On October 3, 2021, I helped to lead a multifaith service of prayer, celebration, and resolve at Old South Church in downtown Boston. Organized by Rev. Fred Small, Policy Director of Massachusetts Interfaith Power & Light, “Love. Earth. Justice.” brought together representatives of indigenous, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Protestant, and Roman Catholic communities. Near the beginning of the service, I spoke about climate grief; at the end, I offered a blessing.
Lament for Creation
Friends, I want to acknowledge the courage and the tenderness in this room. 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, the 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.
Thank you for your courage, and thank you, too, for your tender heart. Thank you for all the moments – and maybe this is one of them – when you allow yourself to feel your emotional response to what we have lost and are losing as climate change accelerates and as governments in the thrall of the fossil fuel industry fail to take decisive, meaningful action to address the crisis.
Here in this quiet space and with the support of each other’s company, virtually and in person, I want to honor our tender hearts. Grief is the normal, healthy response to loss, but the culture we live in doesn’t handle grief well. Have you noticed that? Maybe we sidestep our grief because we’re afraid of looking weak, sentimental, morbid, or pathetic. Or because we’ve taken in the constricting message, “Big boys don’t cry” and “Nice girls don’t get angry.” And some of us avoid thinking about climate change because we fear that our emotions will overwhelm us.
Are we willing – can we allow ourselves – to take a moment, or maybe more than a moment, to feel our grief, fear, and outrage as parts of the world become too hot and humid for humans to survive, as children choke from asthma in our inner cities, as millions of climate migrants are displaced from their homes, or as the great redwoods burn, those ancient trees that survived for thousands of years and through hundreds of fires and could now disappear because of forest mismanagement and a changed climate?
Are we willing – can we allow ourselves – to take a moment, or maybe more than a moment, to mourn the loss of the ivory-billed woodpecker, which once thrived in swamplands down South and this week was officially declared extinct? According to the Washington Post, it earned the nickname “The Lord God Bird” “because it was so big and so beautiful that those blessed to spot it blurted out the Lord’s name.” Actually, every creature, every species, is a manifestation of God. As Thomas Berry says [The Dream of the Earth], “To wantonly destroy a living species is to silence forever a divine voice.”
And now “The Lord God Bird” is dead.
Can we feel it? Can we pause for a moment and feel it?
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, in the Psalms, in the Prophets, and in the words and actions of Jesus. 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. Lament can’t be dismissed as just self-pity or whining. Lament is a deep outpouring of sorrow to God. It means daring to share our anguish with God. It means daring to feel what is breaking God’s heart.
And lament can be empowering. 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 much 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”1 is the enemy of any 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 world that God entrusted to our care.
Where do you feel the ache of the Earth? What is breaking your heart?
“Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea-monsters and all deeps;Fire and hail, snow and fog, tempestuous wind, doing his will;Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars;Wild beasts and all cattle, creeping things and winged birds…Let them praise the Name of the Lord.”
(Psalm 148: 7-10, 13)
Friends, it’s a joy to be with you this morning and to celebrate one last outdoor Eucharist at St. John’s as we mark the end of Creation Season. Today is Creation Season’s grand finale and we honor St. Francis, whose feast day is tomorrow, and bless all creatures, large and small.
I’m going to keep this short, for we gather in the company of some favorite animals and even the most eloquent of preachers will not impress them. Besides, the living world around us provides sermon enough.
Here we are, gathered at the foot of this big old sycamore tree, sheltered under its great canopy and breathing into our lungs the oxygen that this tree and all other trees and green-growing things are freely offering us. As we breathe out, the trees and plants in turn take up the carbon dioxide that we release. Simply by sitting here in the company of trees, we are giving and receiving the elements of life, praising God together.1
And here are our solid bodies, as solid as the earth beneath our feet. Can you feel the place where your body meets the body of Earth? Here she is, beneath our feet, holding us up, giving us support with every step. Every time we walk mindfully, paying attention, with every step we can bless the Earth. At the end of our lives, we will give our bodies back to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Earth and we Earthlings belong to each other, and together we praise God.
Let’s take a moment to be aware of the inner motions within our bodies. Maybe you are aware of gurgling in your belly or the throb of your beating heart. Maybe you sense the circulation of blood as it moves through your body. Most of the weight of our body comes from water, just as most of our planet’s surface is made of water. Our blood is mostly water, and the saltwater content of our blood’s plasma is the same as the saltwater content of the sea. It is as if within our bodies we are carrying rivers, lakes, and the ocean. Let’s celebrate our bodies’ kinship with all fresh waters, and with the sea. We are praising God together!
Everything around us is alive and relating to us. We are a part of everything, and everything is praising God. That’s what the psalmist conveys in those exuberant lines that we hear in Psalm 148.
Jesus knew all about this, too. He lived close to the Earth. He seems to have spent a lot of time outside. We see him climbing mountains, spending weeks in the wilderness, walking along the shore, crossing a lake, walking dusty roads. When he talks about God, his parables and stories are full of images of nature: seeds and sparrows, lilies, sheep, rivers, vines, branches, rocks. Jesus was deeply aware of the sacredness of the natural world.
Francis followed in the footsteps of Jesus, spending much of his time outdoors – he lived in such intimate relationship with the elements and creatures of the natural world that he spoke of Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Wind and Air, Sister Water, Brother Fire, Sister Earth, our Mother. He experienced himself as kin with everything – he didn’t imagine that human beings were separate from the rest of the world that God created, much less that humans were “above” or “better than” the other creatures that God cherishes, or that we had any right to dominate or oppress them. Francis is known for his beautiful “Canticle of Creation,” which echoes today’s psalm.
It turns out that our identity doesn’t stop with our skin. We have porous and permeable boundaries. My body is part of the Earth. The Earth is part of my body. God is giving God’s self to us in and as the sun, the moon, the stars, the wind, the air, the trees, the bird, the pets we love. We live in a sacred world of interrelationship and interdependence. We belong to each other. We depend on each other. Nature is not just so-called “resources” supposedly put here only for human beings to extract and exploit.
It’s easy to romanticize and sentimentalize 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 reclaim our partnership not just with our human fellows but also with all living creatures.
That’s the urgent task before us. The life-systems of the Earth are deeply compromised. The web of life is unraveling before our eyes and we risk ecological collapse. More than half the populations of all wild creatures have disappeared in the past 50 years. Human beings have wiped out 60% of the world’s mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and fish since 1970. Because of the relentless burning of fossil fuels, the global climate has become increasingly disrupted and unstable and we have only a short amount of time in which to avert climate chaos.
There is so much we can do, as individuals and as members of society, to heal and protect God’s Creation as we work together to keep fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong, and to push for a swift and just transition to an economy based on clean, renewable energy like sun and wind. I hope that in the next day or two you’ll visit our diocesan website and look at the web pages about Creation care, which are full of suggestions for how to pray, learn, act and advocate for this beautiful, aching, and God-drenched world. I hope you’ll sign up for my monthly newsletter.
For now, we praise God with Sister Sycamore, with Brother Wind and Air, with Sister Earth, Our Mother. We give thanks for Jesus, who is “gentle and humble in heart” (Matthew 11:29) and whose Spirit we breathe in every breath. We give thanks for Holy Communion, in which Jesus comes to us in the blessed bread and wine, reminding us that the natural world is filled with his presence.
This paragraph and the two that follow are based on a longer meditation, “Kinship with Creation,” in Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis, ed. Leah Schade and Margaret Bullitt-Jonas (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), 76-77.
I invite you to join me in a moment of silence as we remember those who lost their lives on 9/11, and as we pray for peace and healing… (silence)Gracious God, you love nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom. Guide us with your wisdom and fill us with your love. May only your word be spoken and only your word be heard. Amen.
What a joy to be with you this morning! Thank you, Harvey, for inviting me to preach. It was just brought to my attention that you are celebrating ten years as rector of this parish, so it’s a special day to be with all of you. As you know, I serve as Missioner for Creation Care in our diocese and in the United Church of Christ in Southern New England. I travel from place to place, speaking about God’s love for our beautiful, precious planet and about our call as faithful followers of Jesus to rise up together to restore the web of life that God entrusted to our care. If you’d like to know more about this ministry, please visit my Website, RevivingCreation.org.
So – let’s give a shout-out to your “green team” – your Creation Care team. Thank you for your leadership. I want to thank all of you for celebrating Creation Season. As you know, the season begins on September First with the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation and ends on October 4, with the feast day of St. Francis. During this 6-week period, millions of Christians around the world lift up our prayers and voices on behalf of what our prayerbook calls “this fragile Earth, our island home.”
Now, a friend of mine who cares deeply about the fate of the Earth and the future of life on this planet sometimes grumbles to me, “Why do we need a Season of Creation? Isn’t every day a good day to care for creation?” Well, of course, that’s true. He’s right. But just as we mark the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, and so on, knowing that it’s helpful to set aside some time to look carefully at a particular aspect of our Christian faith, so it’s likewise helpful to set aside a season to focus on how faith in God affects our relationship with the natural world.
For a couple of reasons many of us may be especially glad to participate in Creation Season this year. For one thing, at the height of the pandemic many of us learned again how much solace and comfort we experience in connecting with the natural world. I know many people who during the lockdown deliberately spent daily time outdoors, feeling the wind on their face and savoring the trees and the open sky. I know a man who bundled up every morning, stepped outside, and to his amazement actually learned to love winter, and I know a woman who spent the pandemic happily exploring every trail she could find. What’s more, some of us may have been lucky enough this summer to visit an especially beloved place in nature – maybe a lake, a mountain, or a beach. So, I wouldn’t be surprised if we arrive at Creation Season this fall with a fresh appreciation of the natural world and a deeper gratitude for the ways it conveys the presence of a loving God.
In a turbulent and stressful time, nothing may quiet our minds and refresh our spirits so much as spending time beside a lake, watching the sun dance across its sparkling waves, or sitting down somewhere to listen to birdsong or rainfall or the sound of wind in the trees. Creation Season invites us to come to our senses and to renew our felt connection with the living world around us, maybe to go out for a quiet walk and to bless the Earth with each step. Even a small tree in a city park can speak to us of the larger living world that surrounds us, and even if the night-time glare of a city conceals them, the shining stars still wheel overhead. “The Earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” – so says Psalm 24. And for that we give thanks in this Season of Creation. God loves the world that God made, and so do we.
A second reason we may come to Creation Season with particular fervor this year is because, after this past summer, many of us are aware, as perhaps never before, how deeply imperiled the natural world is and how a changing climate threatens everything we hold dear. Across the country this summer – and around the world – we witnessed massive wildfires, record floods, historic drought, extreme storms, unprecedented heat. In some places, people drowned in their basement apartments or were washed away in their cars by flash floods. In other places, families lost their homes, livelihoods, or lives as uncontainable fires raged. Out West, farmers stared at empty reservoirs and withered crops. Back East, regions soaked in record rain. Nearly a third of Americans live in an area where a federal disaster was declared sometime in the last three months.
The summer of 2021 will go down in history as the hottest on record in the United States, exceeding even the Dust Bowl summer of 1936. All seven of the warmest years on record were the last seven, and 19 of the 20 warmest years occurred since the year 2000. The climate is increasingly unstable, and if we continue with business as usual – if we keep on burning coal, gas, and oil, keep on filling the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases, keep on cutting down forests – we will leave our children and our children’s children a hot, unstable world that is very difficult to inhabit.
So, to Creation Season this year we bring our uneasiness, our grief and fear, perhaps even our alarm. We may identify with that poignant image in the reading from Proverbs, which portrays Wisdom as a woman wandering the streets and public squares, crying out in search of someone who will listen to her counsel and warning that calamity will surely follow if the wayward and complacent refuse to listen (Proverbs 1:20-33). Today, wisdom tells us that we have only a short span of time in which to change course, make a swift transition to clean renewable energy, and avert the most catastrophic level of climate change.
At this hinge-point of history, when the choices we make are so decisive, will we choose life? Will we listen to the voice of wisdom? Today’s Canticle picks up the theme in a lyrical passage that brings a message of hope: “In every generation Wisdom enlightens holy souls, making them friends of God, making them prophets; for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom” (Wisdom of Solomon 7:27b-28).
I give thanks for the holy souls who listen to Wisdom’s call and who join the struggle to create a safer, healthier, more just and livable world. I give thanks that just a few days ago, for the very first time, three of the world’s top Christian leaders – Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, Pope Francis, and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew – issued a joint statement on climate change and made an urgent appeal for the future of the planet. In this extraordinary statement, the leaders of the Anglican Communion, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Eastern Orthodox Church called on people – called on us – to pray for world leaders ahead of the U.N. climate change conference (COP26), which will be held in November. And these Christian leaders called “on everyone, whatever their belief or worldview, to endeavor to listen to the cry of the earth and of people who are poor, examining their behavior and pledging meaningful sacrifices for the sake of the earth which God has given us.”
I give thanks for their clarion call, and for all the followers of Jesus who are rising up with people of faith and goodwill to mobilize a response that is commensurate to the crisis. You probably know that earlier this year, the Episcopal bishops in Massachusetts declared a climate emergency. Our two dioceses have begun to work together in a more coordinated way as we discuss how we can pray, learn, act, and advocate on behalf of God’s Creation. Our diocesan Website on Creation care is loaded with ideas about ways we can make a difference. Some actions are simple, like eating less meat and moving to a plant-based diet, recycling more, driving less, protecting trees, and reducing our use of fossil fuels in every way we can. Other actions are bigger and bolder and address systemic change. That’s important, because the scope and speed of the climate crisis require more than changes in individual behavior – they require massive, collective action and a push for policies that help us move away quickly from fossil fuels, encourage clean renewable energy like sun and wind, and ensure that historically marginalized and low-income communities – which are those hurt first and worst by climate change – are protected.
