The path that most of society has traveled for the past two hundred years has led to an unprecedented human emergency: we are hurtling toward climate catastrophe and watching the web of life unravel before our eyes. Great populations of creatures – even entire species – have vanished in less than 50 years. In what scientists call a “biological annihilation,” human beings have wiped out more than half the world’s creatures since 1970. The relentless burning of coal, gas, and oil, and the logging of forests are pushing our planet to break records for heat, causing droughts, floods, and monster hurricanes, drowning cities and accelerating wildfires. Low-income communities are the people hurt first and hardest by a changing climate, but everyone will be affected: unless we change course fast, we won’t leave our children and our children’s children a habitable world. Civilization itself is in peril.
A poignant prayer of confession in the Book of Common Prayer puts it like this: as a society we “have wandered far in a land that is waste.” It is easy to feel overwhelmed and to become stuck in anxiety or inertia, wondering if it’s worth taking action: maybe it’s too late to change course and maybe we’re too far gone. Besides, what difference can one person make? Paralyzed by fear, we can get caught in a sort of death spiral, in what U.N. Secretary General Ban-ki Moon denounced as a “global suicide pact.”
Climate change brings us to our knees. It takes moral courage to face the predicament in which we find ourselves and to recognize the part we have played in creating it. How do we pray about ecocide? How do we pray with our fear and anger, our grief and guilt? One place to begin is with our bodies: to develop prayer practices that slow our racing heartbeats and quiet our agitated minds. In the midst of trauma – and directly or indirectly, all of us are experiencing trauma – we need contemplative practices such as Centering Prayer or mindfulness meditation that bring us into the present moment. Breath by breath, we breathe in the presence of God, who has loved us into existence and who sustains us through the power of the Holy Spirit. Breath by breath, we release our struggles and fears into God’s loving embrace. With every conscious breath, we experience the divine Presence more fully and we touch into the still center that abides within us, beneath the turbulence of our lives.
Contemplative prayer can teach us trust and patience. We learn to sit quietly, maybe even serenely, in the midst of uncertainty, to wait in the darkness, to relinquish our anxious and futile quest to stay in control. We learn to listen for the inner voice of love that we can only hear when our thoughts lie as quietly as leaves that drift on a tranquil pond. “Be still… and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:11).
Yet we also need vigorous and visceral forms of prayer – expressive, noisy prayers of protest and lament. Again, our bodies can lead the way. How will we declare our love for a world that is in such desperate peril? How will we name our need for God and our fierce desire to be of use? We may need to drum and dance, to weep and groan, to sway and stamp our feet. We may need to sing or wail, to write poems and read them aloud, to call out prayers of petition and intercession, to light candles or to walk in pilgrimage or procession. In these precarious times, we need to sink our roots deep into the love of God, to remember how loved we are, how cherished we are in God’s sight, how nourished we are by a love that will never let us go and that will give us strength for the journey ahead. We need to join hands with our brothers and sisters in other faiths, for together we form one human family, all of us created by the one God who yearns for our flourishing and for the flourishing of all Creation.
When we open ourselves to contemplative and expressive prayer, to solitary and collective prayer – when we come to our senses and awaken from a dull acceptance of things as they are – who knows what the Spirit of the living God will be able to do through us? Our prayers will be manifest in faithful actions, as we march and lobby, as we push political and corporate leaders to keep fossil fuels underground and advocate for a fair price on carbon, for massive investments in green technology, and for a just transition to a clean green economy that provides decent jobs and that improves public health.
Climate change brings us to our knees, but it also brings us to our feet. I can think of no more beautiful way to spend ones life than to participate in what leaders like Joanna Macy and David C. Korten call the “Great Turning,” the epic transition from a deathly society to one that fosters life. Our wholehearted effort to create a more just and life-sustaining society is what philosopher Thomas Berry calls the “Great Work.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu calls it the “supreme work” of Jesus Christ, who came to reconcile us to God, each other, and the whole of God’s Creation.
The first followers of Jesus were filled with a wave of Easter hope. When they saw that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb, and when they met the Risen Christ in their midst and in their hearts, they realized that life and not death would have the last word. Nothing could separate them from the love of God.
Their lives were now filled with fresh meaning and purpose. They realized that they belonged to a sacred mystery that was larger than themselves: to a love that would never let them go. Although they were still mortal and frail, still imperfect and vulnerable people in a big, chaotic world, they understood that they participated in a long story of salvation to which they could contribute, every moment of their lives, by choosing compassion over indifference, kindness over cruelty, love over fear. 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).
Their prayer and witness got them into all kinds of trouble. The early Christians were accused of “turning the world upside down” and “acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus” (Acts 17:6-7). Their commitment to God apparently led many of them to spend as much time inside as outside the walls of a jail. Their witness to a transcendent, all-embracing Love shook the foundations of their society.
That same wave of Easter hope fills Christians today and carries us now, every one of us who feels impelled to join our Creator in re-weaving the web of life and in building a gentler and more just society. Like the early Christians, we pray for boldness as we face the many threats that imperil our precious world. Like them, we turn to the God “who made the heaven and the earth, the sea, and everything in them” (Acts 4:24), and we pray:
“And now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness. (Acts 4:29-31)
The Christian community, and people of faith everywhere, were made for a time like this, a time when God is calling us to become an Easter people, to step out of despair and inertia and to join, even lead, the joyful, prayerful, justice-seeking, Spirit-led, unstoppable movement to protect the world that God entrusted to our care.
This piece is included in “Standing in the Need of Prayer, Volume IV, Climate Action for Peace – UN International Day of Peace Boston 2019 Edition,” Spiritual Voices: Envisioning Just Peacemaking with the Earth. A link to the whole PDF is here.