that encompasses all people and all sentient beings calls us to live in harmony with each other and the rest of creation.  Such love asserts moral values quite different from those of late-stage capitalism.  I will name two: intersectional justice, and reverence for the natural world.

Intersectional justice understands that everything is connected. For instance, climate change is linked to economic and racial injustice. Although climate change is largely caused by wealthy nations and communities, its impacts are felt first and most painfully by low-income and minority communities – the very communities least likely to have contributed to the crisis, least able to adapt to it, and least likely to have a voice at the table where policy decisions are made. We risk participating in “climate apartheid,” where the rich pay to escape the increasing heat and hunger caused by the climate crisis and the rest of the world suffers.13 We also risk “climate gentrification,” where wealthy people seeking refuge from the effects of climate change move into once “undesirable” neighborhoods, forcing out low-income and minority residents.14

Climate justice is so closely linked to racial justice that some people contend that we wouldn’t have climate change without white supremacy. Where would we put our urban oilfields, our dumping grounds and trash, our biomass plants, our toxic incinerators and other polluting industries, if we weren’t willing to sacrifice Black, Brown, and indigenous communities?  To quote the Sierra Club’s Hop Hopkins, “You can’t have climate change without sacrifice zones, and you can’t have sacrifice zones without disposable people, and you can’t have disposable people without racism.”15

Climate change is not one of 26 different causes that we care about – it is a cause that affects everything we cherish. The Pentagon has long called climate change a “threat multiplier,” which means that it amplifies existing problems, from national security and public health to poverty, hunger, and immigration. That is why it is so important to build an intersectional movement that pulls people out of their isolated siloes of concern and pushes for comprehensive solutions.  Environmentalism used to be a movement mainly of white people defending polar bears and wilderness areas, but today’s ecological and climate justice movement realizes that people of every race and class must join together in a shared effort to live in loving relationship with each other and with the Earth upon which all life depends.  In his stirring encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis makes an impassioned plea for what he calls “integral ecology”: the recognition that everything is connected and that our social and environmental crises are not two separate issues but must be addressed together.16

A second ethical value that emerges when we perceive the world as pervaded by God’s love is reverence for nature.  That’s what happened to me: as I recovered from my food addiction and learned to honor my body, listen to its needs, and live within its limits, I also began to connect with the natural world. I began to see that God loved not only my body – God also loved the whole “body” of creation.  My prayer began to change.  It was like turning my pocket inside out: whereas once I had found God mostly in silent, inward contemplation, now God began showing up around me – in the pond, the rocks, the willow tree.  If you spend an hour gazing at a willow tree, after a while it begins to disclose itself, and to disclose God.  I began to understand the words of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”

For those of us who follow Jesus, it’s worth noting that Jesus lived close to the Earth. In the Gospels we find him walking along the seashore and up mountains, taking boats out on the lake, and spending weeks praying alone in the wilderness. His parables and stories are full of natural images: sheep, sparrows, seeds, lilies, water, fire, vines, and rocks. Jesus recognized the inherent sacredness not only of human beings but also of the whole created world, all of lit up with the presence of God.  I wonder what it would be like to reclaim the kind of intimacy with the natural world that Jesus knew – to know, as he did, that “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows [God’s] handiwork” (Ps. 19:1).

St. Francis of Assisi followed in his footsteps, spending time in such intimate relationship with the elements and creatures of the natural world that he famously spoke of Brother Sun and Sister Moon. He knew that our identity doesn’t stop at our skin.  Our boundaries are porous. My body is part of the Earth; the Earth is part of my body – a reality that Thich Nhat Hanh calls “inter-being.”  Similarly, Robin Wall Kimmerer speaks eloquently about the reverence felt by Native Americans for the living world, “a world of being, full of unseen energies that animate everything.”17 We live in a sacred world of interrelationship and interdependence. We belong to each other. We depend on each other.

It’s easy to romanticize and sentimentalize St. Francis, but in an increasingly degraded natural world, what would it mean to take our place as humans who experience this kind of intimate connection with wild creatures and plants and all the elements that together create a balanced and healthy eco-system? Now is the time to reclaim the ancient understanding (which was never lost by indigenous peoples or by so-called “pagans”) that the natural world is sacred, that it belongs to God and is filled with God. Now is the time to dismantle the fossil-fuel mindset that treats the natural world as inert material, an object to exploit. The Earth, in fact, is a primary locus for our encounter with God.  Such is the testimony of generations of Christian mystics and theologians, beginning with St. Paul (Romans 1:20). Destroying Earth is therefore a desecration, a sin against the Creator.

3. Third arrow: We practice sorrow, practice joy. Keeping our inner landscape alive is an essential spiritual practice when we’re tempted to shut down emotionally. Last March, when a front-page headline in big font reported that some scientists believe that a branch of the Gulf Stream is starting to weaken,18 I dropped what I was doing, lay face-down on the living room floor, and spent an hour weeping, arms outstretched.  I knew that this announcement mattered. Twenty years before, at a weekend conference on climate change, I’d learned that the slowing or stopping of the Atlantic Ocean’s “conveyer belt” of currents is one of the tipping-points that could trigger far-reaching, dramatic, and very rapid changes in the Earth’s temperature, precipitation, and sea levels. Apparently, that moment had come. I needed to extend my arms over God’s good Earth.  I wept with sorrow for her and for all of us.