I invite you to join me at 11 o’clock tomorrow in a rally at the Springfield office of Congressman Richie Neal, Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, as we urge him to fully fund the reconciliation package that some economists say “may well be our last chance to take serious action against global warming before it becomes catastrophic.” A number of faith groups are pressing Congress to pass this legislation as a moral imperative. I will be speaking at the rally not as a Republican, not as a Democrat, but as a follower of Jesus who believes deeply that God is calling us to live in harmony with Earth and with each other. I hope that you will stand with me or will pray for the rally’s success and for passage of this legislation.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu says that the “supreme work” of Jesus Christ is to reconcile us to God, to each other, and to all of God’s creation. Can we do that together? Can we support each other to make the swift, bold changes we need to make in our own lives and in society as a whole? These are the questions confronting every community of faith as we clarify our vocation in a time of climate crisis. I hope you will subscribe to my monthly newsletter, Creation Care Network e-news, so that we can stay in touch and encourage each other.
Thank you for the ways you bless the Earth. Thank you for honoring Creation Season, and thank you, as my friend says, for making every day a good day to care for God’s creation.
A note: After the service, I spoke with a number of you about ThirdAct.org – a brand-new initiative by environmentalist Bill McKibben to bring together people over 60 – Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation – who care about climate change and social injustice. If, like me, you’re over 60, please sign up! Welcome to our third act.
Climate Change, Addiction, and Spiritual Liberation
This article by Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas was published by Religions on 1 September 2021 as part of a special issue, “Spirituality and Addiction.”
1. An Addict’s World
The addict looks away. The addict sees but does not see. She does not want to see. There is nothing to see here. Change the subject.
The addict is empty. She does not have enough. She must be filled. She must be filled right now.
The addict carries out repetitive, compulsive rituals that disconnect her from self, others, Earth, and the sacred.
The addict functions like a machine. She repeats the same behavior over and over, despite its harmful consequences to herself and perhaps to others, too.
The addict is ruthless. She dominates, forces, and exploits. The addict treats everything, including herself, as an It.
The addict is cut off from her body. Who cares what the body wants? She ignores and overrides the body, its wisdom and needs.
The addict is cut off from the rest of the natural world.
The addict lies to herself and she lies to others. (There is no problem here. Do you see a problem? I do not see a problem).
The addict is numb. She does not feel.
The addict is self-centered, isolated, and alone.
The addict is used to this. This is normal. This is the way things are. Nothing will ever change.
The addict is powerless. She is trapped. She cannot stop herself. She intends to change, she plans to change, she promises to change, she tries to change. She does not change.
The addict hates herself. Her life is unmanageable.
2. A Story of Recovery
Writing these words, I conjure up my state of mind forty years ago, when I was gripped by an eating disorder. As a teenager and young adult, I ate compulsively. To compensate for the binges, which I carried out in secret, I ran endless miles, tried every diet under the sun, and fasted for days on end. I made endless vows—this time I would not eat more than I needed; this time I would overcome my cravings—but my vows, however ardently expressed, had no power to set me free. Inevitably, I went back to the box of donuts, or the jar of peanut butter devoured hastily and with the shades drawn, lest anyone see me, lest I see myself.
My drug was food. As any addict knows, addiction distorts and numbs our awareness of the body. In those years of compulsive overeating, I paid little attention to my body’s rhythms or needs. Feelings did not matter. So what if I was sad or lonely? So what if I was angry, excited or bored? Whatever I felt, I swallowed it down with food and set out for another grueling run. Was it night-time and was my body eager for sleep? I did not care. I would stay up late, make a tour of the all-night supermarket, and eat until my stomach ached. Was I disappointed and needing to cry, or angry and needing to be heard? Quick—I would pave over those feelings and force some cheese or chocolate down my throat. Was my body aching from the abuse I dished out? Too bad. After a bout of bingeing, I would get up the next morning and go out for a seven-mile run, maybe start another fast or launch another stringent diet. Pummel and punish the body—that was my motto. Clear-cut the forest and move on.
Like every addict who has lost control, I could not stop what I was doing, and I saw no way out. At last, through the grace of God, at the age of thirty, I found a path to recovery. Now almost seventy, I sing the familiar words of the hymn “Amazing Grace”—I once was lost and now am found—and look back with gratitude to 13 April 1982, the day I walked into a Twelve-Step meeting and held up the white flag of surrender: Help. I give up. My life is unmanageable. I could not fight the battle any longer, for it was a battle I always lost. I needed help beyond myself. I needed a Higher Power. I had to make peace with my body or die (Bullitt-Jonas 1998).
That day was the turning-point of my life, the beginning of a journey to wholeness. One day at a time, I began practicing the Twelve-Step Program of Overeaters Anonymous and dug into the physical, emotional, and spiritual work of reconciling with my body, myself, and the important people in my life. I began to take responsibility for the first bit of nature entrusted to my care—my body. Day by day I began to honor its limits and listen to its needs. I met regularly with a psychotherapist and began to untangle my inner knots. Additionally, I embarked on a spiritual search. Impelled by an intense desire to know what was real, what was lasting, trustworthy, and true, I ventured back into the church I had long ago abandoned and sat in the shadowed back pew so that I could listen from afar. I longed to know who God was, and how to meet God in my own experience. I began to study and practice meditation and prayer.
My mind, it turned out, was as jumpy as water on a hot skillet. I was surprised by the inner racket: worries, memories, regrets, and plans. Arguments, scraps of music, commercial jingles. How could I love God, my neighbor, or myself if I was perpetually distracted? I learned to bring awareness to the breath and to return to the present moment, disciplining my attention so that I could perceive more accurately what was here. As my mind settled down, strong feelings surged through me. Shame, sorrow, anger, yearning— for years, they had been tamped down in my long bout with addiction, but now, here they were, roaring back to life. I sat with the feelings and breathed, learning to give them space and let them be. The feelings ebbed and flowed. They always passed. No one died. In fact, the more I allowed them to come and go, the more spacious I felt, and the more truly alive. Love kept showing up. When I welcomed everything into awareness, clinging to nothing and pushing nothing away, an unexpected tenderness would eventually rise up from within and gather me up like a child. I went off for a ten-day silent retreat at a meditation center in western Massachusetts. I followed the drill: You sit. You walk. You sit. You walk. That is 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. My thoughts lay still. 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.1 I caught my breath in recognition. Yes, that’s right. That’s just how it is.
3. Climate Change and Addiction
Two years after starting my recovery I finished what I was doing, made a swerve, and headed to seminary. I needed to know: Who is the God who just saved my life? I was ordained in the Episcopal Church in June 1988. Not two weeks later, I picked up the New York Times and was startled by its front-page headline, “Global warming has begun (Shabecoff 1988).” NASA climate scientist James Hanson had testified to a congressional committee that scientists were becoming alarmed about the so-called “greenhouse effect” of burning fossil fuels. Human activity—driven by an economy dependent on coal, gas, and oil—was pushing the planet past its limits. The relentless extraction and burning of fossil fuels was polluting the global atmosphere with heat-trapping gasses; therefore, the atmosphere was rapidly heating. Scientists were concerned that the relentless consumption of dirty fossil fuels would disrupt the fragile balance of life. Great suffering lay ahead if we did not change course. We needed to stop what we were doing.
From that day forward, I began to track news about climate change. It became increasingly clear that the society in which I lived was behaving with the reckless abandon of an addict. In the ruthless push to drill oil wells, construct pipelines, blow off mountain- tops, devour forests, and gobble up every last resource of the planet, we are laying waste to the land, air, and water upon which all life depends. The most vulnerable groups—low- income and Black, Brown, Indigenous, and people of color communities—are those hurt first and hardest by the effects of climate change, although even wealthy and privileged communities are beginning to suffer (Sengupta 2021). The resonance with addiction is haunting: as a society and a species we are caught up in highly destructive patterns of over-consumption and we have been unwilling or unable to quit.
In the months after James Hansen’s testimony, a question emerged that became the riddle of my life, a question that fuels my vocation as a faith-based climate activist to this day: If God can empower a crazy addict such as me to make peace with their body, is it not possible that God can empower a crazed, addicted humanity to make peace with each other and the body of Earth?
4. The Shock of Climate Change
When I step outside this morning, I smell smoke. Haze blurs the heated air. Plumes of wildfire smoke that traveled thousands of miles across the country have reached us here in New England. With every breath, we inhale the residue of forests burning in western North America. Traces of distant trees that were set ablaze in massive fires sparked by unprecedented drought and heat now line our lungs. We are all connected.
Midway through the tumultuous, scorching summer of 2021, the damage caused by climate change is increasingly visible. Each day brings new reports of extreme heat, drought, fire, and floods. (Extreme precipitation is linked to global warming, because warmer air holds more water and therefore deposits more water when it rains—just as a larger bucket can hold and deposit more water). The American West and Southwest are gripped by megadrought, an extraordinarily brutal and persistent drought which is draining reservoirs, withering fields, and increasing the spread of enormous wildfires. The Pacific Northwest, a usually cool and foggy part of the world, has roasted in record-setting levels of heat. Hundreds of people died in what one expert called “the most anomalous heat event ever observed on Earth.”2 North America is not the only place experiencing record temperatures—so, too, are the Middle East, South Asia, and Russia (Tharoor 2021). Meanwhile, torrential rains have drenched the mid-Atlantic. As much as ten inches of rain fell in southeastern Pennsylvania in under four hours. In China, terrified commuters riding subways stood on seats and clung to poles to avoid floodwaters from record-breaking rains.3 Flooding recently killed hundreds of people in Central Europe, Uganda, Nigeria, and Italy. Famine stalks Madagascar as a drought tied to climate change dries up waterholes and crops. In Siberia, tens of thousands of square miles of forest are on fire, potentially releasing carbon into the atmosphere from the frozen ground below.
Today’s headlines are frightening and stark, and they come in rapid succession. Fossil fuel emissions have disrupted Earth’s atmosphere and biosphere even more quickly and dramatically than scientists predicted only a few years ago. If society is an addict dependent on coal, gas, and oil, then the addiction has reached its crisis point: Will we change course or will billions of us die, taking down with us the lives of countless other beings?
In a State of the Union address delivered in 2006, President George W. Bush warned of America’s addiction to oil (Bush 2006). Of course, our dangerous relationship with fossil fuels does not function exactly like a substance addiction—we are not busily injecting oil into our veins in an effort to get high or experiencing DTs if access to coal is withdrawn. However, our society and economy—indeed, our whole way of life—does function like a person with a behavioral or process addiction: we are wretchedly, tragically—as a Christian, I would add “sinfully”—continuing to carry out activities that quickly or slowly will kill us and that are already killing countless people and other living beings worldwide. More than one Secretary General of the United Nations has called our present course “suicidal”. Another word that comes to mind is “ecocidal.” Indeed, a global panel of experts is now drafting a law to make ecocide—widespread destruction of the environment—a crime that can be prosecuted under international law (Saddique 2021; Surma et al. 2021).
5. Denial and Truth-Telling
What insights from the dynamics of addiction and recovery might inform our efforts to save what is left of the web of life and our struggle to preserve a habitable world? Six themes rise to the top: denial and truth-telling; isolation and community; grieving our losses; taking moral responsibility; praying the Serenity Prayer; and urgency, fear, and love. Let us begin with denial and truth-telling. Built into addictive processes is the addict’s insistent refusal or inability to perceive the reality or magnitude of the harm their behavior is causing themselves or others. Denial and minimization are characteristic ways that addicts avoid confronting their problem. As we wrote in Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis, when it comes to facing the truth of climate change (Schade and Bullitt-Jonas 2019, pp. xx–xxi):
The American public’s widespread denial of climate change has had a stunning run. This is understandable, given that most people want to avoid thinking about something as deeply troubling as the Earth’s climate crisis spinning out of control. We humans seem to have a built-in knack for delaying as long as possible the recognition of particularly troublesome facts. Some of us even turn denial and avoidance into a fine art. As comedian George Carlin observed, “I don’t believe there’s any problem in this country, no matter how tough it is, that Americans, when they roll up their sleeves, can’t completely ignore.”
However, we cannot ascribe the robust denial of climate change among many Americans solely to a supposed national capacity for dodging reality as long as possible. Nor should we assume that the denial of climate change and addiction to oil is a purely internal, mental problem that springs from a disorder in the brain, as one science writer has proposed (Stover 2014). Nor is denial just a “defect of character”, to use the language of the Twelve-Step Program—it is actually being generated and amplified by external forces, vested interests that have been hard at work since the late 1980s, spending billions of dollars in a deliberate campaign of disinformation to keep the American public confused about the reality, causes, and urgency of climate change (Oreskes and Conway 2011; Gelbspan1997; Union of Concerned Scientists 2007).
Today, as Michael E. Mann explains in his masterful new book, The New Climate War, because the devastating impacts of climate change are now obvious in the daily news cycle, “the forces of denial and delay . . . can no longer insist, with a straight face, that nothing is happening. Outright denial of the physical evidence of climate change simply isn’t credible anymore.” As a result, fossil fuel corporations and oil-funded governments that continue to profit from our dependence on fossil fuels are shifting tactics to “a softer form of denialism” based on deception, distraction, and delay (Mann 2021, p. 3). This is what Mann calls “the new climate war,” and the planet is losing.
Breaking through denial, whether its source be internal or external, is an essential aspect of climate activism. Climate activism faces outward: we have urgent work to do on the streets, in boardrooms, and in the backrooms where decisions are made. Mobilizing an effective, systemic response to the crisis at hand requires contending with political and corporate powers that seek to mire us in denial, distraction, and delay.
However, climate activism faces inward, too, as we reckon with our own layers of denial. You do not need to be a full-fledged climate sceptic who challenges the conclusions of mainstream science to be a person who slips into denial. Kari Marie Norgaard, a Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies at the University of Oregon, has written helpfully about what she calls “the everyday denial of climate change, (Norgaard 2012)” the way that ordinary people who feel overwhelmed by the climate crisis simply change the subject to more manageable topics rather than face their guilt, fear, and helplessness. She connects this with the work of Robert Jay Lifton and Richard Falk, who studied, in relation to nuclear peril, “the absurdity of the double life”: the way that people can live in two realities, being aware, on the one hand, of an enormous existential threat, while desperately clinging, on the other hand, to a pretense of conventional, ordinary reality.
We probably experience this cognitive dissonance in our own lives: although some part of us is aware that climate change looms over everything, we do our best to avoid thinking about it and we keep our focus on the immediate concerns of daily life. Friends of mine confess that even though they know that climate change is real, they do not pay very much attention to it: it is too painful to consider; they prefer to focus on more immediate, manageable concerns. In her brilliant novel, Weather, Jenny Offill evokes the difficulty of holding in mind both the close-in immediacy of our intimate, daily lives and the terrifying, large-scale reality of the unfolding climate catastrophe (Offill 2020).
Nevertheless, overcoming personal and collective denial is foundational to the on-going work of recovering from addiction and creating a more just and sustainable future. As a recovering addict, I know how hard it can be to face, and keep facing, the truth: I remember how, in the early months of recovery, I needed to be reminded multiple times a day that I was a compulsive overeater and that a good day was a day in which I did not hurt myself with food. Unless I stayed in touch with allies in the Twelve-Step Program and unless I used its tools and carried out its Steps, it was simply too easy to slide back into denial and into the “stinking thinking” that led to relapse.
Similarly, as a faith-based climate activist, I must renew my commitment every day to dissolve my denial and to face reality as it is, not as I wish it were. That is not easy. As T.S. Eliot put it, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality (Eliot 1971, p. 118).” Can I make daily space in my mind and heart for the reality of climate change? Can I do something each day to keep myself informed, honor my emotional response, and carry out whatever actions I can that will contribute to healing? Just as an addict must renew her commitment to her own recovery daily, can we who live in an addictive society renew our commitment to overcome denial of the climate crisis daily, and take some action, large or small, that leads to healing?
6. Isolation and Community
The Twelve-Step recovery process is carried out in community. Part of the power of the Twelve-Step model is the candor of its small group sharing: in every meeting, addicts seeking recovery share the truth of their lives and their desire to be sober (or drug-free or abstinent). We encounter each other as equals, because everyone, whether newcomer or old-timer, is in some sense a beginner and as dependent as anyone else on a power beyond themselves. In that circle of sometimes raw self-disclosure, we share our vulnerabilities and our experience, strength, and hope. Addiction is often called a disease of isolation, and by attending meetings, making phone calls, sponsoring and being sponsored, and carrying out acts of service, we gradually learn to find our place in a larger community. If, as Ann and Barry Ulanov so aptly put it, “Sin is the refusal to get our feet wet in the ocean of God’s connectedness (Ulanov and Ulanov 1982, p. 96),” then the Twelve-Step model of healing in community is a release from sin. We are pulled into a current of connectedness that empowers us to set each other free: I may not be able to stop myself from overeating, but you can help me to stop; you may not be able to stop yourself from overeating, but I can help you to stop. To an addict who has white-knuckled countless lonely, failed attempts to kick the habit, entering the stream of relationships in a Twelve-Step Program can offer what feels like a miracle: buoyed by the support we feel all around us, it becomes much less difficult—perhaps even easy—to stay sober or abstinent, one day at a time. The antidote to addiction is connection.
I have never experienced a Twelve-Step meeting organized around recovery from addiction to fossil fuels or to exploiting the Earth,4 but I understand the power of relationships to sustain my work as a climate activist. Who are the people to whom I can confess my confusion, fear, grief and outrage about the devastation of Earth and Earth’s communities, both human and other-than-human? Who are the people seeking to move through their own despair and into a life of service? Who are the people trying to amend their lives so that they live more gently on the Earth and who inspire me to do the same? Who are the people committed to making sacrifices and taking risks for the sake of keeping fossil fuels in the ground and protecting life as it has evolved on this planet? These are some of the people I want to be close to, because I can learn from them and grow with them. Even if we never sit together in one room, even if they live someplace far away—indeed, even if I never meet them and never even learn their names—they are my circle of support, allies in my own struggle to live in harmony and balance with Earth.
“Don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel”—those three core rules of alcoholic and dysfunctional family systems were laid out by Dr. Claudia Black years ago in her seminal book, “It Will Never Happen to Me!” (Black 1981). Some of the other rules include “don’t think” (about what is going on) and “don’t question” (what is happening). Whenever we gather to talk honestly about the climate crisis, trust each other with our truth, dare to feel our feelings, think about what is going on, and ask questions about what is happening, we transgress those dysfunctional dynamics and begin to build a more authentic and resilient network of relationships. Simply breaking the silence around climate change—speaking honestly to a friend about one’s worry or concern—can be the beginning of release from the paralyzing isolation that tells us that climate change is too big, too frightening, or too political to discuss.
Experiencing the healing power of connections extends to our relationship with the natural world. Just as addicts generally treat their bodies with violence or contempt, so most of us in today’s dominant culture were raised to override and ignore the needs of the living world around us. Nature was supposed to be at our beck and call, a limitless resource that human beings were entitled to drain—nothing more than commodities to be bought, sold, processed, consumed, and discarded. Many Westerners are only beginning to acknowledge our deep alienation from the rest of the created order and are only now discovering the deep wisdom of Indigenous traditions and our own mystical traditions, which speak of the essential interconnectedness, sacredness, and mutuality of everything that exists.
Learning to cultivate loving, life-giving relationships with other people and with the other creatures and elements with whom we share the planet is medicine for addiction of every kind.
7. Grieving Our Losses
Facing addiction requires facing grief. Addicts who are beginning their journey of recovery will likely have many losses to grieve, such as a failed marriage, a lost job, a damaged reputation, or estranged co-workers, children, and friends. Furthermore, in relinquishing their drug of choice, addicts are also losing what seemed to be their lover or best friend, the substance or behavior to which they clung—even if they hated it—in order to manage their life. Not only that, when addicts stop using their drug, the feelings that had been suppressed by their compulsive behavior will likely come surging back into awareness: grief, shame, fear, anger, loneliness, confusion, the whole nine yards. Living into recovery, a day at a time, can be an emotionally turbulent process.
Confronting the climate crisis likewise requires acknowledging grief and other painful feelings. Grief is the normal, healthy response to loss, but the dominant culture in which we live does not handle grief well. Many of us tend to sidestep or suppress our grief, fearing that we will look weak, sentimental, morbid, or pathetic. We may also avoid thinking about climate change because we fear being overwhelmed by our emotions. What can we possibly feel in response to the acidifying ocean, the children choking from asthma in our inner cities, the rising seas, the ever-increasing droughts and floods, and the cascade of species being made extinct? Who wants to allow an emotional response to hearing that climate change is already making parts of the world too hot and humid for humans to survive (Mellen and Neff 2021)? Or that unchecked climate change could collapse whole eco-systems quite abruptly, starting within the next ten years (Berwyn 2020)? Or that the natural world is at a far greater risk from climate breakdown than was previously thought (Harvey 2020)? Stunned by the gravity of news such as this, many of us feel helpless and turn away. The scale of the problem feels too big in comparison with our one small life and our limited powers. We might as well cling to business as usual for as long as we can—drive, shop, send the kids to school, earn the promotion, fix supper, check social media—and let someone else handle the bigger problem, maybe the experts or maybe future generations. We might as well stay distracted, busy, and numb. We might as well zone out for as long as possible.
Emotional withdrawal is a natural response to trauma. We are all living in the context of ongoing and accelerating global trauma, even if our corner of the world has not yet borne the full brunt of climate change. It is understandable if we are inclined to anesthetize ourselves and shut down emotionally. However, shutting down is its own form of suffering. As Franz Kafka observed, “You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.”
It is easier to release into grief when we feel supported, understood, and upheld. This is where the power of community comes in. Like addicts recovering in the Twelve-Step Program, we do not have to tremble in fear or shed tears alone. A variety of circles have formed in recent years to help participants grapple with the spiritual and existential questions raised by climate emergency and other forms of collective trauma. Among others, they include The Work That Reconnects, based on the teachings of Joanna Macy; Rabbi Jennie Rosen’s organization, Dayenu; and Margaret Klein Salomon’s Climate Awakening.5 Psychological and psychiatric associations are increasingly aware of the mental health challenges posed by social and ecological breakdown and are training clinicians to address these issues in their work with clients.6 Parish leaders also have a golden opportunity to gather members of their congregation for prayerful, small-group conversations about climate change and to create communities of truth-telling that allow the honest expression of pain.
We are blessed that many faith traditions provide tools and rituals for accessing and processing grief. Learning practices of contemplative prayer and meditation can be helpful, because they give traumatized people a technique to calm down, steady the mind, and quiet the nervous system. Contemplative prayer, often defined as “a long, loving look at the real,” resonates with the Zen teaching, “Stay present to what’s happening.” In a time of emotional turbulence and agitation, contemplative prayer can help us cultivate trust and patience. We learn to sit still in the midst of uncertainty, to wait in the darkness, to relinquish our anxious and futile quest to stay in control, and to listen for the inner voice of love. To cite the psalmist: “Be still . . . and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:11).
From out of the stillness, feelings arise that may need expression—even visceral, bodily expressions, such as wailing, stamping, dancing,7 drumming, and singing. Expressive prayer is essential to articulating grief, whether we do it together or alone. Lament is an ancient form of prayer found in the Psalms, in the prophets, and in the words and actions of Jesus. 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. Lament is not self-pity nor is it simply whining. Lament is a deep outpouring of sorrow to God. Learning how to pray with painful feelings can help us to grow in intimacy with God and to experience solidarity with everyone who suffers (Bullitt-Jonas 2000). Spiritual directors with an awareness of the dynamics of addiction can help the people they guide to explore pathways of prayer that allow the expression of feelings (Bullitt-Jonas 1991).
Lament, especially public lament, can be empowering. Theologians such as Walter Brueggemann (Brueggemann 1978; Sharp 2011, pp. 179–205), drawing on the work of Dorothee Soelle, Jurgen Moltmann, and Abraham Heschel, have brilliantly shown us that lament is the beginning of criticism of an unjust social order. Articulating anguish and experiencing passion—defined as “the capacity and readiness to care, to suffer, to die, and to feel (Brueggemann 1978, p. 41)”—is the enemy of any society built on ignoring the cries of the marginalized and oppressed, the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor. Lament can end in hope or praise, because in lament we experience the presence of a living, loving, and liberating God. Lament can lead to action, because the more we experience our unshakable union with a love which is stronger than death, the freer we will be to take actions commensurate with the emergency in which we find ourselves.
The climate crisis brings us to our knees. It also brings us to our feet.
8. Taking Moral Responsibility
Basic to the process of recovery in the Twelve-Step Program is taking moral responsibility for one’s actions. Addiction is not “a moral issue,” if by that we mean that addicts are “weak” or “bad” people without moral principles; in fact, addicts are people with a complex medical disease or condition. However, addiction does have a moral dimension: you cannot be set free from addictive behavior unless you carry out a deep houseclean- ing. Seven of the Twelve Steps (Steps 4–10) engage recovering addicts in a thorough and ongoing process of growth in moral self-awareness, accountability, and responsibility.
Reckoning with our moral responsibility for contributing to the climate crisis is complex (Jenkins 2008, 2013; Moore and Nelson 2010; Northcott 2007; Rasmussen 1996). Climate change is a justice issue on many levels. For starters, it is an issue of social and economic justice, because impoverished individuals, communities, and nations are those who suffer the effects of climate change first and hardest; they are the ones least able to adapt, and the ones least likely to have a seat at the table where policy decisions are made. Climate change is also an issue of international justice. As the Union of Concerned Scientists points out, “The world’s countries emit vastly different levels of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere (Union of Concerned Scientists 2008)”. Climate change is caused mostly by the wealthy nations—developed countries and major emerging economies lead in total carbon dioxide emissions—but it is the poorer nations which are most vulnerable to its painful effects. The question of international justice becomes even more pointed when considering the per capita consumption of fossil fuels. Saudi Arabia and the United States are tied in first place for the world’s highest per capita carbon emissions, far outpacing the per capita outputs of poor nations (Statista 2021). One analysis reviewed public health studies of the effects of burning fossil fuels and concluded that the lifestyles of about three average Americans create enough planet-heating emissions to kill one person (Millman 2021).
Climate change is a matter of intergenerational justice, because right now we are stealing a habitable Earth from our children and our children’s children. If we continue with business as usual, we will leave a ruined world to those who come after us. No wonder so many members of the Sunrise Movement 8 and so many other young climate activists are angry!