Giving ourselves permission to experience our emotional response to a dying world is a basic practice to keep ourselves inwardly vital and alive.  The Atlantic Ocean’s currents may be shutting down, but I don’t want to shut down!  Falling in love with life, and with God, means consenting to be vulnerable.  As C.S. Lewis points out, “To love at all is to be vulnerable.”  So, we tune in to our own suffering and to the suffering of other beings – the suffering caused by injustice and cruelty, by climate change and ecological devastation.  Clear-cut forests and forests going up in flames.  Extinct species. Insect apocalypse. Vanishing topsoil. Disappearing wetlands. Areas of the Amazon rainforest that no longer sequester carbon but actually release it.  Ocean dead zones and stalling currents.  Tipping points that threaten to propel us into chaos.

How do we pray with this?  Our broken-hearted prayer may need to be expressive and embodied, visceral and vocal.  We may need to drum, stamp, or wail.  How else can we pray with our immense anger and grief?  How else can we pray about ecocide, about the death that humanity is unleashing upon Mother Earth and upon ourselves?  How else can we break through our inertia and despair, so that we don’t shut down and go numb?

I am thankful to Joanna Macy for encouraging us to honor our pain for the world and to realize that our pain springs from love. The symbol in Christianity for the meeting-place of pain and love is the Cross: crucifixion is the place where evil, malice, ignorance, and confusion are perpetually met by the love of God.  So, one place I go in prayer when I am overwhelmed by the pain of the world is to the cross of Christ.  As I experience it, the cross of Christ is planted deep within me, and at the cross I can pour out everything that is in me – anger, fear, grief, guilt – for I trust that at the cross, everything is met by the forgiving love of God.

Crucifixion is the place where God breaks through our numbness and denial.  At the foot of the cross, we can finally face and bear all that we know about the pain of the world, and where God in Christ can hold and bear whatever we cannot bear ourselves.  I imagine this practice being something like the practice of tonglen in Tibetan Buddhism: I breathe in the pain and, breathing out, I release it into the cross of Christ.19 I can’t bear the pain, but Christ can bear it. I can’t forgive it all, but Christ can forgive it. Whatever I need to feel and express, all of it is met with compassion. Along the way, everything transforms, as if becoming good compost. In this time of ecological crisis, Christians may need to take hold of the power of the cross as never before.

We are blessed that many faith traditions provide rituals and practices for accessing and processing grief.  In my own tradition, lament is an ancient form of prayer found in the Book of Lamentations, the Psalms, the prophets, and the words and actions of Jesus. “Blessed are those who mourn,” he says in one of his great teachings, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:4), and several Gospel stories portray his grief.  He wept at the death of Lazarus, he wept over the city of Jerusalem, and he cried out to God on the cross, using the lament of Psalm 22. When we lament, we share our anguish with God, and we dare to feel what is breaking God’s heart.

And lament can be empowering. Jewish and Christian theologians from Abraham Heschel to Walter Brueggemann (and many more) point out that lament is the beginning of criticism of an unjust social order.  The powers-that-be would prefer that we stay too busy, too distracted and numb to feel our emotional responses to what unjust systems are doing to human beings and to the planet on which all life depends. What Brueggemann calls “the capacity and readiness to care, to suffer, to die, and to feel”20 is the enemy of a society built on refusing to hear the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor. Grieving is how we begin to challenge an unjust social order, cultivate hope, and open a space for bold actions commensurate with the crisis we are in.

So, let’s dare to lament!  Let’s tell the truth: our hearts are breaking, because that’s how fiercely we love this beautiful, broken world that God entrusted to our care.  And let’s dare to rejoice, as well!  Let’s celebrate joy, wherever we find it – in the curl of an autumn leaf; in a word of appreciation, given or received; in the sensation of bare feet on soft grass or the sound of a loon letting loose her wild call.  The practice of joy balances the practice of sorrow, keeping our hearts wide open, making room for everything.

4. Fourth arrow: We take bold action for healing. The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change asserts that, in order to preserve a habitable, governable world, we must transform our society and economy away from fossil fuels at a scale and speed that are historically unprecedented. Energy companies already possess a pool of fossil fuel that is five times larger than the amount of fossil fuel that would catapult the global climate into catastrophic, runaway change if that fuel were burned. We must fight to keep that carbon in the ground, where it belongs, for the only way to avoid shooting past that 1.5º or 2º degree Celsius cap that protects us from runaway climate change is to keep 80% of known reserves of coal, gas and oil in the ground, to transition quickly to renewable sources of energy like sunshine and wind, and to protects forests, which sequester carbon.

Hearing this, we may shrink back, telling ourselves: That will never happen. We’re too far gone. It’s too big for me to deal with.