Climate justice is likewise inextricably linked to racial justice. In the piercing words of Hop Hopkins, the Sierra Club’s Director of Organizational Transformation, “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 (Hopkins 2020).”
Perhaps we must speak of interspecies justice, as well, because for the first time in the planet’s history, a single species, Homo sapiens, is in the process of wiping out vast populations of other creatures, and even entire species. Driven by climate change and other pressures of human activities, the world’s wildlife populations have plummeted by more than two-thirds in the last 50 years, according to a 2020 report by the World Wildlife Fund (Rott 2020). We are also in the midst of Earth’s sixth extinction event. With dismay, scientists are describing what they call a “biological annihilation (Ceballos et al. 2017).” Recognizing that we are now in an emergency that threatens human civilization, one expert commented, “This is far more than just being about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is . . . This is actually now jeopardizing the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’—it is our life-support system (Carrington 2018).”
To push away the horror—and the responsibility—it might be tempting to shift the blame for the climate crisis onto the generations that preceded us. “After all,” we may tell ourselves, “burning fossil fuels began long before I was born; people have been burning fossil fuels since the eighteenth century, when the Industrial Revolution began.” However, adults such as me cannot get away with that attempt at moral deflection (which is so characteristic of an addict): more than half of all CO2 emissions since 1751 were emitted in the last 30 years (Stainforth 2020). That is, in a single lifetime—ours.
Clearly, the climate crisis is not only a scientific, political, economic, or technical issue — it is a moral issue, as well. What if members of a high-carbon, high-consumption society faced our guilt and took Step 4 (“Made a searching and moral inventory of ourselves”)? What if we carried out the Steps that follow and took bold, even radical action to address the moral injustice of climate change?
Taking personal responsibility means that each of us does our part to solve the problem. Many of us start reducing our personal and household “carbon footprint.” We recycle, we buy less stuff, we eat less meat and move toward a plant-based diet. We do whatever we can afford to do—install solar panels, buy an electric car, eat local, organic foods, upgrade insulation, turn down the heat, use less air conditioning. Taking these kinds of personal steps to reduce our carbon footprint is worthwhile in many ways: they align our lives more closely with our values; they can inspire friends and neighbors to follow suit, making it socially acceptable and morally normative to live more gently on Earth; and they relieve our sense of cognitive dissonance—we know that we are taking action to address an existential crisis. After all, as Lao Tzu said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Making personal changes in lifestyle may be that vital first step on the ramp to more effective action.
However, do not be fooled—if we limit taking personal responsibility simply to changing our lifestyle and consumer choices, we are falling for the lie that individual behavior is enough. It is not. Turning off the lights and driving an electric car may be the right thing to do and make us feel morally “cleaner,” but moral action only makes a substantive difference when we join the fight for systemic change. A societal transformation from top to bottom is what is required to avert climate chaos—that is what the world’s pre-eminent climate scientists told us in the 2018 report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The only way to do that is to push for collective solutions, to become politically engaged, and to make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary to maintain a habitable world.
In the meantime, fossil fuel corporations are working hard to shift responsibility for the damage that their products cause (damage that these companies concealed and denied for decades) to individual consumers. Like drug dealers, they make a fortune by pushing a deadly product and then blame their customers if they buy it and become sick. A fascinating article by Amy Westervelt explains how, for over 100 years, various industries, including tobacco, beverage packaging, guns, and fossil fuels, “have weaponized American individualism, laying the blame for systemic issues at the feet of individual citizens.”9 Westervelt observes that BP “famously invented the ultimate tool for pinning greenhouse gas emissions on individual consumers: the carbon footprint calculator.10 As she points out:
This rhetorical framing flourishes not only because it taps into America’s individualistic identity, but also because it presents easy solutions: simply buy different things in your own life, walk or bike a bit more, and everything will be fine! It also provides a purity test that no climate activist can possibly pass. It’s the perfect setup for oil companies: The problem is consumers, not industry, and no consumer can ever reduce their carbon footprint enough to be a credible critic. (Westervelt 2021)
Framing the climate crisis in moral terms gives us an opportunity to understand that effective moral action includes collective moral action. To be blunt, do not be a consumer, be a citizen.
The scope and speed of the climate crisis require more than personal changes in behavior—they require collective action and a push for policies such as pricing or regulating carbon, eliminating fossil fuels subsidies, providing incentives for clean renewable energy, and ensuring that historically marginalized communities enjoy the benefits of clean energy. Climate scientists are increasingly concerned that if global warming continues unchecked, the Earth will soon pass so-called “tipping points” beyond which possibly irrevocable disaster will ensue (Harvey and Agencies 2021). Is it possible to create a social tipping point that would propel a swift transition to clean energy? According to one study (Otto et al. 2020), providing a moral framework for the climate crisis would contribute to a social tipping point and help activate “contagious and fast-spreading processes” that lead to global decarbonization. Using a term from the field of addiction, the study argues that revealing the moral implications of fossil fuels is an “intervention” that would accelerate a rapid global transformation to carbon-neutral societies. Let us start this addict on the road to recovery.
9. Praying the Serenity Prayer
Like most recovering addicts in the Twelve-Step Program, I frequently turn to the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” Based on a longer prayer by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, these words have helped countless addicts to search their minds and hearts as they sort out what to hold on to and what to let go, what is theirs to do and what is not. Implicitly, the prayer invites us to rein in our compulsive craving for control and to find peace even in the midst of trouble. It rouses us from passivity and inertia so that we change what we can (and should) change. Additionally, it recognizes that we do not see these things clearly, and need to ask for God’s help.
The prayer is immensely useful for everyone concerned about climate change. What is it that I need serenity to accept? What is it that I need courage to change? How do I know which is which? The questions themselves drive me into prayer, and the answers change over time as I listen and learn. I pray for serenity to accept the reality of the climate crisis and the painful manifestations of that crisis which emerge every day—and I find my way to serenity only as I pray my way through outrage, fear, and grief. I pray for courage to change the things I can—and I find that courage only as I keep entrusting my actions to God. I pray for the wisdom to know what is and is not mine to do—and I try to forgive myself when I get that wrong. The Serenity Prayer is pithy, enigmatic, and as pure as prayer comes—it does not give answers; it simply opens a door to God.
We bring into prayer what we know about the world, so it is good to be aware that many internal and external forces are at work, insisting that there is little we can do to slow climate change. I will mention only two. One is external: fossil fuel corporations are eager to amplify our supposed helplessness to quit using their products. They are delighted when “collapse-aware” people throw in the towel and accept that we are doomed, that it’s too late to take effective active to stave off climate catastrophe. As Michael Mann explains, “Doomism potentially leads us down the same path of inaction as outright denial of the threat.” He adds, “The surest path to catastrophic climate change is the false belief that it’s too late to act (Mann 2021, pp. 179, 223).”
A second message that dampens courageous action is internal: without knowing it, we tend to accept an increasingly degraded natural world as normal. It has been called “shifting baseline syndrome” or “sliding baseline syndrome”: each generation adapts to worsening circumstances over time, disregarding the abundance that previous generations knew, while peacefully accepting what remains as fine, or to be expected. We slowly adjust to unthinkable circumstances. As David Roberts explains, the scariest thing about global warming is that we could grow accustomed to it—grow used to massive fires, severe flooding, killing levels of heat—and never experience a moment of reckoning. We could sleepwalk our way to catastrophe (Roberts 2020; Campbell 2020).
Humans have been a successful species partly because we are so adaptable, but the capacity to adapt can also be a moral and even mortal liability. I think of the bitter comment uttered by Raskolnikov, the anti-hero of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment: “Men are scoundrels; they can get used to anything (Dostoevsky 1989, p. 22)!” I also think of the less bitter, but still bracing quote attributed to Thomas Merton: “The biggest human temptation is to settle for too little.”
When does our purported serenity to accept the things we cannot change in fact mask our apathy and amnesia? When does serenity camouflage the refusal to care—what Fr. James Keenan calls “the failure to bother to love”? Rabbi Abraham Heschel insisted that “Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods.” Subversive prayer breaks through cheap serenity. True serenity springs not from choosing comfort and avoiding conflict, but from the desire to seek only God’s will, to abide in God’s love, and to carry out what love requires, even when doing so is costly or difficult.
Once upon a time in the United States, people accepted many things as normal—slavery, Jim Crow, child labor, 80-hour work weeks, the disenfranchisement of women and African Americans, the indiscriminate use of DDT, and so much more. What awoke them from their “serenity” was the persistent, massive, collective efforts of countless ardent people who were unwilling to settle for so little. What is it that we, too, must refuse to accept as normal? Are we willing to join the movements now rising up around the world—the climate justice movement, the human rights movement, the Indigenous rights movement, and the coalitions—both faith-based and secular—that are pressing to eliminate dirty emissions, restore a safe climate, reverse the sixth mass extinction of species, and create a just society that works for everyone?11
10. Urgency, Fear, and Love
People suffering with addiction do not walk casually into a Twelve-Step meeting. We are not there to pass the time. We are not there to virtue signal. We are not there to pass a purity test. We are there to save our lives. Urgency is what drives a person into recovery. We have reached the point of admitting, as the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous puts it, that “half-measures availed us nothing”12—not launching another diet, not drinking only on weekends, not shooting up just once in a while. We need a thorough makeover, a transformation which is physical, emotional, and spiritual.
Urgency is what today’s climate prophets are conveying. Scientists speak with alarm about the very short time we have left in which to safeguard a stable climate; they speak about the urgent need for “rapid and far-reaching (United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 2018)” changes in all aspects of society. We cannot miss the urgency of Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager with the round face, straight blonde hair, and fierce, un- yielding eyes, who spoke with such intensity to the U.S. Congress, the U.N. COP meeting, and the World Economic Forum, telling the world, telling the adults who failed to take action: “The house is on fire.” Our planetary home is on fire. It is going up in flames.
It is a precious moment when an addict listens, grasps the urgency, feels the heat, and makes the decision to choose life. It is a precious moment when an addict admits that their life is unmanageable, that they need help beyond themselves, and that the time has come for decisive action. It is a precious moment when an addict realizes that the old way of life has to die in order for new life to be born. Will our generation be able to look back with gratitude one day and sing “Amazing Grace”?
Fear is what forced me into recovery, and fear may be what forces society to awaken to the climate crisis at last. Given the predicament in which we find ourselves, we have good reason to be afraid. However, fear cannot sustain us over the long haul—only love can do that.
Therefore, I thank God for all the people who are willing to face their fear, to empathize with other people’s fear, and to stand together. I thank God for all the people who refuse to turn away from each other or against each other, but who decide instead to turn toward each other, to join forces and join hands. I thank God for the deep message of all the world’s religions: we are interconnected with each other and with the web of life.
As an addictive society wakes from its restless, deathly sleep, faith communities can help to restore our capacity to love God and neighbors. In a sermon, D’var Torah, and dharma talk; in prayer groups, worship services, and meditation groups; in pastoral care, outreach, and bold public advocacy, communities of faith and spiritual practice can renew our intention and deepen our capacity to act in loving ways, to respect the dignity of every human being, and to cherish the sacredness of the natural world. Faith communities speak to the heart of what it means to be human. When people are closing their eyes to a crisis or going mad with hatred and fear, only love can restore us to sanity.
We can be more than addicts on a self-destructive path. Additionally, we can be more than chaplains at the deathbed of a dying order. We can be midwives to the new and beautiful world that is longing to be born.
One very interesting initiative that weaves together addiction/recovery, Christian faith, and care for the Earth is EcoFaith Based in the Pacific Northwest, EcoFaith Recovery is “a leadership development effort grounded in the Christian tradition and welcoming all who seek recovery from societal addictions to unsustainable ways of life. Our recovery begins as we come out of isolation and rediscover our relatedness to God, ourselves, each other, and the entire earth community of which we are a part.” See: http://www.ecofaithrecovery.org/ (accessed on 31 August 2021).
In 1992, Joanna Macy brought the Elm Dance to people living in areas that had been poisoned by the Chernobyl This simple circle dance, now associated with The Work That Reconnect, is intended for all who experience collective trauma, https://workthatreconnects.org/resources/elm-dance/ (accessed on 31 July 2021).
The Sunrise Movement is a youth movement to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process, https://www.sunrisemovement.org/ (accessed on 31 August 2021).
(Westervelt2021). In The New Climate War, Michael Mann addresses this topic in a chapter entitled, “It’s YOUR Fault,” pp. 63–97.
See, for instance, The Climate Mobilization, Indigenous Environmental Network, 350.org, Poor People’s Campaign, Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion, Mothers Out Front, Interfaith Power & Light, GreenFaith, The Shalom Center, Dayenu, and many others.
Ceballos, Gerardo, Paul R. Ehrlich, and Rodolfo Dirzo. 2017. Biological Annihilation via the Ongoing Sixth Mass Extinction Signaled by Vertebrate Population Losses and Declines. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 114: E6089–E6096. Available online: https://www.pnas.org/content/114/30/E6089 (accessed on 31 July 2021). [CrossRef] [PubMed]
Dostoevsky, Feodor. 1989. Crime and Punishment, 3rd ed. Edited by George Gibian. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Eliot, T. S. 1971. “Burnt Norton”, in “Four Quartets”. In The Complete Poems and Plays 1909–1950. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, p. 118.
Gelbspan, Ross. 1997. The Heat Is on: The Climate Crisis, The Coverup, The Prescription. Cambridge: Perseus Books.
Northcott, Michael S. 2007. A Moral Climate: The Ethics of Global Warming. Maryknoll: Orbis. Offill, Jenny. 2020. Weather. New York: Knopf.
Oreskes, Naomi, and Erik M. M. Conway. 2011. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. New York: Bloomsbury Press.
Otto, Ilona M., Jonathan F. Donges, Roger Cremades, Avit Bhowmik, Richard J. Hewitt, Wolfgang Lucht, Johan Rockström, Franziska Allerberger, Mark McCaffrey, Sylvanus S. P. Doe, and et al. 2020. Social Tipping Dynamics for Stabilizing Earth’s Climate by 2050. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). February 4. Available online: https://www.pnas.org/content/117/5/2354 (accessed on 1 August 2021).
Citation: Bullitt-Jonas, Margaret. 2021. Climate Change, Addiction, and Spiritual Liberation. Religions 12: 709. To view the article as published in Religions or to download a pdf: https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12090709
Academic Editors: Bernadette Flanagan and Noelia Molina
Homily for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, July 18, 2021
Delivered online by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Trinity Episcopal Church, Chicopee, MA
Healing the climate crisis
“[Jesus] said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” (Mark 6:31)
What a blessing to be with you this morning! Thank you, Pastor Daphne, for inviting me. As you know, I serve as Missioner for Creation Care in our diocese, and I travel from place to place, speaking about God’s love for our beautiful, precious planet and our call as faithful followers of Jesus to rise up together at this critical moment to heal and restore the Earth that God entrusted to our care. It is particularly sweet to join you on the day after you embarked on a cleanup project – thank you for your stories! Please know that it warms my heart and lifts my spirits to know that the good folks at Trinity Episcopal are stepping up and stepping forward, joining with countless people of faith around the world who understand that now is the time for bold action to protect the web of life, especially to address the climate crisis.
Two aspects of today’s Gospel passage stand out for me. One is its understanding of how profoundly we need healing. When Jesus and the apostles slip away in a boat to a deserted place by themselves, the crowds watch the boat withdraw and what do they do? They “[hurry] there on foot from all the towns and [arrive] ahead of them” (Mark 6:33). That’s how much they need Jesus! On another occasion, Jesus and the apostles set out by boat and when they come to shore, people recognize him and rush from “the whole region” (Mark 6:55) to bring him those who are sick. Wherever he goes – villages, cities, farms – people bring him their need for healing.
So, let’s follow the guidance of the Gospel and bring into Jesus’ healing presence the places around the world that need healing from the effects of climate change. Let’s lift up to Jesus the American West and Southwest, which are now in the grip of an historic mega-drought – an extraordinarily persistent, unbroken drought that is draining reservoirs, withering crops, and increasing the spread of massive wildfires. Let’s bring to Jesus the Pacific Northwest, a usually cool and foggy part of the world that has been roasting in record-setting levels of heat. Let’s bring to Jesus the hundreds of people who died last weekend in heat-related deaths in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. Let’s bring to Jesus the East Coast, too, where it’s been awfully wet here in New England and where a few days ago parts of the mid-Atlantic were drenched in torrential rains. On Monday, “as much as 10 inches of rain fell in less than 4 hours in southeastern Pennsylvania.” Let’s bring to Jesus the hundreds of people in Europe who died this week and those who are still missing after an unheard-of deluge of rain and flash-flooding that devastated entire communities. Extreme precipitation is linked to global warming, for warmer air holds more water and therefore dumps more water when it rains – just as a bigger bucket can hold and dump more water. Let’s bring to Jesus all the people we know, and all the people we don’t know, and all living creatures – all of us who are already living with the effects of a rapidly-warming world, driven by the relentless burning of dirty fuels like coal, gas, and oil.
God knows we need healing. And so God sends us Jesus, a person so filled with the Spirit that everything he does is guided by God’s love; everything he says arises from the presence and power of God; and everything he touches is in some way healed. That’s the second aspect of today’s Gospel passage that stands out to me: Jesus comes among us with power to save, and he invites his followers to join him in his mission of healing. As we see in today’s story, Jesus and his apostles were kept mighty busy – indeed, “they had no leisure even to eat” (Mark 6:31). Jesus urges his followers to “come away” and “rest a while,” to nourish their souls, just as we gather every Sunday for prayer and refreshment, and he also invites us into a life of focused service.
At this unprecedented moment in human history, when the choices we make around climate change will largely determine whether or not we leave our children and our children’s children a livable planet, followers of Jesus are rising up with other people of faith and goodwill to mobilize a response that is commensurate to the crisis. You know that here in Massachusetts the Episcopal bishops recently declared a climate emergency. Our two dioceses have begun to work together in a more coordinated way as we discuss how we can pray, learn, act, and advocate on behalf of God’s Creation. Our diocesan Website on Creation care is loaded with ideas about ways we can make a difference. Some actions are simple, like eating less meat and moving to a plant-based diet, recycling more, driving less, protecting trees, and cutting back on our use of fossil fuels in every way we can. Other actions are bigger and bolder and address systemic change, like pushing for climate policies that keep fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong, or fighting to stop the construction of new pipelines, such as Line 3 in northern Minnesota, which is being built to carry dirty tar sands oil from Canada and is slicing right through land and waters that are sacred to Native peoples, violating their treaty rights.
God is calling us to live in balance and harmony with Earth and with each other. Can we learn to do that together? Can we support each other to make the changes we need to make in our own lives and in society as a whole at the speed and scale that scientists tell us is necessary? That’s the question that confronts every community of faith as we clarify our vocation in a time of climate crisis. I hope you will subscribe to my monthly newsletter, Creation Care Network e-news, so that we can stay in touch and give each other encouragement. Thank you for the ways you bless the Earth. Thank you for sharing in Jesus’ ministry of healing. I look forward to hearing more good news from your congregation in the days ahead.
This article by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas was published in Anglican Theological Review (Spring, 2021, Vol. 103, 2), pp. 208–219.
I have preached countless sermons in countless settings about the urgent Gospel call to care for God’s Creation. Nevertheless, when I step into a literal or virtual pulpit to preach about the climate crisis, I still feel a flash of fear: This will be a disaster.
Preaching on any topic is inherently challenging. As Ruthanna B. Hooke explains in Transforming Preaching, there are many good reasons that newcomers and experienced preachers alike find it frightening to preach.1 Fear, she argues, is an intrinsic and even necessary aspect of preaching God’s Word: preaching can only be authentic when we truly open ourselves to the presence of the living God and publicly put our life and faith on the line. Barbara Brown Taylor compares watching the preacher climb into the pulpit to watching a tightrope walker climb onto a platform as the drum rolls.2 Preaching of any kind requires risky self-exposure and walking in faith. Before they embark, preachers and tightrope walkers must pray: Even there your hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast (Ps. 139:9).
However, preaching about the climate crisis may evoke particular anxiety. Although climate change is called the great moral challenge of our time, many preachers avoid preaching about it – often because of fear. Maybe we fear being ill-informed (I don’t know enough science). Maybe we fear provoking division in the congregation (Climate change is too political). Maybe we fear stressing out our listeners (Daily life is hard enough; why add to their worries?) or maybe we fear they won’t be able to handle the bad news (If I do mention climate change, I’d better tone it down and underplay the dire science). Maybe we fear that climate preaching is not pastoral (People come to church for solace, not to get depressed). Besides, we may tell ourselves, preaching about climate change should be someone else’s responsibility (Climate change isn’t really “my” issue). A preacher’s fears may cut close to home (I could lose pledges; I could even lose my job). Climate preaching may also require a painful reckoning with oneself that the preacher would prefer to avoid. Such a reckoning may be spiritual and theological (How do I preach resurrection when the web of life is unraveling before our eyes?) or it may be personal and moral as we face our own complicity. As one suburban preacher confessed to me years ago, “How can I preach about climate change when I drive an SUV?”
No wonder so many preachers delay addressing the climate crisis – most of us weren’t trained for this, we don’t want to stir up trouble, and we face an array of fears. As a result, many of us kick the can down the road, perhaps waiting for the lectionary to provide the “perfect” text, for a guest preacher to introduce the subject, or for a special (and thankfully rare) occasion, such as Earth Sunday or St. Francis Day.
Preachers who are hanging back from speaking about the climate emergency and those who have been preaching about it for years owe a debt of gratitude to Greta Thunberg, designated by TIME magazine as its 2019 Person of the Year. Thunberg is the Swedish teenager with the round face and straight blonde hair who delivered a fierce message to the U.S. Congress, the United Nations, the World Economic Forum, and all the adults who failed to take action: “Our house is on fire… We have to stop our emissions of greenhouse gas emissions. Either we do that or we don’t… Either we prevent 1.5C of warming or we don’t… Either we choose to go on as a civilization or we don’t… We all have a choice. We can create transformational action that will safeguard the living conditions for future generations. Or we can continue with our business as usual and fail. That is up to you and me.”3
Preach it, Greta! Although Thunberg is not addressing the religious faith of her audience, her fiery words and presence convey the message of a prophetic preacher: humanity stands at a crossroads and we have a vital choice to make, a choice of life or death, blessing or curse (Dt. 30:19). Science shows that we are at the brink of catastrophe: the only way to avert climate chaos and to protect life as it has evolved on Earth is to carry out a top-to-bottom transformation of society at a speed and scope that are historically unprecedented.4 We need to keep fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong. We need to make a decisive change of course toward clean, renewable sources of energy. We need to protect forests and topsoil, rivers and oceans, pollinators and the other living creatures with whom we share this planet, to say nothing of the eco-systems upon which all life depends. And we must do this quickly, equitably, and despite the opposition of entrenched political and corporate powers that are determined to keep drilling, burning, mining, extracting, plundering and profiting for as long as they can – even though business as usual is wrecking the planet. Thunberg’s moral call to action galvanized millions of people around the world and inspired the global climate strike on September 20, 2019, which is so far the largest climate demonstration in human history.
Hearing a strong sermon can dissolve fear, awaken moral responsibility, and mobilize action. I know this from direct experience – I was preached into jail by Bishop Steven Charleston. Back in 2001, while listening to him preach resurrection at an Easter Vigil service, I heard God’s call: I realized that in order to bear witness to the Risen Christ, I needed to gather up my courage and carry out my first extended act of civil disobedience. A few weeks later I joined a new interfaith group, Religious Witness for the Earth, and headed to Washington, D.C., to protest the Administration’s intention to drill for more oil in the Arctic.
Here’s what happened: about a hundred of us from different faith traditions marched down Independence Avenue in our diverse religious vestments, carrying banners and singing. When we reached the Department of Energy, which was surrounded by police, we held a brief worship service. After singing “Amazing Grace,” the twenty-two of us who had decided to risk arrest joined hands and walked slowly to the doors of the Department of Energy.
As I later wrote, describing the moments before our arrest:5
We stand or kneel in prayer, our backs to the building. The pavement under my knees is hard. At home, I often sit on a meditation cushion to pray. Today there is no cushion, just the weight of my body against stone. I lift up my hands. I’m dressed for the Eucharist. I might as well hold out my arms as I do at the Eucharist….
One by one we pray aloud, words thrown into space, words hurled against stone. Is this whole thing ridiculous? …
But then came the revelation:
Suddenly I realize that behind the tension, behind the fear and self-consciousness, something else is welling up. I am jubilant.
“Lift up your hearts,” I might as well be saying to the people before me, beaming as broadly as I do at the Eucharist.
“We lift them to the Lord,” would come the response.
How did I miss it? After years of going to church, after years of celebrating the Eucharist, only now, as I kneel on pavement and face a phalanx of cops, do I understand so clearly that praising God can be an act of political resistance. That worship is an act of human liberation. The twenty-two of us come from different faith traditions, but each of us is rooted in a reality that transcends the rules and structures of this world. Tap into that transcendent truth, let the divine longing for a community of justice and mercy become your own deepest longing, and who knows what energy for life will be released?
I feel as defiant as a maple seedling that pushes up through asphalt. It is God I love, and God’s green earth. I want to bear witness to that love even in the face of hatred or indifference, even if the cost is great.
So what if our numbers are small? So what if, in the eyes of the police, in the eyes of the world, we have no power? I’m beginning to sense the power that is ours to wield, the power of self-offering. We may have nothing else, but we do have this, the power to say, “This is where I stand. This is what I love. Here is something for which I’m willing to put my body on the line.”
I never knew that stepping beyond the borders of what I find comfortable could make me so happy. That shifting from self-preservation to self-offering could awaken so much joy.
Is this what Jesus meant when he promised that the poor in spirit would receive the kingdom of heaven and that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness would be filled (Mt. 5:3, 6)? I am hardly the first climate-justice or social-justice activist to discover that her understanding of the Gospel deepens immeasurably as she bears public (and risky) witness to her faith. As Robert Raines (former director of Kirkridge Retreat and Study Center in Bangor, PA) put it years ago, “The Gospel is just so much wind until we raise our lives against it like a sail.”