There is a Bible passage, often read at weddings, which Christian mystics interpret as God speaking to the soul. It begins like this: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away” (Song of Solomon 2:10). Like a tenacious lover, God summons us: “Arise.” From what must we arise?  Maybe we hear: Arise from apathy, numbness, and fear. Arise from hopelessness: I will give you strength. Arise from loneliness: I am with you. Arise and come away: leave the cult of death. Leave the path of folly. Abandon the lie that your efforts are useless. Come with me and join the dance of life. Come be a sacred warrior, a warrior for the common good.  I will help you find your place in the great struggle to protect life and to build a more just society.

“But” we may protest, feeling helpless before the horrors of the world, helpless before injustice and needless suffering. “Who am I? I have no power.”

Arise.

“What can I do? What can any of us do? It’s too late to make a difference!”

Arise.

“I don’t have time. I don’t have energy. I’ve got other things to deal with.”

Arise.

The voice of love is like that. It may be soft, difficult to hear in a noisy world, but it is persistent. It may be subtle, but it never goes away.  The love that created the universe, the love that stirs in our depths, the love that awakens our hearts – that holy love sends us out into the world to become beacons of light, warriors for truth, and protectors of life.  I may have a thousand and one reasons to dodge love’s call, but then it comes again, that voice: Arise.  I love you. I need you. I am calling from the trees, from the wind, from the very stones beneath your feet.  I am calling from the orcas and the salmon, from the black bear and the mountains, from the fig trees and the vines. I am calling from the people already suffering from a wounded Earth and a changing climate. I am calling from the future, from those who will inhabit this planet long after you are gone and who depend on you to leave them a habitable world.  Arise, my love, and join the effort to save our precious planet. Arise!

Roused by that holy voice, we receive fresh strength to renew the face of the Earth.  And we arise, joining with indigenous leaders to protect the water and the land, joining with activists to stop new pipelines, joining with city-dwellers to renew communities crushed by poverty and racism, joining with young and old to plant new forests.  We use our voices and our votes as we fight to make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. We support the movement to hold polluters like Exxon and Koch Industries financially and legally liable for the damages they knowingly caused and continue to cause. We lobby for policies that support renewable energy, clean green jobs, and a just transition that meets the needs of poor and low-wealth communities and communities of color. If we have financial resources, we divest from fossil fuels. If we are college graduates, we push our alma mater to divest. Maybe we join the growing numbers of resolute people who carry out peaceful civil disobedience and we put our bodies on the line.  Together we need to grow the boldest, most visionary, inclusive, powerful, hope-filled, hands-on, feet-on-the-ground, shoulder-to-the-wheel political and social movement that humanity has ever seen.

I am strengthened when I remember that I and other Christians are called to bear witness to resurrection, to a love that transcends death.  In our baptism, we are immersed in the waters of death.  We die in Christ and we die with Christ.  And then we rise with Christ: from now on, our death is done with. It is behind us. We have died with Christ and are now alive in Christ.  To whatever extent we can take this in, we are set free from anguish and anxiety, set free to love without grasping, possessiveness, or holding back.  In the early centuries of the Church, Christians were called “those who have no fear of death.”21 That inner fearlessness, rooted in the love of God, empowered the early Christians to resist the unjust powers of the state: early on they were charged with “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6) and “acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor (Acts 17:7).  Their inner liberation gave them courage to resist the forces of death and destruction, and to obey God rather than any human authority (Acts 5:29).

I don’t know if we will avert climate chaos.  But I do know that every degree of temperature-rise matters; indeed, every tenth of a degree of temperature-rise matters.  So, we throw ourselves wholeheartedly into serving life, and, whatever comes, we put our trust in the divine love that never dies.  As one ancient Hebrew prophet put it: “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vine; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation. GOD, the Lord, is my strength” (Habbakuk 3:17-19a).  The same conviction is expressed in a prayer in the Episcopal burial service: “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”22

I stake my life on love’s four arrows: love within, love beyond, love that willingly suffers, and love that takes action and refuses to settle for a killing status quo.  These four arrows pull us out of the box of ordinary consciousness, the box of business as usual, and into a larger, more connected space: a space of healing and transformation.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

1. Leah Schade and Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, ed., Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).  The book includes study questions and spiritual practices.

2. “Sarah Doering: Beloved IMS Teacher, Friend and Benefactor—1926-2018,” https://www.dharma.org/sarah-doering-beloved-ims-teacher-friend-and-benefactor-1926-2018/

3. The Empty Bell, http://www.emptybell.org/

4. Robert Lentz, OFM, “Compassion Mandala,” https://robertlentzartwork.wordpress.com/2012/06/19/httpswww-trinitystores-comstoreart-productsrlcmm/

5. Rev. Cameron Trimble, “Mistakes about God,” Piloting Faith, Nov. 2, 2021, https://camerontrimble.com/category/meditation/

6. The solution posted on Wikipedia looks like a bow and arrow – an association that figures into this essay.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thinking_outside_the_box

7. Charles Wesley, “Love divine, all loves excelling,” Hymn 657, The Hymnal 1982 (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1985).

8. Anthony, quoted by Athanasius of Alexandria, in The Roots of Christian Mysticism, Olivier Clément (London: New City, 1993), 204.

9. Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, The Practice of the Presence of God, translated with an intro. By John J. Delaney (Garden City, New York: Image Books, Doubleday, 1977), 68, 69.

10. To be more exact, “An Outline of the Faith” in the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer defines sacraments as “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace” (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1979), 857.

11. Jean-Pierre de Caussade, The Sacrament of the Present Moment, trans. by Kitty Muggeridge, intro. by Richard J. Foster (New York: HarperCollins, 1989).

12. Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World (New York: Crossroad, 1992).

13. Damian Carrington, “‘Climate apartheid’: UN expert says human rights may not survive,” The Guardian, June 25, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jun/25/climate-apartheid-united-nations-expert-says-human-rights-may-not-survive-crisis/

14. Nathalie Baptiste, “Climate Gentrification: Coming to a Community Near You,” Mother Jones, September 5, 2019, https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2019/09/climate-gentrification-coming-to-a-community-near-you/

15. Hop Hopkins, “Racism Is Killing the Planet,” June 8, 2020, https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/racism-killing-planet

16. Pope Francis, Laudato Si – Praise Be to You: On Care for Our Common Home, 2015, par. 139.

17. Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2013), 49.

18. Moises Velasquez-Manoff and Jeremy White, “In the Atlantic Ocean, Subtle Shifts Hint at Dramatic Dangers,” New York Times, March 2, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/03/02/climate/atlantic-ocean-climate-change.html

19. In my book, Christ’s Passion, Our Passions (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2002), pp. 9-13, I describe a way of prayer I call “Grounding in the Cross,” based on Macy’s presentation of tonglen.

20. Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), 41.

21. Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (London: New City, 1993), 107.

22. Book of Common Prayer, 499.

Spiritual resilience in a climate emergency

Rev. Margaret gave a 45-minute presentation in September 2022 at a Faith Forum for St. Paul’s Cathedral in the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego, followed by Q&A. She told the personal story behind her ministry, shared a brief PowerPoint on the ways that Christian faith informs our work to safeguard the web of life, and provided new opportunities to pray, learn, act, and advocate for God’s Creation.

ecoAmerica, Let’s Talk Climate: Season of Creation

Rev. Margaret was interviewed by Rev. Carol Devine, Director of Blessed Tomorrow, in a conversation about Season of Creation.  In 2000, St. Stephen Lutheran Church in Adelaide, South Australia, celebrated the first Season of Creation. Since then, churches around the world have joined in celebrating Creation and deepening their commitment to climate solutions in the fall of each year. Rev. Margaret discussed the history and significance of this time-period, the many resources available, and how clergy and lay leaders can get involved.

What makes a sermon about climate change “pastoral” or “prophetic”? How should preachers address climate grief? Why should we preach about voting, and what’s the difference between partisan and political activity?

These questions and more were discussed by the Rev. Dr. Jim Antal and the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas in a climate preaching webinar on September 15, 2022, co-sponsored by the two Episcopal dioceses in Massachusetts and Southern New England Conference, United Church of Christ. This text is based on our conversation. A 30-minute video is available here. Passcode: 05@=u87H

Opening prayer (by Jim)

Good and gracious God,
We give thanks that you have called us to proclaim your Good News in a time of great challenge. Grant us your assurance that we have been given everything we need to inspire both courage and conviction in the communities you have given us to serve. May our time together in the coming hour open us to the opportunity to amplify our witness on behalf of restoring your creation. With grateful hearts we pray.  Amen.

Overview (by Jim)
First, we’ll provide some context for our conversation, including brief updates on the state of God’s creation and humanity’s collective response.

Then, Margaret will share her experience and insights on how to address the climate crisis in a pastoral way, drawing on spiritual and theological foundations as we enter the Season of Creation.  Margaret will also offer some guidance on the relationship between grief and activism.

Then, I’ll provide some guidance on how we can speak a prophetic word about engaging the climate crisis in a way that our congregants welcome as an opportunity.  I’ll share how climate change reveals all justice issues to be intersectional, and I’ll share why we should preach on the importance of voting and the difference between being partisan and being political in our preaching.   Then, we will field questions.

Left to right, Rev. Mariama White-Hammond, Rev. Dr. Jim Antal, and Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at a 2016 pipeline protest in West Roxbury (photo credit: Robert A. Jonas)

Context of our conversation: National and international (by Jim)
I’ll begin with three examples of Good News:

  • First, in less than a year, Congress has committed OVER HALF A TRILLION DOLLARS to address the climate crisis and energy transition.
  • My second illustration comes under the heading “WE CAN DO THIS!” Thanks to the relentless efforts of scientists and engineers, by 2030, electricity from solar, wind, and water could provide all the electricity the world needs. And by 2035, renewable energy could also be the sole energy source for all the world’s heating, cooling, transportation, and industry.1 Furthermore, making this transition will pay for itself in only six years.2 Not only that, but as we make this transition, we can address economic and racial inequities – and by doing so, we will reap benefits far greater than the costs.
  • The headline for my final illustration is, “WE CAN ADAPT!” While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is horrific, one of Germany’s responses has been to drop its dependence on natural gas by 90%. And here in the U.S., President Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to build millions of electric heat pumps that will reduce dependence on oil and gas.