Strong sermons on climate change create the conditions for that kind of spiritual awakening: preacher and listeners alike are invited to take hold of their deepest convictions as they ask themselves: What do I truly value? What is love calling me to do? What is my moral responsibility to future generations? Am I willing to settle for a way of life that is destroying the web of life that God entrusted to our care? Am I ready to imagine a better future and to join with other people who are fighting for a just and habitable world? These are difficult and essential questions that all of us must face, individually and together. Jesus wept over Jerusalem because the city “did not recognize the time of your visitation from God” (Lk. 19:44). Are we willing to recognize that we, too, live in such a time? This is a holy moment, a moment of truth, a moment of reckoning. Our calling as preachers is to step through whatever fears hold us back and to take up our pastoral and prophetic vocation to preach Gospel hope in a time of unprecedented human emergency.6
Are there any “best practices” for climate preaching? The Episcopal Church, in conjunction with ecoAmerica and Blessed Tomorrow, has produced a helpful manual. “Let’s Talk Faith and Climate: Communication Guidance for Faith Leaders,”7 released in 2016, explains why our faith calls us to lead on climate, provides key talking points, and gives examples of “successful messaging.” The chapter, “Prophetic Preaching,” in Jim Antal’s must-read book, Climate Church, Climate World: How People of Faith Must Work for Change,8 is likewise worth careful study, suggesting guidelines and what he calls “theological cornerstones” for climate preaching. Another timely book is Leah D. Schade’s Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit,9 which explores how to proclaim justice for God’s Creation in the face of climate disruption.
Based on my reading and lived experience, I hold several things in mind when I preach about climate change.
• Frame the climate crisis in terms of Christian theology. In a highly partisan, divided society, simply uttering the phrase “climate change” can make an audience twitch: Uh-oh. Here comes a sermon about politics. Our task as preachers is to re-frame the conventional narrative that climate change is only a scientific, political, or economic issue, and instead to place it front and center as a subject of urgent spiritual and moral concern for every Christian. Every climate preacher will need to locate the bedrock of Scripture, theology, and religious experience that establishes their worldview and values.10
I often make these points:
• God loved the world into being, pronounced it “very good” (Gen. 1:31), and entrusts it to our care. I sometimes reference the origin story in Genesis, though I critique the concept of “dominion” (Gen. 1:26) when it is interpreted as divine permission for humanity to dominate and abuse the world. In my view, “dominion” does not refer to what Alcoholics Anonymous would call “self-will run riot”; rather, it means loving the world as God loves it. The second charge, to “till and keep” (Gen. 2:15) the garden, expresses more clearly our primary vocation to be a blessing on God’s Creation.
• The Earth does not belong to us, but to God (Ps. 24:1). The concept of “stewardship” reminds us that we are here to serve the Lord of life, not ourselves, and that our task is to safeguard Earth rather than to ransack and plunder. Still, the word “steward” can sound wimpy to me, as if our responsibility is limited to recycling the occasional can. Let’s find a more robust term to refer to the “children of God” for whom Creation is so eagerly longing (Rom. 8:19-22). Maybe we need to be “spiritual warriors” engaged in “sacred activism.”
• Jesus lived in close relationship with the natural world. In the Gospels we find him walking along the seashore and up mountains, taking boats out on the lake, and spending weeks alone in the wilderness in prayer. His parables and stories are full of natural images: sheep and seeds, sparrows and lilies, water and fire, weeds, vines, and rocks. What would it 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)? In my sermons, I often try to restore a sense of reverence for God’s Creation, to dismantle the fossil-fuel mindset that the natural world is nothing more than inert material, an object for us 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). Like poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, we affirm: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Destroying Earth is therefore a desecration, a sin against the Creator.
• The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ affected and redeemed not only human beings but also the whole of Creation.11 Christ is the Word through whom all things were made (Jn. 1:3). In him, “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:19-20; c.f. also Eph. 1:10, 2 Cor. 5:19). Creation is thus made new (Rev. 21:5). As we relinquish a narrowly anthropocentric understanding of the Gospel, we realize that all of Creation participates in the Paschal mystery. Our search to create a more just and habitable world and to live more gently on Earth is how we share in what Archbishop Desmond Tutu calls the “supreme work”12 of Jesus Christ, who reconciles us to God, to one another, and to God’s whole Creation.
• We are called to love our neighbors. Are we loving our neighbors when we drown them, starve them, and force them to uproot themselves from their homelands? The rising seas, droughts, and extreme storms amplified by climate change are already harming innumerable neighbors, especially in the global South. Our “neighbors” likewise include future generations who depend on us to leave them a habitable world, and also the other-than-human creatures with whom we share this planet. God forged an “everlasting covenant” not only with human beings but also with “every living creature” (Gen. 9:8-17) – they, too, are the “neighbors” we are summoned to love.
• We are called to bear witness to a love that transcends death. In our baptism, we are immersed in the waters of death. We die in Christ and 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 – and to whatever extent we can take this in, we are set free from anguish and anxiety, set free to love without grasping or possessiveness or holding back. In the early centuries of the Church, Christians were called “those who have no fear of death.”13 That inner fearlessness, rooted in the love of God, empowered the early Christians to resist the unjust powers-that-be: 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).
• Respect the lectionary, but don’t make it an idol. If you knew your house was on fire, would you wait for the “perfect” moment before calling for help to douse the flames? Not a chance. Once we know that climate change is an emergency, we will quite naturally seize every tool at hand. This Sunday’s lectionary readings could be the perfect springboard for a sermon on climate change. If we can’t make a direct connection, we can ditch the lectionary and preach about climate change in relation to the liturgical season, the Eucharist, or themes such as incarnation, justice, compassion, sin and forgiveness, and Christian witness and responsibility. I enjoy The Green Bible, which highlights in green font the biblical texts that the book’s editors consider most relevant to Earth-care. However, it seems to me that thousands of other biblical passages could just as well have been marked in green, for I read the whole Bible as a love-song between God and God’s Creation, as a living text that calls us to bear witness to a triune God who loved the world into being, who suffers with us and for us, and who empowers us to live together in right relationship with each other and the land.
My Website, RevivingCreation.org, includes about one hundred lectionary-based sermons about climate change and Creation care. SustainablePreaching.org is an ecumenical online resource that offers lectionary-based sermons on Creation care and a tool for searching out particular Bible passages.
• Share some science, but don’t worry that you need to be a scientist. As climate preachers we need to know and share the basics: climate change is real, it’s largely caused by human activity, it’s gotten worse in recent decades, and it will have disastrous effects unless humanity changes course fast. Basic information is available from many sources, such as NASA or reputable environmental groups like Natural Resources Defense Council.14 For up-to-date climate news, I subscribe to the weekly newsletter of InsideClimateNews.org15 and to daily news from Climate Nexus.16
In preaching I usually keep the science message short, brisk, and sober. To summarize the big-picture effects of a changing climate, I often quote a couple of sentences by Bill McKibben: “We’ve changed the planet, changed it in large and fundamental ways… Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen.”17 Then I cite specific examples that might especially resonate with the local congregation (in California: drought, wildfire, and mudslides; on Cape Cod: rising and acidifying seas, and threats to groundwater and fishing).18 One reason that parishioners may be relieved to hear climate change discussed in church is that increasing numbers of Americans understand that climate change is already affecting their communities.19
• Find an entry point and connect the dots. What are the particular concerns of your congregation? Begin there and show how they link to climate change. The novel coronavirus, for example, teaches lessons that relate to climate change: science matters; how we treat the natural world affects our wellbeing; the sooner we mobilize for action, the less suffering will take place; we have the ability to make drastic changes quickly; all of us are vulnerable to crisis, though unequally.20 Climate change increases the likelihood of pandemics, because flooding, droughts, and weather extremes force agriculture into new areas. Converting more natural habitat into crop land accelerates the loss of biodiversity and increases the incidence of zoonotic diseases, those spread between wild animals and humans.21
Climate change also exacerbates economic and racial injustice. Low-income communities and communities of color are the ones hit first and hardest by climate change, the ones least able to prepare or recover, and the ones least likely to have a seat at the table where policy decisions are made.22 Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, recently reported on the risk of “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.23 So-called “climate gentrification” – where wealthy people seek refuge from the effects of climate change and move into once “undesirable” neighborhoods – forces out low-income and minority residents.24 Mary Annaïse Heglar, a climate justice writer who is also Black, details the ways in which Black people suffer disproportionately as temperatures rise, and she issues a clarion call, “It’s time to stop #AllLivesMattering the climate crisis.”25
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. If we care about pandemics and public health, we care about climate. If we care about racism and human rights, we care about climate. If we care about poverty, homelessness, and hunger, we care about climate. If we care about immigration and refugees, we care about climate. (How many people worldwide will be forced to move by 2050 because of climate change? Estimates range between 25 million and one billion.26). If we care about violence against women and girls, we care about climate: climate change aggravates gender-based violence.27 If we care about preventing war, we care about climate: climate change increases the risk of conflicts over increasingly scarce resources, such as water and arable land.28
In short, if we care about loving God and neighbor, we care about climate. The climate does not belong to a special-interest group. If we like to breathe, if we like to eat, if we want to leave our children a world they can live in, we care about climate. That is why it is so important to build an intersectional movement that pulls people out of their isolated silos of concern and pushes for comprehensive solutions: the groups protecting wilderness areas, farmlands, and wildlife habitat need to support and learn from the groups addressing racism, poverty, and asthma in the inner city. As Pope Francis wrote in his encyclical, Laudato Si, we don’t face two crises, one social and one environmental, but rather “one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution require an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”29
• Infuse your sermons with the empowering love of God. The more that people know about (and experience) the social and ecological breakdown going on worldwide, the more likely they are to feel paralyzed, panicked, or depressed. Despair holds many people in an icy grip. That is why a message of urgency needs to be accompanied by a message of empowerment and strength: God is with us.
I am deeply interested in the spiritual perspectives and practices that can sustain climate activism, even in the face of dire news about our planet’s health and the possibility that civilization will collapse. In order to be healers and justice-makers, in order to bear witness to the Christ who bursts out of the tomb and proclaims that life and not death will have the last word, we need to be emotionally and spiritually resilient. In this time of unprecedented challenge, where will we find the energy and hope to keep working toward solutions without giving up? To help answer that question, my colleague Leah Schade and I collected and edited an anthology of twenty-one essays from diverse faith traditions, Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis.30
Whenever I preach, I try to evoke the presence of a God who loves us beyond measure, a God who heals and redeems, liberates and forgives. I preach about a God who honors and shares our climate grief, a God who weeps with us; understands our outrage, fear, and sorrow as the living world around us is destroyed; and, in the words of Peter Sawtell, calls us “to active resistance, not to quiet acceptance.”31 I preach about a God who knows our guilt and complicity in that destruction and who gives us power to amend our lives. I preach about a God who longs to create a Beloved Community32 that includes all beings, not just human beings. I preach about a God who releases us from the tyranny of death and who gives us strength to bear witness to a love that nothing can destroy.
• Build hope by taking action. In almost every climate sermon, I include suggestions for faithful action33 such as cutting back sharply on our use of fossil fuels, moving toward a plant-based diet, going solar, and planting trees and community gardens. Individual actions to reduce our household carbon footprint are essential to our moral integrity and help to propel social change. Yet the scope and speed of the climate crisis also require engagement in collective action for social transformation. We need to use our voices and our votes and make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. We can support the growing movement to hold Big Polluters like Exxon and Koch Industries financially and legally liable for the damages they knowingly caused (and continue to cause). We can lobby for policies that support renewable energy, clean green jobs, and a just transition that addresses the needs of poor and low-wealth communities and communities of color. If we have financial investments, we can divest from fossil fuels. If we’re college graduates, we can push our alma mater to divest. We can support 350.org, Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion and other grassroots efforts to turn the tide. Maybe we can join the growing numbers of resolute and faith-filled people who carry out peaceful civil disobedience and put our bodies on the line.
If the voice of one young woman – Greta Thunberg – can rivet the attention of the world, what would happen if preachers everywhere unleashed their own passion for God’s Creation? What would happen if preachers across the Episcopal Church and in every religious tradition began to speak boldly and frequently about our moral obligation to create a more just and habitable world? Just as ecosystems have so-called tipping points – a critical point when they suddenly undergo rapid and irreversible change – so, too, human communities can experience a tipping point after which society changes swiftly in dramatic ways. Is such a thing possible in terms of rapidly decarbonizing a society? According to a recent article in the journal Anthropocene, an analysis published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences “suggests the answer is yes. In it, an international team of researchers argues that seemingly small ‘tipping points’ can trigger large, rapid changes in societies.”34 The team identified six relatively small, positive interventions that could help bring about systemic global change quickly, especially if they were carried out simultaneously. One of them sounds as if it were crafted with preachers in mind: “Activists and opinion leaders could emphasize the moral implications of fossil fuels – that is, the idea that burning fossil fuels in ways incompatible with the Paris climate targets is immoral. This has the potential to shift societal norms and, consequently, widespread patterns of behavior.”35
When we deliver strong climate sermons and put our trust in the power of the Holy Spirit, I wonder if we are like the boy in the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand (Jn. 6:1-14): we put our words in Jesus’ hands and through his grace and power, maybe our offering will become the catalyst that enables a crowd to be fed. Maybe our words, like those of Ezekiel, will be infused with Spirit-power to enliven dead, dry bones and breathe life into a multitude (Ez. 37:1-14). Maybe that homily – that word of challenge, consolation, or encouragement – will contribute to the tipping point that releases a rapid societal transformation.
What do preachers do in a time of unprecedented emergency? Right before we preach our next sermon about climate change, we acknowledge our fear (This will be a disaster.) We entrust ourselves to God (Even there your hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast). Then we take a breath, open our mouths, and speak.
* Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, PhD, serves as Missioner for Creation Care (Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and Southern New England Conference, United Church of Christ) and Creation Care Advisor (Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts). An Episcopal priest, author, retreat leader, and climate activist, she has been a lead organizer of many Christian and interfaith events about care for Earth, and she leads spiritual retreats in the United States and Canada on spiritual resilience and resistance in the midst of a climate emergency. Her latest book, Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (2019), co-edited with Leah Schade, is an anthology of essays from religious environmental activists on finding the spiritual wisdom for facing the difficult days ahead. Her website, RevivingCreation.org, includes sermons, blog posts, articles, and newsletters.
5. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, “When Heaven Happens,” in Heaven, ed. Roger Ferlo (New York: Church Publishing, Inc., 2007), 79, 80-81. For information and support regarding civil disobedience, I suggest Climate Disobedience Center and Clergy Climate Action.
11. For a brilliant sermon that evokes how Creation shared in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, read Leah D. Schade’s “A Resurrection Sermon for an Earth-Kin Congregation,” which was preached outdoors and is included in Creation-Crisis Preaching, 85-89.
12. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “Foreword,” The Green Bible (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers (HarperOne), 2008, I-14.
13. Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (London: New City, 1993), p. 107.
15. https://insideclimatenews.org/. “A Pulitzer Prize-winning, non-profit, non-partisan news organization dedicated to covering climate change, energy and the environment.”
16. To sign up, send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
17. Bill McKibben, Eaarth (New York: Times Books, Henry Holt & Co., 2010) xiii, book jacket. The title is deliberately mis-spelled in order to signal that the planet onto which you and I were born is not the same planet we inhabit today.
18. To learn about your region’s environmental concerns, contact your local chapter of Sierra Club. To view climate risks and clean energy opportunities in each of the 50 states, visit Climate Nexus: https://climatenexus.org/climate-change-usa/.
33. In order not to burden the sermon with a laundry list of resources and options for action, I usually put a handout of suggested actions in the service leaflet. The Episcopal Church’s Creation Care Website offers some suggestions, including the carbon tracker now used in many dioceses (https://www.sustainislandhome.org/).
35. DeWeerdt, “Here Are a Half Dozen Nudges that Could Bring about Rapid Decarbonization.”
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter, April 18, 2021
Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas for Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts
Earth Sunday: “You are witnesses of these things”
Friends, what a blessing to be with you! We have some firsts going on this morning. For starters, this is the first time I’ve offered the same sermon to folks in both the Diocese of Massachusetts and the Diocese of Western Massachusetts. To those of you I haven’t yet met, my name is Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, and although my title in each diocese is different, my role is the same – to help us work together to heal and protect God’s creation, to defend the precious web of life that God entrusted to our care.
Today we’re celebrating Earth Sunday, the Sunday before Earth Day, on April 22, when people around the country re-commit themselves to restoring the planet that we call home. So, here’s another first: This is the first Earth Sunday since the bishops of our two dioceses declared a climate emergency and issued a call that we reach deep into our faith and rise up to take action. As I see it, our two dioceses are poised to do great things together, to bear witness in fresh ways to the redeeming love and power of Christ.
I’ll say more about that in a moment, but first I want to share an Easter story.1 It’s told by Mark Macdonald, formerly the Bishop of Alaska and now the National Indigenous Anglican Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Canada. Bishop Macdonald was leading worship on Easter Sunday for a congregation in the middle of Navajo Nation, which is in the American Southwest. When the time came to read the Gospel account of Jesus’ resurrection, Bishop Macdonald stood up and began reading in Navajo: “It was early in the morning…” Almost before the words were out of his mouth, “the oldest person there, an elder who understood no English, said loudly (in Navajo), ‘Yes!’”
The bishop thought that “it seemed a little early in the narrative for this much enthusiasm,” so he assumed he had made a mistake – maybe he had mispronounced the words in Navajo. So, he tried again: “It was early in the morning…’” This time he heard an even louder and more enthusiastic Yes. After the service, the bishop went up to the lay pastor and asked her if he had pronounced the words correctly. Oh, she said with surprise, of course he had. Well, asked the bishop, then why did the older woman get so excited? The pastor explained, “The early dawn is the most important part of the day to her. Father Sky and Mother Earth meet at that time and produce all that is necessary for life. It is the holiest time of the day. Jesus would pick that good time of day to be raised.”2
Bishop Macdonald realized that while the early dawn is certainly the best time for new life, he had never thought about the possibility that “[this] observation about the physical word could be theologically and spiritually revealing, that it suggested a communion between God, humanity, and creation that is fundamental to our… existence.” It took him a while to absorb this. He writes: “An elder with no formal schooling had repositioned the central narrative of my life firmly within the physical world and all its forces and interactions. It was,” he says, “an ecological reading of a story that, for me, had been trapped inside a flat virtual world misnamed ‘spiritual.’”
Today, on Earth Sunday, the Third Sunday of Easter, we celebrate Christ’s resurrection and the sacred power of the natural world. Like Archbishop Macdonald, today we remember and re-claim what he calls “a primal, long-ignored layer of spiritual consciousness that [is] also an ecological consciousness.”3
I don’t know about you, but I grew up thinking of “spirituality” as completely ethereal. The God I grew up with had no body. Being a good Christian was all about distancing oneself from the body and transcending the body – both our own body and the “body” of the natural world. The natural world and its wild diversity of creatures was essentially irrelevant and dispensable, just the backdrop to what was really important: human beings. Since the time of the Reformation, most of Christianity – at least in the West – has had little to say about the salvation of the natural world and the cosmos, as if only one species, Homo sapiens, were of any real interest to God. So, what a healing it is, what a restoration of the ancient biblical understanding – an understanding that was never forgotten by the indigenous people of the land – to know that the Earth is holy. Its creatures are holy. The whole created world is lit up with the power and presence of God.
Our Gospel story this morning is full of meanings, but surely one of them is that the Risen Christ is alive in the body, in our bodies, in the body of the Earth. While the disciples were talking about how they had seen Jesus risen from the dead, “Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost” (Luke 24:36-378). But Jesus doesn’t come as a ghost. He doesn’t come as a memory, as an idea, or as something from “a flat, virtual world misnamed ‘spiritual’.” He comes as a living body, a body made of flesh and bone that can touch and be touched, a body that can feel hunger and thirst and that wants to know, “Hey, isn’t there anything to eat around here?”
Scripture tells us that the Messiah is born, lives, suffers, dies, and rises as a body. That must say something about how much God cherishes the body and wants to meet us in and through the body – through our bodily senses of sight and sound, through taste and touch and smell, in this very breath. Scripture tells us that for forty days the disciples met the living Christ through his risen body. And then, when he ascended into heaven, Jesus’ body withdrew from the disciples’ sight, so that now his living presence could fill all things and so that all of us can touch and see him, if our eyes are opened.
What this means is that when you and I go out into nature, when we let our minds grow quiet and simply gaze at the maple tree, the snowdrops, the seashell on the shore – when we gaze with a quiet eye, not grasping for anything or pushing anything away, we begin to perceive that a holy, living presence fills everything we see. Wherever we gaze, the Risen Christ is gazing back at us and his presence is flowing toward us. “Peace be with you,” he is saying to us through wind and tree, through cloud and stars. “Peace be with you. I am here in the needles of the pine tree beside you that flutter in the breeze, and in the bark overlaid with clumps of lichen, each one a tiny galaxy. I am here in the ocean waves that form and dissolve on the shore, in the sand under your bare feet, in the sea gull that is crying overhead. Peace be with you. I am here, and you are part of this with me, and you are witnesses of these things.”
“You are witnesses of these things.” We witness Christ when we sense his living presence in the natural world and our deep reverence for Earth is restored. Our hearts are opened and so, too, are the eyes of our faith as (in the words of today’s Collect) we “behold [Christ] in all his redeeming work.” But that’s not all. A witness is not just a bystander or a spectator, a neutral observer who watches from the sidelines. Scripture tells us that bearing witness to Christ means being an active participant, someone who testifies, who speaks out, who even risks everything4 to convey the good news that God in Christ is with us in our suffering and our joy, in our ardent longing for life, and in all our efforts to create a more just, healthy and peaceful planet.
In a time of climate emergency, when ice caps and ice sheets are rapidly melting, extreme storms, droughts, and wildfires are becoming more common, and part of the Gulf Stream seems to be weakening, leading to the possibility of what one scientist calls “monstrous change” that would affect not only the Atlantic Ocean but life far and wide, we are summoned as never before to bear witness to our faith in a God who calls us to live in harmony with God and God’s creation.
If you haven’t yet done so, I hope you will read the bishops’ declaration of climate emergency – as the bishops suggest – “thoroughly, thoughtfully, and prayerfully.” The text is posted on both of our dioceses’ Websites. It gives us four areas in which we can focus our efforts: we can pray, individually and together, rooting ourselves in the love of God. We can learn, coming to understand, for instance, how tackling the climate crisis connects with tackling poverty, economic inequity, and racism. We can act, finding ways, for instance, to radically reduce our carbon footprint, to plant and share food through Good News Gardens, and to turn our churches into “resilience hubs” that support vulnerable populations during a climate disaster. And we can advocate, pushing for the urgently needed changes in public policy that will propel a swift and just transition to clean, renewable energy. There is so much we can do! Next month, along with Creation Care Justice Network, I will host a four-week series of webinars to explore each of these areas – pray, learn, act, and advocate – so that members of our two dioceses can connect with each other and talk about how we can move forward together in addressing the climate crisis.
I hope you’ll join us. For this is a very good time to bear witness to our faith. Thanks to the tireless advocacy of climate activists in Massachusetts – including some of you – Governor Baker just signed a good, strong climate bill, and momentum is building for even more ambitious action. Momentum is also building at the national level, as the Biden Administration convenes a Leaders Summit on Climate and looks ahead to the U.N.’s international climate talks this fall.
What part will we followers of Jesus play in leaving a habitable world to future generations? On this Earth Sunday, please join me in renewing our resolve to bear witness to the God of love “who makes all things new (Isaiah 43:18-19; Isaiah 65:17; Rev. 21:5) and who came among us to bring us life, and life abundant (John 10:10).”
1. Mark Macdonald, “Finding Communion with Creation,” in Holy Ground: A Gathering of Voices on Caring for Creation, ed. by Lyndsay Moseley and the staff of Sierra Club Books (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2008), 150-157.
2. Macdonald, “Finding Communion with Creation,” 151.
3. Macdonald, “Finding Communion with Creation,” 151.
4. The Greek word for “witness” is etymologically related to the word for “martyr.”
Please note: A video of this sermon is available.
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent December 20, 2020
Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas for Grace Church, Newton, and Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts
I put my trust in you
“Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’” (Luke 1:38)
Friends, I want to tell an Advent story1 that took place fifteen years ago. In 2005, two massive hurricanes, strengthened by the unusually warm waters of the Gulf, slammed into Louisiana and Mississippi. Millions of Americans were forced from their homes; within hours, most of one city lay in ruins. Soon after Katrina, some members of the wonderful church I served, Grace Church in Amherst, began organizing a service trip to Mississippi. I was planning to go, but then I received an invitation to join a delegation of interfaith religious leaders at the upcoming United Nations’ climate change conference in Montreal.
The trips overlapped, and I couldn’t take both. I decided to head to Montreal, since I wanted to urge world leaders to address global warming before it was too late. So, for several days in Advent I met with representatives of the World Council of Churches; I listened to speeches, wrote editorials, and marched with seven thousand people through the city streets. It was the most vigorous celebration of Advent I’d ever experienced, for the signs and banners sounded the urgent themes of the season: Now is the time to wake from sleep. Now is the time to clean up our act, to sort out our lives, to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.
That exuberant march was one of the gifts I received that Advent, a glimpse of the growing worldwide movement that draws upon humanity’s deepest reserves of hope. The other gift came as a surprise, when I was alone in my hotel. By then I was steeped in the stark reality of climate change. I had studied the aerial photographs of Mount Kilimanjaro without snow; listened to climate reports from the Arctic to Argentina; heard survivors of Katrina describe the vulnerability of the poor. As for my government, it seemed unable to take the issue seriously.
After a restless night, I woke up gasping with sorrow and anger, needing badly to pray. I pulled a chair to the window and let my anguish spill out before God – grief for what is irreparably lost, rage at the inertia that kills with such abandon. I felt helpless. Dear Lord, what can I do? What can anyone do? Then I heard something.
I put my trust in you.
Startled, I opened my eyes and looked around. Who said that? I often say those words to God, but now the message seemed addressed to me. Its meaning was: Fear not. Keep going. I am with you.
How bizarre. Was there some mistake? I had a choice: to accept or reject that assurance, to believe it or blow it off. What I heard came as a complete surprise, just as God’s message to Mary was surely a surprise: you will conceive by the Holy Spirit; your son will be the savior of the world.
Absurd! Yet God’s hope for the future hung on Mary’s willingness to consent. Maybe it hangs on our willingness, too. Who knows how many messages God delivers daily to the countless faithful of every religion, and of none? Trust the good, wherever you find it. Trust the truth. Trust love. Trust yourself. Let my life be born in you. Who knows what power will be released in us when we dare to believe those unseen encounters that offer a word of love?
Here on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we know that climate change is intensifying, causing wetter, stronger and more destructive storms. We know that we endured a historic hurricane season in the Atlantic this year, with an unprecedented number of named storms and with Hurricane Eta and Hurricane Iota crashing one after another into Nicaragua and Honduras. We know that record concentrations of greenhouse gasses are filling the atmosphere and that 2020 is on track to be the hottest year on record. We know that we also face a host of other challenges, including protecting our democracy, establishing racial and economic justice, and solving the pandemic.