Of course, the past few months have brought plenty of bad news as well:

  • We now know that air pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels kills almost 9 million people a year.3 That’s more than malaria, HIV-AIDS, and tuberculosis combined. And that doesn’t even include the lives lost due to the impact of increased global warming. A 2021 study4 reports that if global warming exceeds 1.5ºC (2.7°F), the world’s tropics could become uninhabitable. 2.5 billion people live in the tropics.
  • In other words, the past decade has been the hottest decade since records have been kept5– and the past decade will be the coolest decade your children and your grandchildren will ever experience.
  • It’s not only heat.  You probably heard that one-third of Pakistan is under water and 32 million people are displaced.6  Were you aware that between mid-July and mid-August (2022), five states here in the U.S. experienced 1-in-1,000-year rain events?7  Imagine 9 months of rain in a single day.  And it’s not just deluge – it’s also drought.  That’s why we call it climate chaos.  Europe’s drought is the worst in 500 years.8 And the American west is experiencing what some experts call a once-in-a-thousand-year drought.
    Now I’ll turn things over to Margaret for some additional Good News!

Context of our conversation: Massachusetts (by Margaret)
Earlier this summer, after weeks of speculation that he would veto it, our Republican governor in Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker, signed into law what’s being called a landmark climate bill. Among other things, this sweeping climate legislation gives a major boost to renewables, including offshore wind.  After an intensive push by climate justice advocates, it also clarifies that biomass is not a renewable energy source. That win was particularly sweet to me, because incentives for biomass are what spurred a proposal for a dirty wood-burning plant in Springfield, an environmental justice community located close to where I live. Following the lead of California, the bill also bans the sale of new internal combustion-powered vehicles by 2035 – to put it another way, all new vehicles sold in the Bay State must be EVs or hydrogen-powered by 2035. The legislation also allows 10 municipalities to ban new fossil fuel infrastructure, which is a first for the state.

The bill isn’t perfect – there’s still work to be done – but we hope that it will spur the next administration to take further steps to address climate emergency.

Preaching a pastoral climate sermon (by Margaret)

I’d like to reflect on how we preach a pastoral sermon about climate change. That may sound like a contradiction since we usually think of preaching about climate change as likely to stir up trouble.  Stirring up trouble – good trouble – is often just what the Holy Spirit calls the preacher to do, simply because most faith communities are not going to rise up to address the climate emergency until their preachers speak with the moral clarity and fearlessness of a prophet.  So, in a moment, Jim will speak about prophetic climate preaching. But a strong climate sermon includes elements that are both pastoral and prophetic.

So, let’s focus for a moment on what makes a climate sermon pastoral.  What makes any sermon “pastoral”?  It provides emotional, social, and spiritual support.  A pastoral climate sermon does at least four things:

      1. A pastoral climate sermon pushes back against helplessness

Our parishioners may not have told us, but many of them are already grappling with climate anxiety, grief, and dread. Clinicians are increasingly speaking about “climate distress” and “climate stress.”  Even if our house hasn’t been washed away by an extreme storm or rising seas – even if we haven’t had to run from wildfires or had to breathe smoky air, day after day – even if we haven’t wondered where we – or our fields, gardens, or livestock – will find the next drink because our waterways have run dry – even if we haven’t endured a searing heatwave – we probably know people who have; we know that millions of people in this country and worldwide are enduring these conditions now; and we know that future conditions will likely become even more difficult.

It can be a relief when a preacher finally makes climate change “speakable” – something we intend to discuss and learn about and lean into together. A pastoral sermon conveys the message: you are not alone. We will support each other, and we intend to find a way forward together.

Simply gathering for worship pushes back against helplessness: we see each other’s faces, we hear each other’s voices, maybe we take each other’s hands.  How do people get through tough times?  We gather, we sing, we hear our sacred stories.  We sense the power of being part of a community that longs, as we do, to create a better world.  Entrusting ourselves to God, especially alongside fellow seekers, can overcome our sense of helplessness and release unexpected power among us to do “infinitely more than we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).

      1. A pastoral climate sermon makes space for grief

The climate crisis can make us go numb.  Newspaper and media reports convey a cascade of losses every day, so it’s easy to shut down and lose heart. In our sermons, we can name, and normalize, the range of feelings evoked by climate change – grief, fear, outrage, confusion, maybe guilt or shame, dread, despair… And we can suggest practices, teachings, and rituals that help us to accept, work with, and move through the feelings that are being stirred up.