But we know this, too: There is a love that wants to be born within us and among us, a love that knows no bounds. Right here, in the midst of our lives exactly as they are, Christ longs to be born again, perhaps at a deeper level than ever before. Christ yearns to make a home in you, in me, and in us all. The birth of that divine love is what will give us the strength and courage to meet whatever comes with creativity and clarity and kindness.
Still, when love draws near, we may feel an urge to hold back. We may hesitate, wondering: “What will happen if I give myself fully to that love? What will I do? Who will I become?” We may say to ourselves, “Really, I do want God to come into my life, but let’s not get carried away! I’m kind of used to being who I am. There’s something to be said for staying in control. It’s risky to let go. I’m not sure. Let me get back to you.”
Can you feel the pull between attraction and fear, between trust and hesitation? Like every love song, the love song between God and the soul is about longing and resistance, about desire and holding back. If we could put words to it, the conversation might go something like this. Here is a poem (“Covenant”) by Margaret Halaska, a Franciscan nun:
knocks at my door
seeking a home for his son: Rent is cheap, I say.I don’t want to rent, I want to buy, says God. I’m not sure I want to sell,
but you might come in to look around.I think I will, says God. I might let you have a room or two.I like it, says God. I’ll take the two.
You might decide to give me more some day.
I can wait, says God.I’d like to give you more,
but it’s a bit difficult. I need some space for me.I know, says God, but I’ll wait. I like what I see. Hmm, maybe I can let you have another room.
I really don’t need that much.Thanks, says God. I’ll take it. I like what I see. I’d like to give you the whole house
but I’m not sure —Think on it, says God. I wouldn’t put you out.
Your house would be mine and my son would live in it.
You’d have more space than you’d ever had before. I don’t understand at all.I know, says God, but I can’t tell you about that.
You’ll have to discover it for yourself.
That can only happen if you let him have the whole house. A bit risky, I say.Yes, says God, but try me. I’m not sure –
I’ll let you know.I can wait, says God. I like what I see.
You’ll notice that God does not force or compel, because that is not the language of love. God simply waits and longs and asks to draw close. When we dare to say Yes, Christ is born again. Two thousand years ago God entered human history and became one of us, one with us. God came then, and God comes now, because God longs to join us on our journey, in our daily life and relationships, in our pain and worry and hope. In these turbulent times, when so much hangs in the balance, will we consent to God’s birth within us? Like Mary, will we say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”?
I invite you to close your eyes and to join me in praying to the Holy Spirit: “Come. Come into my life, just as it is, and help me find my way to You. Help me step through my fear, my anxiety, my worry, my need to be in control. Help me find You in my ordinary, everyday living. I trust You more than I trust myself, and I thank you for your trust in me.” Amen.
July 3, 2020
This is the last in a series of six sermons on the theme “Faith for the Earth,” delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas as chaplain for the first week of the inaugural session of CHQ Assembly, the new online summer program of Chautauqua Institution in NY.Song of Solomon 2:10-13
Faith for the Earth: What will sustain us in the struggles ahead?
I’m imagining that many of you recognize this passage from the Song of Solomon, which is often read at weddings. The Song of Solomon – also known as the “Song of Songs” – is a collection of sensual poems between two lovers who delight in each other and who long to consummate their desire. It turns out that Christian mystics wrote about the Song of Songs more extensively than about any other book in the Bible, interpreting these poems as a passionate conversation between God and the soul.
I’m drawn to this passage today because it’s tough to pay attention to what’s happening to Mother Earth and our fellow creatures, to our oceans, forests, and waterways, to the very air we breathe. As a species we are hurtling willy-nilly down a suicidal path that is bringing down human communities and the very web of life as it has evolved for millennia. What will sustain us in the struggles ahead? I hear an answer in these words: “Arise, my love… and come away.”
In a challenging time, it is empowering to remember that God is a lover who is always reaching out to us, always speaking in our depths, always luring us to stay in relationship with each other, with Earth, and with God. For here is God, reaching out a hand to pull us into the dance of life. That’s one way that Christians understand the Holy Trinity: as a dance of love between the lover, the beloved, and the love that flows between (Augustine). “Come on in,” says God, “and join the dance!” “Arise, my love,” God says to our soul. “Arise and come away.”
The inner voice of love is quiet. We hardly hear it amid the roar and bustle of the world. We hardly sense it when we’re gripped by worry, depression, or alarm. That’s why many of us reclaim a practice of prayer: we know we will hear the inner voice of love only if we practice stillness, only if we regularly set aside some time in solitude to steady our minds and to listen in silence for the love of God that is always singing in our hearts.
As our minds grow quiet and as our stillness grows, a holy Someone – capital S – beckons to us in the silence: “Arise, my love… and come away.” It’s the voice of Jesus, the voice of Spirit, the voice of God. “Arise, my love.” From what do you need to arise? Maybe the Spirit is saying: Arise from apathy, numbness, and fear. Arise from the agitation that holds you in its grip. Arise from hopelessness, for I will give you strength. Arise from loneliness, for I am with you, and I love you. You are my love, says the Spirit. I see your beauty, your intelligence, courage, and resolve, and you are precious in my sight. Arise and come away – away from the cult of death, away from the path of destruction, away from the lie that your efforts to protect life are useless. Come with me and join in the dance of life. 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 its injustice and needless suffering. “Who am I? I have no power.”
“What can I do? What can any of us do? It is too late to make a difference!”
“I don’t have time. I don’t have energy. I’ve got other things to deal with.”
The voice of love is like that, right? It may be soft and hard 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 is awakening 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 strangers who are not really strangers, but brothers and sisters, siblings you don’t yet recognize, those who are suffering right now from a wounded Earth and a changing climate. I am calling from the future, from the men, women and children who will inhabit this planet long after you are gone and who depend on you to leave them a habitable world. Arise, my love, and join the effort to save our precious planet. Arise!
When we stand in the holy presence of God, we are given 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 crumbling communities beset by poverty and racism, joining with young and old to plant new forests. We cast our lot with people of faith and spirit who have been awakened – as we have been awakened – by a fierce longing to join the dance of life.
What does it look like when we join God’s dance of life? Maybe we cut back strongly on our use of fossil fuels. Maybe we eat local, eat organic, and move to a plant-based diet – for eating less meat turns out to be one of the most climate-friendly things we can do. Maybe we start a compost pile, visit a farmer’s market, support our local land trust, or have a friendly, socially distanced chat with a neighbor we’ve never met before. We need to build up our local communities and to live in ways that are closer to the earth, more life enhancing, more about sharing than consuming, more about self-restraint than self-aggrandizement, more about generosity than fearful survivalism, so that we can take care of each other when the hard times come. There are some very useful Websites that show us how to cut back on our use of fossil fuels, such as LivingTheChange.net and WeRenew.net.
Individual changes are important, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we need systemic change, too. So, we’ll need to use our voices and our votes, and make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. We can support the growing movement to hold Big Polluters like Exxon and Koch Industries financially and legally liable for the damages they knowingly caused (and continue to cause). We can lobby for policies that support renewable energy, clean green jobs, and a just transition that addresses the needs of poor and low-wealth communities and communities of color. If we have financial investments, we can divest from fossil fuels. If we’re college graduates, we can push our alma mater to divest. If our religious institutions haven’t yet divested from fossil fuels, we can urge them to do so – just last week the Vatican urged all Catholics to divest from fossil fuels. Maybe we can join the growing numbers of resolute and faith-filled people who carry out peaceful civil disobedience and 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.
What will sustain us in the struggles ahead? The love of God, the power of community, and the resolve to join together to heal and serve and reconcile. In whatever ways we step out to join the dance of life, we will take risks we never imagined we would take. We will connect with people we never imagined we would meet. And we will make more of a difference than we will ever know.
I give thanks for the ways that the Spirit is speaking in our hearts right now and for the ways that you are already responding to its call: “Arise, my love… and come away.”
July 2, 2020
This is the fifth in a series of six sermons on the theme “Faith for the Earth,” delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas as chaplain for the first week of the inaugural session of CHQ Assembly, the new online summer program of Chautauqua Institution in NY.John 1:35-39a
Faith for the Earth: What are we longing for?
What do you long for most?
What is most precious to you? What do you want more than anything else?
To some Christians these may be surprising questions, since many of us associate our faith with self-denial rather than desire. But when two disciples of John the Baptist are curious about Jesus and start to follow him, Jesus doesn’t turn around and deliver a lecture or a teaching; he doesn’t give advice or moral counsel. Instead, he asks a question – an essential and revealing question: What are you looking for? What do you seek? What do you really want?
This is a piercing question, especially for all of us who live in an addictive society that is quick to tell us what we want. You’ve probably noticed that if we don’t know what we truly want, our desires are likely to get hijacked by what the culture around us tells us to want. I remember driving one day and seeing an advertisement on the back of a truck up ahead. I could just make out the headline, which declared in big letters, “What you are looking for.” I took the bait. I said to myself: Alright, what do you think I’m looking for? I drove a little faster and pulled up behind the truck, and there it was: a picture of a woman lounging comfortably with a cigarette between her lips. A cigarette was what I must be looking for. And, if not a cigarette, how about a car or the latest gadget or the newest fashion or the up-to-the-minute app? Whatever you’re looking for, we’ve got it. We’ll sell it to you.
The purpose of advertising is not just to sell a particular product but to create a climate of craving, so that we devote our best energies to buying and selling, to the endless process of acquiring, discarding, updating, and accumulating. Of course, there are material things that we need to survive and thrive, but we live in a throwaway culture that is based on the perpetual expansion of markets, the boundless consumption of resources, and the relentless burning of fossil fuels. No wonder Earth is groaning beneath the burden of human wants – while human need grows exponentially.
What are we longing for? What do we seek? What do we really want? These questions require honest self-examination. You could say that they come with a shovel, because when we’re fired up by questions like these, we carry out an archaeology of our motives and desires and dig down deep to discover the bedrock of what we truly want. What truly will make us happy? What truly will fulfill our restless cravings and set our hearts at rest? After we have sorted through our lesser wants, what we may discover is that deep down what we want is to be fully alive. Deep down we want to love and to be loved, to know and to be known, and to draw close to the holy Source of love. Deep down we want our lives to be about something much larger than ourselves and our endless, insatiable striving and self-promotion. We want our lives to have a creative purpose and meaning, and we want to be a blessing to other people.
Knowing and claiming our heart’s desire is like having a compass in our pocket. It is like having the North Star overhead, to guide our way. When we know our heart’s desire, in every moment we have a dependable indicator that helps point the way to wise action and loving speech. Moment to moment, in everything we do, in every situation we encounter, we can ask ourselves: How do I meet this situation in a way that taps my creativity and resonates with my deepest desire and highest purpose? What can I say in this moment, what can I do in this moment that will let that deep intention be more fully expressed? The more completely our lives align with what we value most, the more inner peace and stability we will feel, no matter what our outer circumstances may be. I assure you, when you are lit with creativity, curiosity, compassion and love, you will light up other people’s lives!
As I speak these words, we are hurtling toward a future in which all of us will live on a harsher, hotter, and more turbulent planet than the one into which we were born. 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… We’ve undermined the basic physical stability of this planet.”1 Already we are experiencing massive droughts and floods, extreme storms and wildfires, and millions of people are already on the move, looking for a safer place to raise their families. A warming climate is the perfect breeding ground for the spread of tropical diseases and pandemics. And because climate change is a so-called “threat multiplier,” we can expect an increasing push toward conflict and war as regions and nations struggle over scarce resources.
How do we prepare for adversity? Here’s one answer: We find out what we really value, what we really long for, and what kind of world we want to create. We find our moral compass, our own North Star, and we set our course accordingly. We join hands with other people who want to cast their lot with love and justice and compassion.
One of the people we interviewed for our book, Rooted and Rising, was Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Jr. He’s the President and CEO of Hip Hop Caucus, which is a national, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that engages young people and communities of color in the political process and that has registered tens of thousands of young voters to the polls. Rev Yearwood is giving his life to the struggle for racial, economic, and environmental justice. Like so many other people, he is dedicated to a possibility that can seem impossibly out of reach.
I asked him where he turns for strength when he feels discouraged or overwhelmed, and here is part of his reply. He said: “You have to believe in something outside yourself. You have to find your anchor. For me, it’s God and Christianity, but you’ve got to find your own anchor. If you don’t, you will be blown away. You can’t do activism without an anchor. You can’t do activism without faith or some form of belief – maybe a belief in the future, or in children. It’s great if you have a faith tradition, because there are pieces there that you can hold on to, such as a sacred text, poetry, music – all kinds of things that can inspire you. But you need to have something.”2
He went on to say, “I’m anchored. I’m anchored in my tradition as a person of color, knowing that the people before me had to fight so hard to overcome slavery, to overcome the injustice of Jim Crow, to overcome acts of voter suppression. I’m in a tradition of waking up with those who have already fought. And then, as a person of faith and a minister, I link to this tradition of faith so that whatever I do, my steps are ordered. I know that God is leading me on the right path of fighting for other people, not just for myself. I’m fighting for God’s children and for God’s planet. That allows me to continue and sometimes to do remarkable things with other people….”3
Those are the words of someone who has found his heart’s desire – someone who knows that in this time of multiple emergencies, we need healers and justice-seekers, people who will stand up and cast their lot with life and do justly, now. And love mercy, now. And walk humbly, now.
If God were to whisper in your ear, “This is why I sent you here. This is what I sent you to do,” what would God say next? Find out.
1. Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (New York: Henry Holt and Company, Times Book, 2010), xiii and book jacket.
2. Lennox Yearwood, Jr., “Interview,” by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (Lanham. MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2019), 99.