To support that process, in our congregations we might create small circles for eco-grief lament and prayer. And we might hold public ceremonies of lament outdoors.  Over the years I’ve led or participated in many outdoor interfaith public liturgies about climate change. I remember, for instance, gathering in 2010 on the town common in Amherst after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico for a public ceremony of singing, speaking, and prayer. I also remember hearing about the “Requiem for a Glacier” in 2013, when 50 musicians climbed Farnham Glacier in British Columbia to perform an oratorio.

What would it be like – how might it empower us – if we took time in worship services and in outdoor public spaces to lament species that have gone extinct, forests that have burned, or reservoirs that have run dry? Daring to lament together allows us to feel our deep longing for healing and reconciliation and to experience the God who weeps with us.  Daring to lament together protects our human capacity to feel our emotional responses without being overwhelmed. And it allows our emotions to become a source of energy for constructive action to address the emergency.

Making a space for grief in a climate sermon may be as simple as saying “We hold in our hearts the many thousands of people in Jackson, Mississippi, who still don’t have safe drinking water after an historic rainfall and flood.” Rather than coming at your listeners with a hard-hitting list of fact after fact, which might leave people stunned, in their heads, and emotionally defended, we are modeling how to hold traumatic events with an open heart. Or, depending on the text we’re working with, our sermon can focus on how Jesus accompanies us, shares our sorrows, and offers his strength and presence and healing.
Last point: As spiritual leaders, we need to grow our capacity to be with people who are in distress.  We will only be able to do that to the extent that we’ve grown in our capacity to sit with our own distress.

      1. A pastoral climate sermon connects deeply with Christian faith

When we step into the pulpit, we don’t have to be policy wonks or expert scientists. We are theologians and communicators who want to convey God’s unbounded love for God’s people and for the whole Creation, and God’s urgent call for us to participate in God’s mission of justice, reconciliation, and healing.  So, let’s surround our sermons with prayers and hymns that make it clear that our salvation story encompasses the whole Creation, not just human beings.

I’m excited to introduce a new ecumenical liturgical resource for Creation Season.  Last July I worked on it with a colleague in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts, the Rev. John Elliott Lein, and it’s been authorized for public use this season by at least four Episcopal dioceses (Season of Creation: An Ecumenical Celebration).

Let me quickly sketch what you’ll find there.

            • A primer on Creation care theology describes the urgency of the climate and ecological crisis and provides seven theological touchstones to guide your thinking and preaching about climate.  It also names some of the key solutions for addressing the crisis.
            • It goes through the lectionary for the 5 Sundays of Creation Season, providing prayers and non-biblical readings and giving preaching suggestions on some difficult texts.
            • It concludes with a large collection of resources – prayers, blessings, readings, hymns – from a wide range of ancient and contemporary sources, which take us from Kenya and New Zealand to England and the Iona community – from poets and early Christian mystics to Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew – from William Wordsworth to Wendell Berry and Robin Wall Kimmerer.

I hope it will be helpful for both Episcopal and UCC preachers – helpful for Episcopal liturgists, because this resource takes us far beyond the bounds of the Book of Common Prayer and invites us to imagine a God who loves and saves every inch of creation, and helpful for UCC liturgists because it is well crafted!

My favorite part: John Lein examines the prayers of the people in our prayer book.  He suggests: When we pray for the suffering and the dead, why don’t we pray for the wellbeing of all creatures and mourn the extinction of other species?  When we bless all whose lives are closely linked with ours, why don’t we explicitly bless all living beings and ecosystems whose lives are closely linked with ours? At least for me, once you start praying in that expansive way and open your prayers beyond human concerns to the concerns of the rest of Creation, there’s no going back!

          1. A pastoral climate sermon includes at least one thing we can do

The way to build hope is to take action. A pastoral sermon conveys a message of agency, a message of empowerment – through the grace of God, we intend to do everything we can to protect what remains and to fight for a just and habitable world.

In my talks right now, I mention Faiths 4 Climate Justice, GreenFaith’s global campaign, between Oct. 2 and Nov. 6 (the eve of the next U.N. climate talks at COP27), in which people of faith around the world will proclaim that the Earth and all people are sacred.  Among other things, in prayer vigils and protests we will call for an immediate end to new fossil fuel projects, an end to deforestation, and an end to related financing.

A pastoral sermon emphasizes that everyone has an active role to play, and a preacher can help listeners to find their place in the movement.

Comment on Margaret’s presentation (by Jim)

Thanks for your excellent guidance, Margaret. I want to amplify two things you said.

First, you said we need to make space for grief. Along with that, we need to do everything possible to assure that our congregation is a safe-enough place for honest conversation about grief over the loss of the world we have to let go.

You also suggested that churches might dare to lament. I just want to add that our lamentation is part of living the truth. As children of the Creator God, faithfulness demands that we tell the truth about the desecration of creation, and as we do, a liturgical expression of that truth is lamentation.

Preaching a prophetic climate sermon (by Jim)

Just as we are called to be pastoral in our approach to preaching on the climate crisis, we must also be prophetic.  In my book, Climate Church, Climate World, my chapter on prophetic preaching offers many suggestions about how, as preachers, we must free ourselves from fear so that we can respond to God’s call to engage the climate crisis as “opportunity.”

Prophetic preaching requires preparation. Amidst all the demands on our lives, we must create the space to allow ourselves to fully take in the wonder of creation.  And we must have the courage to experience the grief we feel when we truly acknowledge the destruction caused by humanity’s greed and selfishness.

And as we do, we might find ourselves in the company of Esther, confronted with the realization that perhaps we were born for just such a time as this (Esther 4:14). Perhaps our generation was born to put an end to three interconnected systemic injustices:

              • the subjugation of other humans who are not our color;
              • the colonization of land, sea and air that is not our own;  and
              • the extraction of nature’s wealth that we did not create.

If that is truly our calling, then our preaching must go beyond urging people to be good stewards of the earth, as the Rev. Fletcher Harper, Episcopal priest and founder of Greenfaith, points out in his excellent article in Sojourners magazine (September 2021).

In our preaching, we need to name what is creating the problem.  Environmental giant Gus Speth famously identifies the cause as “selfishness and greed and pride.”  Fletcher Harper is a little more specific. He points to the supply side of the problem, naming “ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, and other oil and gas companies [who] are systematically destroying the planet” – along with “financial giants like JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, BlackRock, and Vanguard [who] are bankrolling the destruction.”

Another goal of prophetic preaching is to remind people that we are not called to stand idly by as countless examples of injustice continue to frame the status quo.  In our preaching, we must help our congregation envision “a still more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31) in which all of God’s creatures can celebrate our interdependence.  And then we must invite our congregations to assess all the gifts, the abilities, the assets God has given them and commit their lives to helping our town, our state, our nation, our world, move in that direction.

Another feature of our prophetic preaching is to help our congregations understand that the climate crisis is not one crisis among many.  Every congregation I’ve ever known treats its various missions and benevolences as silos.  Often, there’s a particular individual in the congregation who is the champion of a particular cause.  But the more you learn about the climate crisis, the clearer it becomes that every justice issue you care about – hunger, poverty, homelessness, racism, immigration, disease, lack of access to clean water and education – these justice issues are intersectional – they are not separate and distinct from one another – and climate change is making every one of them worse.

The only way humanity can address these intersectional challenges is by coming together. That’s why the actions of governments are so important to anyone concerned about justice.  And that’s why it’s important for clergy to encourage their congregations to name and embrace their sacred responsibility to vote.  It’s an act of faithfulness for churches to discuss the issues on the ballot and encourage people to vote.

Voting is the means by which we elect leaders and advance laws that can and should underwrite at least the following five principles:

              • addressing the needs of the least of these among us;
              • assuring and advancing justice;
              • promoting the common good;
              • telling and adhering to truth;
              • and preserving and restoring the integrity of Creation.

These five principles are supported by every faith tradition I know of.

In our preaching, particularly in an election year, pastors need to help their congregations understand the distinction between being partisan and being political.  To put it simply, there is no place for partisan activity in the life of the church, synagogue, temple, or mosque.  What do I mean by partisan activity?  Endorsing a candidate, supporting a political party, or fundraising for a candidate or a political party.  These partisan activities have no place in the life of the church.

But examining how our community, our state, and our nation:  address the needs of the least of these among us; how we assure and advance justice; how we promote the common good; how we tell and adhere to the truth; and how we preserve and restore God’s creation – the means by which all of these values are upheld are political.

Think about it. In almost every chapter of each of the four Gospels, we see Jesus urging the community to address the needs of the least of these among us.  We hear Jesus passionately advocating for justice and promoting the common good.  His commitment to truth is unwavering.  And throughout scripture, God calls upon the faithful to preserve and restore creation.

All these activities are political because they involve how people relate to each other; how they govern their life together.  In his ministry, Jesus tells the truth as he seeks to amplify love and expand justice in families, in towns and throughout the empire.

We are now in the Season of Creation, and we are also within two months of an election.  Every congregation and every clergy leader now have an opportunity to identify the values and principles that guide us as people of faith when we consider our “life together” as residents of our state or country – and as stewards of God’s creation.

I recognize that all of this may come across as utterly foolish or impossibly challenging or something else altogether.  Whatever your response to what Margaret and I have shared, I hope that we can go deeper in our time of discussion, and I very much look forward to hearing what’s on your mind and in your heart.

After discussion, we closed with prayer.

Closing Prayer (by Margaret)

Source of life, heal and redeem the wounds of your creation, and visit the places and people who suffer from our indifference, neglect, and greed.  Creator of earth, sea, and sky, kindle the fire of your Spirit within us that we may be bold to heal and defend the earth, and pour your blessing upon all who work for the good of the planet. In the Name and power and presence of Jesus, we pray.  Amen.
(Adapted from “Honoring God in Creation,” as cited in Season of Creation: An Ecumenical Celebration)

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Links to resources:

Margaret’s monthly newsletter, Creation Care Network e-news

Jim’s website: https://www.jimantal.com/

To join Creation Care Justice Network (for Episcopalians across MA) and to subscribe to the monthly newsletter, Green Justice News, click here

Episcopal Diocese of MA Creation care webpage

Episcopal Diocese of Western MA Creation care webpage

Faiths 4 Climate Justice,” Oct. 2 – Nov. 6, 2022

2022 Creation Season Ecumenical Liturgical Guide

Climate Crisis Preaching: Selected Resources

ThirdAct.org, the new network, founded by Bill McKibben, for people over 60 who wish to leverage their money and experience to push for democratic social change and to preserve the planet. You can sign one of two banking pledges: “If by the end of 2022, Chase, Citibank, Wells Fargo, or Bank of America are still funding climate-destroying fossil fuel projects, I pledge to close my account and cut up my credit card. If I don’t bank at these institutions now, I pledge I won’t do so in the future.”

Hannah Malcolm, “How to Rage: Climate Grief and the Church” (January 31, 2021)

Fletcher Harper, “Stop preaching about ‘being good stewards of the Earth,” Sojourners, Sept. 16, 2021

Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Joy of Heaven, to Earth Come Down (daily Advent/Christmas meditations reflecting on the meaning of the Incarnation in relation to the natural world)

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1. Joint Declaration of the Global 100% RE Strategy Group, https://global100restrategygroup.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Joint-Declaration-of-the-Global-100-RE-Strategy-Group-210208.pdf

2. Mark Hutchins, “Study finds 100% renewables would pay off within six years,” PV Magazine, August 9, 2022, https://pv-magazine-usa.com/2022/08/09/study-finds-100-renewables-would-pay-off-within-6-years/

3. Scott Tong, “Fossil fuel pollution is killing 8.7 million people a year, study says,” Marketplace, Feb. 9, 2021, https://www.marketplace.org/2021/02/09/fossil-fuel-pollution-killing-8-7-million-people-year-study-says/

4.Yi Zhang et al., “Projections of tropical heat stress constrained by atmospheric dynamics,” Nature Geoscience, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41561-021-00695-3

5. Raymond Zhong, “2021 Was Earth’s Fifth-Hottest Year, Scientists Say,” The New York Times, January 10, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/10/climate/2021-hottest-year.html

6. Smriti Mallapaty,“Pakistan’s floods have displaced 32 million people – here’s how researchers are helping,” Nature, September 9, 2022, https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-022-02879-2

7. From mid-July to mid-August 2022: St. Louis, July 25-26; Eastern Kentucky, July 28; Southern Illinois, August 2; Death Valley, August 5; and Dallas-Fort Worth, August 21-22

8. Jon Henley, “Hunger stones, wrecks and bones: Europe’s drought brings past to surface,” The Guardian, August 19, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/aug/19/hunger-stones-wrecks-and-bones-europe-drought-brings-past-to-surface

From September 1 through October 4, Christians around the world celebrate Season of Creation. Creation Season is the perfect time to renew our reverence for Earth and the other creatures with whom we share this planet; to lament the ways that human activities assail the web of life; and to restore our faith, love, and hope as we renew our efforts to create a more just, habitable world.

I’m thrilled to announce a new liturgical resource for this year’s Season of Creation.  Created by the Rev. John Elliott Lein (a fellow priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts) and I, this hefty new ecumenical collection of prayers, readings, hymns, and sermon notes has been authorized for public use by the two Episcopal dioceses in Massachusetts, the Diocese of Vermont, and the Diocese of Maine.  The beautiful image on the booklet’s front cover, “Earth Icon,” was created by Edith Adams Allison and inspired by Andrei Rublev’s icon, “The Trinity.”

Please share this material widely! If you’re an Episcopalian in another diocese, please consider asking your own bishop to authorize this resource for public worship. We want everyone to know the good news that God’s love and salvation extend to every corner of the Earth.

AND THAT’S NOT ALL!

Our friends in the Diocese of Southern Ohio have just rolled out “Good News to All Creation,” a set of devotionals designed to help vestries begin their meetings with a brief time of reflection and prayer. It is now available for download. Developed by the Diocese of Southern Ohio’s Creation Care and Environmental Task Force in partnership with the Center for Deep Green Faith (in Sewanee, TN), the devotionals begin in September with the Season of Creation and follow the liturgical seasons from Advent through Easter.

Whether you are an individual seeking to deepen your understanding of eco-theology, a vestry member hoping to connect your vestry’s work with protecting life on Earth, or a worship leader eager to plan services that reflect God’s care for the whole of Creation, I hope you’ll enjoy digging into both of these new resources. For other worship resources, check out SeasonOfCreation.org.

The joy in climate justice: How we pray, learn, act and advocate for God’s Creation

Rev. Margaret gave a 45-minute keynote presentation in June for the 2022 annual meeting of Province One Episcopal Church Women, followed by Q&A. She told the personal story behind her ministry, shared a brief PowerPoint on the ways that Christian faith informs our work to safeguard the web of life, and explained how we can pray, learn, act, and advocate for God’s Creation – with joy.